giggling high-school girl asks her best friend, "Want to die?" A somber young man solicitously bows to his grandmother: "How's your languid body?" One man pounds his fist on the desk and exclaims, "I'm sad!" His director counsels the man to philosophically accept that "life is full of vengeance." Most jarring, a pharmaceutical brochure advises readers to "consult a physician when your sense of being is uncomfortable."
We all chuckle at mistranslationsusually at the expense of unfortunate softwarebut there's a deeper problem for the working translator: The translations above are all accurate. However, they fail to communicate the original intent.
Intent vs. Literal Meaning
The balancing act between literal meaning and intent is known to every translator, particularly with concepts that have no direct expressions in the target language. There is nothing wrong with the translations aboveindeed, the writers clearly understood the words and grammar involved, but did not have the native mastery of English to find equivalent phrases for difficult Korean concepts.
Often translators are asked to translate from their native tongue into their second language, which can result in stiff phrasing, no matter how grammatically correct. This problem led Chris Durban to advise: "Native English-speakers translate from foreign languages into English...a translator who flouts this basic rule is likely to be ignorant of other important quality issues as well. OK, there are exceptions. But not many." (Durban 2003: 16).
The balancing act between literal meaning and intent is known to every translator.
This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for native English-speakers with sub-standard Korean mastery. No, the Korean-to-English translator must first fully understand significant Korean concepts before attempting to translate their literal expression and intent.
The concepts in this article have been part of Korean culture for centuries and continue to inform all art, pop culture and business materials. They are essential to the working translator's understanding of the source language. The terms chosen relate specifically to interpersonal relations.
When translating a book, long article, or highly-detailed brochure or paper, a writer enjoys the luxury of explaining a key term and then using the term throughout the work. For example, the first time the word kibun is used, an explanation of the concept is in order.
Interpersonal relations in Korea are dominated by recognition of each individual's sense of being, or "selfhood." A person's inner feelings and his prestige, as acknowledged by others, combine to influence morale, face, and overall state of mind and heart. This is expressed in the Korean word kibun. There is no English equivalent, although translators have tried "mood" (not nearly strong enough) and "inner self" (too vague).
When kibun is good, the world is perfect. When it is bad, nothing is right. It affects health and doctors frequently hear patients complain, "My kibun is upset."
Kibun defines relationships. Damaging another person's kibun can make an enemy for life. In this context, kibun is more important than candor, because to unsettle another person's kibun also hurts society in general. Considerations of kibun, then, are long-term, overriding the desire to "tell it like it is" in the moment. Even the Korean terms for hello ("Are you in peace?") and goodbye ("Go in peace") reflect the importance of maintaining an even kibun in oneself and others. (Crane 1967: 7-8).
After this or a similar explanation, the writer may use the term itself, confident in the readers' ability to recall what has gone before. If chapters intercede, simple mnemonic devices will suffice, such as "Kibun (one's sense of being, see page xyz)." The list of terms provided at the end of this article may be a useful starting point, but must naturally be tailored specifically to the tone, style and context of the original work.
However, the problem is entirely different when faced with short articles, short stories, poetry, brochures, comic books, subtitles, websites or any other material that requires crisp, concise writing. Here the time and attention of the reader is short.
In the example at the beginning of this article, a Korean-language pharmaceutical brochure contains a perfectly acceptable use of the word kibun, which was translated: "Please consult a physician when your sense of being is uncomfortable." An option to this jarring phrase may be: "If you have any concerns please consult your physician." This trades the Korean expression with a common English banality, while reflecting the source's intent.
Another example from the first paragraph introduces the Korean way of asking after one's health, "How is your body?" as translated from a popular Korean comic book. A young man quite properly asks after the state of his aging grandmother's health as she rests from a recent ordeal. The translator chose a direct word-for-word approach: "How is your languid body?" Communicating the intent, however, would ignore the original words completely. Here the question, "How are you feeling?" or "Are you well-rested?" or simply "How is your health?" might better express the young man's respectful attitude.
As always, the writer must find ways to translate the intent while remaining accurate within the context of the original source.
Context & Usage
Difficult concepts require an understanding of the context in which they are used. For example, the term han cannot simply be translated as "resentment" for every book, article or poem. The phrasing must match the usagea tricky thing with all words, especially so with a term that has vastly complex meaning to Koreans.
Han is frequently translated as sorrow, spite, rancor, regret, resentment or grief, among many other attempts to explain a concept that has no English equivalent. (Dong-A 1982: 1975). Han is an inherent characteristic of the Korean character and as such finds expression, implied or explicit, in nearly every aspect of Korean life and culture.
Han is sorrow caused by heavy suffering, injustice or persecution, a dull lingering ache in the soul. It is a blend of lifelong sorrow and resentment, neither more powerful than the other. Han is imbued with resignation, bitter acceptance and a grim determination to wait until vengeance can at last be achieved.
Han is passive. It yearns for vengeance, but does not seek it. Han is held close to the heart, hoping and patient but never aggressive. It becomes part of the blood and breath of a person. There is a sense of lamentation and even of reproach toward the destiny that led to such misery. (Ahn 1987).
The inevitability of fate frequently fuels han in the arts. Korean television and films are informed by han, as are older forms of tragedy, such as P'ansori performance songs and folk tales. For example, poetess Yi Ok Bong (?-1592) described how she had visited her lover so often in dreams that if her spirit were corporeal, the pebbles on the path to his house would be worn to sand. (Kim 1990: 222). Yi uses the term han in the second line, which has been translated: "This wife's resentment is great." "Resentment" implies anger and frustration, certainly part of han, but the line fails to express the sorrow and resignation of the original. Another translator chose "I am sad" for the same line and still another, "my longing deepens." (Lee 1998: 85). This poem demonstrates the importance of context and usage. In the complete poem, insert each of the three previous translations at the end of the second line and the problem becomes clear:
Are you well these days?
Moonlight brushing the curtain pains my heart.
If dreams leave footprints
the pebbles at your door are almost worn to sand.
Not all translations require the fluid language of poetry. In the example listed in this article's first paragraph, one man expressed frustration, saying that he's deeply hurt; the other resignation, accepting the inevitable. Both men spoke of han and the translator was completely correct in using the English words "sad" and "vengeance." However, the subtitles made no sense.
The context of the scene is important. The film's protagonists work in a museum in Seoul. They hope to convince a Japanese museum to return Korean works of art that are on display in Osaka; the artifacts were taken during Japan's occupation of Korea, 1910-1945. The Japanese refuse and the long history of antagonism between the two countries becomes an integral part of the plot. In this context, it is easy to understand why the Korean protagonists use the term han: The first to express anger; the second resigned sorrow.
In a book on the subject of the 1910-1945 occupation, the translator could introduce han and use it throughout. But subtitles are tricky and here the art of context is needed.
The first actor exclaims that the feeling of han is overwhelming him. He grimaces, mixing anger and sadness, so one translation may be a simple, "I really resent this," or "This hurts so much!" This is especially useful in the context of the museum director's wordy response when he says that han is an irrevocable part of life; that they must accept the present feeling of han and wait for another day. The director's face shows acceptance and deep sadness, but his eyes are grim. A possible response to his subordinate's resentment: "Life is pain and frustration and injustice; but we are patient."
One of Korea's most famous modern poets, Yun Dong Ju (1917-1945), wrote his finest work during the Japanese Occupation. (Kim 1984: 249). Yun effortlessly communicated the complex emotions of han:
Let me have no shame
under heaven 'til I die.
Even wind in the leaves
pained my soul.
With a heart that sings of stars
I must love all dying things.
And I must walk the path
given to me.
the wind sweeps over the stars.
Not all concepts can be translated. A Korean colloquialism illustrates this point: "A woman feeling han freezes the ground even in Spring." (Ahn 1987: 94). On a website or in a brochure or an article on proverbs, there is little room to discuss complex ideas. Perhaps this common expression could be translated without using the term han, but without a context outside of the colloquialism, the meaning may be lost: "An angry woman freezes the ground in Spring" fails completely, as does "A bitterly resentful and sad woman who laments her fate and patiently waits for her chance for vengeance without hope; that woman, she freezes the ground in Spring and pretty much any other time of the year." Without proper context, the working translator may insist on room to explain the true meaning, or simply beg off proverbs in general!
These translations, as with all difficult concepts, could be adjusted and debated endlessly. A translator is a writer. All writers wrestle to find just the right phrase. Add the responsibility of communicating the thoughts of another person from a uniquely different culture and language, and the writer-translator has a formidable task indeed.
Again quoting Durban: "Professional translators are first and foremost writers, capable of producing texts that read well in the target language...they are effective bridges between the languages they work in; they can render the message of the original text, with appropriate style and terminology, in their native tongue...Bilingualism on its own is not a guarantee of written fluency or skill in translation." (Durban 2003: 22).
The translator must make the difficult decision of how best to express the context and intent of the original work when direct English equivalents are not enough. And it must be done succinctly.
Brevity vs. Clarity
"Want to die?" Made popular in the comedy film My Sassy Girl (2001), this expression is now in common use across Korean pop entertainment: movies, novels, comics, TV dramas, music and on the street. The translation is exact, but unsettling. It seems a bit much to threaten death when a friend jokes about your hairdo. An attempt to use slang, such as "Wanna die?" comes off as silly and dated. Fortunately, there are English equivalents in common use. A co-worker teases you about being late from lunch: "Don't make me come over there," you say. A friend ribs you about your band t-shirt and you respond: "Don't make me hurt you." Both examples are brief and clear, communicating the correct mood and intent of the original without long explanation. If only all translations were so simple!
The question of clarity often overrides brevity in longer articles and books. But in shorter works where brevity is the rule, the translator is faced with an old problem: Be concise with intent or literal but vague.
For example, "Eat well and live well" is a common Korean phrase, but reading the literal translation, it is natural to infer that one must maintain a healthy diet. The usage is completely different. This phrase is used either as a fond wish to be healthy and prosperous, or more frequently, as a dismissal. A father that opposes his son's intended marriage may use this term, as would a person slamming the door on an irritating door-to-door salesperson. In this case, the intent is better translated as "goodbye and good luck" or "good riddance" or simply, "you're on your own!"
Some expressions are in the happy middle ground between intent and literal meaning. The Korean term, "Let's leave it and see," is used in exactly the same context as the English phrase, "Let's wait and see." Here the literal expression requires a simple word change and the intent is clear.
Ultimately, each working translator must decide how best to express a difficult concept within the context of the original source. That, indeed, is the art and craft of writing.
Five Important Korean Culture Concepts
Below are five important Korean cultural concepts with brief explanations. Like those in the article, these terms are used to describe and define interpersonal relations. Each entry is followed by possible translations of the terms for business (brochures, websites), the arts (poetry, fiction), and pop culture.
Literally, "that bit extra." In reference to the human heart, it is that certain emotional reserveinner strength and a resolve to be unflappable in the most trying circumstances. Yoyu radiates from those who are free inside. The common expression, "A person who has yoyu," refers to a man of great virtue who has refined himself through study and introspection. This term may be applied in numerous circumstances across all class and economic boundaries.
- Business Translation: "A dignified leader." (Leadership is often inferred by the reader.)
- The Arts: "A man of great integrity and inner strength."
- Pop Culture: "A rock."
One's spirit, mind, intention, energy, motivation, heart and soul. A well-known Korean proverb states that even if a tiger drags you to his den, jongsin will save you. (Ha 1970: 153). Jongsin refers to one's fighting spirit, one's mental energy and strength to endure and survive even the worst adversity. Another common saying relates that if you have jongsin, you can do anythingnothing is impossible. (Dong-A 1982: 1599). The term refers to the state of both the spirit and the mind.
- Business: "Motivation."
- The Arts: "Heart and Soul."
- Pop Culture: "Spirit." (As in fighting spirit, spirit of friendship, etc.)
Literally, "confidence." Some translations use the direct English equivalent and miss the point. For example, when pestered by friends at a karaoke bar to deliver a tune, the phrase "I have no jasin" usually ends the discussion. If translated as "I don't have the confidence," readers may wonder why the friends desist and aren't more supportive! In this context, "I just don't have it in me" may be closer to the meaning. Jasin deals with one's own perception of self. It combines the knowledge of one's ability to do something and one's expectation of achieving it.
- Business: "We have every assurance that this will succeed." (We have jasin.)
- The Arts: "I'm not certain I can do it." (I have no jasin.)
- Pop Culture: "Feeling it/Not feeling it."
Yoyu is earned through diligent application of a personal philosophy. Ch'imch'ak is very similar but represents a natural trait of "composure" with which one was born. To "forget/lose ch'imch'ak" is the equivalent of losing one's cool, and the Korean saying, "During an emergency it's not easy to have ch'imch'ak" can easily be translated to an English equivalent: "It's not easy to keep your head in an emergency."
- Business: "He's steady and reliable."
- The Arts: "He's composed."
- Pop Culture: "Got it together."
Simply, "a request." Easy to translate, difficult to get right. Why are characters in novels and films forever "requesting" only dire favors, like saving the life of a friend? The person making a butak is putting her kibun on the line; to refuse is to upset her kibun. Refusing a butak must be considered carefully, particularly in business relations, in which mutually reciprocal favors may be expected. (Crane 1967: 76). Of course, in colloquial expression, there are levels of extremes, but usually in written form, butak is reserved for special favors. This could be confused with another Korean term, joibal, often correctly translated as "I beg you." (Myung 1991: 867). However, where joibal is a plea in addition to an instruction or request ("if you please"), often made in desperation, butak is the actual request itself.
- Business Letter: "We respectfully request that you please consider..." (The more polite the phrasing, the better.)
- The Arts: "Please grant this favor."
- Pop Culture: "I'm asking here."
Ahn, B. S. (1987). "Humor in Korean Film." East-West Film Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1: 90-98. See also Ahn, B. S. (1998). "Humanism Above All." Cinemaya 42: 40-44.
Crane, P. S. (1967). Korean Patterns. Seoul: Hollym Publishers.
Dong-A (1982). Dong-A's New Concise Korean-English Dictionary. Seoul: Dong-A Publishing Co., Ltd.
Durban, C. (2003). Translation: Getting it Right. Available at the website of the American Translators Association (ATA) atanet.org. Bold text from the original.
Ha, T. S. (1970). Maxims and Proverbs of Old Korea: Korean Cultural Series Vol. VII. Seoul: Yonsei University Press.
Kim, J. K. (1990). Korea's Famous Poems [Uli-eui Myong Si]. Seoul: Dong-A Publishing Co., Ltd. Translation of Yi Ok Bong's poem by D. Bannon.
Kim, S.B. (1984). Yun Dong Ju: Dark Days of a Poet's Path [Yun Dong Ju: Oduun Sidai-eui Siin-eui Kil]. Seoul: Yejonsa Publishing. Translation of "Prelude" by D. Bannon.
Lee, S. I. (1998). The Moonlit Pond: Korean Classical Poems in Chinese. Copper Canyon Press. Lee's touching translation of the Yi Ok Bong poem:
I am anxious to know how you are of late.
As moonbeams surge on the windowpanes, my longing deepens.
If footsteps in dreams can leave their traces,
The stony path near your home must be worn to sand.
Myung Moon Dong & Merriam-Webster (1991). Webster's English-English-Korean Dictionary. Seoul: Myung Moon Dong Publishing/Merriam-Webster.