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South Korea : Lost in Translation, Especially During Vacations

Translation is probably one of the most grueling and painstaking works in the world, but in South Korea, a country someone’s English ability functions as a powerful ladder to success, it is close to harrowing. When this phrase was made, lots of people nodded their heads in approval; ”Speaking English in front of Koreans is the hardest”. This gives a glimpse of Koreans who become quite self-conscious when they use English in front of fellow Korean, their judgmental folks. Many Koreans whom spent years of study and tremendous money on learning English pay rapt attention when anyone starts using English, listening very carefully but sneekly to people’s pronunciation and grammar. Some junior high schools kids who only have learn basic grammar often make a bold mistake of correcting other's right grammar.

The translators are the one who often get full blast of the English craziness and stress. Once a movie got released, angry responses are fired at the translator for butchering the flow of the movie by inappropriate or inaccurate translation. As Korea entered the summer vacation season, people who choose to download movies or barrow DVDs during their retreats have resumed venting their English-stress to some translators, randomly igniting a controversy here and there over the web.

Hong Joo-hee is a top-tier translator and 10 year business veteran, who translated ‘Transformer’, ‘Taken’, ‘Star Trek:the beginning’ and ‘Red Cliff’ in Korean, and she went under fire again recently for her previous works. Her translation was once praised as ‘strong, but sensitive’ before she lost touch with mainstream audience on the movie ‘Marie Antoinette’, where numerous out of context slangs and abbreviations (like the English words of OMG or LOL) indeed ruined the medieval and classical atmosphere of the movie. After the movie ‘Star Trek’, harsh criticism from SF fans were heap on Hong for failing to apply the exact terms on some weapons appeared in the movie, a mistake that would have gone unnoticed by non-SF enthusiasts. One SF fan blogger even talked trash to the translator saying ‘even though you can ruin other movie, wont you dare to butcher the ‘sacred SF film’.

A blogger Doremi, who has experience in the translation business commented that some translator’s arrogance made them lazy in search and study for more accurate translation, bashing hard on some translation work as ‘retarded’.

문제는 자기가 그 언어를 잘 한다는 자신감으로 인해 자기가 모르는 분야의 생소한 용어를 조사하고 공부할 생각을 안하고 자기가 아는 단어로 적당히 대체한다는 것이 아닐까 싶습니다. 글쎄요, 헐리우드식 블록버스터 영화라면 군대와 경찰이 자주 등장하니 그와 관련된 용어들, 예를 들면 계급이나 무기 등등에 대해서는 조사를 하는 것 그것이 번역자의 기본 마음가짐이라고 생각합니다.

The problem is that because they have a pride in their specialty language, they got lazy, never tried to look up and study unfamiliar terms, and kept on replacing words with their often go-to words. In Hollywood blockbuster movies, army and police are often featured, so as special terms used in such fields, like the army rank and names of the weapons. And searching for (better) words are the basic attitude the translator should have.

An image of Hangul (한글, below) from Wikipedia

It is not the individual translator’s fault sometimes. Korean language, just like several other Asian languages, is very decorative and has totally irrelevant sentence structure to the English language. It is nonetheless the very nature of the language that adds much burden upon translators’ shoulders. To aggravate the already hostile situation, there is the honorific in Korean language that shift words, suffices and titles (sometimes require whole new sentences) according to the relation and status of person in conversation. This is so complex that even some young Koreans often get confused. And the translator is no exception. Several documentary films or history channels have struggled to get these honorifics right. Since some honorific may go out of use in current Korean language, the atmosphere they create is quite distinct, evoking very old-fashioned but gentle and solemn vibe. The blogger Jekyll10 pointed out that some archaic honorific which translators used indiscriminately was vexing. The blogger said it is wierd to watch ‘Haoche’, one of Korean obsolete honorifics which ends the sentence with ‘-so’, being used by a young male character in a movie ‘Leap Year’ where a blackberry appears.

근데 이 작품에서 나오는 남자들은 몽땅 다 소 타령이에요…노인들 대사는, 좋아요, 백 번 양보해서 노인들이라 하오체 섞었다고 치죠… 젊디 젊은 남자 주인공 ‘데클랜’은, 좀 툭툭하는 성격이라고 하오체 써도 되는 건가요… 지금 분명히 방금 막 ‘보스턴에서 온 아나’가 블랙베리 충전하려다가 구워 삶은 걸 본 것 같은데… 영화도 딱 기대한 만큼 아주 좋았는데 자막 때문에 좀 신경질이 났네요.

What I don’t get about this movie is that almost every male characters’ sentences end with ‘-so’…While seniors can pull it off, (all I can give is hardly an ‘ok’,) what about that young male character Declan? Even though he sometimes speaks curtly, it doesn’t give the rights to use ‘Haoche’ uncontrollably… Well, I just have watched a scene where ‘Anna from the Boston’ accidentally boils her blackberry when she meant to recharge it…The movie met my expectation, but the subtitle was quite irritating.

The blogger Bona98 who spend quite a time in video translation business went on translator’s defense. The blogger explained the difficulty the translation, especially the video translation.

아니, 왜 번역을 하다 말았어?? 실제로 저 문장은 제 이웃님들 중의 한 분이 제게 하셨던 말이에요…가장 큰 차이점은 영상 번역은 문서 번역과 달리 시간이 한정되어 있다는 점, 길이가 한정되어 있다는 점, 평소 사용하는 말투를 써야 한다는 점….미드나 영화 보시면 배우가 말 진짜 빨리 하잖아요. 하지만 최대 16글자씩 두 줄이라는 제한이 있어요 [띄어쓰기 포함]
…어쨋든 그리하여 간혼 내용의 흐름에 중요하지 않은 말들은 번역에서 빼버릴 수 밖에 없답니다…아무튼 그래서 업체나 방송국에서는 번역가라는 호칭 대신 ‘영상 번역 작가'라는 호칭을 사용해줘요. 아무래도 내용을 조합해서 창조해내는 직업이기 때문에 작가라는 호칭을 쓰는 것 같아요.

‘Hey, why they stopped translating in the middle?’ Some of my neighbor actually asked me this question… The differences between the video translation and the document translation are; the time restraint, length restraints and it has to use verbal language… In case of US soap operas and movies, there are so many actors speaking so fast. But we have to condense the contents into two sentences, in 16 words maximum [space included]…So that is why people chop off some parts irrelevant to the flow of the story. That is why some companies and broadcasting stations are calling those video translators by this special term ‘video translation author’ instead of ‘translator’- taking into consideration that their works include coalescing and recreating contents.


If this situation were limited to the movie, it would have been just minor inconvenience. Sometimes this negligent distortion is done half-intentionally by local media. Some local media have been reporting foreign media’s response to local issues in a mildly modified and tuned manners. A blogger Myopy uses to cross-check the local media’s report on foreign press with the original news article. Below is the part where the blogger blames South Korea’s Chosun for adjusting the tone of the original article, worrying it can lead into serious misunderstanding on a politically sensitive issue.

(NYT Headliner) “U.S. Implicates North Korean Leader in Attack” (Chosun’s) Headliner : NYT “미국정보당국, 천안함 ‘김정일’명령 결론“ 헤드라인의 뉘앙스가 큰 차이를 보인다…본문기사를 보면 조선일보가 예전과 같이 소설수준의 인용을 하지는 않았다. 하지만 적절한 생략과 함축을 통해 원문의 뉘앙스를 조선일보 입맛에 맞게 전달하고 있다.

(NYT Headliner) “U.S. Implicates North Korean Leader in Attack” (Chosun’s) Headliner : NYT (says) “US Intelligence Agency Concluded that Kim Jong-il Commanded the Attack on CheonAn”. The headliners carry different tones…The whole content wasn’t much distorted as Chosun had done before, but still Chosun has massaged the original contents by bit of omission and condensation to meet its taste.

The distortion is not always limited to conservative, right-wing media. Other blogger have criticized a MBC (one of major TV networks) left-leaning investigative program ‘PD Notebook’ for distorting the interview translation.

The translation on other languages beside English and several other familiar languages like Japanese and Chinese, are the real death traps, since there are fewer, much fewer people who can detect the errors. A blogger Kates-isa, South Korean female student now studying in an Indonesian university, pointed out serious translation errors which have occurred in KBS’s (one of major TV networks) primetime news.

문제는 현지인 인터뷰 번역이다. 첫번째 인터뷰. 리나 루비스(부상자) : 2층 계단에서 내려오는 도중에 집이 무너져 내려서 오른쪽 다리가 부러졌어요. 하지만 원본을 들어보자. 원본 : ada di lantai 2 waktu lagi les,jadi eh turun waktu udah di anak tangga terakhir semua udah roboh. 번역 : 2층에서 레슨을 받고 있었어요, 그리고 내려와서 마지막 계단에 도착했을때 모든것이 무너졌어요. * 위 부상자의 오른쪽 다리는 절대 부러지지 않았다. 왜 멀쩡한 다리를 부러뜨리는걸까.

The problem was the interview translation. First interview. Lina Rubis (spelled as pronounced) (the victim): While I climb down the stairs from the second floor, the house collapsed down and I broke my right leg. This is the original: ada di lantai 2 waktu lagi les,jadi eh turun waktu udah di anak tangga terakhir semua udah roboh. Translation: I was taking lesson in the second floor. And when I climb down and reached the last stair, everything collapsed down. *The victim’s right leg has never been broken. Why they (news coverage team) broke the uninjured leg?

And the beauty of Korean language, the manifold vagueness can be a head-aching, harrowing problem for translators, because you can make a complete Korean sentence without clarifying ‘who’ have done what. It means sometimes translators have to add and cram some words taken from context and create a new sentence when translating from Korean to English. A blogger 2Kim, as part of a book review, elaborated on the delicate art of translation. The blogger explained that a sentence like this “(this is) the cassettes we ordered’’, in Korean language, you can put it as “(this is) cassettes which were ordered”, period.

영어든 한국어든, 주체를 뚜렷하게 밝히는 것이 부담스럽기는 마찬가지랍니다. 나쁜 내용을 얘기할 때는 더욱 그렇겠지요. 그런데 영어는 주어를 생략하면 문장이 성립이 안 된다는 약점(이럴 때는)이 있습니다…그러나 한국어는 (다행스럽게도) 주어를 쓰지 않아도 되는 말글입니다.

Both in English and Korean language, there are situations which clarifying the subject (of the sentense or the action)can be bit burdensome, especially in case when you have to break out some bad news/things. While in English, you need to have a subject in a completed sentence… in Korean language, you can (luckily) finish the sentence without a subject.

This loophole in linguistic structure has been used quite effectively in politics, especially in evading responsibilities.

The more fluent people became in English, the more pressures and complaints are added on translators. But it takes several of all nighters and tons of coffees till anyone to fully understand the painstaking art of translation and the enormous stress people are under as you watch the deadline creeping closer to you every second.


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  • thdwlsdn

    After having done a few translations from Korean to English myself, I can understand the struggle translators go through. I think it’s unfortunate that people are so quick to criticize ‘mistakes’ in other people’s work when they don’t understand the process and the constrictions of doing translation work as well as the effort that goes into it. I admit there are plenty of poor translations and people can often make stylistic errors in their work, but for the most part they’re not intentional or malicious, but I still think people should approach translations with a greater degree of understanding for the translators.

    Concerning the omission of subjects in Korean sentences, I find that ambiguity to be even more frustrating part of Korean to English translation since the context rarely helps to show what the subject is supposed to be.

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