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17 May 2010

Foreignness in translation – Last Friday I was a discussant at the Korean Studies & Translation Spring Seminar, sponsored by my school and by the Interpreting and Translation Research Institute. I was part of a three-person “panel” (that’s in scare quotes because the three of us went up and made our comments separately, one at a time) commenting on the three papers that made up the second half of the seminar. I won’t go into too much detail, but I will say that one of the papers dealt with translation errors, and that was the paper that I decided to focus my comments on.

“It is one thing to be accessible; it is quite another thing to be sterilized.”

There was one translation error that has stuck in my mind, and it has really had me thinking. The original passage in question was as follows (I don’t usually quote Korean directly in my journal entries, but I’m going to do it here. If it comes out as gibberish, you may need to change the character encoding to Korean):

발 없는 말이 천리를 간다고 뒤따라 그 모든 소문이 들어오면 네가 아무리 발뺌을 하여 들어도 어렵겠다.

The translated passage that was under scrutiny was as follows:

You know the saying, “A horse with no legs goes a thousand leagues?” Once the full story gets around, you’re going to have a hard time, no matter what excuse you make.

I’m actually a little curious how those of my readers who can’t read the Korean original will react to the translation, in particular to the part in quotation marks. With my knowledge of the original (and my knowledge of Korean), I can’t really be an impartial judge. But I want to ask you, before you go on and read my explanation, does that quote—a horse with no legs goes a thousand leagues—make sense to you? How do you interpret it? Is it something that would make you stop and scratch your head? I would appreciate any comments on this (although, if you’d like, you can finish reading first).

The saying in the original is something of a pun, and it is based on the fact that the words for “horse” and “words” in Korean are homonyms. The presenter on Friday pointed out this passage as an example of a mistranslation due to a lack of familiarity with the Korean language—in other words, due to the translator mistaking one homonym for another. The problem with this idea is that this translation was actually done by two people, one of them a Westerner who has lived in Korea for many decades and is very familiar with the Korean language, and the other a native Korean speaker. It seems odd that they would make such a beginner mistake—after all, even beginning Korean learners would be able to tell the difference between the two homonyms in context.

The comment I made on this particular “mistranslation” was that perhaps it was not a lack of Korean language skill that led to a mistake, but a deliberate choice on the part of the translators. Why would they make such a choice? Although I obviously have yet to receive any comments, I suspect that readers who are not familiar with the Korean language may find the translation a little odd, at least. But it is possible that the translators felt the saying was explained by the text that immediately followed it—namely that the person being spoken to was going to be in a difficult spot once the rumors got around. Perhaps they thought that this was enough to clue the reader in on the meaning of the saying, and so they decided to try to capture a little bit of the punning flavor of it.

Whether or not this strategy was successful is another story. Like I said before, I have my doubts. If we do consider this to be a less-than-desirable translation, for whatever the reason, what can we write in its stead? The presenter offered one possible translation from a Korean translator, “Words, without the feet, travel a thousand miles,” and his own variation on this, “A word with no legs goes a thousand leagues.” There are slight problems with both (We don’t need “the” in the first, and the lack of commas in the second makes it sounds as if a word with legs might go, say, ten thousand miles), but they strike me as fairly faithful renditions of the original.

But then the presenter went on to say that, while these alternate translations avoided being mistranslations, they were not good translations. His reasoning was: “There will not be many readers in English-speaking countries who will properly understand what (these sentences) mean.” My immediate reaction to this was to think, “Really?” Now, if I had to translate that sentence, I would probably go with something more like, “Though they have no legs, words travel a thousand miles.” Considering what follows this saying in the original, is it unreasonable to assume that a reader with no knowledge of Korean would understand this? I don’t think so.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how prevalent this sort of thinking is when it comes to literary translation in Korea. I have heard this sort of reasoning time and time again, that something in a translated text sounds “too Korean” and thus is awkward. Just a quick reminder here that we are talking about literary translation—if we were talking about technical or any other sort of purely functional translation, I would agree. But this is literature and thus art. While people may read literature for its message, they also read it for its artistry. Style is just as important as content.

Some years ago, I discussed (and by “discussed” I mean “ranted at length about”) the idea of keeping Korean words in the text for the purpose of educating the reader. (Warning: that entry is fairly long and only deals in part with the issue at hand.) This is something slightly different: retaining some element of the “Korean-ness” of the original to give the text flavor. There are those who feel that Western readers are unable to handle any foreignness in their reading. They are not entirely wrong—I’m sure there are Western readers out there who would be put off by foreignness in their texts. Here’s the thing, though: those readers are not going to be reading translated Korean literature—or any translated literature, for that matter—in the first place.

No matter how we try to publicize or sell Korean literature, we have to face the fact that we are selling it to a subset of Western readers, and probably a fairly small subset at that (at least for American readers, I think). It may be discouraging at times to have such a relatively small market, but at the same time I think this allows us to make a couple of general assumptions about our readers. The first assumption we can make is that our readers are looking for something different, something outside the norm for their culture. If they weren’t, they would just read the literature of their home country. The second assumption is an extension of the first: our readers are, at least on some level, interested in Korea. If they weren’t, they would have chosen to read some other translated literature.

Even if you want to argue that we need to make Korean literature as accessible as possible in order to appeal to a wider audience—ignoring the fact that no reader who is not already interested in foreign literature is going to pick up a work of Korean literature at random and decide to read it—this doesn’t mean we should cut out all foreignness. It is one thing to be accessible; it is quite another thing to be sterilized. A good example I like to use with my students is two characters who walk into a restaurant and order soybean paste stew—and then a translator comes along and decides that they should order steak instead, since a Western reader may not be familiar with soybean paste stew.

Granted, this is an extreme example, but the principle is the same. Is soybean paste stew going to be foreign to the Western reader? Maybe, if they have little experience with Korean cuisine. But that’s not really important. It doesn’t matter if they understand exactly what it is, they know it is Korean food, and something that the characters obviously enjoy. Take our original example. Will a Western reader have heard the phrase, “Though they have no legs, words travel a thousand miles”? Probably not. Will they understand what it means? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that yes, they will understand it. You’d have to be pretty dense not to, especially considering the context.

I suppose it’s somewhat ironic that I very rarely read Korean literature in translation. I have, however, read other literature in translation. Last year, for example, I read the novel Blindness by José Saramago, translated from the Portuguese. Let me tell you, that was an eye-opening experience (no pun inten—OK, fine, pun intended). It was not an easy book to read at first, and I’m not talking about the subject matter (although that did get difficult at times). The primary source of this difficulty was the complete lack of quotation marks. Spoken text was marked by capital letters in the middle of sentences, and switches between speakers were often marked by terms of address. Sometimes they weren’t marked at all, though, and it got to be very confusing. It was very uncomfortable at first, completely alien to me, and it made the simple task of reading the book quite difficult. It was very, very foreign. But I did not stop reading. In fact, I could not put the book down. It gripped me tightly, and it did not let go until it was finished. I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed the experience (it’s not really a happy book, although it does have what you could call a happy ending), but it had a profound affect on me. It haunts me even now.

As a reader, foreignness does not turn me off. I’m willing to deal with the foreignness, maybe even relish it for the escape it gives me from the mundane world I inhabit. What turns me off is poor writing, and I’m not even talking about translated literature. I used to be a big fan of “military thrillers,” for lack of a better term. I don’t read them that much anymore, mostly because I don’t have the time, but I still have some paperbacks on my shelf from that genre. Some time ago I decided to pick one up when I decided I needed to give my brain a little break. It wasn’t too long after that I noticed I was physically wincing at certain points, and I realized it was awkward turns of phrase that were causing me to do this. After about a dozen pages I came on one turn of phrase in particular that stopped me dead in my tracks. What it was is not important. What is important is that I closed the book and put it back on the shelf, and didn’t take it down again.

I am nowhere near the best literary translator in the world. In fact, I’m probably nowhere near the best literary translator I could be. But I think that sometimes translators here have a tendency to underestimate their readers. I think our readers can handle more than we give them credit for when it comes to foreignness. In fact, that may even be part of what they are looking for: new foods, interesting sayings, things that are strange—and yet somehow not so strange. What our readers want is good literature, not something that has been sterilized and normalized. All I can hope is that I will be able to play a part in giving it to them.

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