Reflecting on a year of translation

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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 or 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 from me 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.

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Like the time I couldn’t figure out what 지푸라기 꾸러미 was.

Of course, when I am truly desperate, I often get help from my Korean boyfriend on truly 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?

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Preliminary translations can be very rough. Much of this was changed before it was a finished product. Yet as difficult as they can be, I just love doing the interviews for 할머니s and 할아버지s. There’s so much history packed into their memories.

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, but it 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 certainly a big part of it all.

Language skills are all about constant maintenance and striving to learn new things. 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.

지금 재생 중:

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Korea’s “Netflix and Chill”

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I haven’t done a “Miss Interpretation” post in quite a while, but today I have a funny story that falls into this category of mistakes and misunderstandings in Korean. Netflix and chill? Move aside.

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Let’s go back a few years. When I studied abroad at Yonsei University in 2014, I frequently went to festivals and events held in the area. 신촌’s streets would fill with booths, performers, and music, and my friends and I would wander through it all. My favorite festival was a big art festival where my friend bought a painting and I bought two sets of artist-made postcards. Continue reading

Pay tribute to me! Mistakes in Korean

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It’s been a while since I’ve updated my Miss Interpretation section. Not because I’m not making mistakes, but mainly because they’ve been relatively boring mistakes. I haven’t said anything really inappropriate or completely grammatically incorrect in a while, but I’ve continued to make little mistakes without advancing much. Sigh. I need to get down to business to defeat the Huns and actually get back into intense studying.

Actual photo of me. I’m secretly a muscular Chinese man, but don’t tell anyone.

I did, however, have any interesting conversation with one of my language partners on Skype Continue reading

My Korean nickname is disease

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I seem to have a propensity to put my Korean foot in my mouth whether it’s because I mix up words, misunderstand, or completely misspell a key word. My most recent mistake was Continue reading

Do NOT tell someone you’re excited – mistakes in Korean

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I seem to have a propensity for making awful mistakes while learning Korean. If you think of either an inappropriate or an extremely simple, everybody-knows-this word, I’ve probably already used it accidentally in a conversation with a language partner. The mistake I’m focusing on in this post is one that I must blame entirely on my lazy Google Translate ways. I have brought dishonor on my language-learning.

In one of my early conversations with an italki language buddy on Kakaotalk, we were discussing college. He told me that studying in college would help my Korean. I replied with,

“그죠? ^_^ 흥분해요~”

“Right? I’m excited*~”

I hadn’t already known the word for ‘to be excited,’ so in my haste to reply, I had grabbed the phrase from Google Translate. If I’d gone to Naver‘s online dictionary or used my Naver app for it, maybe I’d have already known what he was about to say.

“haha 흥분해요 usually means sexually excited.”

If you search 흥분 in Naver’s dictionary, you discover that not only does the word have several usages meaning excitement, agitation, upset, to be thrilled, but it also turns up as parts of phrases that mean to arouse and to stimulate.

Talk about being an awkward conversationalist. You’re jealous of my mistake-making abilities, aren’t you? Have you made any awkward mistakes while learning a language? Or do you know how to properly tell someone in Korean that you’re excited (to hear good news, to do something fun, to try something new)? Please leave a comment!

감사합니다!

Mistakes in Korean: And with one word, I changed my gender

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If you know a little bit about Korean culture and how Koreans generally refer to each other with titles based on their relationship and gender, you’ll probably be very disappointed in this failure of mine. It’s a mistake on something so elementary (and you know I just wanted to use that word instead of basic—makes me feel like Sherlock Holmes—don’t judge me) that I cringe every time I remember reading the comment on my italki post.

A while ago, I wrote an italki post about how my sister and her husband just bought their first house. I was extremely excited as I began to type.

“오늘은 우리…”

And with the third word, I already made a mistake and essentially changed my gender.

“…누나이랑매형”

오, 오, 오오오오오~!!!! 이거 봐?!

 

Nuna? Nuna?

What is nuna, you ask. Allow me to explain. Nuna is the name given to a close older sister or female friend of a guy.

Just so you know, my friend, I am female. In Korean, I should call my older sister eonni. 언니.

Perhaps you don’t think this isn’t that bad of a mistake but I was extremely embarrassed.

(Not to mention I used the wrong version of irang/rang to link my sister and my brother-in-laws titles, and his title was also wrong because it should’ve been 형부 for a girl calling her brother-in-law. But you don’t need to know that I did that. It’s just my personal insult to injury. Oh thanks, brain. You da best.)

Have you made any mistakes while language learning?

감사합니다!

Fail – when mistakes in Korean “bring tears to your eyes”

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Everybody makes mistakes. The point is that you’re supposed to learn from your mistakes. I’ve decided to start posting about mistakes that I make on my journey of learning Korean (and I’m learning Japanese, too!) in order to help myself not make them again – and to help others not make them in the first place. Continue reading