A Radical Proposal – Translate Names, Don’t Romanize?

"By Any Other Name?"

Being one of the luckiest men in Seoul, I am reading an advance copy of Kim Young-ha’s “Your Republic is Calling You.”

I’m about 100 pages in and it is already brilliant (this is the time I get scared that the author will lose steam, or has a cruddy ending in mind. Oh well). It seems partly a meditation on what it means to have a secret self, a reflection of modern anomie and an unusual bit of focus (for translated Kim) on traditional post-war North-South. Really, so far it’s rocking.

But as I read it, as I usually do, I had to make conscious effort to remember the names of the Korean protagonists. Admittedly, even in English I am terrible at remembering names (solipsism, no doubt). But it is difficult for me to get the Korean names down pat, and I’ve lived in Korea for over two years. In my college classes all my students go by their real names, and roll is called (by me!) in Korean. So this is not something new to me.

It made me remember reading translated Russian literature, in which I had the same problem. Until I mentally

Three Random Languages

translated Pyotr (or whatever) to Peter (or whatever), I was adrift in a sea of alien syllables. In Korean, I think the dashes make internalization even more difficult. Perhaps if I had been born to the English upper class and every second stuttering Duke was named Smythe-Worthington, or the like, I’d be able to handle this, but I really can’t’t.

In this excellent book, everything else is translated. Why don’t we translate the names?  What is the specific use of the romanized name in a book in which everything else has been (brilliantly!) translated?

Is the name left to remind us that we aren’t completely in Kansas with Toto?

My students, in what I am told is affection, have changed my name to 찰몽.  It has some elements of my name, but isn’t in the slightest an attempt to hangulize it. I don’t have the slightest problem with this, and if it helps them talk to and about me?

Why would I.

So, why not “in translation?”

17 thoughts on “A Radical Proposal – Translate Names, Don’t Romanize?

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  2. Interesting point… It can be tough reading a book filled with alien names. But a lot of people find that attractive. I, myself, tend to “read over” foreign sounding names. You don’t want to mentally stutter when working through a story.

    But then, it would be weird reading a story about a Russian guy called Peter. And where do you draw the line? In Korean there are lots of names that are easy to pronounce and spell. Min Jung and Mina almost sound English. (I should know more Korean guys names…)

    By the way, when I read the first paragraph, I couldn’t help but thinking about translation in food. I hate menus that try and translate into English, instead of just transliterating. It would be alright if there was a decent description, but half the time it’s just gibberish. I spend a long time working out which one is bibimbap…

  3. David,

    You mention something I suspect but would not necessarily note in a post (so as to not start any brawls). The alien names might be left in the story precisely to be orientalization. It is a “give the reader that little frisson of foreigness” and then get on with the story. Still, it breaks my reading, and I know these names.

    As to your second point (“mina”).. sure… make the calls on what works.. but also make the calls on names that just sound like an octopus and a cat fighting in the space between your throat and tongue. Also, neither of the names you used have the hyphen, which I think is one major cause of the mental stutter.

    I’m just saying, if you’re aiming for a broad audience.. think about every move you make in translation and marketing…

    There are perfectly good reasons for each decision, but make them in terms of what your goal is.

    I’m just cranky the lit is still so unknown…Not claiming it is world beating, just pondering why the world is unaware…

  4. Problem: how would you translate them? With names that sound similar, or names with similar meaning? Because the one way, how many English names are there with sounds similar to “jin” “jang” and “min” – you’re just going to have trouble keeping track of “mindy” “mina” and “jean” “Jane” “Joanne” instead of Minhee, minha, jinyoung, jinna and jinha… or you could translate the meanings and get “Wisdom picked up the ink brush and handed it to Devotion, who glanced at Filial Piety and then over to Dragon Prosperity.” – you can’t win, buddy. My idea’s this: printing the book with a dust cover or a bookmark detatchable from the dust cover that has all the important names and a 5-10 word summary of the character, and possibly connections to others, and if the print’s really small, pages where they do important stuff. That’s what I did when I read russian novels – folded over a 8.5X11 paper, and wrote notes on each character and their alternate names, on it.

  5. It certainly is a troublesome issue. I say just don’t translate the names – transliterate them. Otherwise, as Rob says, you’ll end up in a farcical situation.

    After all, I guess people aren’t going to read Korean lit and expect to read stories about Joe and Jonathon. They’re going to expect something a little more… exotic.

  6. Just curious, because I don’t have the answer to your question, how have they Romanised them in that particular case? Have they used one of the recognised systems, or have they done the whole “u” for “ㅓ” thing? If it was me I’d be tempted to transliterate them according to how they should be pronounced, or to write them in a way that makes them easier for English speakers to make the sounds, even if they’re not official systems of Romanisation or exactly the same as the Korean pronounciation.

    As an example, Myongback, Jeesong, Yonnah, all without hyphens because that absolutely does make them harder to read. Then the only thing you’d have an issue with is differentiating between things like Jong-il and Jon-gil if you were to write it Jongil.

  7. If exotic-ity is what they’re looking for, maybe we SHOULD translate the names.

    “RosePetal hesitated. Her mother, PureChalice had spoken about moments like this, but AssertiveWill stepped closer, and put his hand on the wide knot at the top of her hanbok…” Either I’m onto something here, or it’s reading like a bad outtake from the director’s cut of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

  8. Haha, that would be amusing. Perhaps a little funnier in a gritty story: “RosePetal looked at the decaying corpse of PureChalice. AssertiveWill had certainly asserted his will over her…”


    And Seamus raises an interesting point… There really doesn’t seem to be much consistency with the transliteration of names. You can’t really force someone to have their name transliterated one way when it’s been done another for years.

    Hmm… I’m rambling, but I have no solution for this issue.

  9. Agreed, translating names ends up sounding too exotic . . . and let’s not forget that some names sound even weirder than others. My first “Korean” name somebody made up for me sounds perfectly fine to Koreans. Unfortunately, it was translated for me as “Pure Pleasure” which led to endless rounds of condom jokes from non-Korean friends. Needless to say, I don’t use the name anymore. In any case, you end up with crazy Pearl S. Buck-style “Lotus” “Cuckoo” and “Plum Blossom” names if you translate, and it ends up sounding silly.
    While individual names have been romanized countless ways, there’s two well established systems that would give consistent results. Whether you go for MR or RR, you’ll still give readers a consistent set of spellings and pronunciation, and there’s no real person insisting you spell their name “You Bum Suck” instead of “Yu Beom-seok.” In translations of historical material, I understand the convention is to spell the name however they chose to spell it, but this shouldn’t be a problem in literary translation.
    My own personal preference is to see the names consistently romanized the same way, in line with one of the major established methods, and with a pronunciation guide provided for new readers.

  10. NO NO NO NO NO.

    My first name is “Ai Ling”, or 爱玲 in Chinese. While “Ai” is translatable, “Ling” is NOT. It is the sound of crystal chimes when struck. Any attempt to refer to me as “love chimes” will be met with my fist. Multiple times.

  11. LOL..

    Ai I was not suggesting literal translation (and I completely understand why you reject what that would do to your name), although as I reread my post I can see why everyone thought I was. I was more wondering about complete replacement with the nearest sounding gender-appropriate English name.

    But somewhere between that and what Gomushin Girl suggests is where I may be hovering on this. I think the You Bumsuck (while a quite unfortunate sounding name) versus Yu Beom-seok is a good comparison. I think the first version is much more readable to western eyes. To me this is because it lacks the “dash” and the “eo” construction that is hard to figure out the pronunciation of and not much used in English.

    I don’t know, I think the problem remains (albeit a small one) that literature translated this way will be a bit more difficult to follow. At the same time I get what Rob is saying about the threat of completely denaturing translated fiction if you go my first (rename) route.

    heh.. no answers, maybe?

  12. I don’t see why names have to be written any way other than they were intended. Granted, I allow for the problem of alternative character sets, but almost every non-romanized language has an accepted way to romanize it. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese all have accepted ways of doing it. I can see in Japanese is “ti” versus “chi”, but besides that I haven’t noticed anyone having any problems with spelling in particular (we’ll leave long vowels out of this.)

    I don’t see why “Pyotr” has to be replaced with “Peter”, for example. It’s not pronounced “Pee-tr”. Is it? Besides, what would you do if Pyotr Ivanov met Peter Ivans?

  13. Sorry, grammar fail. Er, without requiring a re-post, let me just apologize for all the grammatical issues in my last comment and just move on. ^_^;

  14. As a translator of Korean literature, however, I’m a bit mystified by your suggestion. While translation is preeminently reader oriented (in the act of rendering a text into the reader’s language it only exists for the sake of the reader), there should always be a reluctance to bend the text any further than necessary to make it accessible to readers in the target language. Situations are frequently encountered where a bit of supplementary explanation or the reordering of a couple of lines would ease the burden of understanding for the reader–but this generally comes at the cost of fidelity to the original. Every situation is different with regard to the difficulty of reading that would result from maintaining a given feature of the original text and the degree to which fidelity to the original is lost in taking it out. Idiomatic expressions are perhaps one of the best examples of a textual feature that is generally impossible to save. As full of local flavor as idioms might be, they are frequently unintelligible to the reader when translated literally and thus must be elided or written over. Occasionally happy coincidences do occur in which the meaning of the idiom is clear enough to be easily interpreted, such that it is possible to maintain the idiom in the translated text, but such coincidences are the exception rather than the rule.

    Translators have an obligation of faithfulness to both the meaning and the expression of the original text, and while any translator working between an Asian and a Western language would readily admit that word-to-word translation is impossible, it is generally possible to find expressions that both convey the meaning of the original while phrasing it in a way which is roughly analogous to the original and does not require the willful rewriting of entire phrases. With idioms, there is a disconnect between the superficial meaning of the individual words in a phrase and they’re actual significance–or, if you’d rather, a connection existing between the words as written and a deeper acquired meaning that is only intelligible within a specific social context. When this connection is not generally understood by readers in the target language, the sense of the text is lost. This non-equivalence between languages creates an uncompromising conflict between accuracy in phrasing and intelligibility, and it is this conflict which forces the translator to change the text to maintain meaning.

    I would suggest that the question of names in translation be considered against the standard suggested by the example of idioms–i.e. that of only making willful, significant changes to the text when intelligibility demands it. While names can be meaningful, and are often carefully chosen, I would argue that–with a few exceptions–there is very little meaning lost when choosing transliteration over translation, and that the change implied in the renaming of characters is simply too great to justify. In fact, the Anglicization of Korean names would likely raise questions in the mind of the reader that could do a great deal of harm to the meaning the author was attempting to convey. For those reasons and more, I’m generally against your ‘radical proposal’.

    That being said, however, I might mention Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson’s translation of Soseki’s “I am a Cat” as an instance in which the translation of names was almost demanded by the text. Many of the Japanese character names are very thinly veiled puns which create a layer of meaning that it would be desirable to maintain in translation. The bilious “Chinno Kushami” (珍野苦沙弥), for example, was translated as “Mr. Sneeze”; while spoiled young “Kaneda Tomiko” (金田富子) became “Opula Goldfield”. This resulted in clever, memorable character names, which manage to be convincing despite being near direct translations from Chinese characters.

  15. Oops, looks like the first sentence got dropped.

    I meant to say that I greatly admire the work that you’re doing with this site to further publicize Korean literature and the work of Korean-English translators; and that while I’m definately a fan, I think your proposal needs a bit more consideration.

  16. LOL…

    Eugene, thanks for the comment.

    Sometimes I troll a little bit. ^^

    I do, however think the names are a tiny bit problematic, though I”ll happily retreat to unified Romanization (too bad both systems are difficult for first-time readers) and dropping the dashes.

    Not that I suspect my suggestion will have any effect. 😉

    I have not read “I am a Cat,” though my wife loves it.

    The pun issue can also be a big one in Korean-English translation, as Chinese ‘interpretation” of Korean characters can result in wicked word-play. Kim Sakkat was quite big on that, back in the pre-modern era. I’ve also seen it arise with respect to names, where the name’s homonym is indicative of the character (Sam Won, for example, as a name indicating reduced financial condition).

  17. Charles,

    I am buried up to my eyebrows with translation tonight. They are all English to Korean, so no need for you to get nervous there.

    You’ve got an interesting thing going on here. I will read all the comments sometime this week when I put aways all other overtime works….

    Meanwhile, for those who are stll interested in this issue, I suggest reading any short stories by Ha Jin. He is a Chinese author that writes in English. He translates all the names (even street names) and make the most out of it. I have briefly entertained this point myself and worked to incorporate it when I, as a school project, translated 진달래꽃 into English. Only a handful saw what I was trying to do; many had bones to pick with it.

    Anyhoo, Ha Jin may shed some light on this subject. Besides, his writing is defenitely worth reading.


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