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Son Ye-jin (left) and Hyun Bin star in Netflix’s popular K-drama Crash Landing on You. Photo: AP

The fan translators who subtitle Korean dramas – volunteer enthusiasts for whom it’s a ‘secret treat’ or ‘a hobby ... like doing a crossword puzzle’

  • A K-drama streaming platform crowdsources subtitling free of charge from fans – who can translate episodes into 20 different languages in less than 24 hours
  • Interest in Korean dramas is growing worldwide, with Netflix and AppleTV+ now investing heavily in Korean productions
K-drama news

Most nights around 10pm when her family heads off to bed, Carol Holaday signs onto her computer. She’s not falling down internet rabbit holes of random information or combing through social media at her home in San Diego, California. Holoday is signing on to volunteer with the subtitle translation of Korean TV shows – often referred to as K-dramas – on the streaming platform Rakuten Viki.

“It’s my secret treat,” says Holaday, who has helped to subtitle 200 titles for Rakuten Viki, commonly just called Viki.

Viki has both original and licensed content from Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan and subscribers around the globe. Its largest audience is in the United States, 75 per cent of which is non-Asian. It offers a tiered subscription, or limited content is available for free with ads.

The translator programme enlists volunteers, from beginners to contributors designated as gold status based on the quality and quantity of their contributions.

Ratuken Viki shows the homepage for their video streaming service for South Korean TV shows. Photo: AP

Holaday, who doesn’t speak Korean, is an editor of subtitles. She looks at portions of video that have already been translated to English, and checks the grammar, word placement and spelling. Besides translators and editors, there are also “segmenters” who separate portions of video to be subtitled, so one person is not translating an entire episode.

Another proud, qualified contributor is retired lawyer Connie Meredith. She even enrolled at the University of Hawaii to study Korean to become a better translator.

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“The grammatical structure is so different from English that it’s really, really difficult,” says Meredith, who has worked on more than 500 titles for Viki. She says translating a 10-minute segment can take about two hours.

“It’s like a hobby to me. People say, ‘You’ve done that much for free?’ And I say, ‘Why not?’ I have nothing better to do with my time. And it’s like doing a New York Times crossword puzzle for me, to solve the puzzle of language.”

Makoto Yasuda, Rakuten Viki’s chief operating officer, believes using a crowdsource method for its subtitles only helps with accuracy. “If you have hundreds of people contributing to the quality of subtitles, then it becomes much better than a single professional translator working on the topics that they are not really familiar with.”

A lot of things fit into K-dramas. You will have something like a horror, romcom that starts out as a gangster story but it’s really a black comedy that keeps changing genres all the way through
Joan MacDonald, a Forbes contributor who covers Korean media

He says the company’s name, Viki, is derived from the words video and Wikipedia, the crowdsourced online encyclopaedia site.

“Sites like Viki use fan translations, which is great, but it can be done in a hurry because people are anxious to see the dramas. So it’s probably not as polished as you might get elsewhere,” says Joan MacDonald, a Forbes contributor who covers Korean media.

Viki translations aren’t just to English. “A drama can translate into 20 different languages within 24 hours,” says Yasuda. He said there’s also often waiting lists to help translate on more popular shows. There are a small number of translators who do get paid, if it’s on a show that doesn’t have volunteers or a licensed series that already has subtitles.

The awareness of K-dramas outside Korea seems to be growing, says MacDonald. “The number of people that contacted me in the last year and a half to say, ‘Oh, I just discovered K-dramas, what do you recommend?’ It’s significant.”

Other streaming sites are also adding more Korean content to their offerings.

The stars of Netflix K-drama Crash Landing on You, (from left) Hyun, Seo Ji-hye, Son, Kim Jung-hyun and Oh Man-seok. Photo: AP
Apple TV+ has two Korean language projects in the works: one based on the animation series Dr. Brain, and an adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko about four generations of a Korean immigrant family. That series will be available in Korean, Japanese and English.
This year, Netflix is investing nearly US$500 million to produce Korean content and has partnered with big studios in South Korea including Studio Dragon and JTBC. Among Netflix’s popular 2020 K-drama series were Start-Up, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, and What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim?.
Another that caused a sensation is Crash Landing on You, starring actors Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin. The romance about a North Korean and South Korean aired on the paid channel tvN in South Korea and also on Netflix. Fans found their chemistry so believable, many believed there had to be a real relationship off-screen. The actors’ representatives confirmed they were dating on New Year’s Day.

MacDonald laughingly recalls hearing the news of the coupledom and thinking: “Wow, I am irrationally excited about this.”

A selection of South Korean TV shows on the Ratuken Viki streaming service. Photo: AP

Streaming services have made television more globalised; it’s easy to watch a show from another country, but MacDonald believes one reason for the popularity of K-dramas is because they blend genres like K-pop does.

“It’s kind of an overall thing like pop is not really one sound. A lot of things fit into K-dramas. You will have something like a horror, romcom that starts out as a gangster story but it’s really a black comedy that keeps changing genres all the way through.”

MacDonald says K-pop fans also gravitate to K-dramas because “a lot of K-pop stars are in dramas and a lot of actors that are in dramas sometimes go on to have singing careers”.

“There’s a band that’s very popular, Astro, and one of the singers, Cha Eun-woo, was in a drama earlier this year called True Beauty,” says MacDonald. “I saw True Beauty and thought, ‘Wow, he is great and he’s in a band. I have to check that band out’.” Another example: Bae Suzy, formerly of the girl group Miss A, starred in Start-Up.

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Sara Wagner of South Lyon, in the US state of Michigan, grew up surrounded by Korean culture because her best friend of more than 40 years is Korean. “I would hang out at their house a lot and eat Korean food. … With the internet, it became a lot more accessible to watch dramas,” she says.

Wagner also believes Parasite winning best picture at the 2020 Academy Awards increased interest in Korean cinema. “People ask, ‘What else would you recommend’ and I say Train to Busan.”

She even keeps an Excel spreadsheet tracking K-drama storylines, themes, featured food, weather and endings of the shows she watches so she can recommend them to others. A note by Wagner for What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? says: “There’s a kiss in episode 12 that’ll knock your socks off.”