Jerome Rothenberg invented ethnopoetics, both word and concept, and his wonderful anthology Technicians of the Sacred has been a backbone of my collection for many years. He has a blog, Poems and Poetics, which I don’t check as often as I should, and it was thanks to wood s lot (as so often) that I discovered his posts Brother Anthony of Taizé (An Sonjae): The Perfect Translation, Impossible Dream (Part One) and (Part Two). Brother Anthony is an interesting guy:

Born in Truro (Cornwall, U. K.) in 1942, he studied Medieval and Modern Languages at The Queen’s College, in the University of Oxford, from 1960 until 1969. In 1969 he joined the monastic Community of Taizé (France), to which he made a Life Commitment at Easter 1974. He came to Korea in May 1980, and since then he has continued to live in Seoul with other Brothers from Taizé. Over that time he has both taught medieval and renaissance English literature and culture at Sogang University and become one of our principal translators of modern Korean literature into English, most notably through his well known translations of the poems and fiction of Ko Un. Naturalized as a Korean citizen in 1994 with the Korean name An Sonjae, he is now emeritus professor at Sogang University, chair-professor at Dankook University, and President of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch.

He writes about “the nature of the foreignness of Korean literature, and the resulting test for the translator,” and has a lot to say; I’ll excerpt one paragraph from the second part:

For the translator of Korean literature into English, obliged to move between two languages and cultures that are extremely foreign to one another, the implications are daunting. Already we face a great challenge in what seems to be an increasing opposition among Korean readers (evaluators) of our translations to what they see as excessive domestication. The substitution of American (or British) oaths and idioms in dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg. Where Koreans address one another using many relationship markers, 형, 언니, 엄마, 선생님 . . . we in English do not, so we tend simply to omit them as we translate. Should we? In the interests of readability we have little choice but to simplify or assign to glossaries much of the vocabulary of food, traditional culture, clothing. The day may come when a Korean Nabokov or Brodsky, the enemies of excessively British translations of Russian classics, will arise to demand a return to pure, honest Konglish in translation. This is said at a lower stylistic level than the high philosophy of Ricoeur, yet it is the same question. Who, in the end, is authorized to judge whether a translator has achieved an ‘acceptable equivalence’ for the Korean original? The reader who says ‘this is so enjoyable’? Or the reader who says ‘this is so [un]like the original.’? They will always both be correct.


  1. I’ve been reading Venuti in translations studies; one of his arguments in “The Scandals of Translation” is that he prefers to create translations that are as “foreign” and un-domestic as possible—not out of a desire of fidelity, but rather because he wants to expand on the little-used possibilities of language (the “remainder”), which he seems as related to social minorities.
    That last point feels a bit strained to me, but in any case I have to concur with the general idea; I’m a huge fan of strange, unnatural translations that refuse to localize everything. The otherness is alluring, the linguistic otherness particularly so. I’d even advocate for more reverse translators, i.e. people translating from L1 to L2 (the opposite of standard practice (if my class is to be trusted)).

  2. Where do you draw the line between unnatural translations and translationese?

  3. The otherness is alluring, the linguistic otherness particularly so.
    The strange stuff each time has the appeal. Advertising makes the use of this: “world novelty !”. But I permit myself this question: what otherness ? To translate Korean into English book so Korean reader feel at home reading it ? Unfair to English readers !

  4. I agree with Herr Dampf. “Otherness” in a translation is alluring primarily when it seems to promise genuineness. Otherwise, otherness is just different.
    If you want genuine, you work for years saving to buy a R*lex watch. If you only want different, you buy a cheap imitation and wear it to work.

  5. I assume it to be uncontroversial that a translation is not a good one when it creates an atmosphere that is not at all in the original (I’m thinking of the French translations of Poe). Let’s take a Korean novel whose plot is about everyday Korean life, and is enjoyed by Korean readers because it is so true-to-life – in particular “relationship markers” are part of the dialogs. When this novel is translated into English in such a way that English readers find it very strange – say because “relationship markers” appear everywhere – then strangeness has been introduced where naturalness reigned in the original. So the translation is bad. Even Koreans who know English would think it bad, because they know that English speakers don’t communicate like that.
    It would seem that this argument can be taken a step further, to show that any translation of a Korean novel into English must be bad. Koreans don’t speak English, so to create an impression that they do is misleading.
    However, we are accustomed to the convention that Korean characters in an English novel speak English, whether the novel was translated or not. Otherness is like a bowl of popcorn – the more you consume, the less you have left over. If you want otherness, learn Korean – except that once you’re learned it the experience of otherness will have vanished irretrievably. Knowledge is different – the more you know, the more you don’t know.
    The argument about “not good when the atmosphere is wrong” is actually pretty unconvincing, when you consider that no one is bothered by the patronymics that appear in English translations of Russian novels. Instead of assuming that there must be fixed, timeless standards for translation, we can think of the matter this way – what is initially strange can be introduced with the goal of becoming familiar. “Otherness” is the packaging, not the product.

  6. This gets into the muddy water of an author’s intentions and abilities. What if, e.g., Poe intended (but failed) to create the effects that his French translators actually achieved? Should French-Poe be translated back into English, ‘otherness’ and all?

  7. There is a by now wholly mainstream culture of American and other kids the world over who read manwha and manga (Korean and Japanese comics), scanned, translated into English, and published on the Web by tiny teams of high-school and college students, for pleasure. Convention in these translations has long been to leave relationship markers and other untranslatable phenomena in the translated product, precisely because they convey so much important information. Ask your kids about this: it is quite likely that their English has already gathered Konglish and Jinglish into its bosom, and moved on.

  8. Yeah, many translation issues are solved as the fuddy-duddy issue-raisers gradually die off, and the young hell-raisers move in.

  9. “Convention in these translations has long been to leave relationship markers and other untranslatable phenomena in the translated product, ……Ask your kids about this: it is quite likely that their English has already gathered Konglish and Jinglish into its bosom, and moved on.”
    GIs used to do something like this, only with the -da marker, and for fun. “No sweaty da” and easy da” were GI slang for a few generations, although they may be dying along with “mox nix” and “What’s the los?”. The Korean expressions sound like they may have been formed by a Korean civilian in the early days of contact. I doubt any Korean says thins lie this anymore.
    People are deploying elsehwere these days, and they may pull in a few Arabic or Pushtu expressions. I can easily imagine “inshallah” being used in a sneering, ironic way to shame a lieuteneant who has failed at something, and I shudder to think what uses “baza bachi” will be put to.

  10. “Poems and Poetics” sure looks interesting, but I must refuse to be a part of any movement that uses a word like “indigeneousity”.

  11. @andrew: You may be interested in a previous Hattian discussion on that subject: http://languagehat.com/archives/003755.php. Not everyone would agree with your statement that the include-relationship-markers convention is “because they convey so much important information”.

  12. Bathrobe says

    Shouldn’t that be spelt ‘indigenosity’?

  13. @Stu:
    > I assume it to be uncontroversial that a translation is not a good one when it creates an atmosphere that is not at all in the original.
    That is the debatable bit.
    Think of a painting of a girl in a traditional Korean costume. That painting might feel familiar and homely for a Korean viewer, and weird for a, say, English viewer. But chances are this weirdness is precisely what they were looking for when they went into a Korean art gallery—even though the pieces in there would not at all be weird for Koreans. This kind of orientalism might not necessarily be a bad thing. It expands æsthetic horizons, for one thing.
    Regarding translations: If I read a true-to-life Korean novel, I expect it to teach me about Korean views on life. But the more sucessfully it reproduces the non-strange atmosphere of the original, the more it has to be adapted to a target-language worldview—and the more I would rather just read a local novel. Yes, a “foreign” translation is something entirely different from the original (I’m thinking Venuti would argue a domestic, natural translation is too; we just pretend it isn’t). Spicy Mexican food is different to me than to Mexicans (I can barely tolerate it). But I don’t want the Mexican restaurant to adapt the spices to my tastes so that I can feel I’m eating domestic food like a Mexican would, I want it to taste Mexican and strange.
    And that has to do with what you were talking about genuineness. It might well be argued that the Konglish novel is not genuine and breaks fidelity, since it changes the mood of the original. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.

  14. michael farris says

    “It doesn’t come across the situation arises in any manner. Coming to the casual occurrence it will translate the principal poems.”
    -Posted by Soon-to-be-deleted-spammer
    Bravo! Here we are chattering on about domestication and otherness while the spammer in question simply dumps a wonderfully exotic bit of language into the discussion.
    What particular set of language rules in the spammer’s language could generate this sequence of English words?
    What does the exotic and clear and transparent nature of the posting suggest?
    Does its stark otherness lead the reader to dismiss or embrace the appeal to commerce?
    Does the otherness diminish or increase it’s commercial appeal?
    So many questions….

  15. michael, the otherness has been placed there to arouse damnabilis curiositas. I’m still not sure, from one antient context to the next, what was meant by curiositas – unwillingness to stay concentrated on important matters, nosiness, impertinence (i.e. lacking in seemly deference) ? Here’s a 16C list of types of reprehensible behavior from a WiPe article in which curiositas is translated as “oddness”. I think this can’t be right, because I can’t imagine how plain oddness (of appearance, of opinion ?) could be seen as reprehensible with the same degree of severity as imposturae – as opposed, say, to spiteful oddness towards other people (orneriness). But I’m no Latinist:

    qui se magos jactitare non erubescunt, curiositas, præstigiæ, vanitas, dolus, imposturæ, deliria, mens elusa, & manifesta mendacia, quinimo non ferendæ blasphemiæ, omnium mortalium, qui in mediæ lucis splendore hallucinari nolint….

  16. I agree with Leonardo; there are many other virtues beyond preserving a hypothetical original “atmosphere” (which probably cannot be done in any case without turning the reader into a hypothetical native of the original culture).

  17. Apparently it was not clear that my argument in terms of “atmosphere” and “naturalness” was one ad absurdum, reaching the same conclusion.

  18. @Ran: thanks for the link, I had forgotten about that post. Certainly there is enormous variation in the approach of different fansubbing or scanlating groups to the problems (these are varied too) of translation, as noted by the second commenter in that thread. I’ve read quite a lot of this stuff over the years, and imagine my taste in translations to be quite conservative — I’d be turned off pretty quickly by the sort of footnote-ridden showboating described in the main article. Fortunately, at least for the titles I find myself reading, there’s not much of that in evidence. And to be appropriately careful about generalization, it’s specifically the point about honorifics in the post above that elicited my initial remark: I can’t think of the last time I saw an honorific footnoted in scanlation, except maybe the zero-grade version when it occurs in the midst of a to-tutoyer-or-not-to-tutoyer crisis. They’re overwhelmingly just left in, without fanfare, carrying their burden of nuance, and readers get used to them with equally little ado.
    @Stu: I wouldn’t dream of crying fuddy-duddy — joining a monastery and jumping hemispheres is pretty well the definition of badass. I just mean to report that English as she is spoke has a fait accompli solution to the difficulty.

  19. Rodger C says


  20. Mexicans, like other human beings, differ in their appetite for spicy-hot food, and any well-conducted and authentic Mexican restaurant should be able to tune the level of heat to a patron’s request.

  21. Thus the Mexican saying: “if you can’t stand the heat, notify the kitchen”.

  22. michael farris says

    When I was in southern mexico (Oaxaca and Chiapas) the food was bland and the chillies were served on the side so each person could spice it up to their own taste.
    I think some parts of Mexico are more likely to cook the chillis into the dish.

  23. Bob Violence says

    Re: Ran and Andrew’s posts on the January ’10 post: there’s actually an entire book on translation in cinema and TV (in subtitles and elsewhere), which comes down strongly on Brother Anthony’s side and probably goes even further (although the book is valuable for its historical-descriptive aspects even if you disagree with every single position takes).

  24. I’ll just mention, as a person who does not like spicy (aka painful) food, that the absence of this quality is not to be unified with blandness. There are five flavors and a semi-infinite variety of smells available, and highly seasoned food may be quite devoid of capsaicin and its friends.

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