Friday, October 01, 2010

Perfectly useless or uselessly perfect?

From the moment I saw my first Bollywood movie with English subtitles, I've always been amused translation. Or, more to the point, just what is the point of translating? Is it to tell you what the original speaker said or is it to say it in your language? This is an obvious issue. For example, the English expression "to make the bed" translates into Korean as using wood to construct a bed, and the equivalent phrase in Urdu is to correct or "clean the bed". I once had someone literally translate "make the bed" for students ("침대를 만들다"), which was not helpful at all, especially since many Koreans don't sleep on beds in the first place.

At any rate, these are probably well-worn issues in the fields of linguistics, translation, interpretation and maybe even the philosophy of language, none of which are fields with which I'm well-acquainted. So, I can't write several paragraphs on the topic, but I do have an actual problem that I've noticed lately.

On the Seoul subway, announcements for transfer stations are made in four languages: Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese. If you take Seoul station, named after the train station above, it's pronounced Saw-ool in Korean, like the word 'soul' in English, roughly like "show her" (首尔) in Chinese, and saw-ooh-roo in (ソウル) Japanese. When I first got here, all their different languages had their distinct pronunciations. Speakers of English and Japanese could get by, but trying to get to Seoul station with "show her" is probably not very helpful.

So, the subway announcements were changed. Chinese announcements for Seoul station now have the Korean pronunciation in the middle, though they strangely refer to it as "Seoul station" station (서울역站). Yongsan station is called Yongsan, instead of the Chinese 'longshan'(龙山), the Dongdaemun market is Dongdaemun instead of Dongdamen (东大门), and Gyeongbokgung is spared the other-worldly Jingfugong(景福宮).

But, because the world revolves around English speakers, we still get to hear everything translated because we can't handle strange pronunciations. If you ever wanted to go to City Hall station, you'd have a tough time asking for directions, because 시청 is pronounced 'she-cheong'. The value in letting everyone know where city hall is probably lower than the value of letting everyone know what the station is called. Chinese and Japanese announcements approximate the 시청 sound.

There are limits, of course. Koreans often helpfully sanitize things in English because English speakers tend to be mystified by Korean vowel sounds, where an 'o' is always an 'o', no exceptions. Sometimes I'd like to see it carried to its logical conclusion for amusement's sake. We could call Dongdaemun "Great East Gate", Gwanghwamun could be "Enlightenment Gate" and Yongsan could be "Dragon Mountain". My favourite, though, would be Dongguk University station. Its colloquial name (동대입구역) translates literally as "Big East Entrance station".

Ultimately, though, translation will be an imperfect art for obvious reasons. Translating to make the reader see the same thing that the original reader sees is probably the best way of doing it. It's not necessary to make a reference to heaven or hell if subtitling "get the hell out of here!" What was probably more unusual all along was writing Korean place names (Yongsan, 용산) in Chinese characters (龙山), but then providing the useless Chinese (longshan) or Japanese (tatsusan) pronunciation, which is a long way from the usually correct English pronunciation (Yongsan).

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