[KS] Korean lost in translation

Lee JooBai jblee6952 at hotmail.com
Thu Oct 14 17:58:45 EDT 2004


Recently, we had a posting decrying the scarcity and quality
of translations of Korean literature and history in Western
languages.  And the panic button appears to have been set
when Korea was honored to be the guest host for the Berlin
Book Fair.

I wonder what criteria would be used to select the materials
for the honor roll?  Would the key words be "universally
meaningful" or "uniquely Korean"?  Or would it be some happy
combination of universal and unique?  Maybe the earlier poster
can clarify?  Would modern romances/melodramas qualify?  Would
the artful redrawing of the historical era qualify?  Would the
inclusion of passages about traditional medicine detract from
the image of Korea as a modern technical powerhouse? Could
works about Kuppies be a valid object of choice?  I would be
amiss not to ask if works in Chinese by Koreans would be
included: and would it be a translation of the original Chinese
or the modern Korean translation thereof?

Whatever the criteria might be, students of Korea and Korean
could only benefit from any increase in the availability of

Still, from the standpoint of a Korean-language-student advocate,
I have to express some concern about content.  I wonder if the
starting students can really handle the orthographic variation,
often uncontested in the freedom afforded the writers of fiction
in narrating more real-life discourses(dialects and all).  As for
the historical novels, there are the necessary references to objects,
ideas, and relation terms which are by the nature of the genre meant
to evoke what are no longer commonplace, not to mention the arguable
historical accuracy of the word-forms/language in use.

I have to admit that as a child I grew up reading Dr. Dolittle, my
first book, Treasure Island, Aesop's Tales, Odyssey, Collection of
Chinese Humor, Don Quixote, Three Musketeers, and Life of Napoleon,
among other children's favorites.

I will also confess that my childhood TV viewing habits included
Star Trek, Bonanza, and I Love Lucy, all in Korean.  There were
of course attempts to have me learn the brush; but I was usually
faster than the rod.

I should note that by strict definition of Korean language, as
maintained by National Korean Language Research Institute, none
of my childhood reading would qualify as Korean.  To illustrate,
all the material for the corpus for use in the analysis of Korean
language is apparently supposed to scrupulously exclude anything
that can be categorized as "translation", apparently on the ground
that it is not "real Korean".

As an outsider, I have no cause to quibble with how the standards
are set, and given the frequency with which many just-arrived
Koreans have told me that the Bible is really incomprehensible in
Korean translation, though so simple and clear in English(which
they now command after having recently completed their Ph.D. in
English literature or MBA), maybe they do have cause for excluding
the translations.  Maybe the English Bible is an exceptionally good
translation. I do wonder if the English Bible is excluded from
an English language corpus analysis?

Anyway, here are some comments about the Bible translation into
Korean as a "collision of cultures" by a former head of the
National Language Research Institute:


Finally, returning to the topic at hand, the following two links
are to the best-seller lists of the two leading cyber bookstores
in Korea.  Please take caution in going through the list as cyber
bookstores list the books as "foreign" only if the book itself is
not in "hangul", or the Korean alphabet.  The other issue is trying
to figure out the author and the title for "foreign" books.

I actually did a quick analysis of the top books a few weeks back
and found that some 80% were actually translations, mostly from
English(European), but also from Chinese and Japanese.  It is a
faulty analysis lacking time-depth and completeness, and I wonder
if somebody can point me to a more through analysis of the reading
habits of the Korean.

Aladdin site often offers sample pages from most of the books.



I wonder if the translations of the familiar modern Western books
can not possibly serve as proxy Korean translations in helping the
students master Korean, in exactly the way they serve to help the
Koreans learn English.

Admittedly, by strict criteria, these may not be "true Korean".
Still, I wonder if they may not serve as a temporary solution
while we wait for greater availability of excellent "true Korean"


JooBai Lee



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