I’m a huge proponent of learning a language through translation. In fact, most of the vocabulary and grammar structures I know now are thanks to my attempts to learn Korean by “translating” K-pop songs. Not only did I learn new things, I also figured out what the song meant! But, please note, these are all still amateur translations. A successful translation captures both the meaning and style of a work and if you use translation as a means to learn a language, you can only hope to master one aspect at the beginner level (meaning). Once you’ve mastered the language (if there is such a thing), you can learn to capture the style of the original work as well.
Now. How does learning through translation work? First of all, you have to learn to read the language fairly well in its native script. Next, you have to have a basic understanding of how grammar works in that language. Is it a SOV language? Is it agglutinative? How does it express tense? Are pronouns necessary? Are there post-positional markers? What is the dictionary form of the verb? Do the nouns have gender? You don’t have to actually KNOW the language very well, but you do have to know ABOUT it.
After learning 한글, I studied Korean (using a book and TTMIK) for about 3 months before I tried “translating” my first song. Obviously, it wasn’t easy. But I knew how Korean verbs were conjugated and how they changed meaning when you added certain endings and helping verbs. I also knew about certain particles and basic sentence structure so it was just a matter of looking up every single thing I didn’t know. It was a very long and arduous process. Here’s how I might have translated the first verse of one of my favorite Big Bang songs, “눈물뿐인 바보” back when I was just starting out learning Korean.
많이 아파서 너무 화나서
나는 믿고 싶지 않았지
너의 두 눈에 너의 입술에
그 안에 내가 살고 있었는데
이젠 널 떠나라는 말을
어떻게 나에게 할 수 있니
너무나도 당황해 그만 너를 보냈지
- 많이 = much, lots, plenty (from 많다 = to be numerous)
- 아프다 (v.) = to be painful, to be in pain, to ache
- 화나다 (v.) = to be angry, be mad, be upset
- V + 아/어/여서 = shows the cause for something in the following clause; subject is the same in both clauses
- 믿다 (v.) = to believe
- V + 고 싶다 = to want to do something
- V + 지 않다 = negation
- V + 지(요) = confirming something, tag question ending
- particle 의 = possession
- 두= 2, couple
- 눈 (n.) = eyes
- 입술 (n.) = lips
- particle 에 = at, in, on, etc.
- 안 = the inside, interior
- 살다 (v.) = to live
- V + 고 있다 = present progressive
- V + 는데 = conjunction between 2 clauses (can be translated as “but” or “and”)
- 이제 = now
- 떠나다 = to leave
- V + 라는 = contraction of “라고 하다” which is used to express imperative indirect discourse
- 말 = word, expression, conversation
- 어떻게 = how
- particle 에게 = “to” a person
- V + (으)ㄹ 수 있다 = modal expression (possibility/“can”)
- V + 니 = very casual question ending
- 너무나도 = very
- 당황하다 (adj.) = to be confused
- 그만 = 1) no more than that; enough 2) unintentionally, unavoidably
- 보내다 (v.) = to let go
Then I try to assemble all the words and grammar structures I looked up into a coherent translation (sometimes I rearrange lines so it makes more sense in English):
I was really hurt and so upset
I didn’t want to believe it
In your eyes, in your lips
I was living inside of them
But how can you tell me to leave you now?
I’m so confused, I let you go
It used to take me about an entire day to finish a song like this. But at the end of it, I had learned a whole bunch of new grammar points and vocabulary. The next time I translated a song I didn’t have to look up as many things and slowly it got easier and easier. Now (a year later) I can understand about 95% song of any K-pop song I listen to. I usually only have to look up four or five words per song (depending on the song). So I’ve moved on to reading articles and novels now; hopefully, this way, I can build up an even better vocabulary and become a better writer too!