Episode 5: Found in Translation

Jul 23, 2021


‘Hello Hallyu’ is a six-part podcast series exploring how the Korean wave captivated Indian fans, and forever changed our ideas of gender, fashion and romance. 

Who is a translator fan and why are they so important? In this episode, we describe the politics of translator fandom, and discuss the Indian fans translating Korean content into regional languages.

Full episode transcript:

Sadhana: The other day when I wanted to say I was far away from completing something, my mind jumped — not to Telugu, my mother tongue, to say “Inka chala undi”; not to English, the language I use the most, to say “Long way to go”; but, instinctively, to Korean, to say “아직 멀었어요.” I went from passively watching dramas in Korean, to casually learning the language, to frantically looking up the Korean dictionary to express that one word accurately, and sometimes, even dreaming in Korean, all in the space of a few years.

S: Hi, I’m Sadhana. 

Nirupama: Hi, I’m Nirupama. We’re journalists, but more importantly, we’re fans of Korean entertainment. 

S: This is Hello Hallyu, the story of the rise of Korean entertainment in India. 

N: The last episode was talking about all things that make up the Korean aesthetic and contribute to its popularity. In this episode, we discuss how fans find a whole world of meaning in a foreign language through translations, and how Korean may become the next widely understood language that connects Indians from all parts of the country.

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N: I’ve been watching dramas for eight years, right? I now get quite a bit of the words and even some nuances of the language. I’m so used to some Korean phrases that now some of my natural reactions to what happens around me is in Korean. And I got here by purely learning through subtitles. I really love subtitles that way — and how they’re your window to a new world. 

S: So many new worlds! Not everyone agrees with that though. Tons of people wonder how Korean entertainment can be so popular because it’s in an unfamiliar language. It’s not even a language that’s seen as cool and sexy in the anglophone world, like French, for instance.

N: Yes, a lot of people do have that confusion. But they fail to see that it’s perhaps BECAUSE it is a new language, and a new culture, and a fresh kind of entertainment as opposed to what they’re exposed to, that quite a few people actually find it appealing! I’m sure a lot of people around the world became aware of, and appreciated the Korean culture and identity, thanks to Hallyu. Prof. Michelle Cho, who studies Korean pop culture at the University of Toronto, says that she sees that in North America. 

Michelle Cho: And so, in the North American context, I think that there has been a transformation from thinking about Asia as very far away and very different and very foreign to being just more familiar, rather than having a set of stereotypes about Asia that are quite orientalist and exoticizing. I think there’s again more acceptance of Asians as contemporaries, to be honest, to other North Americans.  

Yeah. I just think that the more representation there is of Asian bodies in mainstream media, the more normalized they are and the more proximity or closeness people feel so that there isn’t as big of a perception of difference. And now this is definitely because of the kind of representation there is, I mean, the type of representation matters. Because, you know, K-pop artists are presented as being hip and very contemporary and not stuck in some kind of traditional, Asian past or something, they’re seen as desirable. 

N: Before Korean, you saw this sort of an interest in Asian culture with the popularity of Japanese manga and anime, right? Sadhana, I know you were first a fan of Anime. Is that what led you to Korean entertainment?

S: Yeah it wasn’t one after another. I watched a ton of anime growing up, so, much later, when I got into Korean, it didn’t feel all that unfamiliar because I already had that exposure to Japanese. And there’s this theory that calls people like me “pop cosmopolitans” — where the fan studies scholar Henry Jenkins talks about how an interest in global popular culture leads people to the start of a global perspective, and how consuming this provides an escape route out of the parochialism of local community/culture. 

N: Oh. Pop cosmopolitans — such a wannabe name. I think I’m one too, because how I first got introduced to Korean content was through Japanese. My Japanese teacher back in college made us watch a Japanese drama so that we’d better learn the language. I remember the strange but exciting feeling of listening to the new sounds of a language. 

Anyway, as our curiosity extended beyond our homework, me and my friends discovered the Korean version of the same drama and that’s where it all began. 

S: Japanese media kind of was the entry point for a lot of people to Korean entertainment, including University of Tokyo media studies scholar Miranda Larsen, who researches the transcultural appeal of K-pop idols in Tokyo, Japan.

Miranda Larsen: For a particular generation and going from that, a lot of people like me said, Oh, well, I like this anime, and I really liked the opening song, I want to see who sings that, and then we get in Japanese music. So going then to Korean music or in my case, actually I went Japanese music and like Mandopop. And then to K-pop, it’s not strange at all. Especially because, and a lot of people don’t talk about this, the fact that there’s so much cross-pollination between those industries. 

N: Interestingly, two others we interviewed had also taken the Japanese-to-Korean route.

ML: But this is in no way absolutely unique. This is the same thing as people who were fans of Hong Kong cinema. Then branching out and being interested in Japanese cinema. Some people just like listening to music in another language, which they find very soothing.

And I think also it has to do with how many people around the world are interested in just language study also. So for me, learning Japanese was made much easier by an interest in Japanese music. A lot of people now, with K-pop, that’s their prime site for wanting to learn Korean.

S: But you don’t really have to learn Korean to have access to all of that these days, like Jennifer, journalist, a fan of the K-pop boy group SHINee, who has been following Korean entertainment for many years now, points out.

Jennifer: So initially, yes, I did miss out on a lot of Shinee stuff that I could have had, but now it’s very different actually. What was that over time, Korea has become so accessible. It is very easy to find anything Korean online, anything like if you want a better understanding, you will probably even find translations into Hindi.

Now with BTS — actually, the BTS has a huge role to play with this because of how big they got. Korea just became not that far from us anymore. That whole thing, they just reduce the distance somehow. It was no longer like we are stanning a foreign group because it was just so easy to access their content, understand and everything had translations in subtitles. So it is no longer that way.

But yes, back in the day, it was like a decade ago, if you told me that I can find subtitles on YouTube, I would have been like, what? On the same video? Really?!

N: I know! The accessibility of Korean content, with translations, these days is no joke. It used to be so hard for us back then. I’ve even watched entire episodes of dramas without subtitles and just vaguely understanding what’s going on. But now, there are translations for even two-minute videos of idols talking to each other backstage. 

S: I agree — it’s a lot more accessible now for the very popular groups like SHINee or BlackPink, but it still can be quite a challenge to find subtitles for non-mainstream/not super popular videos. But popular or not, it’s mainly because of the very hard work put in by fan translators that any of this is available at all. 

N: Oh, you mean those Twitter accounts that put out updates on all things dramas and Korean entertainment? I see them usually summarising some articles in their blog and linking to the source in Korean.

S: Yup, those are the accounts at the heart of this whole fan translator world, because most of the English language K-pop/drama discussion and discovery happens on Twitter. You usually have an account that’s dedicated to one K-pop group and translates everything related to that one specific group, and publishes information on their schedules. And mind you, these are all voluntary, fan-run accounts that are doing this purely out of their fondness for the idols. 

N: Ah, I’ve read in one interview that some of these people spend up to 10 hours a day, on busy days, trying to translate all the news and content that’s come out. I’ve also worked as a translator a little bit and I know that it’s not an easy thing to do. And it’s a lot of responsibility.

S: Ya, and translating in this sort of frenzied process also means there’s more than a bit of backlash against these fan translators. You routinely have some of the translator accounts being called out for being biased because they chose not to translate a particular news item, or for the words they used. 

N: So, they’re called out for gatekeeping information essentially. Do translators consciously do that though? Choose to translate just the good parts about their favourite band, and keep all the dirt in the dark? Or the opposite, where they translate the ugly parts about a rival group and ignore any good news items?

S: I’m not sure if they do the opposite, but one thing that does tend to happen is for some fan accounts to only highlight stuff that’s favourable for their groups. Kind of changing by omission, and it’s very hard for other fans to get to know this and you know have a sense of the “full” picture because they’re so reliant on whatever the translator accounts put out. 

N: Yeah, but not all such mediation or gatekeeping is set out to be harmful like Miranda points out. 

M: There’s situational gatekeeping where I don’t think people set out in order to be in control, especially for translators. A lot of times translators just start because it’s a hobby for them. It’s a way to practice their language skill. Maybe they’re working with a group and they find it very fun.

And then it turns into something that’s extremely competitive and cutthroat and becomes a source of fan wars in themselves — Well, I get my translations from this group. Well, I get it from this group, so you’re wrong. And you saw that a lot with Japanese popular culture. I used to work in a translating group for Johnny’s entertainment idols for that, that happened for sure. You see this with K-pop and also with K-drama, of course. So, there are gatekeepers who are innocent, but for the majority of the time, yes, it is this, it’s a way of having subcultural capital, as you are the one who is designated as the point of access, right? You speak the language or you have a connection or even you live there.

So the gatekeeper has a very important position and unfortunately, a lot of people are either not prepared or they are. looking out for themselves.

S: I hadn’t realised just how important or how much fans rely on translators to do the heavy lifting until the Burning Sun scandal broke out in 2019. 

N: It was that sex scandal in Korea in which a lot of K-pop artists were named, right?

S: Yeah! You had no other way of knowing what was really going on except to read the translator accounts’ updates and a few English articles here and there. I remember there were just so many fights because fans kept saying this is not right, this is a mistranslation if it named their favourite and it got really really messy. 

N: Yes, I can only imagine. Given how attached fans tend to get with their idols and how harshly idols are judged by Korean society for even the smallest of slip-ups, it becomes very important to fans to know that they’re getting the right translation. Miranda agrees.

M: Yeah, it’s really important. And it’s also, I mean, translation is difficult. Translation is never one to one, this equals this. Once you have to factor in cultural context, all of the background of whatever outlet you’re translating, you know, translating news articles from Korean newspapers requires a working knowledge of how those newspapers talk about things.

What the current euphemisms are for things. And a lot of fans who just want the content and they want it now, do not care about that until they’ve been given incorrect information because they were the ones that rush the translator.

N: Yes, I’ve edited translations and trust me they can be a nightmare when rushed. When translations are done across culturally different languages, there’s so much meaning that gets constructed and there are so many decisions the translator has to make for every single word choice. And I don’t know if you watched it, but I really [like] the way they’d shown this whole process in the recent Netflix show “Run on,” where the female lead is a film translator. 

S: That was a lovely drama. There is this part where she explains why she became a translator, a bridge between two languages and talks about how it makes her feel rich to be able to fully understand something and share it with the wider world — like she has something of huge value. 

N: Yeah, it gave me the feels. But, sadly I know a lot of people here are very different from me — in that they are not used to subtitles. So they’re closed off to all foreign-language content. I think that’s got to do with the fact that a lot of content from other languages was made available to us in Indian television through dubbing rather than subtitling. I remember watching a lot of Jackie Chan movies with Tamil dialogues as a child. 

S: And I used to watch so many Tamil movies dubbed in Telugu! I also just want to say, even if you have subtitles in English, for a lot of people who don’t read so much in English, it’s hard to grasp all the dialogue because in movies and shows the dialogue moves so quickly, you know? 

N: That’s true, and that used to be tough for my parents in the beginning. But after watching so many Malayalam movies during the lockdown, they’ve become good at following subtitles. 

S: Yeah, I’ve seen that with my parents too. And there’s a fascinating, fan-led effort underway to help people like our parents find their way to Korean dramas with the help of subtitles in regional languages. 

N: People like Prerna Mishra, a college student, spend hours adding Hindi subtitles to Korean dramas on Viki. So, Viki is like the Netflix of Asian dramas.

S: But what’s unique about Viki (and people have called them out for this practice) is that the subtitling is done by fans for free. You can apply to become a subtitler and you go through a process where you’re assigned a show and work with a team of other subtitlers and moderators, with each language having its own team. 

Prerna Mishra: I opened Viki. I opened up dramas that have Hindi subtitling in them. And there were not many dramas that time. I sought out the Hindi moderators and I found only one or two at that time. So I thought that if I start translating. I know how to translate in English to Hindi. Then many people, I think that they want to watch in Hindi. So I could connect them to Viki. They can get to watch it, they can generate interest in the Korean dramas if they get it in Hindi subtitles. So I think that would be [a] connection between the Korean dramas.

I can become a connection between them [and] the Korean dramas. So I thought that it would be nice if I started subtitling. 

N: Prerna tells us that compared to when she started — when there were barely any Hindi subtitlers — there are so many people wanting to do Hindi subtitling for Korean dramas on Viki now. Having started it as a passion project, Prerna, who’s a computer science student, now sees a future for herself in translation. 

PM: Yes, if I get the chance to do this, actually as a career, I am very glad to do that. So I like very much doing this. I spend so much time in this and I like this very much.

N: What’s also interesting is that Prerna told us she was learning Korean on her own too. 

S: Now, if you try to learn Korean there are so many more resources which say hey, we teach you Korean using BTS lyrics or teach Korean using K-drama dialogues because they recognise it as the reason for people’s interest in learning it. Which is to fully understand their Hallyu content, be it dramas, or tweets by idols, or lyrics to K-pop songs. 

N: Yeah! For Jennifer, the appeal was to be able to tell her favourite idol she… I’ll let you hear it.  

J: I am a big fan, but Shinee members are not great with English, other than like one member called Key. My bias — “bias” is again a term that a non K-popper would understand — but a bias is like your favourite member of the group.

My bias was Taemin, and English was not gonna be his strong point. At some point, I was like, Oh my God, if I ever wished to communicate with this person, (because that is what your dream is, right, like when you become a fan?) You want to meet these idols and tell them you love them.

N: Wow, that’s some intense love for your idol right there. And to put this rise of interest in learning the Korean language into perspective, we reached out to Duolingo, one of the most popular language-learning apps. They told us that in India, Korean learners have risen by a massive 664% from January 2020 to January 2021.

S: Wow, King Sejong the Great would be proud of them! 

N: The 15th-century Korean king who created the Korean alphabet Hangul?

S: Yes, he is supposed to have said that “A wise man can acquaint himself with Hangul (them) before the morning is over,” and “A stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”

N: Ouch, that makes me feel terrible about myself. It’s been eight years and I’ve still not managed to learn it. What would he think of me? 

S: Don’t worry, I don’t remember how many days it took me to learn Hangul but I would definitely fall in the stupid category according to him. 

N: You at least learnt it! Did you learn just so you could understand dramas?

S: I had wanted to learn a new language for a while and I started learning Japanese — or tried to at any rate. But I found memorising Kanji super difficult. So I turned to Korean on a whim. I was watching dramas anyway so I wondered if it would be any easier — and it was! Initially at any rate, before the grammar does you in. 

N: Ah. I also wish to learn the language, someday. You know how Jennifer told us that she understands so many more nuances in K-dramas after learning the language? She actually told me this interesting thing. 

Okay spoiler alert, you know the second lead in the drama “Start-Up?” is called Han Ji Pyeong, right? And millions of drama fans were heartbroken that he didn’t get the girl. 

Well, apparently “Han” in Korean means sorrow/grief, so more than one such character destined to a sad ending has been subtly given the last name Han in dramas. I was like, whaaaa?

S: Oh yeah, they do tend to have a lot of character names that closely correspond to their profession or personal traits — like nominative determinism in a way. 

N: Yeah, there’s no way you’ll get all of that unless you know the language. I got some of these things, thanks to precious little translator’s notes which were available in shows earlier. It’s sad that Netflix subtitles aren’t like that, which is how most people are watching dramas these days. 

S: Yeah! It’s really jarring to hear what they’re saying and seeing that translated as something that robs the sparkle of the dialogue. I heard that Netflix has really strict rules on how many words per segment you can have, so I think the translators are sort of forced to work around that. 

N: Yes, because their aim is to be as globally accessible as possible, so too much cultural context may not be a priority. But you know what? I want that from my dramas. It makes the experience much richer. 

S: Yeah, and when you get to learn and explore it — especially if you’re learning with the apps available now — it’s like progressing through levels in a game and keeping that learning streak alive. 

N: That must be so gratifying, no? I mean, not just in the app. I love it when I find myself catching more words while listening to Korean. It makes me feel like I’ve taken one step closer into that world; sometimes that’s Korea the country, but other times, it’s just the world of the characters. I’m sure this feeling is what’s driving millions of people from all the continents to learn Korean. 

S: Mmmhmm. I don’t know if it happens to everyone but that moment when you realise that your brain automatically understands the language and it doesn’t first have to translate that sentence into English — like you hear a sentence and you just know what it means without having to strain — is just pretty awesome. Or when you’re watching a drama and the characters switch from using formal language to the informal language that indicates a change in their relationship, which, of course, doesn’t translate to English because the language doesn’t have this concept, it feels pretty nice. 

N: Exactly! Okay now after all of this, I HAVE to give learning Korean one more try. This time for real. Let’s show King Sejong that I’m not a pabo. 

S: Nirupama Hwaiting! The same goes for listeners who just made up their minds to learn. 

N: But before you dive into Korean lessons, listen to the last episode of this podcast series — which is on meetups, donation drives, going to concerts, and many different ways in which fans engage with Hallyu. 


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