Muddled in Translation

Jin’s doing some translation work, so she’s become more sensitive to the way things are translated here. Examples:

1.) We’re watching an English language show subtitled in Korean, something on the Discovery Channel. The narrator speaks of a “promising failure”. This however was subtitled in Korean as “expected failure”, as if “promising” meant “promised” and therefore the failure was “expected” instead of being a failure that showed the way forward. The whole thing struck me as very curious considering the stakes, issues, and ensuing trauma placed on success and failure here, and how a potentially positive thing such as a “promising failure” had it’s positive attributes stripped away from it to be wholly a negative.

2.) The habit of taking English words, spelling them in Korean, and using these new words instead of preexisting Korean words. We’ve seen this with “trousers” and “dough”, and whenever it occurs it makes me feel pretty bad, because my job is likely a vector of contagion for this habit. This will even occur to the potential detriment of a project. So if an English language RPG-style video game talks about steel swords and silver swords, two things Korea has a pretty rich tradition of, those words get phonetically translated into Korean becoming something like “sil-li-va swo-da” instead of using the Korean word for silver sword with generations of history behind it.


7 responses to “Muddled in Translation”

  1. asakiyume says :

    Especially in the case of things like RPGs, where there’s a sales and marketing element involved, I wonder if the “spelling into Korean” isn’t more than laziness. By saying “sil-li-va swo-da” instead of using the Korean term, you present the item as somehow more exotic, and therefore more novel, than it actually is–and therefore the game seems more worth purchasing? Plus, if it’s a term you have in your own tradition, then all the resonance (and cultural baggage) associated with the term comes along with it.

    Sometimes using a foreign term when you have a perfectly good word for that in your own language can maybe also indicate squeamishness with the concept. I’ve seen “rape” rendered “re-pu” in Japanese, even though Japan has several perfectly good ways of translating that term and most certainly understands the concept.

    I’m trying to thing of reverse examples now, of cases in which English adopts the foreign term for something that already exists in English.

    • Justin says :

      Good point.

      As a counter example, why not use the local word and try to capture the fan base who is into that lineage? I can see why you’d want to cut the baggage, especially in your Japanese example, but maybe the question is why default to cutting baggage/resonance instead of embracing it.

      (The project’s to make a patch translating an English language video game to Korean. Folks working on it are all volunteers. In some cases the process has gone Polish to English to Japanese to English to Korean.)

      • asakiyume says :

        I agree with the notion of trying to capture the fan base, totally!

      • gordsellar says :

        Hi asakiyume!

        Well, I can give you at least one view: I had some Taiwanese students in one of my media classes, and we were looking at Korean reception of Western media. They had this really insistent question: “Why do you Koreans so often spell out English words in Hangeul, instead of translating titles?” (They gave the example of the movie “Love, Actually,” which in Taiwan at least was titled with a Chinese equivalent of the English. In Korean, it was “Leo-beu Ek-chu-el-ri” or whatever.)

        A classmate who was majoring in marketing told the class that in her major, the holy writ of marketing theory was that Koreans perceive English as “classier” in a special way, so that retitling the film in Korean was kind of underselling it. She said it’s quite common to use English or Konglish because in marketing terms, it gives a kind of “added value” of foreign cachet to a product.

        Which sounds about right. The interesting thing being how often the English is actually Konglish and makes a product look less classy to someone who actually speaks English. It also lines up with the kind of marketing Korean companies sometimes do in terms of race, with the ads for the Samsung Tab tablet computers as a big example: Miss Jiwaku’s got a plan to make a series of fake ads (for the Shinsang Pad computer, ha) mocking the way that, while Apple products seem marketed to Koreans, the Tab seems marketed to Koreans who would rather be white or Eurasian or something…

        All of which is to say, there are big, big postcolonial complexes at work here when it comes to language. It’s funny (not humorous, but odd) that English is so “classy” and yet identified primarily with the USA, whilst South Korea is in fact the most anti-American society of a bunch studied in East Asia. (And it is, at least it was a few years ago, when studies were carried out. Like, more than any other East Asian society… even Vietnam, even China. (They didn’t survey North Korea, of course.) The paper is cited in Gi-wook Shin’s Ethnical Nationalism in Korea.)

        As for “promising failure” after years of trying to get students to understand that idea — that failures well-performed can lead to success, that some failures are educational and necessary to move forward — I have the sense it’s an idea many people struggle with here. The pressure is to succeed on first go, and if not, repeat exactly the same approach until success happens. The number of people I’ve known at some stage of the process of writing one or another government-administered exam for the Nth time was simply mind-boggling… even more because almost everyone was simply doing what they did for University Entrance Exams — studying until ready to die from it, writing exam, washing and rinsing and repeating.

        Which brings us to why so many people don’t improve their speaking ability: they’re too scared to make a small error and so they remain silent. Which would be fine if the population wasn’t being forced to try become bilingual so they can have jobs that involve no English, but since that’s not how it is…

    • gordsellar says :

      Ooops, and I could have replied to this comment, as I intended. But it lets me add one thing: that we do this in English when we want an air of class, most of the time. Like, “It’s expected” vs. “de rigeur” or “Reinheitsgebot” vs. “stupid German beer purity law,” for example.

      We do it for a touch of exoticism as well, and sometimes in cases of squeamishness — “in flagrante delicto” is a word we mostly know for a reason. I suspect the Korean practice usually involves the first two more than the latter — the “classiness” and the “exoticism.” In fantasy franchises, I think it’s also a lot to do with how “fantasy” (and other spec fic genres) still get consciously perceived as *foreign* even now.

      • Justin says :

        I’m still parsing this issue along with the general postcolonial cultural hangups. This stuff, the inability to recognize “promising failures”, and the standardization you talked about on your blog (is that worse here or simply more obvious or a matter of country size or just we we are noticing it? I have no clue) gets to feeling pretty toxic.

        One thing though is I am going to have to pay more attention to those Samsung ads.

        Oh, and I should ask Jin about those Korean fantasy authors. The press putting out THE WITCHER book seems like they are using translations of foreign books as a way to fund local genre books.

  2. gordsellar says :

    “Pretty toxic” sounds about right to me. Also very much tied up stuff like Jihyun’s observation that post-Miracle on the Han generations are living in the shadow of those who (of course) take credit for lifting Korea out of poverty, and who often make life sound a lot like a video game with only one “life” — any failure, and you end penniless and ruined. Which may have been true at one time, but…

    I think the standardization probably exists more in places where there is a “cultural vacuum” (like the one I grew up in) and less in places that have more independent stuff going on, but those are relative and I think it’s pretty much generalized by this point to any post-industrial society. But that’s just my impression. I think we may notice it more in Korea because of the heavy standardization of pop culture, and the difficulty in mounting any kind of resistance to it. But I remember in Canada, before I left or even moved somewhere like Montreal and had only seen Saskatoon, saying, “We don’t have culture anymore. We have products for consumption, but not culture. We cannibalized culture and then threw the remnants away so we would have room for industry.” (Because that’s what a lot of “culture” seemed like to me then… and it still does.)

    Seriously — Samsung Tab ads. The racial coding is… brrrr. Reminds me of the mural ads in the new mall that opened near our place… it’s quite distressing how most of the figures are white folks in all the images.

    As for the translation vs. local literary publication, yeah, there’s a fair bit of in-between where a publisher might publish a bunch of foreign stuff, and some local stuff. But I think it’s more complicated than just foreign translations subsidizing local content. For example, editor Park Sang Joon’s have worked hard to get translations of non-American SF authors published (particularly Lem, Stapledon, and Robert Sawyer, whatever you think of them individually… a widening of the canon is a good thing); I think in a sense Korean SF is still at a point where canon-building is going on, and especially the building of a foreign-language “canon” of classics. It’s already shaped differently than ours — with Zelazny occupying a much higher position in Korean SF — but it is importantly ongoing, and I expect will be for some time.

    And, this has to be said: I do wish western books were half as gorgeous as Korean editions of these books. Next time you’re up here, you need to check out Jihyun’s copy of Capek’s The War with the Newts. It’s so superior to the English edition I read in terms of presentation and layout I frankly find it a bit depressing.

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