Korean translations not up-to-snuff
A growing number of Korean literary works are being translated into English, thanks to the governments more aggressive financial support. However, experts have often pointed out that quantity tends to override quality in those projects, leading to sloppy and inaccurate translations.
The state-run Korea Literature Translation Institute, a fledgling agency that promotes such projects and trains translators of Korean literature, revealed that about 40 percent of state-sponsored translation projects have serious problems with accuracy.
The readability of translated Korean literature has been improving at a steady pace, but we have found that many of the translations have passages which are inaccurate when placed beside the original Korean texts, said Song Seung-cheol, a professor at Hallym University, at a press conference in Seoul last week.
Under the project initiated by the KLTI, Song led a team of 10 Korean professors specializing in English literature and four foreign scholars to review major English versions of Korean literature. They reviewed 72 works that were translated from about 1910 to 1999, and rated 29 of them — about 40 percent — at C+ or C. Only seven works got the top rating of A.
The overall quality of translations of Korean literature into English is far from satisfactory, but, given that more efforts are being made to produce better translations, the quality, in terms of accuracy and faithfulness, is likely to improve, Song said.
He added that English translations of Korean literature significantly improved in the 1990s, but then the level stagnated, which demonstrates the absence of a systematic and long-term approach to high-quality translating.
The first-ever study of the quality of translations also led to a couple of revealing findings which contradict the conventional wisdom. For a start, some Korean translators got higher scores than non-Koreans. It was often assumed that foreign translators would produce better and more accurate translations, but the research shows that there are many distorted meanings and other mistakes when non-Korean translators have worked without any Korean partner.
The most reliable translations came from joint work, which highlights the need to have more projects involving experts from Korea and English-speaking countries.
Another unexpected finding was that many well-known Korean translators got lower scores. For instance, Ahn Jung-hyo, a novelist and translator, and Suh Jee-moon, a professor of English and a top-rated translator, received a C.
In a booklet that provides the comprehensive analyses of translated literature, all the translators are identified, which was a potentially controversial move by the KLTI and the research team, since translators reputation could be undermined by the report.
Identifying translators and also grading their work was a very hard decision because people involved in the research could take it very negatively, but we decided to go ahead with the full disclosure because we believe this will lead to more substantial translation reviews and criticism in the future, Song said.
He warned, however, that the research results reflect only the quality of the translations included in the project: What should be noted is that the ratings we gave will not affect their future applications to government-sponsored translation projects, he said.
Yoon Ji-kwan, head of the KLTI, said that translators whose work was criticized in the research will find the results embarrassing, but the research was needed to check how government money was spent to make Korean literature more internationally recognized. We expect this research to provide serious momentum for translators and critics to discuss key translation issues more deeply, Yoon said.
He added that the KLTI is working on the countrys first English anthology of Korean literature to provide a comprehensive guide to Korean studies scholars and translators, and is preparing to open a translation academy in Seoul in September.
By Yang Sung-jin
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