Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Substantial: Subbers on Secret Love Affair and the craft of subbing



Subtitles are the key that allows international viewers entry into the world of Korean drama.

I didn’t fully understand this until my first rewatch of Coffee Prince. Before that, I blindly followed along with the words flashing across my screen without really critically evaluating them. Han Gyul and Eun Chan were fighting. What more did I need to know beyond that? 

But stumbling across fan-created subtitles for my favorite drama changed everything: The dialogue was constructed differently than it was in the official subs, and the word choices varied hugely. Even things that seemed simple had multiple layers—were the subtitles mostly complete sentences? Or were they full of stops and starts, like the way people actually talk? Were the characters eating ddukbokki or rice cakes? Was he hyung or Choi Han Gyul? Somebody made all those decisions, and each one had an incredible impact on my experience of the drama. 

Now I see that the labor of creating subtitles is nothing less than casting a magic spell. Language is more than just words; it’s an entire worldview that shapes how we see everything around us. And translating Korean into English is more than simply recording the things people say—it’s understanding the character’s essential meaning and capturing that meaning in words that weren’t necessarily created to express it.

Thanks to my current mania for Secret Love Affair, my appreciation for subtitles has become even more intense. I’ve been watching each episode on multiple streaming sites and comparing the translations. They often agree, but what’s really fascinating is where they deviate, and how easily those deviations can change the fundamental meaning of a scene. SLA is a great show for watching like this; it sometimes feels more like literature than a drama. The dialogue is meaningful, and always carefully constructed to allow multiple, ever-changing interpretations. 

Over the past ten episodes, I’ve come to trust the Viki subtitles for this show above all others. They get the basics right, but more importantly they really grasp the essence of each scene. I can’t judge their fidelity to Korean, but I can judge their fidelity to storytelling—and it’s amazing. (Don’t even get me started on the fact that Viki subbers are civilians like you and me, people who give of their time and knowledge for the love of dramas, not because it’s their job.)

In light of my recent fangirling over their work, I contacted a few members of Viki’s Secret Love Affair subbing team and asked if they’d answer a few of my burning questions about their experience of subbing in general, and SLA in particular.

Below the cut are interviews with two of these subbers—one who requested anonymity, and another who goes by the name anaisanais.

Tamra, the Island a fusion sageuk centered around the diving women of Jeju.
(And a castaway from England who can’t speak English.)

Anonymous subber

—How did you come to know both Korean and English?
I spent my early years in Korea before I moved to the U.S. to live permanently.

—How long have you been watching Korean dramas?
Ever since I can remember. I grew up watching a lot of Korean dramas.

—What’s your favorite drama? What do you like about it?
I would have to say Tamra, the Island. I know it’s not for everyone and I’ve seen people either being bored or being annoyed by the female lead character, but for me, it has just the right amount of angst, sweetness, romance, and humor that I look for in a drama. It’s also a very well-acted drama with gorgeous cinematography and awesome soundtrack. The male lead character is one of my all time favorite K-drama characters and I even loved a lot of the side characters. It is a fusion sageuk but incorporates the real Joseon history nicely into the drama and manages to deliver a message as well.

—What made you decide to work on subtitles?
My intense love for a not-much-known drama that aired last year got me started on subtitling.

—What do you think is the hardest part of subbing? The most fun?
The hardest part of subbing is when I want to come up with a perfect term or an expression that would thoroughly capture the meaning and nuances of the original language but I can’t due to my own limitations. The most fun part is being able to share the same emotions I experience when watching a certain scene or listening to a certain dialogue with people from all backgrounds.

—Between the time constraints and opinionated viewers, does subbing get stressful sometimes?
Sometimes, when there aren’t enough subbers and I don’t have much time, I feel bad for people waiting for the subtitles.

—When you’re watching dramas that you’re not working on, do you watch them without subtitles? Or do you turn them on, if only to see what other people are doing?
Sometimes I watch with subtitles, and sometimes I don’t. I do sometimes turn them on to see how certain lines are translated because I learn a lot by looking at other subbers’ renditions. If there’s a show I really like and I want to focus on the show itself, then I don’t turn them on.

—When you sub something, does it impact your enjoyment of the show? I know that writing recaps does—you’re always stopping and starting the video and thinking about things other than the story. Is subbing a thousand times worse?
It mostly adds to the enjoyment. It is fun subbing the shows I like, especially the ones full of witty dialogues.

—Do you have a subbing philosophy?
I try to be as literal as possible, to stay true to the original language as much as I could, which includes not making assumptions, and not sacrificing details.

—Have you ever worked on subtitles for a show you didn’t like that much? Have you ever fallen in love with a show you’re subbing?
Oh, yes, there were a few that I didn’t like too much for their dull, boring, and unintelligent dialogues and plotlines. I loved some of the shows I was subbing, but those are the ones I started subbing because I already liked them from the beginning.

—Lots of people edit Viki subs. Have you ever subtitled something and then realized someone revised it in a way you didn’t agree with?
Yes. I try to work it out with the editor when that happens.

—Is there anything specific you think speakers of English should keep in mind when they watch Kdramas?
Korean dialogues often consist of lines that are without a specific subject or an object. In those cases, subbers have to make assumptions.


To the Beautiful You; “The name’s lettuce. Nice to meet you.”

—There seems to be a lot of variety in the treatment of names in Korean dramas. Some subbers translate names, but others don’t. (In Secret Love Affair, some subs translate the screen names “ignorant ears” and “I’m a genius,” but others don’t. Another example is the dog in To the Beautiful You, which was called “lettuce” in some subs instead of “sangchu.”) Sometimes English-speakers lose out when a name isn’t translated because they don’t get the joke—but we also don’t want to sit through a drama starring some guy named Table Tennis, like Baker King Kim Tak Gu. Do you have a general strategy for this?

If the name’s meaningful, as in the case of “Ignorant Ears” and “I’m a genius” in SLA, I like to introduce the viewers to the name by putting the name as it sounds and add the meaning in parentheses—like “Makgui (Ignorant Ears)”—and then use the name only thereafter. But with Viki subs being a product of teamwork, different treatment of names are left as how the original subbers put in because we try to preserve the original subbers’ work as much as we could, which is why you sometimes see those variations.

—Did anyone keep a stylesheet of how people’s names were transliterated in the dramas you’ve subbed? There are different of ways to render specific Korean letters in English, which sometimes causes confusion. In the official Coffee Prince subs, for example, Eun Chan’s family name is given as both Ko and Go.

You know, the names (both first and last) that start with the pronunciation of “g” as in “go” are especially tricky. Sometimes it feels weird to use “g” instead of “k” and vice versa. Same with “u” and “oo,” “u” and “eo” variations as in “Sun Jae” versus “Seon Jae” or “Jun Hyung” versus. “Joon Hyeong.” There’s an editor’s note that a major contributing Viki editor created and I try to stick to it, although oftentimes I find myself having to deviate from it. There’s no right answer to this, really. Even Korean passports have different name variations. But we try to stick with one throughout a drama once we decided on something.

—Do you think there’s any drama that really can’t be appreciated without knowing Korean?

Yes. I think Hong sisters’ dramas are an example of this kind, unless the subtitles include thorough notes and explanations of how certain words are supposed to be funny, and so on. Also, I don’t think dramas with extensive use of saturi [a Korean dialect] like Answer me, 1994 can be fully appreciated without knowing Korean.

—Have you ever worked on subtitles for a sageuk? Are they especially demanding, because they use older words that aren’t in common use? Or is the dialogue mostly modern? I’ve heard that both Sungkyunkwan Scandal and Joseon X-files have particularly interesting sageuk language. What do you think?

Yes, I find them demanding for the very reasons you mentioned, especially with unfamiliar positions, title names and places. But the dialogues themselves aren’t too difficult in most sageuk dramas. I know a few (typically more experienced) subbers who don’t find sageuk dramas too challenging.

—How do you decide when something should be translated and when it should be left in its native language? I’m not crazy about subtitles that translate things like oppa, but seeing some of the lesser-known family terms without translations would confuse even me, the total drama-geek.

It depends, but as I try to stick to the editor’s note I mentioned earlier, terms like oppa, unnie, hyung, sunbae, etc. are left untranslated as most K-drama watchers are familiar with the terms. The less common terms are translated and maybe put inside a parenthesis.

—The levels of Korean speech can be a mystery to English-language viewers. In her Dramabeans post explaining banmal [casual speech], Girl Friday says that she squees about couples lowering their language just like she squees when they kiss. Does that seem on-target to you?

Surely, it does make a difference. I liked the few times when So Ji Sub used jondaemal (formal speech) to Gong Hyo Jin and the few times she used banmal to him in Master’s Sun. But I think it also seems to do a lot with power play within K-dramas, like people getting insulted when some stranger starts using banmal to them, and so on.

Secret Love Affair: It might have something to do with her being in love with another man.

—In Secret Love Affair, what levels of speech do Sun Jae and Hye Won use when talking to each other? How about Hye Won and her husband? Have there been any big moments of changing levels? For example, in episode 7 Hye Won’s husband asks her why she’s being so formal with him [20:18]. Has she inadvertently slipped into jondaemal with him? From what I can tell, Sun Jae is still speaking formally when he talks to Hye Won. Do you think they might ever reach a point in their relationship where they would speak banmal to each other? Or will their ages always make this impossible, no matter how much they’re in love?

Hye Won uses banmal to Sun Jae from the beginning and throughout the drama. Sun Jae always uses jondaemal except the time when he cautiously says “Hye Won ah” at the end of episode 8. Hye Won usually uses banmal with Joon Hyeong except (I guess) when she’s mad, like the time when he asks her why she’s using jondaemal to him, making him scared, or at formal settings. Same with Young Woo. Hye Won uses banmal with her during personal conversations but speaks in jondaemal to Young Woo at formal settings, whereas Young Woo always uses banmal to Hye Won. Also to note, Young Woo’s boyfriend always uses banmal with Young Woo.

I think it is possible for Hye Won and Sun Jae to use banmal to each other as they become more comfortable with each other, as in how a lot of kids use banmal when they talk to their moms even when they’re older, but I don’t know if it’s going to be in the same manner as the banmal used between partners of similar ages. Even if Sun Jae starts using banmal to Hye Won, I don’t think he will go far as to regularly call Hye Won by her first name. I think the age gap is too large for him to do that, but that could just be me talking.

—To me, the dialogue in Secret Love Affair seems really special and well constructed. Does it seem markedly different from the dialogue in other shows you’ve subbed? Do you have any favorite lines or scenes, when it comes to the language used?

Most shows (especially plot-driven ones) have pretty straightforward dialogue, but SLA is one of those shows with dialogue that is concise but you can tell a lot of pondering went into constructing it. One of my favorite lines is the ones between Hye Won and Sun Jae involving unbuckling Sun Jae’s pants during their practice session in episode 3, as you can see the different thoughts going through their heads and the conversation gives all kinds of colorful ideas to viewers at the same time. I also liked the dialogue between them at the bottom of the stairs at the beginning of episode 6, how Sun Jae says, “Why?” when Hye Won says there would be no more private meetings between them, and how Sun Jae asks Hye Won if she’s going to be okay since it’s dark and dangerous for her.






—I’ve been watching Secret Love Affair subbed by both Viki and another streaming source. There are little differences throughout the subs, which is understandable. I find one deviation really interesting, though. It’s during a conversation Hye Won and Sun Jae have in episode 9 when they’re cuddled up after being intimate [44:17].

Here’s the Viki translation:

Sun Jae: What are you thinking?
Hye Won: Habit.
Sun Jae: (You’re afraid) it will become a habit of mine?
Hye Won: No, mine.

And here’s the other source’s:

Sun Jae: What are you thinking?
Hye Won: Fling…
Sun Jae: (Are you afraid) that I will become one?
Hye Won: No, that I will.

Merriam-Webster defines habit as “a usual way of behaving: something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way.” Its definition for fling is “a brief sexual relationship.”

At least in English, these two snippets of dialogue read completely differently. In the first, Hye Won is saying she’s reluctant to become too involved with Sun Jae—she’s worried that being with him will become a habit. In the second, Hye Won seems to be concerned about the exact opposite: that she’ll be a “fling” to Sun Jae, rather than someone he’s in a long-term relationship with.

In Korean, does this make more sense? Could this word really be translated either way? To me, the Viki translation is much more logical—Hye Won isn’t a woman who’s so open with her emotions that she would make this kind of needy, slightly passive aggressive comment.

No, I don’t think it can be translated either way. “Habit” is the exact word she used. Fling seems like an over-stretch to me. It’s interesting how you brought this up because I mentioned this exact dialogue to another subber working in SLA a couple of days ago when we were discussing how we sometimes have to guess who the subject is when one is missing in a sentence and this is one of these cases where I had to do some guesswork (although this was more of a case of missing objects and the ambiguity of the manner it was said). Since you brought it up, here’s another possible translation of the dialogue due to the way Sun Jae said the third line:

Sun Jae: What are you thinking?
Hye Won: Habit.
Sun Jae: (You’re afraid) I will become a habit (to you)?
Hye Won: No, (I’m afraid) that I will (become a habit to you).

Those were two possible translations but I decided to go with the current translation in Viki as it seems to make more sense in terms of whom Hye Won was reflecting on. To me, it makes much more sense to think she was reflecting on herself and wondering what the relationship is going to mean for her than what it will mean for Sun Jae going forward.

***  ***  ***

Sungkyunkwan Scandal: Crack wishes it was this addictive.

anaisanais


—How did you come to know both Korean and English?
I was born in Seoul and grew up there until I was almost 10 years old. My family immigrated to a part of the United States where there were not a lot of other Asians, let alone Koreans, so it was easy to become fluent [in English] quickly. In exchange, I forgot nearly all of my Korean within a year. I couldn’t remember even the most basic words, for example, “refrigerator.” I started relearning Korean in college, pursued graduate studies in Korean culture, and even moved out to Los Angeles to regain my Korean fluency.

—How long have you been watching Korean dramas?
Whenever I came back home from college, my mom and I hunkered down in the family room, marathoning Korean dramas. I still remember some of the titles. The 1999–2000 Heo Jun (Hur Jun), starring Jun Kwang Ryul. 2002’s Rival starring Kim Min Jung. I watched Winter Sonata for my mom, oy. More like Winter Hibernation for me. Then, I caught a bunch of dramas on syndication—Tender Hearts, Emperor Wang Gun, To Be With You, Yellow Handkerchief, One Million Roses in the early 2000s. But it wasn’t until 2007 or 2008 that I started watching hardcore. My first crack drama? Sungkyunkwan Scandal. Yup, Yoo Ah In was 1/3 of it for me. (Not a Park Min Young fan, though I liked her well enough in that.)

—What are some of your favorite dramas? 


Coffee Prince
Queen In Hyun’s Man
Resurrection
Ruler of Your Own World
Sandglass
Sangdoo, Let’s Go to School
Shut Up, Flower Boy Band
Soulmate
Tree with Deep Roots
Time between Dog and Wolf

—What made you decide to work on subtitles?
To practice Korean.

—What do you think is the hardest part of subbing? The most fun?
One challenge is the difference between English and Korean syntax. They’re nearly opposite of one another. English is a language that privileges the subject, the subject’s actions, and the active voice. Korean, on the other hand, is one that downplays the subject and is quite at ease with the passive voice. Whereas English privileges verb phrases, Korean privileges noun phrases. In English, verbs come toward the beginning and in Korean, all the way at the end. Korean sentences also tend to be longer. All of this poses challenges subbing-wise. When a sentence spans multiple segments, it’s inherently impossible to match what’s being said since English won’t allow us to split the subject from its verb. In such an instance, the subbers/editors have to decide what to privilege in balancing out fidelity and comprehensibility.

I think the hardest thing for me is being unable to translate the levels of speech and the social relationships codified and conveyed in the use of honorifics. Imagine someone saying “please” in every single sentence to an elder or a higher-up. Or even every single time with a verb that pertains to an elder or a higher-up. Except, instead of sounding really servile or gratuitous, it sounds perfectly appropriate and necessary. Maybe even refined. And conversely, how the various levels/kinds of banmal can sound warm and affectionate versus curt and crude.

The most fun: Nailing a translation that captures a particularly challenging dialogue, both in letter and in spirit.

—Between the time constraints and opinionated viewers, does subbing get stressful sometimes?
Recently, Viki has instituted a lot of changes technologically that have mitigated some of this stress. If I understand correctly, the subtitle editor is now accessible only to the designated subbing team members. Before this change was implemented, the subbing teams often had to tackle two to three times the work trying to sort through rogue subbers’ contributions whilst managing the expectations of a really eager/impatient audience.

Cruel City: Now this is a real crack drama.
(In that its characters are involved in the drug trade.)

—When you’re watching dramas you’re not working on, do you watch them without subtitles? Or do you turn them on, if only to see what other people are doing?
I’m not 100 percent fluent in Korean yet. I can’t always understand everything when a dialogue is jargon-heavy, employs the latest slang, or is uttered by actors who don’t enunciate very clearly. So, it helps to watch the shows with the subtitles. I only find myself relying on them when I need them. For shows that are not on Viki, I watch them on another legal streaming site that doesn’t offer subtitles. That’s how I watched Cruel City (Heartless City), for example.

—When you sub something, does it impact your enjoyment of the show? I know that writing recaps does—you’re always stopping and starting the video and thinking about things other than the story. Is subbing a thousand times worse?
If possible, I try to watch the shows raw before I sub them. I did find that when I subbed first, I let some time ago before I sat myself down to watch the episode in its entirety.

I suspect subbing is a lot easier than recapping since there’s less analysis happening, or at least that’s true for me. I’m focused more on translating what’s in each segment. Also, I usually sub only about a 10-minute part, so I don’t know what’s happening in the remainder of the episode if I haven’t watched it already. I usually leave a note to the other subbers and editors to that effect and leave it to the editors to ensure episode-wide coherence.

—Do you have a subbing philosophy?
Yes, and I’ve thought long and hard about it. I want to be as faithful to the original language as possible without sacrificing comprehensibility. When I say faithful, I attempt to phrase the translation to reflect the original syntax and diction if that is possible in English. I oftentimes look up the Chinese etymology of Sino-Korean words to select the English word that most faithfully conveys that meaning, etymologically as well as connotatively. I would say that all of this does slow me down, so I can’t always adhere to this philosophy.

Currently, I’m translation editing a drama where I’ve received the go-ahead from the channel manager to do approximate translation edits. For this drama, I refrain from changing subs that get at the gist of the dialogue and only edit subs that are outright incorrect. Doing so saves time and my sanity. However, it’s not my preferred mode of operation.

The last drama I translation edited with great care was Two Weeks, and each episode took anywhere between 6 to 12 hours to edit.

—Have you ever worked on subtitles for a show you didn’t like that much? Have you ever fallen in love with a show you’re subbing?
There are some Viki veterans I really admire. If those veterans ask for my help, even if for a show I don’t love or even watch, I’ll get on board so long as my real life commitments aren’t prohibitive. I’ve yet to fall in love with a show because subbing has made it dear to me.

—Lots of people edit Viki subs. Have you ever subtitled something and then realized someone revised it in a way you didn’t agree with?
Of course! In the beginning, it took some practice to let go of the desire to revert the subs. Sometimes, I definitely did get huffy and reverted some of them if I found the changes slapdash. However, I do yield to the team editors in such matters. It’s their call whether to go with the last sub, first sub, whatever they deem the best sub, etc.
Viki is a great place to learn how to work as a part of a team. Some of the subbing teams are better managed than others, but overall, it’s a humbling and rewarding collaborative process. Some of the subbers are just so, so, so good, and some of the collaborations have been truly inspired. I think the My Love from the Stars team experienced such inspired moments regularly. Same thing with The Good Doctor team.

—Is there anything specific you think speakers of English should keep in mind when they watch Kdramas?
Even the best of translations are still approximations. I think a lot of non-Korean viewers are savvy and realize that they may be missing a lot culturally that’s embedded in the language. For example, many already know about the honorifics, as you do.

What they might not realize, however, is that the dialogue is oftentimes much more complex than the translated subs. As I mentioned earlier, due to the differences in syntax, pronoun usage, and so on, the subs are oftentimes simplified or truncated and do/can not convey some of the best word play in the original dialogue.

Angel Eyes: Who doesn’t love a guy who loves a joke at his own expense?

—There seems to be a lot of variety in the treatment of names in Korean dramas. Some subbers translate names, but others don’t. (In Secret Love Affair, some subs translate the screen names “ignorant ears” and “I’m a genius,” but others don’t. Another example is that the dog in To the Beautiful You was called “lettuce” in some subs, instead of sangchu.) Sometimes English-speakers lose out when a name isn’t translated because they don’t get the joke—but we also don’t want to sit through a drama starring some guy named Table Tennis, like Baker King Kim Tak Gu. Do you have a general strategy for this?

It’s obviously on a case-by-case basis, as you point out. I prefer to translate the “Ignorant Ears” Hyung since it’s a deliberately delicious word play. (Actually “Mak Gwi” literally means “stuffed/stopped ears” as in using fingers or earplugs to stuff/stop one’s ears. Such ears then can’t be very discriminating.)

Baker King Kim Tak Gu, not so since table tennis wasn’t all that relevant to the drama.

In Angel Eyes, the male protagonist’s name is Dong Ju but that first syllable is pronounced endearingly as Ddong, meaning “poo.” In his case, I vaguely recall that he exaggerated the “poo” pronunciation when he introduces himself to the heroine. In that segment, I might include a note in italics explaining that he’s deliberately trying to make himself seem down-to-earth with this particular pronunciation.

—Did anyone keep a stylesheet of how people’s names were transliterated in the dramas you’ve subbed? There are different of ways to render specific Korean letters in English, which sometimes causes confusion. In the official Coffee Prince subs, for example, Eun Chan’s family name is given as both Ko and Go.

The subbing teams don’t have full control over the Romanization of the Korean names, unfortunately. Sometimes, the Korean broadcasting channel or the show’s producers limit the subbers’ options by releasing their own Romanization that employs inconsistent Romanization systems.

As for Viki subbing teams, each team does maintain a Team Notes page that includes the Romanized spelling for each character as the team agreed upon. Not all subbers are mindful of it, however. The editors then try to catch any inconsistencies.

—Do you think there’s any drama that really can’t be appreciated without knowing Korean?

Nah. Hallyu exists because, despite language and cultural differences, there’s something in these dramas that resonates with people’s experiences all over the world. So, while there may be elements that cannot be appreciated fully, people all over ought to be able to enjoy them just as they enjoy good novels in translation.

My Love from Another Star: Who knew? It’s extra sageuky for emphasis.

—Have you ever worked on subtitles for a sageuk? Are they especially demanding, because they use older words that aren’t in common use? Or is the dialogue mostly modern? I’ve heard that both Sungkyunkwan Scandal and Joseon X-files have particularly interesting sageuk language. What do you think?

I have worked on a sageuk. A lot of sageuk dialogue has been modernized. Sungkyunkwan Scandal was a fusion sageuk, so the language wasn’t entirely sageuk-speak. Joseon X-Files, I can’t recall since I watched it so long ago. Even something like Empress Ki doesn’t employ sageuk speak all the time. It’s very modernized, almost to the point of being irritating and even insulting. If anything, My Love from the Stars played up the sageuk-speak in scenes set in Min Jun’s Joseon past, all to contrast very deliberately with scenes set in modernity. And even it wasn’t entirely devoid of modern anachronisms.

—How do you decide when something should be translated and when it should be left in its native language? I’m not crazy about subtitles that translate things like oppa, but seeing some of the lesser-known family terms without translations would confuse even me, the drama-geek.

I probably wouldn’t ever translate oppa, hyung, unni, noona, ahjumma, or ahjussi, mainly since their equivalents don’t exist in English. Although I can’t think of any off the top of my head, I wouldn’t translate a Korean word if its English equivalents didn’t have the same connotation. Instead, I’d use the Korean and include a note in italics. So, the litmus test seems to be whether or not there’s a cultural barrier.

—The levels of Korean speech can be a mystery to English-language viewers. In her Dramabeans post explaining banmal [casual speech], Girl Friday says that she squees about couples lowering their language just like she does when they kiss. Does that seem on-target to you?

Well, I probably squee less than Girl Friday does over lowering to banmal. Let’s take Secret Love Affair, for example. In episode 9, Hye Won teases Seon Jae that she can envision him daring to speak to her in banmal. If that were to happen, holy moly. I wouldn’t squee. I’d just be flabbergasted. I guess I’m old school that way. You can take the child out of Korea but can’t quite take the Korea out of the child, or something like that, right?

—To me, the dialogue in Secret Love Affair seems really special and well constructed. Does it seem markedly different from the dialogue in other shows you’ve subbed? Do you have any favorite lines or scenes, when it comes to the language used?

I can’t say that the dialogue is markedly different. It is better, more sophisticated, mainly because the story it tells and the character who utter the words are more complex. Rather than the drama’s use of verbal language, I’ve been more taken by its willingness to be absent of dialogue for very long stretches. Instead, those stretches are filled with music, diegetic or background. These stretches invite the viewers to breathe, deeply. To cherish. To allow some prelinguistic collective affect to reawaken. I really don’t mean to go all literary theory here, but that’s the best way I can put the feelings such stretches stir.

—In Secret Love Affair, what levels of speech do Sun Jae and Hye Won use when talking to each other? How about Hye Won and her husband? Have there been any big moments of changing levels? For example, in episode 7 Hye Won’s husband asks her why she’s being so formal with him [20:18]. Has she inadvertently slipped into jondaemal with him? From what I can tell, Sun Jae is still speaking formally when he talks to Hye Won. Do you think they might ever reach a point in their relationship where they would speak banmal to each other? Or will their ages always make this impossible, no matter how much they’re in love?

Seon Jae definitely uses the honorific. Hye Won banmal to Seon Jae. And she’s more often than not speaking in the imperative. She’s very intimidating.

Hye Won and her husband speak in banmal, but they actually talk. She’s not constantly issuing commands in the imperative to him.

In episode 7, she uses the jondae perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not so subconsciously. If I remember correctly (I’m definitely not scrutinizing the episodes the way you are, so I can’t be sure), that episode may have been the one that establishes that her home feels like work to Hye Won. If so, she went on auto-pilot in speaking in jondae, a very telling auto-pilot. Or she may have done so semi-intentionally, because that language is what she employs to placate (coddle) those who keep her around to cater to their whims.

Seon Jae employing banmal with Hye Won. 20 years is a lot. And he does respect her a lot. I’d be shocked if he could shake off 20 years of steeping in Neo-Confucianism and speak to her in banmal.

I’ve been watching Secret Love Affair subbed by both Viki and another streaming source. There are little differences throughout the subs, which is understandable. There are some deviations I find really interesting, though. One of these occurs in episode 6 when Sun Jae is discussing his relationship with Oh Hye Won. Here’s the Viki translation:

Sun Jae: To you I am 100 percent sincere, so I don’t have to lie, is what I mean. I have nothing to be afraid of. Of course I’ll have to hide it from other people. To protect you.

And here’s the other source’s:

Sun Jae: I’m 100 percent serious about you. You don’t need to lie to me. I’ve got nothing to be scared of. Of course, I’d have to keep it a secret from others. So that I can protect you.

The two versions differ on exactly who doesn’t have to lie. I know that Korean sentences don’t always have clear subjects and objects, so sometimes require interpretation. Is this one of those cases?

Viki’s translation seems a lot more logical to me—Sun Jae is the subject of every adjacent sentence, so I would assume he’s the subject of this one as well.

Actually, when I first watched it before the subs were done, I thought Seon Jae was trying to tell her that she didn't need to lie to him since he was sincerely into her. It followed his calling her out on trying to come across as an adult and put distance between them. I thought he was trying to reassure her. That she did not need to lie or be afraid.

However, now that I watch it again, I realize he's saying that HE doesn't need to lie to her. The key to who needn't lie to whom is who doesn't need to be scared. It is he who says there's nothing for HIM to be afraid of.


All this begins with his assertion to her that he can do something well. She then asks him "Do what?" And he replies, “Not getting intimidated.” So, it is HE who need not be afraid, hence he who does not need not lie because he is 100 percent sincere about his feelings for her.



***  ***  ***

And a final, chessily grateful note from Amanda: Thank you, Kdrama subbers, for sharing your wisdom with the international fans. We couldn’t be here without you!

32 comments:

  1. Thanks, most interesting insights.

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  2. Ah! Loved this! I think about subbing a lot. Not doing it, of course, since my Korean is about the level of a dog's. Well maybe a bit better than that but certainly not functional as a human - no, I think about the art of it. It's so frustrating because I KNOW I'm missing out on so much embedded information. Language is fascinating to me and always has been, even my own. I appreciate the work subbers (and editors and segmentors and all of the members of a team) do for love of this, because it's not something I can do for myself.

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  3. This is great! Very insightful and informative. I do like Viki subs better than other sources precisely because I feel they capture the essence of the character and what they mean to say... so I'm glad I'm not alone in that regard. Keep up the good work on SLA. Since Dramabeans is not recapping it (which is an absolute shame), you're my go-to interpreter. :)

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  4. I've also watched SLA episodes on two different sights and noticed the difference in translation/interpretation. The Viki subs really convey the meaning of a scene.

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  5. From what little experience and knowledge I have after studying Korean for three months now - and the substantial knowledge of German I have after growing up Kraut – I have to say (bewildering as it may sound) that there are a lot of similarities between German and Korean in terms of pronunciation, sentence structure (hello there, terminal verb. How I miss you living withe the anglophones), and cultural implications (banmal vs "How dare that punk "Du" me. That's "Sie" to him!). I definitely have an edge over my English co-students in discriminating between o and oe, e and ae, i and my favourite vowel ㅡ ('eu', though I find that ENG dominated romanisation misleading).

    I am so fascinated with subtitles. I had quite a ball when GER subtitles to Flower Boy Next Door went up on Viki. I started watching an episode with them on for giggles. However, things got very serious very quickly when I realised they weren't translated from ENG into GER (as I had assumed seeing as they came considerably after the ENG ones were available) but also from Korean - the differences that crop up when one of the two conversing/converting cultural horizons changes are great (and gave me a handful of flails).

    Also, I need banmal detection skills. (Conversely, the GER X Files translation and dubbing team (the German broadcaster's official one) missed the train on that issue in teh 90s. Mulder and Scully address one another with "Sie" almost all the way trhough, teh switch to "Du" coming out of nowhere in season 8. It's the weirdest, most off-putting shit)

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    1. I totally agree about the structural similarity between German and Korean. And some with pronoun usage/honorifics. Hence, I took easily to German grammatically, but horribly with the vocab (all the gendered nouns... is the table masculine, feminine, or neuter. Can't remember to save my life.)

      The banmal endings are shorter. They lack "---yo" or "---nida" or variations of those.

      - anaisanais

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  6. Thanks for this extremely interesting look into the world of subbing kdramas. Thanks to their tireless work, we get to enjoy a whole world that wouldnt have been open to us. For someone like me who has been watching kdramas exclusively for 2.5 years, i am really grateful.

    Enz

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    1. One more thing. This post really makes me want to check out tamra. Again, i tried a little bit of it a long time ago but didnt pass epi 1. I should have more perseverance :)

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  7. I was just discussing the different subtitling approaches with a friend yesterday. I loved the insights from these subbers. I'm always torn on the fan sub/professional sub issue. On the one hand, I love the passion and care that fan subbers put into their subtitles. On the other hand, I have some experience in translation, and I know how time-consuming and difficult it can be. I kind of feel like they deserve to get paid for all of that time and effort, even if they're willing to do it for free.

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  8. Thank you Amanda for organising such insightful interviews. It really opened my eyes to an intelligent and fascinating subbing world that I was previously ignorant about. Thank you Viki subbers I hope you will continue to find joy and satisfaction in the work that you do!

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  9. Amanda, anaisanais here. I sent you the answer to the last question you asked late last night. You probably didn't see it before you published this post, but I thought you'd be curious about the answer so I'm posting it here.



    The episode 6 question about who need not lie to whom.

    Actually, when I first watched it before the subs were done, I thought Seon Jae was trying to tell her that she didn't need to lie to him since he was sincerely into her. It followed his calling her out on trying to come across as an adult and put distance between them. I thought he was trying to reassure her. That she did not need to lie or be afraid.

    However, now that I watch it again, I realize he's saying that HE doesn't need to lie to her. The key to who needn't lie to whom is who doesn't need to be scared. It is he who says there's nothing for HIM to be afraid of.

    All this begins with his assertion to her that he can do something well. She then asks him "Do what?" And he replies, "Not getting intimidated." So, it is HE who need not be afraid, hence he who does not need not lie because he is 100% sincere about his feelings for her.

    Hope that clarifies that exchange.

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    1. Thanks anaisanais.

      Enz

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    2. Thank you, Anais! I missed your note about this. I've updated the post so this last question is included.

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  10. Hi Amanda, I read the tumblr post about 'half-casual speech' note I inserted in one of the subs for Ep 11 and would like to explain what that's about. There are different kinds of banmal. There's 1. the rude kind, 2. the kind used by an older person to a younger person, 3. the kind used by a younger person to an older person, etc.

    And then there's... the kind that is not always intended to be used as banmal by the person who spoke it, but the other person may and oftentimes do take it as banmal and take offense. You know how most jondaemal has 'yo' at the end, and banmal doesn't? Sometimes this 'yo' gets omitted in a sentence either intentionally or unintentionally. Unintentional omission of 'yo' could happen when you stop talking in the middle of a sentence. (I sometimes find myself do that when I'm talking and it feels like the other person is distracted and no longer listening, I kind of stop talking at a mid-sentence, therefore, not finishing it with 'yo' or other proper verb endings for jondaemal, but it turns out the other person was actually listening and ends up thinking I used banmal to him/her. I try not to do that since I've gotten myself into trouble for that) Or you're being lazy or a little annoyed that you end up truncating a sentence, thus omitting 'yo'. Sometimes you may deliberately and furtively omit 'yo' 'cause you want to use banmal for various reasons but don't want to sound too rude by using flat out banmal. I felt that SJ used this kind of slight banmal on those three occasions in Ep 11 & 12. Sorry if this sounds too confusing. Others may have a different opinion on banmal.

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  11. Thank you for sharing your insights, Anonymous and anaisanais! And thank you for your hard work, especially in SLA. :)

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  12. Wonderful post Amanda!!! Thank you so much for contacting the subbers. I have so much respect for them because I've had some extensive experience with translation work and I have no idea how the Viki subbers in particular sub so dang fast!!! Something I've noticed as well both in translating things myself and from watching things with subtitles for decades is that there really can never be a word for word translation, but at the same time, there is enough in the common experience of humanity and life that we can catch the essence of things, but especially so with the excellent work of amazing subbers.

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  13. I thank you, Amanda, as well. Without the subbers, good or bad, I wouldn't have a clue most of the time. When I was in Korea 2 years ago and King 2 Hearts was just airing I watched it without subtitles and I had an idea of what was going on but once you get into a drama you REALLY need to know.

    Thank you subbers!

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  14. A great, informative read. Thank you!

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  15. Thanks so much for conducting these interviews, they're so insightful. I think a lot of people tend to take subs for granted and start demanding them faster, but they don't realize the amount of effort that goes into each line. I've also come to rely on Viki more than other sites, and I just recently cancelled my paid subscription to one because just through picking up the language by watching dramas, I realized how much I was missing out on (and I also gave that feedback when I cancelled). I understand the desire to make things understandable to international audiences, but there is such a thing as too much westernization with the English subs.

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  16. Thank you so much for contacting the subbers. I have admired and wondered how the heck it all works in subbing world. I watch on Viki and the other subscription site and often prefer the Viki translations as they seem more true to the characters. I too have been watching each episode of SLA on both sites.

    Do these teams and team leaders only communicate through email? I imagine a conference video call to hash out some translation issues would be useful.
    When I tell friends about Viki and the subbers in numerous languages, they are surprised at the dedication and talent of these volunteers. I can't thank them all enough for bringing all of these amazing dramas to the world.

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  17. What a great article. It's really fascinating to get a peak into the process of subbing and learn a bit about a few of the amazing people that give freely of their time just so we can enjoy watching Asian dramas. The only bad part about the article was that it hammered home how truly difficult it would be to learn Korean on even a casual level. The more I look into it the less likely it seems that I could learn much on my own.

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    1. Korean is very easy to start to learn. The alphabet is so easy that most people can master it within half a day, a day at most. So, it becomes super easy to learn to read.

      The vocab is like vocab anywhere. Just gotta grit your teeth and learn them. The nice part is that Korean's Chinese etymology comes in super-handy. It's similar to Latinate words except even more straightforward, so it's far easier to leverage whatever prior knowledge gained.

      The difficulty for an English speaker lies in mastering the grammar. My sister offered this comparison: learning the various levels of honorifics is as difficult as mastering Russian's 12 different cases (?). However, so long as you ignore the honorifics and stick with the easiest, most informal verb conjugation, even that's not so bad.

      I know a Bulgarian kid who learned Korean simply by watching Korean dramas for the past 1.5 yrs. He's not completely fluent but he can carry on simple dialogue.

      So if you're interested in learning Korean, I say go for it! So many of the Viki veterans are retired English-speaking non-Koreans. - anaisanais

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    2. I am going to give it a go this summer. My biggest problem is overthinking it. I have a feeling that kid will put my 36 year old mind to shame, though.

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    3. I have been learning Korean for 2 and a half years. I will be honest, it's not easy. I did French as a schoolkid (it was super easy), I studied Russian as a hobby many years ago (tough language but not insurmountable), but Korean is on a different level. It's easy enough to get the very basic start (learning Hangul, some vocabulary and a tiny bit of grammar), but when you get further and further into the language, you realise just how little you know. My tutor told me I am at early Intermediate level, but I sometimes feel I know nothing. However, saying that, I was in Korea last month, and had ample opportunity for lots of practise (after leaving Seoul I went to Sokcho in Gangwon-do and Danyang in Chungchoenbuk-do, nobody, and I really mean nobody, spoke English there) and it turns out I actually know more Korean than I realised. I was able to order food, buy tickets, etc., ask for directions when I was lost and so on. So, if you are so inclined to, go for it. I don't regret for one minute choosing to learn Korean, and I have no intention of stopping.

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  18. Really appreciated the in-depth interviews you did with these subbers. It is fascinating that they can sub SLA so fast. I'm usually so impatient when a new episode comes out that I'll watch it even when it's not 100% subbed. And when I rewatch it the next day, I can see that the editors have polished and fine-tuned the subs so it's even more enjoyable. Thank you, Viki subbers!

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  19. WOW! Finally someone said something that I've been shouting out loud for ages but felt like no one even gave it a mind! Thanks Amanda! ^^* b

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  20. I'm also a subber at viki, but in my case, I sub from english to my language, and this helped me respect and thank the subbers a LOT. One person might think ''translating isn't that hard'' but that isn't true, sometimes, one episode of one hour long might take a entire afternoon. As I work alone on episodes, it takes lots of times - sometimes I don't know which word is the best to convey what the english subs are telling, and so I have a hard time - I also re-watch the episodes later to see If I got the message right and this is what characters wanted to express. I always get a bit shocked when I see some friends translating the lines without getting its meaning and making the translation without logic and robotic.

    I started to sub to my language to make my english better, also my grammar better, it is really helpful but also stressful.

    I do wish to understand Korean but I watch korean dramas for years and still can't understand full lines... maybe I'm just not good at learning new languages.

    I did want to learn korean after watching tree with deep roots, it made it seem to easy to learn hangul...

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    1. Oh honey, hangeul is definitely easy - very easy - to learn. It's hangukeo, the language itself, that's challenging. Start with the hangeul. That'll give you a way in. Much easier than trying to learn by starting from the language in its totality.

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  21. Hello, We've created a blog to analyze and archive SLA and related materials like interviews and scripts. May we reblog this wonderful subber interview?

    I hope you'll come visit us. We're just getting started but there are some neat things already up like PD Ahn interview translations.

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    1. I've visited your blog may times already! I first heard about your site on the SLA Soompi forum, and really appreciate everything you're doing to bring together interesting extras about the show. The script translations are incredibly wonderful.

      Definitely feel free to reblog these interviews, but please do site this blog as the source.

      Good luck!

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  22. Thank you so much! I'm glad you like it. We have quite a few things to tranlsate and edit, including more scripts, so keep coming back.

    We will defintely give you credit. This piece was a perfect addition to the SLA experience.

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