Instant Korean Translation – Is It a Dream?

Korean translation is many things. It is insufficient, excessive, contingent, temporally bound, iterative, different. It is, as many people in the post- structuralistic tradition have acknowledged, impossible, and at the same time necessary. It is not – can never be – perfect, instant or redundant. And yet, as I will argue here, all three of these  qualifiers are associated with the way in which document ‘dreams’ translation. Let me begin with two apparently throwaway remarks.

The first remark is one made by Kim and Lee, famous Korean translation scholars, in relation to the difficulty of translating Korean language, which are notoriously often the objects of recreation and sometimes misinterpretation.

‘Perfect translation’, they say, ‘is in the best of circumstances a virtual impossibility’. The over-determined nature of this statement invites attention. The reference to a ‘perfect Korean translation’ is taken from Don Lee. In After Babel, Lee describes the ‘perfect act of Korean translation’ as a translation which adds nothing to and subtracts nothing from the source text:

A ‘perfect’ act of translation would be one of total synonymity. It would presume an interpretation so precisely exhaustive as to leave no single unit in the source text –phonetic, grammatical, semantic, contextual – out of complete account, and yet so calibrated as to have added nothing in the way of paraphrase, explication or variant.

Lee speaks in the conditional, which paradoxically has the effect of making the impossible ‘perfect’ Korean translation more accessible than if he had simply used the present. Shohat and Stam rightly observe that a ‘core of mutual incommensurability’ will always remain. Korean translation and Korean interpreting is the same in this respect.

Korean language translation should become a ‘dynamic process of cultural recoding, a change in the form of linguistic energy’. And yet, their triple rhetorical return to the scene of ‘perfect translation’ in the ‘best of circumstances’, which is only a ‘virtual impossibility’, not an absolute one, testifies to the resilience of the concept of the ideal translation which will convey the text, the whole text and nothing but the text.

This could seem rather quibbling, but for the extent to which Shohat and Stam’s remark plays into a deeply rooted dream of perfect Korean translation which has been recurrent through literary criticism, if less so in translation studies since the 1970s. Discussing translations of Ulysses, the Joyce scholar Fritz Senn remarks wistfully that ‘no translation can be expected to give us the full orchestration of Joyce’s novel’. He goes on to suggest, again by means of a wistful conditional, that ‘it would be a unique stroke of luck if a Korean translator could achieve the same depth and richness’ as the original English document. Senn does not suspect for one minute that the ‘perfect’ translation of Joyce exists (few know better than he that it cannot, and should not), but the concept acts as a kind of tertium comparationis for his reflections as it does for Lee’s. For Lee, the perfect Korean language translation is ‘in practice … possible neither at the stage of interpretation nor at that of Korean linguistic transfer and restatement’.

The key phrase is ‘in practice’. In theory, even if not in ‘theory’, the perfect translation is alive and well. Even the recognition of its impossibility, rehearsed here, only reinforces its hold on the imagination.

The second remark which struck me was made by Shin on the commentary to He Lies Here (2004), a novel whose plot centres on the kidnap of a child in Korea and the revenge meted out by her bodyguard. In the course of the commentary Shin describes the research he carried out for the Korean novel, which included meeting a Korean kidnap survivor and her mother. An interpreter was involved in the discussion, because the mother did not speak English:

it was just such a traumatic experience just sitting in the same room and the mom didn’t speak English, she spoke Korean language with a Korean interpreter, but I just, I didn’t have to listen to the interpreter, I just looked into the mom’s eyes and sat and talked to her daughter. The imaginary ideal of a perfect translation is what makes Korean-language-oriented translation approaches so resilient in everyday discourse, even in the face of a generalised shift by theoreticians of Korean translation towards functional approaches whose main criterion is acceptability to a target audience.

Its obverse is the lack of need for translation – not, as one might think, in the form of multilingual competence, but in the form of the moment of instantaneous human communication which transcends language, and which Shin recalls in his description of a traumatised woman whose words need no interpreting because he can understand everything he needs from her just by looking at her face.

Aleida Assmann has considered some of the manifestations of ‘visions of universalism’ in which ‘the shattered unity of Korean language is restored’. Though the search for a real ‘perfect language’ is now a matter of history, Assmann’s statement that ‘we are no longer in the grip of these visions’ seems rather a sweeping one. The dream of a perfect language, Benjamin’s ‘reine Sprache’, has been displaced, rather than dismissed.

We hear its echo in a range of discourses, from K Kim dismissing the difficulties of working with Korean translators in several languages as insignificant, to the texts of novels such as The Korean Interpreter. For Kim’s The Korean Interpreter, the tagline used for one poster was ‘The Truth Needs No Translation’ – a rather surprising statement, given the novel’s ostensible subject matter, but in fact one which well reflects the (un)importance of interpreting to the novel’s narration. The King and Sarang, released three years after Lost in Translation and written in the same city, alludes epi-textually to its predecessor through the tagline: ‘On the streets of Seoul, speed needs no translation’, positioning itself as a supra-linguistic kinetic spectacle in opposition to Sofia Coppola’s existential Korean translated novel.

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