The state of translation in Korea

A new book with the provocative title of Are Translators Traitors? examines Korea’s translation situation and pronounces it “deplorable.” As a professor of Western history at Woosuk University, the author, Park Sang-ik, is perhaps especially sensitive to how few translations of Western classics Korean translators have produced compared with their Japanese counterparts. Many of those translations, he adds, are retranslations from Japanese texts.

The problem is not only the “shameful” quantity but also quality of translations. Park confessed that he was “disillusioned and shocked” to see how shoddy and cursory the translations were, even those done by “renowned” scholars, and how many translated works belong within the shameful category. Park took an example of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” translated by an Italian language professor, which is full of mistranslations and grammatically wrong expressions. And this is just the tip of a huge iceberg, according to Park. It is almost customary for professors to just let or make graduate students do translations with their own credits, which have spawned bad cross-cultural texts.

This reminds me of how some of China’s English textbooks have been produced:

  1. A professor in China who is not a native speaker of English is given a book contract.
  2. The professor then hands the work over to his students, none of whom are native speakers of English.
  3. The students, quite understandably not giving a damn about the professor’s project, proceed to plagiarize previously produced textbooks, reproducing old errors and introducing new ones.
  4. The book is published, further establishing the professor as an expert on English.

I’ve seen this process in action myself.

Back to the article now. Part of the problem is that in academic reviews professors are seldom given appropriate credit for any translations they might produce.

Another factor is the poor remuneration for the work:

For example, if a translator sells about 5,000 copies of a 10,000-won ($10) book — a big hit if it’s a social science or humanities studies book — he could have only around 5 million won [US$5,000] in hand at the end. With such minuscule reward for sweaty work, you will either churn out low quality translations or leave the job once and for all, the author writes.

I suspect that many translators, regardless of their target language, would recognize that situation — and even that’s without factoring in the woes of “work for hire.”

Pointing to the fragile base for the nation’s translation, Park went on further to stress that Korea does not even have a proper English-Korean dictionary. Quoting an English professor, Park said the majority of Korean-English dictionaries are translated versions of Japanese-English ones.

“These dictionaries have omitted many Korean words with purely Korean linguistic origins (as they had translated Japanese definitions word for word),” Park quoted the English scholar.

The article closes with Park pronouncing another of those warnings of “doom” for the Korean language if nothing is done to correct the situation.

Is [the] Korean Language Doomed?, Korea Times, January 20, 2006

4 thoughts on “The state of translation in Korea

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » South Korea: Lost in Translation

  2. A professional translator will only translate into his own native tongue.
    Or,he could DARE to translate into a foreign language (even if he’s good at it) only if the text is very short and elementary.

  3. Well, in Russia we have a plenty of original vocabularies, but problems with bad translations everywhere (books, TV, copy-paste-journalism in the Web), low-paid translations and low-quality textbooks are the same.

    Now these things work like an external factor that brings mutations into genes :)

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