Saturday, January 7, 2012

Lost in Translation

I took three years of French and two years of Latin in high school. Here’s the sum total of what I learned during that miserable time:

1. If a menu item includes the word “fromage,” I should order it immediately.

2. Togas look like they’d be kind of drafty.

3. I could never create subtitles for a television show.

Being obsessed with Korean drama when you don’t speak Korean turns you into connoisseur of subtitles in short order. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, but it’s always amazing that they even exist in the first place. A number of the dramas I’ve watched on official sites use subtitles provided by the show’s television network, but most of the subs out there seem to be created by fans, working for no personal benefit. How is it that the world is full of people who are both smart and motivated enough to make this happen for us poor suckers who speak only one language?

Keeping this in mind, I try not to get too critical about subtitles. I’m absolutely willing to overlook the fact that the “defected” construction discussed in Prosecutor Princess should actually have been “defective.” (Or maybe I misunderstood and the buildings had moved to North Korea?) As long as the subtitles are clear enough for me to follow what’s going on, I’m a happy girl.

There are, however, some things subbers do that make me crazy. And weirdly, most of them are probably done specifically for the benefit of people like me.

Reversing Asian names to follow Western standards. By virtue of watching Korean drama, we Westerners have proven ourselves to be open-minded and interested in the world around us. So why do subbers think we can’t figure out that speakers of Asian languages put family names first and given names second? I promise you it’s just as affecting for us to watch Choi Han Gyul and Ko Eun Chan fall in love as it would be for us to watch Han Gyul Choi and Eun Chan Ko do the same.

Replacing relationship terms or honorifics with names. Ajusshi, oppa, and sunbae may take a little getting used to, but that’s no reason to ditch them altogether in favor of someone’s full name or something like “Mr. Choi.” This isn’t true to the source material and actually works against our understanding of the character speaking—even the greenest of kdrama newbies knows it’s a different thing to call a man “oppa” than it is to say his name.

Translating basic relationship names. One of the boys in the drama Heartstrings is always referring to girls he goes to school with as “unni,” which the Dramafever subtitles helpfully translates as “sis.” It is absolutely unthinkable that an Western boy would say this word to someone he’s unrelated to, so why not just leave “unni” untranslated? I think it’s safe to say anyone watching this show wouldn’t be put off by the use of Korean—it’s a better option than the English, and the definition is a quick Google search away, after all. (If you do Google it, you’ll even find explanations for why he’s saying unni, a term normally used by girls when talking to other girls. Per the geniuses at Dramabeans, it’s slang for boys to say unni, and probably intended to make the character seem cute and approachable.)

Not translating written things. I understand that it’s impossible to translate everything, but some subbers really kill me by not bothering to sub text messages, signs, and letters (or, in the case of Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, numerous elaborate diagrams that seem guaranteed to be packed with sources of amusement).

After about six months of watching Kdrama to the exclusion of all else, I could probably carry on a decent drama-level conversation in Korean. (As long as that conversation involved apologizing, confessing my love, and begging someone not to leave, anyway.) But this old dog is unlikely to ever really learn the new trick of speaking Korean, which much to my dismay means that I’ll never be able to fully appreciate the shows I’m watching.

The subtleties of formal versus informal speech in particular seem important when it comes to understanding drama relationships. (See, for example, Dramabeans’ basic discussion of jondaemal and banmal and Electric Ground’s fascinating-but-terrifying explanation of the 7[!] levels of Korean speech.) It's hard to imagine how much intensive study would be needed to even begin to understand the complexities of Korean hierarchical language, especially for a native speaker of English like me. Sure, I don't use the word "dickhead" around my boss (no matter how much I may want to), but beyond that my native tongue doesn't distinguish between individuals by their rank.

So what to do? For now I think I’ll stop complaining borrow a line from the standard plucky Kdrama girl: Please take care of me, subbers!


  1. I am trying to learn Korean, but I'm with you regarding the hierarchical language. I don't really get it. And I do use the word "dickhead" around my boss. :)

    1. I admire and envy your attempt to learn Korean. You'd think with all the dramas I watch I would have picked up some by know, but I just don't have the ear for languages some people do.

      (And there are some bosses you can say "dickhead" around, but mine isn't one of them, unfortunately.)

      Good luck with your language learning!

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