Get the balance right – Last Thursday I was part of a discussion program on Arirang TV. It was my first time on TV, but it wasn’t live, so it wasn’t that bad. Not to say that I wasn’t nervous. I was extremely nervous. I always get very nervous before speaking in front of people, and I guess this applies even if the people watching me aren’t going to be there for another two weeks or so.
This is kind of embarrassing to admit, but I was also nervous because the program is in English. I don’t usually speak English, even though I read and write a good deal of it, so I tend to feel very self-conscious when I have to speak it. See, if I screw up in Korean, I can always fall back on the whole “second language” excuse, but for some reason I am terrified of messing up in my native language. I try to tell myself that native English speakers screw up all the time—in fact, native English speakers in high places screw up on a daily basis—but the irrational fear remains. Anyway, enough of my neurosis. Back to the story.
A day or two before the taping I was sent a list of fifteen questions that the host would ask the three guests. I would be answering six of them, and I printed them out and actually took notes on what I wanted to say in response to each question. Not necessarily because I was afraid I would forget what to say, but because I have a tendency to carry on (something any regular reader of this site will already know, of course). Taking notes would hopefully help me to keep my answers concise and on target.
I decided to drive into Seoul rather than take public transportation. I try to avoid driving in Seoul when possible, but it was a hot day, and it was going to be kind of a pain in the neck to get where I had to go via public transportation. Also, my wife had to go to Gangnam, which is not too far away from Arirang TV, so she decided to come with me. We weren’t sure how bad the traffic would be around Yangjae Station so we left early, and I ended up arriving at 2:00 for a 3:00 taping.
I was supposed to arrive a half hour early for makeup, but the makeup process ended up taking only about five minutes. The rest of the time I chatted with the staff, looked over my notes, and waited for the host and the other guests to arrive. One of the other guests I already knew (he’s a professor here, and we met through the Korea Literature Translation Institute), and the other I was meeting for the first time. When they arrived I made sure to practice my English to get my tongue warmed up.
We started taping a little bit later than scheduled, but overall things went according to plan. When we walked into the studio I suddenly felt a sense of familiarity. During university, I was a cameraman for the school television station for a semester, so I spent quite a bit of time behind the cameras. It was my first time actually being in front of the cameras, but the similarity of the setup relaxed me immediately.
The program is only thirty minutes long, and I knew that wasn’t a lot of time, but I hadn’t realized how short it really was. We only got to about half of the questions in the original script, and I ended up answering three. The first one I could have answered in my sleep: how did I get involved in translating? It’s the story I tell every time someone asks me this question, and it’s already kind of covered in my background story, so I won’t go into it here. The third question was about a translation I had done (Yeom Sangseop’s Mansejeon, which hasn’t been published yet). I had taken the most notes on this question, but before I even got halfway through what I wanted to say, the host gave me the “wrap it up” look, and I sped up the pace and kind of tumbled into some semblance of a wrap up. At least, that’s what it felt like. If I could do it again, I would stick to a few key points and leave out the rambling, but such is life.
The second question was one that wasn’t in the script. It was a variation on one of the questions, I guess, but it was a big enough variation to make me scrap the original answer I had planned and go with something else. The question was, “What do you think is the hardest part about translating?” It’s one of those questions that you hate because, well, what is the hardest part about translating? I mean, there are a lot of hard parts. In fact, it’s pretty much just a collection of hard parts. So I had to actually think about that for a moment before answering.
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but the basic concept that was going through my head at the time was balance—that is, the balance between fidelity to the original and responsibility to your target audience. Ideally, you want to convey all the meaning and subtleties of the original in a form that is easily digestible by your target audience. In reality, getting one hundred percent of both ends is impossible, and translation becomes a process of deciding how to balance the two. How much weight you give to each end depends on the type of translating you are doing. Some translation requires absolute accuracy, and in that case you sacrifice the readability of the finished product in order to include the subtleties of the original text.
Literature—and much translation, in fact—is not like that. I’ve always believed that if the original is a piece of literature, the translation should be a piece of literature as well. Depending on how you feel about the role of the translator, this may seem a bit daunting, if not presumptuous. A Korean translator I admire likened the role of the translator to that of a window, meaning that we should be as clear as glass and allow the beauty of the original to shine through. That’s actually a lot harder than it sounds, but the point is that we shouldn’t allow ourselves—our psyche, our voice, our style—to contaminate the translation.
It’s almost paradoxical—we want to be invisible, to be as unnoticeable as possible, yet doing so requires far more effort than just stealing the show. I guess it’s like being an animator. My wife and I recently bought The Incredibles on DVD, at my insistence. I hadn’t seen it before, but I had heard so many good things about it that I felt pretty confident about buying it sight unseen. And it blew me away. I was expecting a good animation, but I was not expecting a good “film”—yet it ended up being both. The funny thing was that I was so engrossed in the story that I barely noticed the animation. Then, when we watched the “making of” videos on the second disc, I was surprised to hear the animators talk about how hard it was to do this thing or that. I watched the movie again to catch some of these things, but I got so wrapped up in the story again that I think I missed the half of it. I tried listening to one of the commentary tracks, but I found myself having to continuously go back because I was concentrating on the movie and had missed the commentary.
Anyway, it was an... ahem... incredible flick, but the point is that the animation was so well done that it allowed the great story to shine through. Had the animation been below par, it would have interfered with the story’s ability to affect the audience. In that way, I think animation is very similar to translation—if it is done right, you shouldn’t notice it. This philosophy is very much target-oriented—that is, the focus is on the target audience rather than the original language.
The territory I am entering here is riddled with land mines. Every translator has their own philosophy, with some taking centrist views and others gravitating toward the extremes. I guess I would have to say I’m more extremist in my philosophy, but I try not to be a zealot (uh, you know, except for days like today). I believe that if there is anything sacred in translation, it is the finished product. My logic is that my target audience does not read Korean—if they did, they wouldn’t need a translation—and thus the only access they will have to the original is through my translation. Yes, this is simplistic (there are, for example, readers of Korean who may not be proficient enough to read the entire work but can still access it on a basic level), but I think the basic reasoning holds.
Not all translators (and when I say “translators,” I am talking about the translators I’ve had experience with here, namely Korean-English translators and, to a lesser extent, translators of Korean into other languages) share this view. To simplify things again, there are two basic camps: the target-oriented camp and the source-oriented camp. I’m not saying that this is true one hundred percent of the time, but I’ve found that target-oriented translators are usually foreigners, and source-oriented translators are usually Korean. It makes sense if you think about it—each side is more sensitive to their own native language.
These two camps—that is, foreign translators and Korean translators—don’t always see eye to eye. Korean translators claim that foreign translators don’t understand Korean well enough to fully appreciate the original, while foreign translators claim that Korean translators don’t speak the target language well enough to produce a convincing translation. Both are unfair generalizations, of course, but they do obviously contain some truth.
A solution that the translating community came up with was something called “team translating.” I’ve never done it, but the idea is that two people collaborate on a translation. I’m not sure how this is supposed to work in reality, to be honest. I did receive one request to do team translation, and apparently the plan was for my Korean partner to do an initial translation and then I would do the English version. I didn’t have time to translate a book at the time, so I declined, and then they said something along the lines of, “Oh, well, you won’t have to actually translate the book, you’ll be working off an existing translation.” My reply to this was something along the lines of, “And you think that it would somehow be easier for me to decipher some mangled translation and try to put it into readable English than it would be for me to just do the translation myself?” I never was able to make them understand my point—apparently they couldn’t fathom the idea that it would be easier for me, a foreigner, to read the Korean original than it would be for me to read an English translation, no matter how butchered.
Sorry, got carried away there. But that little rant has been sitting in my maw for the past few months, so I think it’s good that I finally got that out in the open. Besides, there’s no host here giving me “wrap it up” looks. Anyway, team translating is absurd. Rather than taking the best of both worlds, it ends up taking the worst of them. You have a Korean translator who obviously is not skilled enough in English to produce a professional translation (otherwise they would be doing it by themselves) trying to cram all of the subtleties of the original into a language that is not their own. Then the foreign translator (who most likely does not know Korean, or at least does not know Korean well enough to fully appreciate the original) comes along and works off a mangled shadow of the original, producing something that may look pretty, depending on the skill of the foreign translator, but will most likely be a pretty poor translation.
The reason that team translation doesn’t work is that translation is very much the product of one psyche. Translation takes place on the semantic level, not the syntactic level. In other words, it’s about meaning, not words. What a translator has to do, ideally, is abstract the meaning from the original language and transfer it to the target language—a process that can only occur inside the head. This can’t be done physically because in order to express meaning we need to use language. But once you express it in language again it becomes something else, even if only subtly. Thus, when the Korean translator does the initial translation, something is already irretrievably lost—and the poorer their English, the more that is lost.
Yeah, I’m still ranting. Did I fake you out up there with that little apology for ranting? I bet you thought it was over. Well, I’ve got to be honest with you: this whole entry is pretty much one big rant from here on out. I haven’t even gotten to what I actually wanted to say in this entry, so you’d better just pop some corn and make yourself comfortable. No worries if you fall asleep halfway through—I’ll be here when you wake up.
Anyway, back to the balance. As I mentioned above, I believe the hardest part of translation may be in finding the balance between source and target. Also as I mentioned above, the balance will depend on what type of translation you are doing. To put it another way, it depends on your intended audience and their expectations for the translation.
To take a concrete example, I am (still) translating a book on the history of Korean literature. It is an academic text, so when the term “yangban” appears in the original, I leave it as is. I do this because the yangban are very important to the history of Korean literature, and because a little explanation and context will allow me to introduce the term without losing my audience. My intended audience is an academic one that will most likely be at least somewhat familiar with Korean history and literature, and even if they do not know that the yangban are the traditional aristocrats of Korea, it is something they should know (because if they’re not at least interested in Korean studies, they’re not going to be reading this book), so I have no qualms about introducing the term.
I am also translating an historical novel that deals with the first Korean immigrants in Mexico. One character is a yangban, and he and his family figure very prominently in the novel. But you will not see the word “yangban” appearing in this translation. I translate the word as “aristocrat” and leave it at that. Why? Because my audience is different, and their expectations are likely going to be different. The novel is not aimed at an academic audience, and even if some academics do end up reading it, translating “yangban” as “aristocrat” is not going to ruin the experience for them. On the other hand, someone with no deep knowledge of Korean history but who is still interested in Korean literature (or simply interested in reading a good story) can pick up the book and understand what is going on.
This may seem rather obvious, but I’ve heard Korean translators argue that certain Korean terms should not be translated. And I’m not talking about things that most foreigners are already familiar with, like kimchi. Although I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, I do remember being flabbergasted when I heard these arguments. It’s as if they believe that the function of translation is to educate people on Korea, and part of that is to introduce them to Korean terms that could just as easily be translated. (I suppose I should note at this point that these were not experienced translators who were making this argument.) If you’re dealing with an academic or specialist audience, I can sympathize with the argument, but not when you’re talking about literature. Literature is art, and unless it’s didactic literature, it is not primarily a vehicle of enlightenment. Trying to make it so demeans and devalues it, and will also most likely turn off potential readers who get lost in the translation.
There is a museum, not too far from where I live, called the Korean Deungjan Museum. I’ve never been there, but I once translated an article on it, and I pass a sign for it every Sunday on my way to and from church. I grit my teeth every time I see the sign, and at least once every few months I rant about it to my wife, who humors me for some reason. I remember when I translated the article and next to the name of the museum in the original was “Korean Deungjan Museum” in parentheses. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said aloud. When an English term appears in parentheses, especially when it’s the name of an institution, it means that it’s already been translated and I have to stick to the standard (sometimes it’s just the author trying to be helpful, but I’ve learned to distinguish these instances and ignore them when necessary). I tell you, I nearly ground my teeth into a powder translating that article.
Those of my readers who do not speak Korean will have absolutely no idea what the “Korean Deungjan Museum” is, and I have deliberately not explained it yet to give you an idea of my frustration. It is a perfect example of the philosophy I mentioned above, that translation is a vehicle for educating people about Korea. Every time I see this sign I want to punch someone, mainly whoever thought it was more important that foreigners see the term “deungjan” than that they have any clue about what the museum displays. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. If I were driving along in a strange country and I saw a sign for a museum that used a local term for its contents—and provided no other clue to its meaning—I would be less likely to say, “Cool! A gibberish museum! Let’s go check it out!” than to say, “Huh?” and just keep driving.
Here’s the bottom line: translation is ultimately for the person reading the translation. The audience is the ultimate measuring stick, not any ideas about what aspects of Korean culture the translation should convey. If you stay out of the way of the original (in other words, be invisible) and produce a quality, readable translation, whatever might be conveyable will be conveyed. As for the things that don’t get conveyed—and there will undoubtedly be things that don’t get conveyed—well, you weren’t going to get them across anyway, and trying to do so only hurts the translation and makes the experience less pleasant and rewarding for the reader.
The Reader is my god. The target language is the altar upon which I burn my translations, hoping that the fragrance of the smoke will be pleasing in the nostrils of the Reader. I realize that this might sound like heresy, since faithfulness to the original is one of the primary tenets of any type of translation. But I would argue that, in most cases, these two are not mutually exclusive. That is, being faithful to the reader does not necessarily mean not being faithful to the original. It does, however, mean that the reader takes precedence over the original.
Now, before you get your torches and pitchforks, let me explain. As I said above, translation takes place on the semantic level, not the syntactic level. Often, meaning is intertwined with language in such a way that the two can never fully be separated. Even simple words, like “table” in English and “takja” in Korean, may conjure up different images in the minds of those who can understand them. Here’s a better example: most Koreans draw a distinction between “bunhong” and “pink”—yet if you look up “bunhong” in any Korean-English dictionary it will say “pink.” I’ve asked Koreans to describe the difference between “bunhong” and “pink,” and I’ve noticed that they usually don’t address the actual colors, they talk about what emotions or images the colors evoke. If I press them for an actual, visual difference, they will admit that the colors are basically the same, but they just feel different. In other words, their conception of the color is not based on visual input, but on symbolism or meaning expressed in language. They may describe the same color as “bunhong” or “pink,” depending on the context in which it appears. A traditional Korean dress, for example, would never be called “pink,” and a modern party dress would most likely not be described by the word “bunhong” (although the latter is more likely than the former).
This idea is interesting, but not controversial. What is controversial is how translators react to the fact that language and meaning often cannot be fully separated. Those translators who see the original text as sacred will do anything and everything in their power to see that the meaning of the original is not harmed—even if it means forgoing translation and simply transplanting the original language in foreign soil. This is what happened with the Korean Deungjan Museum. The original translator was so concerned with conveying all the subtleties and nuance evoked by “deungjan” that he or she ended up ignoring the whole purpose of translating the name. Does it lose some of the nuance and subtlety if you translate it as the “Korean Oil Lamp Museum”? Probably, since the image evoked in most foreigners’ (or at least Westerners’) minds by “oil lamp” is not the same as the image evoked in a Korean mind by “deungjan.” But the translator was never going to be able to convey that in the first place, and attempting to do so only rendered the translation utterly useless.
(Slight tangent here. I Googled for “korean deungjan museum” (no quotes, and for some reason capitalization changes the results) while I was revising this entry, and the first result is, in fact, the English page for the museum. Next to the word “DEUNGJAN” in the excerpt is the parenthetical “Ancient Korean Lighting Tool.” Another page from the same site says: “Deungjan is an ancient lighting source.” Gah! It’s an oil lamp, for crying out loud! Yeah, it may be a Korean oil lamp, but it’s still an oil lamp! This kind of thinking, that words like “deungjan” are somehow sacred in and of themselves, is harmful to translation.)
I’ve been concentrating a lot on the reader, but I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t care about the original. If I invest the time and effort to translate a work of literature, for example, you can be sure that I care deeply about the original. I chose to translate it because it moved me, because it spoke to me, or because it was just a great read (or because of all of the above). And this is the effect I want my translation to have on readers. If they enjoy the translation as much (or nearly as much) as I enjoyed the original, then I’ve done my job well. I’ve become invisible, and I’ve let the beauty of the original shine through.
But once I start looking at the original as a sacred text, things change. Traditionally, sacred texts were revered not only in spirit but in letter—that is, the very words used to convey the meaning were considered as sacred as the meaning itself. Naturally, those who felt this way believed that sacred texts were technically untranslatable, or at least that the translations were not sacred like the originals. Translators who see their original text as sacred get too caught up in the words and often forget about the meaning and other metalinguistic factors. To borrow a common saying, they miss the forest for the trees.
The examples I gave above—yangban, deungjan, bunhong—are somewhat extreme examples. That is, the choice was between preserving the original language or abandoning it in favor of a target language approximation. Sometimes the choice is more obvious than other times—find me a sober translator worth a lick anywhere on this planet, and they will likely agree with me that the “Korean Deungjan Museum” is a mockery of our profession. Most of the time the choice is not so blatantly clear (after all, for most normal people, “deungjan” vs. “oil lamp” is not really even a choice), but it’s still pretty much black and white. Either you preserve the original term and rely on supplementary explanation and/or context, or you translate it and accept the fact that you can’t convey every nuance.
There is another, more subtle aspect to the forest/trees issue, though. It’s not about making choices on a word-to-word basis, it’s about the basic approach to translation. Those who consider the original text sacred will try to squeeze every word in the original into the translation. This is known as “literal” translation, and is about as far as you possibly can get from “literary” translation. It is a failure to recognize that the value of a work lies not in the words themselves, but in the meaning conveyed by the words.
Ideally, what a translator wants to do is read the original text, abstract all the meaning and nuance on some metalinguistic level, wipe the original from his or her mind, and then produce the translation. In reality, I’m not sure if it is even possible to reach this metalinguistic state, at least on a conscious level. The closest I’ve been able to come has been to think “How would I say this phrase/sentence in English?” rather than “What does this word mean in English?”
In the end, when it comes down to a choice between trying to salvage some nuance from the original, no matter how awkward it may make the translation, and sacrificing that nuance to produce a good translation, I will always choose the latter. I will try my hardest to convey as much of the original as possible, but once the original becomes an impediment to communication, I have to put my foot down. This is actually quite a development in my thinking since when I first started translating, when I worshipped at the altar of the original text.
I know that I haven’t said anything today that I haven’t said here before, but I don’t think I’ve ever said it quite like this, or least organized it in this way. And even if I have, well, I just needed to carry on. Besides, I got to talk a little bit about The Incredibles, which I really wanted to work into this entry somehow because it rocked. And I got to talk about getting nervous for no reason whatsoever, which is always fun (talking about it, that is, not the actual getting nervous part). Oh, and if any masochistic readers out there feel like torturing themselves by watching me babble incoherently on television, drop me a line and I’ll let you know when the show is on. I don’t know why, but I feel kind of funny about posting any specifics here. Maybe it’s because I’ll feel better when no one asks me about it and then I’ll know that no one will be watching me, except maybe by accident.
Anyway, that’s all for today. My wife and I will be leaving for Jeju Island tomorrow afternoon, so that should be fun. I’m hoping to take a lot of photos that I will probably end up posting this winter. If timeliness and not cleanliness were next to godliness, I would be in serious danger of hellfire and brimstone.