Poetry Translation

Challenges of translating poems from Korean to English (and vice versa)

I’ve thought about talked about this topic for a while, and I’m finally compiling it. (Started in December 2014. Last updated in January 2016)

  • Generic problems (of translating poetry from one language to another):
    • different syntax
    • retaining rhyme and rhythm
    • cultural differences (symbols or metaphors do not work the same)
  • Problems specific to translating from or to Korean
    •  verb vs. adjective / adverb
      • In Korean, adjectives and adverbs carry connotations while verbs are the part that carry connotations in English
      • e.g. 1) color words
        • Korean has multiple words for what’s considered one color; red, blue, and yellow are especially so. For example, there are at least six, seven different words for “yellow” that are actually used in daily life. However, unlike the terms color scientists use, different words are not confined to indicating difference in shade, brightness, etc.. They also carry different connotations (noran: yellow, satnoran: brightly yellow in a pure way, nurikirihan: yellowish in a dirty, smelly way (e.g. nurikirihan stain).
        • Korean poets extend vowels of a name of color to emphasize and create rhythm, as in 빨간 –> 빠알간 [Bbalgan (2 syllables)–>Bba-ah-lgan (3 syllables)]  But English doesn’t have the same convention. (Red–> Reed? “Reed” has a completely different meaning emphasis on verbs vs. adverbs / adjectives
      • e.g. 2) onomatopoeia and mimetic word
        • Korean has a way more extensive list of onomatopoeia and mimetic words
          • For example, Korean has very specific words for flowing water: “joljol” (trickling), “juljul” (fluently), kwalkwal (gushingly), and many, many more. Unlike English words, these adverbs are not related to other parts of the language (to trickle, fluent, to gush).
        • Korean onomatopoeia and mimetic words are very specific
          • For example, “solsol” (softly, gently) will remind Korean people of a gentle and cool breeze, even if a speaker does not add “breeze” or any more descriptions before or after the word. “Softly” and “gently” don’t. Many Korean onomatopoeia are specific like this example.
      • e.g. 3) English verbs
        • In English words, there are many different verbs with the same denotation yet different connotations. For example, water “flows, rolls, trickles, murmurs, runs, drifts” are all 흐르다 in Korean. Korean needs adverb or adjectives to convey similar connotations.
    • modes of verbs
      • Honorifics. (I don’t know why I forgot this word when I was talking… I forget a lot of things, including my address.)
        • For example, in Korean, “to give” can be said in three different ways by honorifics: 주다 [juda], 주어요 [ju-uh-yo] 줍니다 [jubnida]
        • I’ve observed there are more honorifics in between those three and thought we can classify it into at least five. I did some searching, and I figured out there are six. Check the link below to see the source.
      • There are different ways to say a verb even in the same level of honorifics
        • all juneyo, ju-uh-yo, jwo-yo…are of informal honorifics.
      • “please give” or “give”(command): jwo, jusiji, juge, jugena, ju-uh-ra, jwora, jusio, juseyo, jusijyo, jwoyo, jusipsio, jusosuh…all have same meaning but different syllables and feelings
    • use of pronouns
      • Gender in pronouns
        • Korean does have a gender specific pronoun: 그 [geu] (he), 그녀 [geu-nyo] (she), 그것 [geu-got] (it), 그들 [geu-deul] (they)
        • However, many times, from poetry to formal academic writings and government document, geu is used gender neutrally. It is impossible to know if the speaker is referring to female or male.
        • On the other hand, gender in an English pronoun is very specific and strictly adhered.
      • Presence of subject
        • In Korean, subject is often omitted in speeches and writings. 나 [na] (I) is very frequently omitted, although other subjects are often omitted depending on context.
        • Without a subject, English sentences can’t be grammatical.
        • This difference becomes especially problematic, if a certain feature of a poem indicates that the poet intentionally omitted I”.

***six honorifics: http://www.orinst.ox.ac.uk/sites/jap-ling/files/files/brown.eals_.pdf


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s