Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Music and Lyrics

Learning the Korean language is certainly complicated by its use of different levels of respect and the need to choose words based upon the status of the person you are speaking to. But the implications go further - society may make a language but language also makes a society. As long as you're linguistically accepting the need to show deference to a senior at some level you're probably accepting the hierarchical structure subconsciously - if not overtly.

Television series Battlestar Galactica has been on Korean television this year, probably in no small part because it features a Korean actress in a prominent role (most of the initial publicity here focussed on her). The first series was dubbed by Korean actors - which seems a lot more effort than the subtitles they later adopted for season two. But something was lost in the translation. The show won a Peabody-award in part for its questioning of the meaning of humanity and its topical portrayal of civil rights in times of war, and it's a fair bet given the covert motivations of the producers that they didn't envisage the Korean version turning into a pale and possibly misogynistic version of the original. Yet it did, with the often harsh tones of its empowered military women replaced by squeaky Korean actresses speaking in respectful forms of the language to their male counterparts. So, our first introduction to a reckless female fighter pilot running down a corridor shouting "make a hole" to an assembled group blocking her path becomes a much more pleading "please get out of the way". And so on. It didn't really get any better when they chose to subtitle it instead. The 'Korean version' of the series is a pale imitation of its original language counterpart.

All of which leads me to wonder just how widespread the context the Western media that is imported is changed. Does it matter? Should it matter? Is there a group of ajeossis somewhere deep within the Korean broadcasting networks deliberately superimposing their cultural views on what's imported through them, or is it merely the unconscious manifestation of society's hegemony which they don't even realise they're re-enforcing by their actions? And, if this is how American programs (sic) are presented, what exactly is the content of Korean ones? Perhaps fortunately though, my language abilities are a long way from discovering the answer to the last question.

The whole subject of movie and television translations is probably worthy of a more detailed discussion, because it goes far beyond this one example. I gather that a great many translations are done by students as part-time work, but a lot of them are just not good. It's not just about cultural stereotypes - much of the humour can be lost, as in the moment in Music and Lyrics when the lead character references a departed eccentric female acquaintance as having 'gone back to the mother ship'. The Korean subtitles read "she's gone back home". The original version makes a point, the Korean translation is pointless. Granted, humour can be difficult to translate - I'm well aware for example that much of the irony and sarcasm with which I necessarily write as an increasingly ex-British person may be lost on my American cousins, even though they consistently rank at the top of this blog's readership and we officially share the same language. Or nearly the same language at least, as I'm reminded by another piece of American software that I no longer apparently speak English but rather "British English", or as I prefer to call it "English English". But then, perhaps our differences are more myth than reality.

The fact is this problem in Korea goes beyond cultural issues and humour, sometimes the point of the whole story is lost, at best leaving a Korean audience collectively scratching their heads, and at worst bringing them to the conclusion that what they've watched is a bad piece of work. And that's not fair on the artists involved, no more than the reverse would be true - I don't expect to come to an instant understanding of Korean culture, and perhaps I'll never truly understand the humour, but I would like to think that any Korean film or programme I watch will be a true and accurate representation of the efforts of the writers behind it - not some diluted form stemming from the inadequacies of the translation efforts. There's an excerpt from Music and Lyrics which speaks to this point:

Alex Fletcher: It doesn't have to be perfect. Just spit it out. They're just lyrics.
Sophie Fisher: "Just lyrics"?
Alex Fletcher: Lyrics are important. They're just not as important as melody.
Sophie Fisher: I really don't think you get it. A melody is like seeing someone for the first time. The physical attraction. Sex. But then, as you get to know the person, that's the lyrics. Their story. Who they are underneath. It's the combination of the two that makes it magical.

We shouldn't have to live in a world where the music drowns out the lyrics, because too often what we're left with is just the noise that is modern society, and the bosses of movie and television companies believing writers to be an unimportant cog in the wheel of the Hollywood machine. Writing is important, and I don't want what I consume as a foreigner in Korea to be lost in translation - it gives me a skewed view of life here. By the same token, I want Koreans to understand my culture as it exists, not how its presented by other Koreans with no such cultural background, struggling with their English.

Korean tags: 단어, 영어, 한국어, 영화,


M said...

As an avid Korean drama viewer, I've noticed that the English translations vary. Some are good and some are horrible. Dubbing is usually a failure because it removes the speaker's emotions from the drama. Idioms and sarcasm are just not caught by the translations.
It seems that Koreans are much more polite in their daily activities and language (except for the phlegm sounds outside your window).

Anonymous said...

I know exactly what you're talking about. I've also noticed how unbalanced it is when women and men talk to each other (through the subtitles) when I watch foreign films. I've often found that the translations can be ridiculously off and I would say misogynistic as well.


Anonymous said...

The last time I was in Korea was in 1997. We went to chinju and while I was there we visited the national park. I needed a hat and proceeded to the ajumonies that where hawking various wares. Of course I could see the look of terror in their eyes as the 'big nose" approached.
I spoke in Korean and we haggled on the price. They (there was a whole bunch of them) liked my "joke" about the hat being made of gold and offered to give me the hat for free. i declined.
Koreans almost always appreciate a "big nose" at least making the effort in speaking the language..keep on studying!!!!

Post a Comment