In recent years, the world has been enraptured by the dark, grisly, comical, and cynical realm of Korean-language media. For years, K-drama has flourished in parts of the world, followed by the meteoric rise of Korean literature (by the likes of International Booker Prize winner Han Kang and recent nominees Park Sang-young and Bora Chung). Squid Game is still Netflix’s top-watched show of all time, and Parasite has helped cineastes rediscover the trove of delectable Korean cinema, spearheaded by Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, among others.
Each time a work of Korean creativity (if it can be labeled as such) comes to the forefront, it undergoes a now-standardized process: the initial acclaim, followed by intense criticism and scrutiny regarding the translation of the works. When translator Deborah Smith first translated Han Kang’s darkly enigmatic novel The Vegetarian, the work was met with rapturous awe and amazement, only to be marred by an onslaught of critics and Korean-language aficionados, nitpicking every single sentence in an attempt to disprove Smith’s understanding of the language. Squid Game’s English subtitles came under scrutiny for its mistranslations, some going as far as to say that “if you don’t understand korean [sic] you didn’t really watch the same show.” Likewise, Parasite has had its own share of acclaim (for being the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or and the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, alongside ranking first on Letterboxd’s prestigious list of the 250 best narrative feature films). The main thing to take away from all this is that works of translation undergo a high level of criticism, not for their content, but for the way in which it is translated from one language to another. But oftentimes, we are left wondering: on what basis do people—many of whom aren’t acquainted with the art and techniques of translation—criticize translations? And what does that say about how people view the tenuous work of translation?
Renowned TikToker, podcaster, and content creator Youngmi Mayer tweeted the following upon watching Squid Game:
not to sound snobby but i’m fluent in korean and i watched squid game with english subtitles and if you don’t understand korean you didn’t really watch the same show. translation was so bad. the dialogue was written so well and zero of it was preserved
It’s a sentiment many agree with; the translated subtitles of Squid Game failed to capture the true meaning of the original work, almost to the point that the subtitles were a show of their own. Whether the fault is on the part of the translator or the sheer difficulty of translation processes, the months following Squid Game enunciated a widespread thought: so much is lost in translation.
A couple years earlier, a similar incident happened with Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. A 2017 article on The JoongAng—a Korean newspaper—cites Cho Jaeryong, a professor of French language and literature at Korea University, saying that Smith’s Korean skills are subpar, hence leading to a critical mistranslation in which a subject pronoun omitted in the Korean original (as is characteristic of the language) reappeared, mistranslated. In an article for Korea Exposé, Charse Yun was also critical—perhaps not as much as Cho—of the translation, which he called “flawed yet remarkable.”
Cho has done his research; he cites a paper—an actual research paper—presented at a conference in which Smith’s translation of the novel is analyzed for flaws. According to the research, “10.9 percent of the first part of the novel was mistranslated. Another 5.7 percent of the original text was omitted.” However, Cho is more accepting of the kind of flaws that exist in the process of translation: “it would serve us well to remember that “unfaithfulness to the original” doesn’t necessarily mean betrayal, as if the translator carried out willful acts of mistranslation. For one thing, it presumes a lack of sincerity and respect for the source material.” Other critics were more respectful with their criticism, such as an article by the Hankook Ilbo, in which the deviations arising from the translation were examined and applauded for the ways in which it “recreated the effects of the original by transfiguring word nuances and sentences.”
By examining the critical discourse of Squid Game and The Vegetarian, we observe a couple of trends running through the criticism offered for the two works in translation. First, some critics believe in an underlying or comprehensive “message” of the original work, which must be “faithfully” translated. Second—and this perhaps positions itself in opposition to the previous point—translated works must be faithful to the semantic, grammatical, word-for-word meaning of the original work. The dichotomy between “word-for-word” translation and “sense-for-sense” translation is a debate that comes up frequently in translation discourse, though most of these points are made by critics who aren’t acquainted with other translation paradigms.
In his essay “Genealogies of Translation Theory: Jerome,” theorist and translator Lawrence Venuti provides a much more nuanced dichotomy in which to analyze and make sense of translation. For Venuti, translation can be seen as either “instrumental”; the instrumental model “treats translation as the reproduction or transfer of an invariant which the source text contains or causes, typically described as its form, its meaning, or its effect” (483). On the other hand is the “hermeneutic model,” which “treats translation as an interpretation of the source text whose form, meaning, and effect are seen as variable, subject to inevitable transformation during the translating process” (483).
Simply put, the instrumental model is what most people think of when they think of translation: the translator takes the original work then reproduces it—either word-by-word or sense-by-sense, capturing the message—into a different language. When people argue about “mistranslations” in The Vegetarian or debate whether Squid Game’s subtitles fully encapsulate the message of the show, they are referring to an instrumental model of translation. Venuti actively protests against the instrumental model, instead advocating for the hermeneutic model, which is not only “paradigmatic and generative,” but also “will lead to a productive investigation into the conditions of the translation process.”
Most of Venuti’s essay deals with the legacy of Jerome, a theologian who was tremendously influential in the ancient era for his translations. In short, Venuti notes that Jerome’s work is unwittingly instrumental in how it deals with translation; Jerome’s advocacy for instrumental translation has profoundly affected how the contemporary world views translation. And the results are harmful: by pressuring translators into staying “faithful” to a certain intrinsic message present in the original work, the translators commit the error of succumbing to certain political and cultural biases in a fatal oversight of these necessary forces that, whether we like it or not, affect and influence all that we read and write.
In Jerome’s case, it was Christian values:
Jerome’s effort to rehabilitate the word-for-word strategy proved to be no more than an initial feint before his triumphant valorization of sense-for-sense translation, the strategy that he inherited from Roman authors like Cicero, Horace, and Quintilian and deployed in the construction of a Christian tradition dating back to the Septuagint. Jerome’s assimilation of the two traditions reflected his conformity to the Latinized Christianity that came to dominate the empire during the fourth century. This conformity associated him with a cultural elite, so that although he had adopted the asceticism of a monastic intellectual, in which self- mortification took the form of working with languages he considered unrefined like Biblical Hebrew and Greek, he nonetheless shared Damasus’s Roman aristocratic view of the early Christian church. (501)
Simply put, Jerome’s conscious choice to advocate for word-for-word or sense-for-sense translation has resulted in his inability to acknowledge to confess and point out the political, religious ways in which his translations have benefited him—a “conformity” that “associated him with a cultural elite.”
A hermeneutic model of translation takes into account these intertextual factors. Instead of relying solely on the words and messages of the original text, a hermeneutic translation instead reveals the fact that translations never really exist in a vacuum of their own; every single meaning, word, and sense is mediated by the world and its real conditions and ideologies. A translator that submits themself to such a hermeneutic translation relies on these factors—something Venuti refers to as “interpretants”—effectively “interrogating and changing the instrumentalist theories that have prevailed for millennia.” Or as Venuti says:
The hermeneutic model can avoid the potentially questionable ethics of instrumentalist theories like Jerome’s because of its capacity to expose the various determinations at work in any translation. This model allows for the possibility that different yet equally effective interpretants might be applied by translators and translation scholars, and that in any translating or in any analysis of a translation another set of interpretants will always lie outside the ken of the ones that have been applied. An instrumentalist understanding of translation, in contrast, is driven by a metaphysics that assumes the existence of an invariant, and that assumption must necessarily exclude any notion of variability, so much so that it can powerfully rewrite its linguistic, cultural, and social conditions (502).
In Yun’s critique of Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian, he notes that, unlike the “lack of agency” present in the original work—as is the general literary pathos for Korean literature—Smith’s version has “a heightened defiance, a quasi-agency.” While others point out Smith’s mistranslations and failure to stay “faithful,” perhaps Smith understood that a word-for-word or sense-for-sense translation of the novel could potentially be misrepresented and misunderstood in the context of Western readers, thereby saving the novel from being mischaracterized as passive. Smith’s understanding of the differences in these power dynamics allows the translated version of The Vegetarian to be more subversive in its effect, compared to what might have transpired if she opted for an instrumentalist translation of the work.
What is important, then, in translation—at least, according to Venuti and, to an extent, Smith—are the external factors that influence the original text and translated work. Only by critically examining these factors and reflecting such deliberation in the way we translate—forgoing “faithfulness”—can we fully grasp the scope of the ramifications of what we do.
As is the case with all literary translation theories we encounter, it is helpful to ask how this pertains to the realm of technical translation. Given its status as the most commercially available kind of translation—yet derided as being secondary to literary translation—technical translation must examine its position and how these theories can be applied to its particular situation. Venuti prefaces the essay by saying that this notion of instrumental and hermeneutic translation “encompasses technical translation as well, in which terminologies with a high degree of standardization are transposed in legal, commercial, and scientific documents. A standardized terminology would seem to be a formal and semantic invariant that might lend cogency to the instrumental model: jargon with a stable meaning. But this sort of language can certainly be varied when translated – through rewording, for instance, or replacement by explanatory renderings. The decision to transpose standardized terms from the source text to the translation is an interpretive choice made by the translator in fulfilling a client’s commission and determined by the precisely defined function that is assigned to the technical text” (483-4).
In this sense, technical translators are also tasked with abiding by a hermeneutic mode of translation; even in the most technical of translations, the translator must still be cognizant of the external forces—interpretants—at work, being deliberate in the way our works will take effect in the minds of our readers.
Venuti, Lawrence. “Genealogies of Translation Theory: Jerome.” The Translation Studies Reader, Routledge, London, 2021.