Just Half – Translation Fun

Let’s take a break from the ongoing situation and talk about translating fun.

When I studied Spanish, one of my favorite things to do was attempt lyrics translation with only a dictionary and my mental index of grammar.

While my Korean grammar is obviously below seven years of Spanish study, translation is still very fun for me. Especially because Korean is so wildly different from Romance and Germanic languages that it takes a different kind of mental gymnastics.

Korean ballads are my favorite “cry in the car while your life falls apart” songs and this one is beautiful. Peep the live version with Jin Minho and a cameo special guest. Again, if you haven’t watched Crash Landing on You you’re missing out.

(My all time “bring on the tears” ballad is Only You by Huh Gak. You don’t need to know Korean to know that it hurts.)

This was a challenge because there were three people talked about in the lyrics (singer, lover, lover’s ex). But Korean doesn’t require pronouns and all verbs are conjugated the exact same way regardless of the subject. It’s up to the listener to understand implicitly from context. Spanish, too, doesn’t require pronouns but Spanish verbs are conjugated specifically to the subject so as to make pronouns redundant.

For example, this line which got my right in the feels:
미안하지 않아도 되
Lit: sorry-not permissible (casual language form)
Possible Trans: It’s okay if you’re not sorry. It’s okay if I’m not sorry. It’s okay if she’s not sorry. It’s okay if he’s not sorry. It’s okay if they are not sorry. It’s okay if we are not sorry.

This also lends itself to a naturally genderless language. Now what’s funny is that the official translation, as taken from the official YouTube video, substitutes in pronouns and assumes the lover’s ex is a man when in fact there are no true third person pronouns (he, she, it, they) in Korean.

그 사람 lit: that person; trans: him

My translation as pictured above is more literal because I’m still a beginner but you can see what assumptions were made about the intent of the song by the translator.

According to Wikipedia:

Geu (그) has a range of meanings, “he,” “she,” or “it.” Ambiguity and the ability of the Korean language to drop pronouns which can be reconstructed from context make geu be seldom used by itself, but it has enjoyed a revival recently as the translation of “he” in works translated from European languages.


This same article makes note of what I noticed in the unexpected pronunciation of 네 in the third line:

Additionally, because many Koreans have lost the distinction between the vowels ae (애) and e (에), ne (네, “you”) is dissimilating to ni (니).

Note that 네 also means “yes” but inside this meaning the pronunciation is always maintained as “ne”. Only when the meaning is “you” does the pronunciation change to “nee/ni”.

This song is written and sung with casual language which is something I have little practice in (once I have more Korean friends my own age or an intimate partner I’ll get back to you). Casual language has pronouns for “I/you/me/you” while polite language avoids second and third person pronouns.

In fact, there’s only one way to say “you” in polite language but it’s for very specific cases: and you cannot go around calling your coworker 당신 (danghseen) since this is reserved for romantic partners… or insults. If you must address someone directly in Korean in polite form, you use their name or their title. Since I don’t know most of my coworkers’ names, I call them “teacher”.

You’ll often here this in Korean dramas: managers and upper execs are addressed by their title: in the drama Crash Landing on You, Yoon Seri’s subordinates address her as 대표님 (depyoneem) which means CEO.

Take note the ending 님 (neem): while 씨 (sshe) is the honorific attached to someone’s personal name, similar to Mr./Ms. in English, 님 is the honorific attached to someone’s title. My fifth graders and I all had a laugh when Geoni introduced himself as kimchi and I called him kimchi님. Notice the honorific in the word for teacher 선생.

Personally, I like this pragmatism. At my first job, I never knew how to address the CEO: calling him by his first name seemed inappropriate, but calling him Mr. Last Name seemed to derogate my position and affected an almost juvenile, “I am talking to my friend’s father” air.

Of course, I find myself at a sharp and specific loss for words in Korean when I want to address someone directly but know neither their name or title. Luckily, subjects are optional.

But sometimes I just want the polite lexical equivalent of pointing in someone’s face.

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