This week’s episodes of Kill Me, Heal Me keep up the balance of humor and “feels,” but the subtitles don’t always do the show justice.
1. Subtitles Make Me Want to Study Korean Harder
Sometimes it only takes one mistranslated pronoun to change my entire understanding of a story. When Cha Do-Hyun’s family genealogy became clearer this week, I realized that our hero Do-Hyun is the family member who was born out of wedlock, not Ki-Joon as I had thought.
And this makes sense. Everything we know about Do-Hyun and his mother screams illegitimate chaebol son, a familiar K-drama character. Which is why I was confused when Ki-Joon’s father said in episode one (around 35:00) that although Ki-Joon was born out of wedlock, he could be a legitimate heir. Huh? Isn’t Ki-Joon already the heir apparent?
But this week, DramaFever started releasing their version of Kill Me, Heal Me, subtitled by a different team than Viki’s version. The scene with Ki-Joon and his father makes much more sense in DramaFever’s translation. Alas, Korean grammar usually omits pronouns, so technically Viki and DramaFever are both grammatically correct. The same Korean sentence can be translated either way:
“You were born out of wedlock, but you’re still a possible heir.” (Viki)
Or “He was born out of wedlock, but he’s still a possible heir.” (DramaFever)
Cha Young-Pyo says the line as if he’s talking about someone whom he doesn’t like much—Do-Hyun, rather than his own son. But since this scene is in the first episode, the subtitlers were hearing about the family tree for the first time. They had to make a guess what pronoun to use, and Viki’s team guessed wrong.
Mistakes like this drive me nuts, and they happen in K-dramas fairly often. Luckily, most mistakes don’t plunge me into major plot confusion like this one did. I blame the confusing grammar of Korean more than subtitlers—and I’ve seen these errors on all the major streaming sites.
But sometimes a few more hours of QC (quality checking) could catch these errors. It’s easy to get this stuff right—even in scenes like this—by spending some more time on it. Unfortunately, the sites are focused on releasing stuff as quickly as possible. I’m impressed by their speedy turnaround times, but I’d be happy to wait another 24 hours if it could eliminate glaring errors.
I noticed this mistake when I was checking out the DramaFever version to see how their subtitles compare.
If you’ve watched K-dramas at both sites, you’ve noticed Viki and DramaFever have distinctly different approaches. I have a little experience translating (not Korean, alas) and from a translation point-of-view, neither approach is “better” or “more correct.” On the whole, however, I prefer the DramaFever philosophy. The two teams usually agree on meaning, except in rare cases like the one above. But DramaFever tends to put things into more natural, idiomatic English with fewer spelling and grammar errors.
I’m in awe of Viki because of the number of languages they handle. But their English subtitles often sound awkward, as if they’re being written by someone learning English. Even though the subtitlers are native speakers, their phrasing sounds stilted because they’re sticking closely to the original text. It’s English, but with a very Korean style.
Another result of this faithfulness to the Korean is that often their subtitles are too long for me to read before they disappear from the screen. Frustrating!
But Viki’s translations might be the most helpful ones for someone learning Korean, because Viki gives the idioms literally. For example, “I gave birth to Do-Hyun” in DramaFever’s version is “Do-Hyun came out of my stomach” in Viki’s version. This could help a student learn the Korean idiom.
Unfortunately, it sounds strange in English. The Viki version gives the impression Do-Hyun’s mother is badly confused about anatomy. Only small children would say babies come from stomachs. But if she’s using a normal Korean expression to say she gave birth to Do-Hyun, then she sounds like an adult.
For a great example of how Viki goes for the literal and DramaFever goes for “the feel of the thing,” check out the last few lines of episode two of Kill Me, Heal Me. The DramaFever subtitler renders Perry Park’s speech in much more casual, slangy English. It suggests how changed he is from Cha Do-Hyun and he strikes me as a nicer guy in the DramaFever version. On the whole, this version captures the broad story better—while Viki has the advantage of line-by-line precision.
All of Cha Do-Hyun’s personalities are turning out to be fundamentally nice guys, aren’t they? Episodes five and six struck the right notes, with humor, touching moments, and one fantastic, psychologically complicated kiss.
I hope DramaBeans will continue to recap Kill Me, Heal Me, so that I can “uncap” a few of the really interesting things here, without going detail by detail. As the subtitle fiasco above shows, I don’t know how many of the details I actually understand. I’ve already had to draw a Cha family tree and make major revisions to it. Why do I always go for the shows that require me to make study guides?
But how can I complain? Episodes 5 and 6 give us the first kiss of the series—and it’s equal parts sexy and heart-breaking, thanks to Cha Do-Hyun’s fragmented self.
Is there anyone alive who doesn’t find those monkeys with cymbals creepy? But Shin Seki doesn’t see the joke, making him as much a lost soul as Cha Do-Hyun. I disiked his violence and recklessness in the opening episodes, but here he’s merely clueless.
When he says that Cha Do-Hyun needs him to handle emotional pain, and when he asks Oh Ri-Jin to get rid of Cha Do-Hyun, he’s every bit as three-dimensional and likable as Cha Do-Hyun. He leans in to kiss Oh Ri-Jin and she goes right along. It’s a slow scorcher of a kiss, which totally re-arranges the love triangle from earlier episodes. Previously, Oh Ri-Jin had been disappointed to run into Shin Seki instead of Cha Do-Hyun. After this kiss, she assumes he’s Shin Seki whenever she sees him—and appears disappointed when it’s Cha Do-Hyun.
As we see later, he still hasn’t gotten over Chae-Yeon, his first love who is now engaged to his cousin Ki-Joon. Fortunately, he does appear to be trying to move on, and tells her so. How is it possible that the stunning Kim Yoo-Ri always plays women who confess to a man and then get rejected? (I’m thinking of her role in Master’s Sun.) Chae-Yeon isn’t necessarily a bad person, but she’s pretty self-absorbed. She has the nerve to be jealous when she sees Oh Ri-Jin leaving Cha Do-Hyun’s place, but she’s committed to Ki-Joon. Not fair, Chae-Yeon.
Another problem for him will be Grandmother Seo, who makes it clear in episode 6 that he will marry whomever she chooses. As if this family hasn’t already messed him up enough.
But in some ways, Cha Do-Hyun is less likable than Shin Seki in these episodes, because he remains determined to keep other people at a distance. If you have to deal with people like his grandmother—and Ki-Joon, who hints that he’s investigating Cha Do-Hyun—it would make anyone distrust people. But it’s frustrating that he sees even Oh Ri-Jin simply as a puzzle piece. He offers her a job as “secret physician” for strategic reasons, as a move in his battle against Shin Seki.
It’s understandable that after years of serious mental illness, he thinks of other people mainly in terms of how they can help or hinder his quest for a stable life. But though understandable, it’s tragic. He needs support from friends and family more than other people, but he has no one to turn to.
His isolation is pretty common for someone with DID, unfortunately. Recent K-dramas tend to focus on the most extreme examples of mental illness they can find (DID, schizophrenia), which is unfortunate because Koreans are far more likely to develop suicidal depression. (The suicide rate in Korea is extraordinarily high.) It would be a life-saving public service to shine a light on a wider array of ailments.
On the other hand, by focusing on tough cases, these shows capture some of the isolation and despair of life with a long-term condition. American media typically goes the other direction with stories about mental illness, leaving viewers with the idea that mental illness consists of a few bad days, which go away if you take a pill. The full picture has to include both sides of the coin.
The writer here (who also wrote 2012 hit The Moon that Embraces the Sun) does give us a lot of humor to lighten the despair in these episodes. Perry Park is the alter-ego we’d all like to invite to our next big party. Oh Ri-On describes their meeting on the plane as the kind of riotous booze-up I always suspected was happening in first-class. At least, that’s how I’d like to travel if I made it up there to the big, comfy seats.
But thanks to Perry Park’s visit to the Oh household (to sample the homebrew, of course), we now know that Oh Ri-On already understands that Cha Do-Hyun has a psychological condition. On the storyboard where he maps out information about the Seung Jin group, we glimpse post-it notes about PTSD and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, psychiatry’s encyclopedia of diagnoses.
The conclusion of this episode sees Oh Ri-Jin make the very wise decision to decline Cha Do-Hyun’s job offer. As a viewer, of course, I’m looking forward to the writer finding a way past this obstacle to put them together again. But as an occasional mental health advocate, I was relieved to see a K-drama psychiatrist make a smart decision to continue her training before taking on a very difficult case involving a patient who, let us not forget, she has kissed. It doesn’t matter what personality he was experiencing at the time, according to the basic ethics of her profession, she’s disqualified.
Given that it’s Dramaland, I think the writer will find a way to quiet my concerns. This is the magical land of contract dating, birth secrets and ubiquitous chaebol heirs. The writer just has to convince me to suspend disbelief. We’re halfway there already.
I’m not sure why Oh Ri-Jin says she’s “not a professional”—perhaps in Korea, residents aren’t considered doctors yet?—but we can imagine that if she agrees to work for him it will be because she knows what he’s really looking for is a friend. As much as he could use a team of skilled professionals, he also needs a person who’s on his side. I’ll be watching cautiously to see how this show is going to handle this.
Cha Do-Hyun, Shi Se-Ki and Perry Park: all three are willing to go into danger to help a woman they don’t know, and even though the three have different talents, they all know how to get things done. All three are facing their peculiar situation without self-pity. And the way they talk about each other’s choices in clothing and lifestyle suggests they care for each other like brothers, though like brothers their quarrels run deep.
For someone who has no friends, these alters are the closest thing he has to friends. Let’s hope for better times to come.