Most nights around 10 p.m. 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 San Diego home. 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,” said 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 from the U.S., 75% of which is non-Asian. It offers a tiered subscription, or limited content is available for free with ads.
The translator program enlists volunteers from beginners to contributors designated as gold status based on the quality and quantity of their contributions.
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 attorney Connie Meredith. She even enrolled at the University of Hawaii to study Korean to become a better translator.
“The grammatical structure is so different from English that it’s really, really difficult,” said Meredith, who has worked on more than 500 titles for Viki. She said 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 crowd-source 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.”
He says the company’s name Viki is derived from the words video and Wikipedia, the crowdsourced online encyclopedia 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,” said 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,” said 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, said 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.
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 $500 million to produce Korean content and has partnered with big studios there including Studio Dragon and JTBC.
Some of Netflix’s popular 2020 series included “ 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.”
Streaming services have made television more globalized where 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 it. You will have something like a horror, rom-com 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,’ said 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.”
Sara Wagner of South Lyon, 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.”
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.”