Sunday, July 12, 2015

the frustration of learning Korean

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.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for the breakdown, I find that very jnteresting indeed. The ad was a powerful idea made nonsense by misinterpretation!

Kevin Kim said...

The misinterpretation could be all on my end, though.

Charles said...

Way late, and not posting now due to any illusions of being a "better mind."

I just wanted to say that your translation is pretty much spot on, and you might be overthinking the whole thing. You don't have to worry about representing every element of the original in the translation--all that does is produce a stilted translation.

As for the 누워만 있으면 part, I would summarize the difference between 누우면 and 누워만 있으면 as the difference between action and state. That is, the addition of 있으면 emphasizes the continuation of the act. This might be clearer in something like 내가 의자에 않는다 (I sit down in the chair) and 내가 의자에 앉아 있다 (I am sitting in the chair). If someone were to asking me what I was doing at the moment, I would reply with the latter instead of the former. If your example had read "그냥 옆에 누우면 안 돼?" I might have written "Can't you just lie down next to me?" But I doubt I really would have thought about it all that much.

(Minor correction: there should be a space between 안 and 돼--cf. 안 먹는다, etc.)

Kevin Kim said...

Charles to the rescue!

James Turbull, he of the super-Koreablog The Grand Narrative, was kind enough to tweet his own link to my post. James routinely translates from Korean to English on his blog (here, for example), so I'm pretty sure he's got a high level of Korean competence.

I tweeted him back:

"Thanks for the shout-out. Your Korean's far better than mine. Your take? I think I probably overthought the problem."

James responded:

"Think u have our abilities reversed actually! Don't think you overanalyzed at all, it IS a weird sentence construction."

Comma splice aside, he was, I think, just trying to be nice. I could never translate articles the way he does. Anyway, I think you read my mind re: overthinking, although in my post I did write:

"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."

—to show I was making an effort at not overthinking, i.e., I had enough information to translate the locution without having to ponder further. I guess I failed, though.

Kevin Kim said...

Whoops—that's James TURNbull, not "Turbull." A Turbull mistake.

Kevin Kim said...

My friend Seungmin wrote in with her take as a student of interpretation and translation at Ehwa. Her unedited email follows:

Wow.. Kevin. It’s a research paper, not a question and answer section.
And I thought that it’s interesting but a bit tough to give a clear answer.

As for a non native English speaker, I also have thousands of questions stuck in my mind, studying English – bcs language learning requires a bit more intuitive (sometimes unexplainable) process than playing with numbers –math.

Ok, then let’s see..
“그냥… 옆에 누워만 있으면 안돼?”

There are two things I’d like to explain.
You talked about the ‘있으면’ part. As your friend Charles says, this ‘있으면’ shows the state of action. For better understanding,
I will split the sentence like this
1) 그냥… 옆에 누우면 안돼? (focus – verb 눕다)
This is easier to get. It’s ‘can you just lie down next to me?’.
I guess the English sentence ‘can you lie down next to me’ describes and delivers the state of ‘being next to me’ bcs the act of lying down next to her means he is already being with her.

But in Korean, in this case, what she focuses on is the act of ‘lie down’. Bcs there’s no clue to show the state (in Korean).

2) Above sentence can be paraphrased:그냥.. 옆에 누워서 (나와) 있으면 안돼? (focus- verb 있다) and this sentence, again, can be chopped.
그냥 + 옆에 누우면 안돼? + 나와 있으면 안돼?

This can be ‘can you just.. lie down next to me + and be with me?’
I know this is crazy translation but it’s the closest version (not the best one) btw Korean and English. But few would say like that. Even though above sentence consists of two different verbs(in Korean), most English speakers would agree that they don’t have to highlight the state of ‘BEING with me’ as the act of his lying down already ‘absorbed’ the state of being with her.

You see ‘누워만’part? Easily we translate ‘~~만’ into ‘just or only’, but I think sometimes the word ‘~만’ can be a deciding factor to deliver a different nuance.
In this case ‘그냥 옆에 누워만 있으면 안돼?’ can be said:
‘다른 것 하지 말고 누워만 있어 줘’ in Korean.

in that sense, the sentence can be translated like ‘(I will be happy)if you can stay with me (though you’re not gonna do anything but lying next to me).’ This shows her wishful thinking.

But it also can be said: ‘Don’t move, don’t talk. Just lie down and stop bothering me.’, depending on different context and conditions.

I think that’s why translators should instantly read the context, atmosphere – like when, where the dialogue is being made, who talks, whether it has negative / positive connotation……

I know it’s not a perfect, enough answer but hope it can help you.

daeguowl said...

It's a bit hard to translate without context but when I first saw it my impression of the context is as follows:

The guy has made a move on the girl and has been rebuffed. Annoyed he gets up to leave, at which point she says "Can't you just lay next to me (without trying it on)?"