About Me

The Troubles with Translation

I speak Korean and English fluently, am proficient in Spanish, speak elementary Japanese, and am currently studying Arabic at my university. I have been blessed with the opportunity to study as many languages as I wish. I am mildly ashamed to admit that I only recently realized what a privilege that may be and how important it is for people with the opportunity to take advantage of it.

Also, I apologize – I messed up with WordPress scheduling and uploaded an incomplete version of this post at first. I’m sorry for any confusion!

In any case, many people in my generation have probably heard before, how languages open doors to success, job opportunities, etc. However, our parents and mentors and teachers often fail to emphasize the value of language outside of a career-oriented setting. The fact of the matter is, we as human beings take language for granted. We learn it when we’re so young, we don’t remember the process, and we often spend so much time in one that we don’t realize how unique every language is.

I was fortunate enough to be raised bilingually. Growing up with both Korean and English at my disposal was essential to my realization. There are times when I speak to acquaintances who only speak English that I realize I can’t express a certain idea very concisely – in Korean, that idea is a specific word. English does not have that word.

For example, there is aswium – the feeling when you get a 99%, when you’re two points off a game’s high score, when you’re interrupted before you learn a person’s phone number – not disappointment, per se, but that feeling of ‘almost, so close, too bad’. There are may translations I could attempt, but they are either unwieldy or inaccurate. No matter what I choose, it loses nuance.

Many people who want a quick buck turn to translation-work. This is all well and good for business or contract-work, in which the terminology is limited and strictly guarded, and the nuances aren’t as important as the meaning. However, the translation of literature and creative works is far more difficult challenge.

To go to extremes, let me throw out this: sign language is a language. It is right there in the name. American Sign Language is a rather common language in the United States, one that is overlooked and unnoticed. Some people write slam poetry in ASL.

How could one who has not grown up with and lived amongst ASL speakers possibly understand the nuances in the poem? Those who see the beauty of the poet’s motions will miss the meaning, and those who get the meaning might lose the artistry that makes it a poem because it is unfamiliar to them. And yes, this is an extreme example, but the fact of the matter is, every language faces these difficulties.

English and Spanish are often touted as similar, but English has long-abandoned the informal register. Every time ‘tú’ or ‘usted’ is used, a little bit of subtext is lost as English alters word choice in its entirety to convey the level of formality.

Spanish and German are both gendered languages, and yet genders differ for their nouns. In Spanish, ‘key’ is feminine, whereas it is masculine in German. In a study, when asked to describe a key, the descriptions differed amongst Spanish and German-speakers. ‘delicate, intricate, tiny’ said the Spanish-speakers, and ‘useful, jagged, hard’ said the Germans. There are more examples from the source, “Masculine or Feminine and Why it Matters”.

And we don’t even have to get too deep into German to find untranslatable words there. Schadenfreude  has a full song from the hit musical Avenue Q defining it cheerfully as “happiness from the misfortune of others!” – definitely a word we lack in English, and Korean too as far as I know. Then there’s the opposite Glückschmerz, meaning discomfort at the misfortune of others, which similarly has no translation.

This isn’t even accounting for the diverse array of language families in the world. Beyond being raised bilingual, I was given  a great privilege in that I grew up speaking two languages of completely different linguistic roots. It developed my mind differently, and I genuinely believe it allows me to tackle certain problems from different angles just by thinking of it in two languages with differing grammatical structures. Language organizes the mind, and I was given, right off the bat, different methods to experiment with.

I admit, this is partially why I chose to study Arabic in university – it is a different language family from English and Korean, and though it has some historic crossover with Spanish, they use utterly different alphabets and different deep-rooted cultures. If I speak English, I have an easier time learning Spanish or other romance languages. If I speak Korean, I have an easier time learning Japanese and, to an extend, Chinese. If I speak Arabic, I will be able to learn the dialects of the Middle-East, and perhaps eventually learn Urdu or Uighur.

And then there is the islamophobia. One of my main motivations for studying Arabic is the propaganda and the supposed ‘war on Islam’. How much hatred is being tossed around in the western world as the media racks up witch hunt against over a billion people in the world? We of the western world get to paint Muslims in broad strokes and generalize, not giving them a chance to weigh in and add some intricacy to our final portrait. If there is a ‘war on Islam’, there are casualties on both sides, and vocal parties on both sides – it is near impossible for me to find translations of opinions from the other side. What few I have found, I find that I cannot trust. Ah, such is the beauty of propaganda, eh?

Furthermore, how much horror and confusion has there been over mistranslation of religious texts over the years, which is not a business contract and more a literature? For one thing, even within the Bible, scholars have mistranslated lucifer meaning ‘light-bearer’ or even the bright planet Venus, into ‘Satan’.

In the Qu’ran, Verse 3:7 has been translated into completely different things, one interpretation claiming that “none knows the explanation save God” and one reading that “none knows the explanation save God and those well-founded in knowledge” (source). This is an interpretation/translation distinction that has led to completely different Islamic beliefs amongst factions.

Such mistranslations of old works, and even modern literature, only grow more and more dangerous as society continues to emphasize the commercial value of languages instead of attempting to foster a deep love for language. Why do we try to motivate children with talk of job prospects and success in the future? Why not have children experience the smile of a friend or neighbor when they converse in the person’s native language?

I will never forget the strange rush of happiness I felt at a native ASL-speaker’s joy when I attempted to sign with them – I was a child, and I only knew how to finger-spell, but it had been enough. At its heart, language is communication, and the fact of the matter is, we have turned communication into a tool for success instead of a tool for understanding. there are so many dangers of that. We continue to suffer from the dangers of that.

We should not turn languages into a utilitarian skill. That is damaging, and it leads to an ignorance of the beauty and lifestyle of the cultures that speak such languages, which is in turn essential to the true understanding of the language itself. Language is the earth upon which the fruits and flowers of culture are grown, and as any gardener knows, as time passes and the plants change, so does the soil.

Well, not the most coherent of my posts, but there is so much to say, and I’ve made the error of trying to fit it all in one post. Even so, if any of my readers speak Spanish, Arabic, or even Japanese, please let me know. I’d be happy to try and improve. And if you’re interested in broadening your mind and learning a few untranslatable words, try visiting Wordstuck – they have an ever-growing list in a variety of languages.



One thought on “The Troubles with Translation

  1. Hablas all de los idiomas? 대박! Anata are muy competente desu yo.

    Araki fi ma ba’d, 인크 스크라이브.


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