Translation Challenges

While tumblr is having another meltdown, I thought I should write another semi-intelligent post over here on wordpress, instead of spazzing about CNBLUE, BIGBANG, and SHINee.

I’m not an expert on translation nor am I really at the level where I can translate something with confidence.  But I do think it’s a good way to expose yourself to the language you’re learning, at least at the level of vocabulary and grammar.  In that aspect, I feel as if I have progressed somewhat in Korean, though not as fast as I would have liked.  It’s been about 1.5 years since I started teaching myself Korean and now I can usually understand about 85% of almost any Korean pop song on the first listen, 95% if I look at the lyrics.  (Falsettos and hardcore raps still trip me up though).

I used to do a lot of K-pop “translations” (basically looking up every word/grammar pattern I didn’t know and re-writing the song in English) but now I don’t feel the need to do it as much anymore since I basically understand the song.  But also because… well, sometimes it’s just hard translating Korean to English.  Why?  There are several reasons.

  1. relative clauses:  Korean uses a LOT of relative (noun-modifying) clauses and sometimes they can get so long that it just sounds awkward in English.  For example, I think Koreans are more likely to say “I am a person who never lies” rather than “I never lie.”  The nuance is slightly different but I think English uses fewer relative clauses, especially in casual conversation.  Korean also has a tendency to modify personal pronouns (I, he, she, etc.) which English doesn’t do so much.  For example, there’s a line from 하루하루 which goes “네가 없인 단 하루도 못 살것만 같았던 나” which literally translates to “I [the one] who thought I couldn’t live even a day without you – which just sounds WEIRD.  Most translations of this song get rid of the relative clause and just say “I thought I couldn’t live even a day without you.”  Another examples is the commonly used “널 사랑하는 나”  which translates to “I [the one] who loves you” but is often also translated as “the me who loves you” which is just ACCCKKK.
  2. untranslatable words/concepts:  I’m talking about songs that use distinctly Korean words like 존댓말, 반말, and relationship words like 누나/오빠.  Wikipedia actually translated SHINee’s “누난 너무 예뻐 (Replay)” as “Older girl, you’re so pretty.”  Awful. 
  3. synonymous words/phrases:  A lot of songs tend to use different words or phrases that mean essentially the same thing but carry different nuances.  Obviously, this is not unique to Korean but that nuance is often hard to translate into English without sounding awkward.  For example, 가슴 and 마음 is often used interchangeably in Korean and both can pretty much mean “heart” in English, depending on the context.  But if one song uses 가슴 sometimes and  마음 other times, it’s heard to denote that difference in English (you can’t really use “chest/breast” for 가슴 – it sounds unromantic.  So I end up using “heart” both times.  Is this an important distinction?  Maybe, maybe not.  Depends on the song.)  Sometimes there are A LOT of synonyms for one word and it’s really hard to get the nuance correct when you’re still learning the language.  (For example, how do you distinguish when to use “shining,” “glittering,” “glowing,” and “radiant”?)  More often than not, the song ends up sounding repetitive in English because you use the same word over and over again.
  4. missing pronouns:  This is usually something you can figure out if you pay attention to particles and the context but sometimes it’s not so easy!
  5. idioms, expressions, slang:  Kind of a given.  If a string of words sound a little odd next to each other, it’s usually an expression or idiom.  I usually just type the entire thing into the Naver or Daum dictionary and try to figure out the meaning from the examples that show up.
  6. words that sound awkward in English:  There are some words that do, technically, have definitions in English but sound just plain weird when they’re translated literally.  Because English doesn’t use certain words in certain contexts “naturally.”  I cringe whenever I see words like 욕하다, 설레다, 괜하다, and 서툰.   “욕하다” especially gets on my nerves because so many netizens translate this as “to curse” which sounds odd to me.  No one really says “Don’t curse/slander/speak badly about me” in English.
  7. ideophonic words:  I LOVE THESE WORDS.  (I want to do a separate post about these words… maybe in the future.)  So these kinds of words describe or evoke a sensation.  Korean has A LOT  of ideophonic words while English doesn’t have as many (the ones that do exist aren’t really used in daily conversation) so it can make translation a little difficult.  I usually end up substituting a nonideophonic words for an ideophonic one.  Examples include:  반짝반짝 (“glittering”), 두근두근 (“heart pounding”/nervousness), 짤랑짤랑 (“jingling”), 알랑알랑 (“with flattery”), 둥글둥글 (“roundly”/harmoniously), 꿀꿀 (“bubbling, gurgling”)
What about you guys?  What are some challenges you’ve faced while translating Korean (or any other language) to English?


  1. Jeanne says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post! I always check the lyrics of songs I like, and sometimes try to translate them myself, so I could really relate to what you said here!


    1. Archana says:

      Thanks a lot!! Yeah, I do that too. I translate it first by myself and then I check the English translations. More often than not, the English translations I find online are have horrible spelling and grammar, but it’s useful to check and make sure you’ve got the meaning right! ><


  2. lyrynne says:

    I like this post! can totally relate. Korean to me is somewhat poetic. Translated into english it sounds weird and it loses it’s emotion. Idk maybe it’s just me hehe.


    1. Archana says:

      Thank you! And, yeah, I agree with you. Even certain phrases in like normal, everyday Korean sound poetic. The inherent poetry and romance of a language is definitely hard to capture in another language!


    2. alodia says:

      it’s not just you. me too. ^^


  3. alodia says:

    I love this post!!! I can totally relate. Recently I found that I can learn a lot of new vocabs easily by studying songs. My Korean has improved a lot that I can start trying to translate songs too (but still not as good as you are). Also CoreanBigSis also started translating lyrics, so what I do sometimes is request a translation, attempt to translate it myself and compare it to her translations.
    Anyway, I have to agree with what you have pointed out.
    1. relative clauses – actually i just recently noticed this one. usually school textbooks would just tackle this on one lesson. but the more I read and watch dramas and listen to songs the more I notice this. and sometimes the modifiers can go very very very long.
    4. missing pronouns – i hate this! especially for songs. it’s difficult for someone on my level i think. when you can understand some and can’t understand some. sometimes i just find myself lost in the middle of a drama conversation or a song and goes like ‘who are they talking about again? is it me, I, you?’

    i’m not sure for songs, but for dramas it’s also very difficult to translate word plays/puns!!! On a drama I’ve seen here’s the dialogue:
    “내가 지금 바람피는 것 같아요?”
    “아니에요. 태풍이에요. 신미래는 나한테 바람이 아니라 태풍이라고.”
    If this is translated to English, English speakers would wonder how come from taking about being a ‘playboy/player’ and ‘cheating/having an affair’ suddenly turns to wind and typhoons.
    Well, I guess it goes for every language too, but I think Koreans like using pun a lot – especially for names too.

    I think translating is a very difficult job. I am part of a subbing team and there was even a time when we debated whether to use like or want (싶으니까, 좋아요). There are times that you want to get across the meaning as accurate as possible (sometimes… no, oftentimes we ended up putting parenthesis and asterisks for explanations) and there are times when you have to compromise and make sure that the English speakers can understand it.



    1. Archana says:

      Relative clauses give me so much trouble! Yesterday, I was translating B2ST’s new song “Fiction” and there was a line – ” 품 안에 안긴 너를 나는 절대 놓지 못해” which sounds so romantic in Korean but then when you translate it “accurately” it becomes “I will never let you, [the one] who I embraced to my chest, go” which sounds SO BAD. I usually end up rewriting phrases that use long relative clauses like that.

      And I totally agree with you about the puns! I’m noticing them more and more in dramas. I think it’s better to offer an explanation to the readers in cases like that. Some distinctly Korean cultural aspects are hard to translate too. I remember in Coffee Prince and there was a conversation between Eun-chan and Yoo-joo that went something like this (right after Yoo-joo finds out Eun-chan is a girl):

      은찬: 언니라고 불러도 돼요?
      유주: 응… 누나라고 부를 때보다 훨씬 좋다.

      The English translation was pretty lame (“Can I call you Yoojoo?” / “Yes, it’s better than MISS Yoojoo”) but then if you tried to translate it accurately, it would require a lot of explanation of how to use the terms 언니 and 누나. So much of translation is give and take, I guess.

      Thanks for the comment! :)


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