Friday, August 13, 2021

Google Translate and "Liberation Day"

Look up "광복절" (Liberation Day) in the Naver Hanja Dictionary, and you see this:

光復節  광복절 

우리나라가 일본(日本)의 압제(壓制) 하(下)에서 벗어나 국권(國權)을 다시 찾은 기쁨을 기념(紀念ㆍ記念)하는 국경일(國慶日)의 하나. 곧 8월 15일.

Google Translate renders the above as: 

One of the national holidays to commemorate the joy that Korea has regained national sovereignty after freeing itself from Japanese oppression. Soon August 15th.

This at least seems to match Korean political speeches on August 15, in which the liberators who made Liberation Day possible are never thanked for freeing the country... in favor of the myth that Korea somehow freed itself, as if it needed no help. 

No, I'm not bitter. Why do you ask?

Is the above English translation right, though? Where, in the Korean, does it say "freeing itself"? I'm not sure I see it. Phrase by phrase, here's what I see:

우리나라가 our country (i.e., Korea, which is how Korea refers to itself)

일본(日本)의 압제(壓制) 하(下)에서 from under Japanese oppression

벗어나 got out

국권(國權)을 national sovereignty

다시 찾은 기쁨을 the happiness of finding again (of regaining)

기념(紀念ㆍ記念)하는 commemorating

국경일(國慶日)의 하나. national holiday

곧 8월 15일. (soon? or more like "that is to say"?) August 15

When translating Korean into English, you have to learn to think backwards from how an English-speaker approaches thoughts. In English, we tend to put the essence of a thing first.* In Korean, it comes last, and you build up to it (there are exceptions, but this is usually how it works). So, to the point, Liberation Day is a national holiday. That's the essence, and everything that follows is clarification as to what sort of holiday it is. That's how an English-speaker would think. So, if I were to try to render the above mishmash of ideas into a very rough English translation (keeping in mind that I'm a far better French-to-English translator than Korean-to-English), I'd restate the ideas in the Korean definition backward and say the English definition is something like, "A national holiday (on August 15) commemorating the happiness of Korea's regaining of national sovereignty after getting out from under (escaping?) Japanese oppression." (Obviously, this needs polishing.) This definition still doesn't credit Korea's liberators, but at least it no longer crassly sounds as if "Korea freed itself."

Interestingly, if you go to and click "Thesaurus," then look up "get out," you see that one of the synonyms listed is indeed "free oneself."


*Example: define criminal. You might say something like, "a person who commits illegal acts." Person is the essence, here: a criminal is, first and foremost, a person. What comes after is clarification as to what kind of person we're talking about. One Korean word for criminal is "범인" (beom-in), and Naver defines this as "범죄를 저지른 사람," or "crime-commit/guilty of-person." See what I mean? The essence comes last. The structure of Korean thought runs backward from English thought. This is what makes simultaneous interpretation such a bitch between Western and Asian languages like Korean and Japanese (not necessarily Chinese).


John Mac said...

Well, to be fair, the USA wasn't fighting for Korea's liberation, it was just a byproduct of Japan's capitulation. I doubt China/Taiwan give us much credit either.

I'd go so far as to say that if we had taken an interest in Korea's freedom we'd never have allowed the Russians to occupy the northern half of the country. Ah well, hindsight is 20-20 after all.

Kevin Kim said...

Fair points, but I don't think that that eliminates South Korea's moral obligation to show some appreciation to the countries that did the actual liberating.

Charles said...

Yeah, that English translation is weird. Were I still teaching translation and a student came up with "freeing itself from," I would fail them for the assignment. Nowhere is there a reflexive verb that would justify that.

On your essence footnote, it occurred to me that a Korean might counter-argue that the essence of a criminal is, in fact, the crime--not the fact that a criminal is a person (which might seem obvious, since only people can commit crimes). I don't know if that is really the thought process, though--I've never actually heard these constructions described in terms of "essence."

Kevin Kim said...

I think the Korean counter-argument would be a hard sell because, as you implied, people need to exist for there to be crime, so the existence of a person is logically prior to his criminality. That seems pretty clear to me, but then again, Koreans are often illogical people.

As for my use of "essence": right, this wasn't meant to be a technical explanation. But my take is that, linguistically, the most important thing comes last in Korean and comes first in English (although I imagine there are exceptions in both Korean and English).