I keep seeing this ad, which pops up whenever I hit certain popular blogs and portal sites:
I'm pretty sure that a fairly natural translation of the words in the ad would be something along the lines of, "Couldn't you just... lie next to me?" The guy seems to be pulling away; the girl has grasped his wrist and is offering her man the chaste(?) warmth of her body. It's that delicious moment where, if the man says yes, this may lead to other things, as proximity and temptation erode caution and common sense. The tension inherent in the situation, then, comes from the fact that the man is poised on a razor's edge of decision.
But is my above translation in fact the most natural and/or most correct one? What frustrates me is that, in Korean, there are often what appear to be unnecessary elements that add little to no information to the basic meaning of an utterance. I'm going to parse the girl's quote, now, and I hope to do it in a way that, even if you know nothing about Korean, you ought to be able to follow. We start with the girl's utterance:
그냥... 옆에 누워만 있으면 안돼?
Google Translate renders the above as, "Just next to the ... no, if bedridden?" This is funny, but there are also some serious reasons as to why Google is mangling the quote. If I remember to do so, I'll get back to those reasons later.
Here's a romanized rendering of the Korean:
그냥... 옆에 누워만 있으면 안돼?
geunyang... yeopae nuweoman isseumyeon andwae?*
I've clustered the romanized syllables to correspond to the hangeul: five clusters each. Korean, unlike Japanese or Chinese,** is written with an alphabet called hangeul (lit., "the writing of the Han"—i.e., Korean—"people"). A letter, with some exceptions, is generally a single symbol to which one sound is assigned: one-to-one sound/symbol correspondence. Now, let's go through the utterance cluster by cluster. Translations are in [brackets].
[next to, beside]
[only lie down]
[can't / not permissible]
A note on "andwae": the verb dwaeda (되다) means "to become." That said, it's also used in a host of other contexts where it would be hazardous to translate it as "become." The syllable "an" (안), in prefix position, means what it seems to sound like to the English-speaking ear: "not." When "Andwae!" is said forcefully, in a declarative tone, it's the Korean way of imperiously declaring, "No!" This is often said to children, and children at the playground quickly learn to say it to each other. (There are other forms of "Don't!" such as "Hajima!" [하지마!], but we won't discuss those here.) There's a cute video of a little Korean girl (link) being taught to say "No!" to strangers. The refrain: "An-dwae-yo!"
Back to the cartoon chick's utterance. You may have noticed that I didn't provide a translation for the fourth cluster of syllables (isseumyeon, 있으면). While I can guess, tentatively, at what this cluster means and why it's there, my own feeling, as a very non-fluent Korean speaker, is that this is yet another example of unnecessary syllables. What about isseumyeon/있으면 really needs to be carried over into an English translation? You might argue—if you're an experienced translator—that things get "lost in translation" all the time because what seems necessary in one language is redundant or pleonastic in another, but that doesn't strike me as a very satisfying explanation in this case.
My contention is that, even if you drop the isseumyeon/있으면 part of the utterance, you've got enough information to translate what the girl is saying into English. The only justification I can come up with for keeping the isseumyeon locution is grammatical: the myeon (면) part, which means "if" in this case, naturally slides into the andwae? (안돼?) part because the expression "X(으)면 안돼?"/"X(eu)myeon andwae?" is a very common one in Korean. This in itself could be a powerful justification for keeping the isseumyeon, but I'm still puzzled at what meaning the isseu part is supposed to convey.
One guess: the present-progressive tense in Korean is normally written with a "-고있다" (-go eetda). Sometimes, the "go" drops out. If that's what the isseumyeon/있으면 phrase is hinting at, then maybe I can see why it's in the utterance at all. But if that's the case, then maybe there's something about that isseumyeon/있으면 phrase that should be translated into English so as not to lose anything in translation.
Should the translation then be: "Couldn't you just... be lying next to me?"
That might include the meaning of the isseumyeon/있으면 phrase (assuming I'm interpreting the meaning of the phrase correctly, which I'm likely not), but now the translation sounds unnatural to the American ear, as when an Indian speaker of English overuses the present progressive (e.g., "Yes, I am understanding you.").*** So I still think my original rendering is the most natural one, and I'm still unsure as to what meaning the isseumyeon/있으면 phrase possesses that should be carried over into English.
Let's go back to Google's daffy rendering of the girl's utterance. I don't want to defend Google's awful translation, but I do want to explore how and why it may have occurred. You'll recall that Google rendered the girl's quote as:
"Just next to the ... no, if bedridden?"
Based on the parsing I did previously, you can now see that certain elements did make it through from Korean to English. The geunyang (그냥) at the beginning, for example, means "just," and sure enough, we see "Just" in Google's translation. The phrase for "next to" (yeopae, 옆에) also makes it in, but Google's algorithm apparently doesn't tell it that a preposition requires an object of a preposition, so "next to the..." is all we get. The andwae?/안돼? at the end shows up as a context-free "no" in Google's rendering. As for "bedridden"... I see that, when I type "bedridden" into Google Translate, the Korean that comes back is the adjectival phrase "누워만있는" (nuweoman-eetneun)—which is remarkably close to what the girl seems to be saying.
So what if everything I conjectured above was wrong, and the girl was really asking her guy to lie as if bedridden beside her? This would still play as a slyly sexual invitation (e.g., as a Spock-like "Why don't you just... convalesce next to me, big guy?"), but given that the girl in the cartoon looks perfectly healthy, the "bedridden" interpretation strikes me as bizarre. So in light of the evidence the artist has shown us, I don't think the girl is actually bedridden, which means I'm inclined to reject this line of thinking entirely.
You can sort of see, though, how and why Google spat out garbled English. The problem with translation programs is that they have no minds, so they can't consider things like intent and nuance and social context when rendering words, phrases, sentences, and other utterances. This needs to be the next step in good translation, and such work is already being done in a field called natural-language processing, which is what aided the computer Watson in beating all those Jeopardy champions. Watson, it should be noted, did give some truly bizarre answers to rather obvious questions, thus proving that, as evolved as Watson was, programmers still have a long, long way to go before they produce anything close to passing an evolved form of the Turing Test. In the meantime, we're stuck with garbled Google English and frustrated hominids who can't see the semantic value in certain Korean phrases.
I await the input of better minds than mine in the comments section.
*Pronunciation note: pronounce "eo" somewhere between the American English "aw" and "uh"; pronounce "eu" as something between the French "eu" and the American English "oo" in "book"; pronounce "ae" somewhere between the American English "a" in "back" and the American English "e" in "beck." Also of note: in fluent Korean, the "w" sound in "andwae?" is almost inaudible. This often happens to "w"s and "eu" sounds, as in the name Seon-hui [선희], which often sounds like "sunny" or "sun-hee" to the American ear.
**Chinese writing uses characters: each character represents not only a cluster of sounds but also a unit of meaning. It's similar to when you see the "man" symbol for a men's-room sign: you see the symbol and automatically pronounce it as "men" in your head while, at the same moment, the concept of "men only," in the restroom context, arises in your mind. In Chinese, the character for "man" is 男, pronounced "nan" in Chinese and "nam" in Korean. Japanese also uses Chinese characters (more precisely, Sino-Japanese characters), but the native script is called kana, and is subdivided into hiragana and katakana. Hiragana is generally used for pure-Japanese words while katakana is reserved for foreign words. A word like "McDonald's," for example, would be written "Magodonarudo" in katakana. The kana are syllabaries, not letters: each individual symbol represents a set of sounds, not a single sound. For example, the Japanese symbol "ク" is pronounced, roughly, "ku," and means nothing on its own (although it can, apparently, mean "click" in certain contexts, perhaps as onomatopoeia).
***I'm not playing on a racist stereotype about how Indians speak English. Scholars have remarked on this, too: see here, for instance.