Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Lesson in Cultural Gap through an Exercise of Translation

We all have our own way of passing time when we are stuck in a boring situation. We look around, shift weight on our legs, and daydream. One of the things that the Korean does is to translate everything he sees and hears into different languages that the Korean knows. Most of the time it is English to Korean or Korean to English, with a little bit of Spanish, Chinese, and Latin thrown in.

Because the Korean does this exercise so often (basically every time he rides the subway or gets stuck in traffic, when he is not thinking of something else,) the Korean has gotten pretty good at it – much more so than others who may know both Korean and English fluently, yet do not bother to link the two languages. The Korean not only tries to match the meaning, but tries to match the emotional and evocative content of the original as well.

Recently, Roboseyo put up a beautiful Korean song, which later stuck in the Korean’s head. Accordingly, after the song ran a few times in the Korean’s head, the Korean began translating it in his head, in different variations. Then the Korean decided to write about exactly what went through his head while attempting to translate this song.

The Korean is writing this in order to open up and show a process of crossing the cultural gap. When we read an interpreted text, we are never sure if the translation is completely faithful to the original. We can never be certain that the translation captures everything that the original has meant to capture. This exercise will show exactly what carries over in the process, and what is lost in the process. The song, 찔레꽃, is short yet emotional and evocative, which makes a great case study.

The song was composed, written, and sung by Jang Sa-Ik. First, here is the video of Jang singing the song.



Here is the text of the song.

찔레꽃

하얀 꽃 찔레꽃
순박한 꽃 찔레꽃

별처럼 슬픈 찔레꽃
달처럼 서러운 찔레꽃

찔레꽃 향기는
너무 슬퍼요

그래서 울었지
밤새워 울었지

찔레꽃 향기는
너무 슬퍼요

그래서 울었지
목놓아 울었지

아 찔레꽃처럼 울었지
찔레꽃처럼 춤췄지

찔레꽃처럼 날았지
찔레꽃처럼 울었지

찔레꽃처럼 춤췄지
당신은 찔레꽃

찔레꽃처럼 울었지
당신은

Let us begin the translation. (Note: the words in the video is slightly different from the official lyrics.) The Korean will go paragraph by paragraph, starting with the title.

Title text:
찔레꽃

Initial translation:
Mountain Rose

Thought process:
Is this right? It is according to the dictionary, but the evocative image is completely wrong. Most English speakers have never seen a mountain rose. When they hear “mountain rose”, they would therefore think of the flower as an extension of a rose. In their head, they would run this type of image:


Which is so completely wrong. The beauty of a rose comes from its striking color and the fullness and complexity of its petals’ configuration. But the color of a mountain rose is muted, and its petals are laid out in a single layer, a simple form -- like the following:



Also, “mountain rose” would completely lose the emotional quality of the word 찔레꽃. 찔레 comes from 찌르다, “to prick”. Literally, it’s a “pricking flower”. It’s ironic and sad – a flower that attracts, yet repels! But then again, roses are known for that as well… but the thorns of 찔레꽃 is not nearly as hard or sharp as those of a rose.

Do I want to stay with simple transliteration, Jjillekkot, and let the readers imagine it? But then the flower could become anything, and it would lose a crucial meaning of thorns. Do I want to go with “pricking flower”? That sounds too strong, and too literal. It takes away the subtlety. I’m not happy with this, but that settles it.

Settled on: Mountain Rose.

Text:
하얀 꽃 찔레꽃
순박한 꽃 찔레꽃

Initial translation:
White flower, Mountain Rose,
Innocent flower, Mountain Rose.

Thought process:
Are the commas necessary, although the original text does not have commas? Am I being too condescending for the reader? I think I will stay with them, since the original text does not seem to have an alternate way of reading anyway.

I am pretty confident that “Mountain Rose” has to be capitalized. The original text makes it fairly clear that the mountain rose is a metaphor for a certain person.

The word 순박한 is difficult. My initial thought was “innocent”, but “innocent” sounds like it would describe a child. 순박 entails a little more sophistication; it almost always describes people in the countryside, living a simple life without pretension. Is “simple” the right word? “Simple” doesn’t sound very poetic; it sounds like “basic”, a very dry word. But English-speakers talk about being “simple folks” as well.

The word “white” is surprisingly bland when translated, because it loses the historical reference. Traditional Koreans – living in simple times! – dressed in clear, bright white. Koreans are sometimes known as 백의민족, “the people in white dress”. Starting with the word “white” clearly indicates that this song is really about a person, not a flower.

Is there any way to convey this idea in English? Not really – it would take a longer explanation, destroying the poem. But this at least makes me shift further away from “innocent”. Paralleled with “white”, “innocent” really sounds close to “childlike”. This song is not about a child.

Settled on:
White flower, Mountain Rose,
Simple flower, Mountain Rose.

Text:
별처럼 슬픈 찔레꽃
달처럼 서러운 찔레꽃

Initial translation:
Mountain Rose, sad like a star,
Mountain Rose, doleful like the moon.

Thought process:
The word order is annoying. The word “Mountain Rose” comes at the end of the sentence in both paragraphs, but “Sad like a star, Mountain Rose” initially did not make sense to me. But clearly, this paragraph is about repetition, not about changing the cadence. I think I’ll change the order.

The word “sad” in English also sometimes means “pathetic”, which annoys me. “Sorrowful” would be the perfect fit with respect to its meaning, but does that flow? 슬픈 is juxtaposed to 서러운, which means that the translation for 슬픈 has to be a shorter word than the translation for 서러운. “Sorrowful” and “doleful” are the same length. I don’t think I have a choice – “sad” has to be it.

Is “doleful” the right word for 서러운? A 서러운 person is probably crying, possibly drunk. I really wish I can think of some English texts that had the word “doleful” – I just can’t think of any image associated with the word. It somehow sounds like “depressed”, which is less expressive than 서러운. “Mournful” is another possibility, but that brings in death, which is something else entirely. Again, not happy, but this will have to do.

Settled on:
Sad like a star, Mountain Rose,
Doleful like the moon, Mountain Rose.

Text:
찔레꽃 향기는
너무 슬퍼요

Initial translation:
Mountain Rose scent is
Too sad.

Thought process:
This ruins the cadence. First line is 6 syllables, followed by 5 syllables in the next. In English, the first line is 5 syllables, followed by 2 syllables. Need a longer word than “sad”. I wonder if I can get away with just “Rose” instead of “Mountain Rose”…

Settled on:
Scent of the Rose is
Too sorrowful.

Text:
그래서 울었지
밤새워 울었지

Initial Translation:
So I cried
All night I cried.

Thought process:
This is hard. The original text does not show who cried – I just threw it in there to make sense of it for now.

Korean language does not require a subject in the sentence to be grammatically correct. Korean poets used this feature to deliberately create ambiguity. This flower could be anyone – I, you, the Mountain Rose, any simple Korean dressed in white. Cheating ahead, the last few lines say “You are Mountain Rose”, partly relieving the mystery. But changing to “So you cried” will still destroy the deliberate ambiguity.

How important is this ambiguity? Do I want to preserve it, at the risk of being grammatically incorrect in English? (Not to mention confusing the hell out of readers who are unfamiliar with this type of ambiguity?) But I think the central beauty of this poem lies in this ambiguity. It has to stay. Hopefully some commas will relieve the confusion?

Also, let’s not forget the cadence. The two lines have the same number of syllables. Since “all night” has to stay, find a different word for “so”.

Settled on:
Therefore, cried.
All night, cried.

Text:
찔레꽃 향기는
너무 슬퍼요

Initial translation:
Scent of the Rose is
Too sorrowful

Thought process:
Same as earlier.

Settled on:
Scent of the Rose is
Too sorrowful.

Text:
그래서 울었지
목놓아 울었지

Initial translation:
Therefore, cried.
With all my heart, cried.

Thought process:
Gah! Another tricky Korean word. 목놓아 울었지 would be translated as one English word, “wailed”. Literally it means, “crying by letting your throat go.”

What about “wailed and cried”? It’s redundant, but it fits the cadence. (If you had noticed, the Korean does not even try to rhyme. That’s far too difficult.) That will have to do.

Settled on:
Therefore, cried.
Wailed and cried.

Text:
아 찔레꽃처럼 울었지
찔레꽃처럼 춤췄지

Initial translation:
Ah – cried like Mountain Rose
Danced like Mountain Rose.

Thought process:
Normally, “Ah” is a bit difficult because Koreans say “Ah” in the way Americans say “Oh” – that is, whenever they just realized something. But the “Ah” here is meant to signify the wailing sound. So I will leave it here. I am also getting used to the “no subjects” thing in English. Hopefully the reader will as well.

Settled on:
Ah – cried like Mountain Rose
Danced like Mountain Rose

Text:
찔레꽃처럼 날았지
찔레꽃처럼 울었지

Initial translation:
Flew like Mountain Rose
Cried like Mountain Rose

Thought process:
Finally, an easy line!

Settled on:
Flew like Mountain Rose
Cried like Mountain Rose

Text:
찔레꽃처럼 춤췄지
당신은 찔레꽃

Initial translation:
Danced like Mountain Rose
You are Mountain Rose

Thought process:
Capitalizing "Mountain Rose" pays off here, because "You are the mountain rose" hurts the cadence.

Settled on:
Danced like Mountain Rose
You are Mountain Rose

Text:
찔레꽃처럼 울었지
당신은

Initial translation:
Cried like Mountain Rose
You did

Thought process:
That worked out well.

Settled on:
Cried like Mountain Rose
You did

Done! Let us look at the final product:

Mountain Rose

White flower, Mountain Rose,
Simple flower, Mountain Rose.

Sad like a star, Mountain Rose,
Doleful like the moon, Mountain Rose.

Scent of the Rose is
Too sorrowful.

Therefore, cried.
All night, cried.

Scent of the Rose is
Too sorrowful.

Therefore, cried.
Wailed and cried.

Ah – cried like Mountain Rose
Danced like Mountain Rose

Flew like Mountain Rose
Cried like Mountain Rose

Danced like Mountain Rose
You are Mountain Rose

Cried like Mountain Rose
You did

Final checkup on the finished product:
Doesn't look too bad. Still dislike the fact that all the meaning behind "white" was lost. Still not sure how readers would react to fourth and sixth stanza, which lack the subject in the sentence. But not sure how I could improve -- I can only hope that it makes sense.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------

There you have it. As a closing remark, the Korean would like to make a few points.

1. Translation is hard work. Be grateful to those who do it for you, even if they do not convey everything that they could possibly convey.

2. If you wish to learn about a culture, not knowing the language of the culture is fatal. See how many nuances you are missing in that short little poem turned into English?

3. If you are conversing in a certain language with a person who acquired that language as an adult (for most of AAK! readers, that would be Koreans who learned English later in their years, like the Korean himself,) imagine the hard work of the person you are speaking with. Realize that there are a lot of emotion that the person simply cannot convey fully. Also, realize that at least some of what you say will be lost upon the listener, even if the listener knows the definition of every word you said.

The Korean does not wish to overexaggerate. The fundamental theme of AAK! is that Koreans -- and by extension all humans of all races and culture -- are essentially the same as you and me. We are all people. Cultural gap can certainly be crossed.

But such crossing is, needless to say, imperfect. We lose some things when we cross that bridge. The aspiration behind this exercise was to demonstrate what exactly makes across the bridge, and what gets lost en route.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@hotmail.com.

27 comments:

  1. As an ESL tutor at a university with many Korean students, I found this very interesting.

    There may be some other reason that this wouldn't work, but it seems to me that a participle might work for those verbs with no subject:

    Crying, therefore.
    Wailing and crying.
    Ah - crying like Mountain Rose
    Dancing like Mountain Rose
    Flying like Mountain Rose

    ReplyDelete
  2. English or GTFO!
    jk =)

    Beautiful work!

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is really lovely.

    Thank you for the translation, as well as the reflection on the song.

    Really. Thank you thank you thank you. That's all.

    -Rob

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  4. Sorry about beating my own drum, but I wrote a note on Jang in my own now quiet blog with some info on his background and career. There had been a 3-part article on him in Hankyoreh. This is what he said about the song:

    "That winter went by and spring came. Back then I was living an apartment in Jamsil. One day in May, when leaving the apartment block I felt the fragrance of [tchillekkot] wild rose. I could see only red changmi roses, but the fragrance was different. I looked more closely, and saw the white petals of a shyly blossoming wild rose. It reminded me of my childhood. In the spring we used to eat the white rose petals from the field. The elders said it'll kill insects. The white wild rose cornered behind the red flowers looked so beautiful to me. And I felt the rose was like me: could't stand straight and reach its proper form, but needed to mind others all the time. I felt sad because it seemed so similar to my situation. Just so sad. And I burst into tears. But after letting out my sadness I felt refreshed. Wiping away my sadness, I felt that it was transformed into joy."

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  5. This is thoroughly worthwhile work, and then to read near the end that you learned English later in life; what an example to the rest of us. Thank you!

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  6. I've tried my hand at translating korean to english for money and 3 months hence my hands were up and I gave up. My feeling is that there is no intelletual activity that comes as close as it does to brute physical labor, especially when you're doing it in your job.

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  7. patashoqua,

    participle does work better because grammatically, it does not require a subject. But the original text pretty clearly gives the tense, so the Korean thinks that's not a viable path.

    But the Korean is intrigued by the word order. Perhaps "Cried, therefor. Cried and wailed." sounds better? Maybe the Korean was wrong in trying to stay with the word order. Or maybe the word order for the entire song could change.

    The Korean thanks everyone else for their kind words.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Trying to cross the cultural gap is a wonderful journey.

    AAK!, thanks for posting this, and particularly your hard work with the translation and explanation thereof.

    His performance was, as AAM! would say, muy fantastico - it's unfortunate that I am now interested in things like this but am no longer in Korea, where I could (presumably) go see him.

    You made this gloomy-weathered day a bright one. Thank you again.

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  9. It took me this long to reflect on the gentle humor of a blog which can be called AAK!, especially when I come here looking for a little context and perspective when I'm feeling totally befuddled by life here in Korea as a foreigner.

    Aak!

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  10. I loved this. Thanks for your transcribing your hard work - I am in awe.

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  11. 순박한 - pure?

    I don't have my K/E dictionary with my, but might that fit mo' betta?

    Thanks again

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  12. "pure" is halfway there, but it's functionally the same as "innocent". So the Korean thinks it does not work for the same reason.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Dear Korean,

    This is my first time landing on your site.

    This is truly a thought-provoking post. I am learning Korean (the language) now; my motivation is to be able to watch k-dramas/movies without relying on subtitles. I have seen way too many lousily-subbed dramas and I think this is a disgrace and disrespect to the crew and cast of the drama - meanings were just lost in translation.

    Subbing for a drama perhaps is easier than translating a poem, and I have a lot of respect to those who have done a really nice job.

    After reading your post, I think perhaps I should be less judgemental. Thanks for sharing your translation experience.

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  14. This, I am sure, will make you laugh...

    http://bizfit.new21.net/wordpress/index.php/2010/05/13/funny-zoo-picture/

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  15. Dear Korean, As a former ESL teacher to Koreans (and others) for many years, and avid poetry reader, just a note on how grammar affects your translation: I think you have over-generalized the some-time convention of dropping the subject ("I cried" -> "cried"). We only do it in certain informal contexts, like a brief message or email (as in "Don't want to work today," or "Will call later"), and only when the subject is already totally clear or when using it would be repeating it. Since the the refrain is "Rose... rose..." (and not "I"), You muddy the fact that the one who cried like a rose is "I". Over-generalizing a newly noticed aspect of one's 2nd language is a natural part of the process of assimilating it. And I differ with Patashoqua. I feel you shouldn't soften the verb to a participle; the act is more vivid than the state.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thank you for the suggestion, but the Korean respectfully disagrees with this part: "Since the the refrain is "Rose... rose..." (and not "I"), You muddy the fact that the one who cried like a rose is "I"." In the original text, it is by no means clear that it was "I" who cried like a rose. It could very well be "you". And the deliberate ambiguity in that line is the beauty of this song.

    ReplyDelete
  17. How about translating an English poem or song into Korean?

    ReplyDelete
  18. what about the word "melancholy"

    ReplyDelete
  19. Since lately I've been hooked on the problem Korean/English translations, I thought I'd try my hand at this one as well. I agree with Patashoqua that the "-ing" is probably a good way to translate "-었지". It retains the ambiguity of the subject, but at the cost of losing the past tense of the action.

    I think the repetition of 꽃 and 찔레꽃 is extremely important to convey--it's what gives the song its rhythm. To translate 꽃 as both flower and rose means that repitition is lost.

    To me, 슬픈 and 서러운 are alliterative, and so (mostly by coincidence actually) I add some alliteration using the words stars/sad and moons/miserable.

    Finally, the poem's starts talking about 찔레꽃 and ends on 당신. I think translating 찔레꽃 as plural makes the transition more dramatic, without any loss of fidelity to the Korean.


    thorned flowers

    white flowers
    thorned flowers
    simple flowers
    thorned flowers

    like stars
    the sad thorned flowers

    like moons
    the miserable thorned flowers

    thorned flowers
    the scent so sad

    and the crying
    all night the crying

    thorned flowers
    the scent so sad

    and the crying
    all night the crying

    oh,
    crying like thorned flowers
    dancing like thorned flowers

    flying like thorned flowers
    crying like thorned flowers

    dancing like thorned flowers
    you are
    a thorned flower

    cried like a thorned flower
    you

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hello all, first post for me on 'Ask a Korean'.
    Quick intro of myself.
    I was born in korea and than immigrated to LA when 13 years old. Through some lucky turn of events I ended up going to one of the better UC campuses. I majored in humanities but I am discovering that writing well is hard, and I am not good at it. I sometimes laugh at myself for having thought of about going to law school. Now I work in the IT...

    I also did some translation work for pay briefly (Korean to English) and it is not fun. But I did run into quite a few half baked translation works that I was asked to check, and these were simple product brochure types, not even novels/poems.

    It's great that Korean literature is getting some well deserved recognition in US through the release of translation of the Korean novel 'Please Look After Mom'. In the reviews in NYT and others, the author, Kyung-sook Shin, is well covered. However for this English translation, there was a translator. Luckily I got to read about the translator in a Korean newspaper. She's actually a lawyer practicing in US. She was forced by her parents to write Korean by her Korean immigrant parents often even though she grew up in US. She visited Korean often when young. And because of that, she was able to translate the novel well, thereby allowing the novel to receive the recognition.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Translation sure is a big deal, and I'm glad you've shown us this small demonstration of its inherent chaos. I'm aspiring to learn Korean, but sometimes I wonder if I will ever adopt the emotional content beneath the Korean words in the way that is so easy for me with the nuances and differences of English 'synonyms.'

    Regarding the lines that lack a subject, I think you can get rid of the commas. 'Therefore cried,' sounds a lot better to me than 'Therefore, cried.' The commas, in this case, remind us that something is missing.

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  22. Want to spend a lot more time thinking about this, when I don't have to plan a lesson. :)

    First thought is that "wild rose" would be more likely to evoke the right image, as in this amazing stanza from the Irish ballad "Mountains of Mourne" (where a young man in London for work is writing home to his sweetheart):

    Yes, there's beautiful girls here, but never you mind,
    With beautiful shapes Nature never designed,
    And lovely complexions all roses and cream,
    Oh, but let me remark, with regard to the same:
    That if of those roses you venture to sip,
    The colors might all come away on your lip,
    So I'll wait for the wild rose that's waiting for me
    In the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.


    Still better is "briar rose", which has the advantage of sounding nice as a phrase, and would evoke its use in "Sleeping Beauty" as the pseudonym of the princess when she adopts the disguise of a simple country girl.

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  23. I'll have more comments in a bit with my own attempt.

    The one big problem I have with your version is the copula near the end. "You are Mountain Rose" sounds blunt, like the narrator is revealing the solution to a riddle, which, if he were, would be an incredibly obvious and cliched riddle. That is to say, it seems to insult the intelligence of the listener. English doesn't use this verbless TOPIC-COMPLEMENT construction in ordinary speech like Korean does, but in song it can easily have something like "You, my Mountain Rose", avoid the problem.

    ReplyDelete
  24. My country has a bilingual policy, so everyone needs to learn English (British) and our mother tongue. Since, I'm a Singaporean Chinese, I learned Chinese and English. I speak mandarin (Chinese) at home and use English as a work-language as well as with people who are not Chinese. I have a few friends who are only fluent in English, so they had asked me about my thought process: do I think to myself in English or Chinese? I said tt since I'm fluent in both, it depends on the person tt I'm talking to, if he speaks in English, I will think in English and reply in English. Same applies for Chinese. My friends are really fascinated

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  25. So, I also like to play the game of translation. Changing words tt I see in English to Chinese and vice versa. It doesn't always work and could sound funny. Like "bathroom", if you do a direct translation, it turns into "洗澡室", which is different.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Amazing thought process.....

    ReplyDelete
  27. Here's my translation. The lyrics are slightly different at the end because I used the exact lyrics from Jang Sa-ik's performanc here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hot2jYLoZ_Q

    Wild Rose


    White rose, wild rose
    humble rose, wild rose
    sad like a star, wild rose
    sorrowing like the moon, wild rose

    The scent of the wild rose
    is too, too sad
    and so I cried,
    and wept,letting myself go

    The scent of the wild rose
    is too, too sad
    and so I cried,
    all night long I cried

    White rose, wild rose
    humble rose, wild rose
    sad like a star, wild rose
    sorrowing like the moon, wild rose

    The scent of the wild rose
    is too, too sad
    and so I cried,
    and wept,letting myself go

    The scent of the wild rose
    is too, too sad
    and so I cried,
    all night long I cried


    Ah!
    Cried like the wild rose
    Sang like the wild rose
    Danced like the wild rose
    Loved like the wild rose
    Lived like the wild rose
    Cried like the wild rose
    You, wild rose

    Cried like the wild rose



    ----
    Someone in the comments above suggested "wild rose" and I like this a lot better than mountain rose because it is shorter and thus sounds better; and not only that if you do a Google Image search "wild rose" will bring up many more pictures like 찔레꽃 than "mountain rose."

    Though there is some ambiguity as to the subject because of the common omission of the subject in Korean, the first time that it happens in this song, I don't think it could possibly mean "you" because it says in the lines right before the omission of subject: "the scent of the wild rose/
    is too, too sad" and that is the reason why X cried. Because if, as is revealed at the end, "you" is the wild rose, then would the wild rose have cried because of its own sad scent? It would be more probable that someone else (i.e. speaker, "I") who smells the sad scent would cry.

    ReplyDelete

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