Incredibly enough, it has now been over a year since I joined the translation team for Humans of Seoul, a Facebook page (as well as tumblr and Instagram) that introduces the lives and thoughts of humans from Seoul in both Korean and English. Inspired by the famous Humans of New York page, our page has also built its own claim to fame in its provision of bilingual interviews and its side pages for learning Korean and English.
As these interviews are for humans, by humans, and introduce thoughts from humans, a natural amount of human error results in the process of taking an idea from the words of a person halfway around the world and then translating it in a way that an English-speaker will understand. Translation isn’t just about plugging in one word at a time and assembling an identical line of words. That’s what most automatic translators do.
After a year at this work, I’ve developed my own style for translating. First, I read through the entire interview, and pick out any words that I feel remotely uncertain about. Then, yes, I do translate these one by one, basically out of context. I jot down every possible meaning I can find for that word. Then I go back to the interview and, in a stream of consciousness-like state, write what I think the person is saying. When I hit little speed bumps (the uncertain words), I glance at the list I created. Now, with context, I know which one matters and the English version comes into existence.
Sometimes a word isn’t anywhere. Naver dictionary? Doesn’t have it. Google Translate? Doesn’t have it/is unsafe. At times like this, I’ll try random variations of spelling and even Google Image it. You’d be amazed how you can figure out a word’s meaning by staring at pictures.
Of course, when I’m truly desperate, I ask for help from my Korean boyfriend on those sneaky, hidden words and twisted grammar structures.
And that’s how I translate. Then our team’s proofreader checks everything, makes lots of helpful comments to explain his edits, and sometimes we have a conversation over the different ways a word or sentence can be translated. Even a single word can make or break a translation.
When I first started translating, it was exhausting work. Exhilarating, but exhausting. I felt driven to make every single piece perfect before showing it to the proofreader, but with my limited Korean skills, I frequently found myself facing numerous corrections and edits. Quite the blow to my Korean-speaking ego!
All those kind 아줌마들 with their “한국어 너어어무 잘 하시네용!”s and the 할아버지들 at the Korean markets with their “아가씨가 한국 몇년 살아셨나?’s – all this faded away. Why was I translating when there was so much I didn’t know about the language, let alone culture, history, social cues – all the things that you must learn to truly, truly understand another language – even after several years of self-study and university?
But then, at some point, the scales started to tip back. My Korean skills grew. I cannot claim this was solely due to doggedly working at translations every week; it also came largely from talking every day with my Korean language partner-turned-boyfriend, as well as returning to Korea for two months in the summer (here‘s my reflection on three different stints studying in Korea). But translating for Humans of Seoul was indubitably instrumental.
Language skills are all about lifelong learning. They require constant maintenance and exhaustive effort. Translating is one element that has helped me, ironically, become better at translating. Am I substantially better at translating in January 2017 than I was in January 2016? I don’t know; ask my proofreader. One thing is for sure, though. My increased confidence in using Korean has opened doors that a fearful me would never have been able to open.
읽어 주셔서 감사합니다. 많이들 방문해 주시기 바랍니다.