Bad Translations Can Ruin a Reputation -- Even a Nation’s
It is widely believed that Koreans do not think highly of translators. Those who can (or pretend to) speak English could translate a book overnight. At least that’s the dominant myth among the public here, as demonstrated by the recent ghost-translating scandal.
Popular (and now disgraced) broadcaster Chung Ji-young made quick money, taking the full credit for translating motivational speaker Joachim de Posada’s self-help book, “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow…Yet” into Korean. In an interview with a local newspaper, she proudly said she had translated up to “about 100 pages a day.” The original English version is just a 112-page book, which means she’s either a masterful translator or unparalleled liar. It turned out that she didn’t translate the book, somebody else did it, and the publisher used Chung’s name as a marketing tool.
The underlying lesson: translation does not require special expertise; pretty-faced broadcasters can do it better, because they are, well, pretty. “Deplorable” is a better description for those who believe anybody can translate, said Do Jung-il, honorary professor at Kyunghee University, at the “Sharing Korean Literature with the World” forum organized by the state-run Korea Literature Translation Institute.
“The Culture Ministry has been neglecting the issue of translation for the past 60 years, and the result is that wherever you go, you can notice some hilariously incorrect translations,” Doh said at the forum held in Seoul on Tuesday.
He said such funny translations are now part of the typical cultural experiences for foreign visitors. “Korea is a kingdom of incorrect translations,” he said. “Are we using such stupid and incorrect translations to entertain foreign tourists?”
Indeed, some of the incorrect translations found at temples and palaces are entertaining and refreshing in a way, but panelists said it’s time to fix them systematically.
Doh said the first thing to change the public’s perception about translation. “Some people believe those who have lived in the United States for 10 or 20 years can translate a text into English. But the truth is, it’s very natural that they cannot do any translation because it’s a special technique,” he said.
Yoo Hong-jun, director of the Korean Properties Administration which supervises the country’s various cultural assets, admitted that there are many problems with the translated texts in public and tourist places.
“We have about 9,000 guide signs describing cultural assets, and we are now working hard to fix the incorrect translations. But the bigger problem is that we have to write totally new texts for foreign tourists because they need more general background information,” Yoo said.
Lee Yoon-taek, a popular playwright and drama director, said that Korean translators themselves lack expertise about Korean culture. “Many translators tend to think in their target language such as German and English. But they have no idea about Korean culture and language,” he said.
The ignorance about Korean culture on the part of Korean translators is palpable, he argued. Plenty of ungrammatical sentences, apparently influenced by Western languages, flourish in Korean scenarios and novels.
“Korean literature majors and culture experts should take part in planning translation projects and checking accuracy,” he said.
Lee also attacked the Frankfurt translation project last year. Korea presented local titles translated into various languages as guest of honor at the world’s biggest book fair, but criticism was fierce that such a hurried and reckless project did more harm than good. “How could we translate 100 books in such a short time period? We should have tried to translate just 10 books and made sure they are translated properly and accurately,” he said.
Kang Nae-hui, professor of English department at Chung-Ang University, said he is not sure whether he can translate a Korean text into English accurately even though he has been studying and teaching English literature for 35 years.
“Ideally, Koreans well versed in foreign languages should work on the translation from foreign languages to Korean, and foreign experts who have acquired Korean should work on the Korean-to-foreign language translation,” Kang said.
Kim Hong-joon, dean of the Korean National University of Arts School of Film, TV & Multimedia said, the Korean government should create a national database of experts in various fields so that they can help translators in improving accuracy.
The Korea Literature Translation Institute is expected to increase financial support for helping translate major Korean literary works into various languages next year as part of the government’s efforts to globalize Korean literature.