5 Korean Elements of Netflix's 'Squid Game' That Got Lost in Translation

Drama series themed around survival games aren't new. But when the compelling Netflix show Squid Game was conceived, writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk wanted to add a Korean flavor to the mix.

Hwang told South Korea's Cine21 magazine that he was inspired to graft elements of a survival drama into a Korean setting and create "a new survival genre" with Squid Game, which sees 456 cash-strapped people battle each other to the death in a series of children's games for the chance to bag a handsome cash prize.

Slated to be Netflix's biggest show ever, Squid Game has transfixed audiences worldwide, topping the streamer's global rankings for weeks.

But its English translation inadvertently strips out some of the Korean elements that director Hwang had woven into the fabric of the characters and the story.

So in some aspects, the English version doesn't do justice to the full texture and colors of the Korean script.

Here, we look at some of the Korean nuances and references in Squid Game that may have gotten lost or left behind in translation.

1. Korean Names

The Korean title of the Red Light, Green Light game has a completely different meaning to that of the Western version. In Korean, its name translates to "the mugunghwa flower has bloomed." Mugunghwa (known as the "rose of Sharon" in English) is South Korea's national flower, so the game's Korean identity has been stripped from the title.

In other names worth noting, player No. 067's full name—Kang Sae-byeok (played by HoYeon Jung)—literally translates to "river dawn". The delicate, peaceful notion of her name perhaps reflects the vulnerable core of Sae-byeok's fearless character.

Another Korean name worth highlighting is Han Mi-nyeo (contestant No. 212, played by Kim Joo-ryoung, who is also known from the film Memories of Murder by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho). The name of the loud-mouthed, animated character literally translates to "a beautiful woman" or simply "beauty."

Her name is perhaps a play on her seductive ways, as throughout the series the highly calculating character is willing to do whatever it takes to attach herself to those she sees as the strongest players.

2. Player No. 067's Accent

Viewers may have not picked up on the distinct accent of Sae-byeok (who is a North Korean defector), which she appears to mask when she is among the other players.

We get a glimpse of her North Korean accent (which is different from the various accents heard across South Korea) when she speaks with her younger brother in Episode 2 (titled "Hell"). The accent is also heard when she speaks to the North Korean broker organizing the retrieval of her mother from the North.

It's an interesting pause for thought that Sae-byeok, who shows a lack of trust towards everyone from the very start of the games, felt the need to hide her native accent among the South Korean players. It certainly adds yet another dimension to an already fascinating, multi-layered character.

It's also perhaps symbolic of the complex relationship between North and South Koreans and the ongoing tension between the two halves of the Korean peninsula, who are technically still at war today, with no peace treaty ever signed to mark the end of the Korean War.

HoYeon Jung in "Squid Game.'
Sae-byeok (left, played by Korean actress HoYeon Jung) seen visiting her brother in "Squid Game" on Netflix. Netflix

3. The Korean Spirit

In Episode 6 (titled "Gganbu"), during the Marbles game, player No. 001 (the old man played by Oh Young-soo) notes he and Gi-hun (player No. 456, played by Lee Jung-jae) are "gganbus," explaining that a gganbu is "a good friend with whom you share everything."

However, the English subtitle omitted the line where he says gganbus "don't differentiate between what's yours and what's mine" when sharing, which was essentially why he later—spoiler alert—forfeits his last marble to Gi-hun, allowing him to move on to the next round.

While handing Gi-hun his last marble, the old man repeats that omitted phrase, adding: "Take it [the marble], it's yours. We're gganbu, aren't we?"

That line was a central point in the episode, but also captures the depth of the Korean spirit of friendship and strong bonds (known as "jung" in Korean).

Oh Il-nam Squid Game
Player No. 001 (left, played by Oh Young-soo) and Player No. 456 (right, played by Lee Jung-jae) seen during the Marbles round in "Squid Game" on Netflix. Netflix

4. Korean Class Divides

As the competition unfolds, we see how some players have an advantage over others due to their background. For example, the surgeon gets fed knowledge about the games in exchange for removing organs from dead bodies for staff members to smuggle off the island.

Mi-nyeo sheds light on another class of people trying to survive in the game of life. Pleading with Gi-hun to team up with her, Mi-nyeo swears she's an expert at outsmarting others, noting "I never studied but my intelligence is no joke" and "just on fraud alone I've been convicted five times."

A still from "Squid Game" on Netflix.
"Squid Game" characters Gi-hun (left, played by Lee Jung-jae) and Sang-woo (right, played by Park Hae-soo) seen in the Netflix K-drama series. Netflix

Education has long been revered in Korean society as the only way to climb the socio-economic ladder, dating as far back as the Joseon era (1392–1910), Korea's last dynasty. Nobility status was not granted on family lineage alone and you had to pass a civil service exam (which required years of studying) to become an aristocrat.

Mi-nyeo's comment highlights how education is more often than not limited to those who have access to it. This is highly exemplified in Korean society where competition to bag a seat in university is unbelievably fierce. But even those who get there may not be able to afford the tuition fees.

The sharp class tension was also portrayed between Gi-hun and Sang-woo (player No. 218, played by Park Hae-soo), who are childhood friends.

In Episode 8 (titled "Front Man"), during a heated exchange with Sang-woo, Gi-hun says: "So if I'm here because I'm so pathetic, then why is the pride of Ssangmun-dong, the genius Cho Sang-woo of SNU doing here?...rolling around in this s***hole with a dimwit like me?"

The SNU noted in the English subtitle refers to Seoul National University, the country's most prestigious university (the equivalent of Harvard in the U.S.).

But Sang-woo does not come from wealth. He comes from Ssangmung-dong, the humble real-life Seoul neighborhood where Squid Game director Hwang was born and was raised by a single mother, like Sang-woo. The director is also an SNU graduate and his grandmother also had a stall at the market, like Sang-woo's mother.

5. Korean Nostalgia

The first children's game played by the contestants was actually not Red Light, Green Light. It was "ddakji," a game each contestant played with the Salesman (played by Gong Yoo, the famed Korean actor from Train to Busan and several other Korean films and dramas) when they were being recruited.

This iconic Korean children's game was the only game for which the rules were not explained. Similar to Pogs or Milk Caps but played with folded paper tiles, the object of the game is to slam your tile onto another player's tile to flip it over (the face-slapping seen in the series is not part of the real-life game).

Another nod to Korean traditions that may have been missed was in Episode 3 (titled "The Man with the Umbrella"), where Gi-hun eats out of a lunch box (known as "doshirak" in Korean). A packed lunch is a quintessential part of school life in South Korea and Gi-hun recalls he used to heat his doshirak over a stove at school, so his rice would form "nurungji."

Nurungji is a layer of crispy rice that forms at the bottom of a pot when rice is cooked over a stove. It is a novelty snack these days, since most people in Korea now use electric rice cookers and nurungji doesn't really form in modern cookers.

Squid Game is available to stream on Netflix now.

A still from "Squid Game" on Netflix.
The "Squid Game" character Gi-hun (left), played by Lee Jung-jae, seen with his mother in the series. Netflix