Can Love Be Translated?

The above is the Korean translation of the title for Lost in Translation translated back into English. The meaning is a little different.

Part of my department’s job is to translate English news articles about our company into Korean so the heads of the different divisions know what the English-speaking world is saying about the company. I also collect articles in other languages (mainly Spanish and Russian, sometimes Chinese, Dutch, and Greek) but these are not passed on. The team that does the translating is usually pretty good at separating the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes they need to check the meaning of an economic term or idiom with me, but since the latter is very rare in a news article they tend to do a good job on their own.

The other members of the department have to translate an article from Newsweek or whatever that is called now, Time, Bloomberg/Businessweek, billionaire celebrity magazine Forbes, and The Economist. Usually the article is chosen because it’s the cover story and this means that sometimes it isn’t relevant to any part of our business; quite the accomplishment because we build everything except cars (yeah, that’s the other Hyundai). Still, the point is for my coworkers to practice their English translation skills. In this situation my job is like that of the guy with the shovel walking behind the parade. Hi mum!

My coworker was translating an article about changes in China’s Communist Party (Bloomberg Businessweek “Xi Jiping is No Fun”) that mentioned Yang Dacai. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison for taking bribes and owning a large amount of property which he couldn’t account for based on his salary. Chinese netizens noticed the large number of luxury watches he wears, and wondering how someone on a salary like his could afford such expensive luxury items, dubbed him ‘Brother Watch’. Click for more info on Brother Watch. Of course, this means the English media decided to do the same thing (it’s pertinent to the story, yo!) and that means my coworker needed to translate this into Korean. I suppose 시계 오빠 sikye oppa would work but now we have the quandary of purity of form versus purity of essence. Yes, Starcraft is a relevant reference.

Purity of form
Purity of form

Purity of form is when you translate something word-for-word. When I was studying Chinese poetry and philosophy, it was helpful to translate a text word-for-word, and even though Chinese has a grammar structure similar to English (usually Subject-Verb-Object), the first translation still ended up sounding like gibberish. With Korean, the word order is usually Subject-Object-Verb so a literal translation can actually make understanding the meaning of the sentence many times more difficult. Then there’s the way articles are written in Korean: one paragraph is typically one long sentence. This doesn’t work in English.

Purity of essence
Purity of essence

I usually go for purity of essence since it’s far more important to keep the original meaning intact than to keep the original structure intact. For straight news stories this isn’t usually a concern as most reputable news sources do not add any bells and whistles to their articles but only the basic information (ie, quality over quantity). It’s only when we need to translate some idiom or reference the writers added to show off their intelligence and to signal to their readers they too are of equal intelligence that we run into problems.

The print version of the Bloomberg article has the title ‘The party’s over for the Party’, which my coworker translated to 정당을 위한 죽제는 끝났다. I’m glad she did it this way instead of trying to stay pure to form because the Korean words for political party and celebration party are completely different. Her translation is perfectly pure of essence, though.

My advice to my coworkers is to look up the meaning of the idiom or phrase; they usually ask me what something means instead of using Google because it’s easier (“Hey George, what’s feline anal gland expression?”); and then see if there is a similar phrase or idiom in Korean. If there isn’t one, then the next best thing to do is to translate the meaning of the idiom. This usually means they will go to Naver and just use whatever Naver says. Naver 네이버 is how Koreans say ‘neighbour’ so the information on Naver is about as reliable as what you’d expect from someone sporting a beer gut and truckie singlet. Click for more info on truckie singlets.

In the first paragraph, we had to separate the wheat from the chaff‘. One of the translations from naver is to grind wheat into flour. Another translation says it’s to discern between real and not real (pretty sure both wheat and chaff are things that exist) or between good and evil. Without context, one is lost in translation.

Extra Notes

Thanks for reading this far down. Send me your details and I’ll send you some cookies. The closer you are to Ulsan the quicker you’ll get your cookies 🙂

Truckie Singlet: In Oz, the truckie singlet is blue. A white singlet is just a singlet, though some call them after the company famous for making them. North Americans call the white ones ‘wife beaters‘. Not sure if there’s a different name for blue ones.

Brother Watch: Last year Yang Dacai also earned the nickname ‘Smiling Official’ (微笑官员 wéixiào guānyuán) because of photos taken at the scene of an accident between a bus and a methanol tanker (36 people died). He was likely smiling out of embarrassment or confusion, not glee. He was also smiling when his sentence was handed down, and pretty sure that wasn;t a happy smile. Of course, this doesn’t match the preselected narrative of corrupt and unrepentent Chinese officials the English media likes to report about. Or perhaps, its better if we think he is smiling out of glee because that way we can say he is nothing like us.

2 thoughts on “Can Love Be Translated?

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