Of course Hamlet is Superior in the Original Klingon!


The video below, other than bringing me more hits than anything else I’ve ever posted, also got THE TRANSLATOR back to the blog.

It’s a win no matter how you look at it!

What we seem to have come up with, after a flurry of emails back and forth, is that, duh, languages are different. Part of this was also the result of a question my students asked about translating Korean poetry.

They said, ‘in Korean we have so many (“too many” as they alarmingly put it) ways to say “yellow” but in English there is only one.’ Of course that isn’t true – even in colors we have more than one yellow – ochre for instance. But I noted that in English we appropriate nouns (again, a “duh.” English is a noun-based and taxonomic language in a platonic culture) as colors.

In the course of my conversation with THE TRANSLATOR he noted (although my students still disagree I have to accept that this is likely a result of my bad explanation of the question) that in Korean nouns can be used to describe colors. Still, there was something odd about his response and I think I tracked it down. Koreans can use nouns as colors, but they need to append “색” to it. In English this is not necessary as, in fact, some words for colors are exactly the same as the color of the noun to which the refer (e.g. “orange” or “buttercup” – no one even considers the physical critter, instead we know we are talking about color through the context of conversation. This is also true of things like “chocolate” or “banana.” In context we do not need to indicate this is a color. This might be a linguistic feature, but to me it seems more like ‘how’ we describe color and should be added to the # of colors we have).

In some ways this discussion reminds me of the cultural confusion that underlie the one-time claim that eskimos had an unusually large number of words for snow. In fact, this claim (still bandied about) was based on linguistic misunderstandings and if you have time, this excellent debunking of the myth is also a good introductory primer on how and why these misunderstandings between languages occur.

But then THE TRANSLATOR went on to note something I consider far more important and that is that whatever differences there are between the languages, it is difficult to claim, as our behatted video-dude below does, that one language is objectively better than another.

In fact, THE TRANSLATOR’S response was so comprehensive and brilliant, and came with such a nice, similar, example from English, that I quote it nearly in its entirety. He begins by discussing the point the hated dude was trying to make about Hanguk-mal and sound:

What works in Korean is that vowel sounds carries certain quality other than its own sound. For example, “ㅏ” is much brighter, lighter, smaller than “ㅓ”. “ㅗ” and “ㅜ” works in a similar manner, though not entirely the same. Hence, as in the brook example, “jol jol jol (졸졸졸)” is for a tiny brook, whereas “jul jul jul (줄줄줄)” is for a sizable brook.

Do you remember this passage from the article we translated for (Name Redacted)?


Another critical element unique to literature for children is the fact that adults often read the text out loud to children. Translating without fully understanding the significance of this may result in a text too tedious to ears because the phonetic and phonologic significance of the ST would not have been reflected appropriately to the TT. For example, let us consider Korean and English as the source language (SL) and target language (TL), respectively. If it were possible to implement similar rythmns, and the onomatopoeia and mimesis were equally developed in both languages, speakability would not be much of an issue in translation. However, English and Korean are utterly dissimilar in such aspects. Each syllable is pronounced with equal amount of stress in Korean language, whereas English employs pitch with stressed and non-stressed syllables. Fundamentally, English is tonal, dynamic and durational. Add rhyming to these and the rhythm becomes stronger. In Korean language, matching the number of syllables and utilizing onomatopoeia and mimesis are the techniques used to bring out its own rhythm. Precision in transferring the source text content is a must in translation, but it is also necessary in children’s literature translation to consider the rhythm the reader will follow when reading out loud the translated text to a child.

In the passage, (NAME REDACTED) points out the fact the onomatopoeia and mimesis are not equally developed in Korean and English, alluding that certain quality is more “developed” in one language over the other. English language has rhymes and stresses to create rhythm, whereas Korean language uses onomatopoeia and mimesis to create rhythm. Let’s not get too technical about this, but IMHO description of an object’s quality (color, volume, etc) is built into the vowel system in Korean language, which is not the same in English. Hence, it is more efficient to create onomatopoeia and mimesis in Korean.

Being the keen critic of culture and language that he is (and supergenius!) he immediately adds a similar example of a facility in English (to which he generally alluded above) that is difficult in Korean.

OTOH, Korean language doesn’t understand rhyme because everything ends with either “nida” or “yo”. Rap is still struggling to settle in Korea because Koreans find rhyming funny and awkward, particularly when Koreans rap in Korean language. Who wants rhyming when all endings are the same?

These are simply characteristics of a language. These qualities may compare with other qualities in other languages, but the do not compose any qualification that one language is overall superior to others.


Weird, rappers say “Yo” a lot, and it still doesn’t translate well? ;-P

To keep me on the straight and narrow(!) about colors, and to put a concluding remark to the video below, THE TRANSLATOR concludes:

And that’s what the guy in the video failed for me. He was quickly building up an argument that because Korean can do 24 different shades of yellow, but it’s not so in English, that Korean language must be superior to English and thus translation into an inferior language is impossible, therefore Koreans don’t get any Nobel Prizes for Literature. His leap of faith is full of holes…but that does not mean there are not 24 shades of yellow in Korean, excluding object colors.

Which is just right really. Languages aren’t superior, instead they are different. This
is why skilled translation is difficult and important – it takes a big brain to figure these differences out and to determine how to take something that has an easy linguistic meaning in one language and to translate it into a language in which the meaning can’t be clear through the linguistic tool used in the original language.

Or, as THE TRANSLATOR puts it, in superior language (and in an argument that also applies to the original Japanese/Korean model):

What does this all mean? Korean language has its particularities and English has its own. That’s all. Are there more words that describe various tints of “yellow” in Korean than in English. I think so. Is English more “precise” when it comes to “when” things happened, had happened, has happened, will happen, is going to happen, will have happened, etc?

I can probably name a few more.

Are these qualities evidence that one language is superior than others? I say it’s comparing apples and oranges. We’re equal, but not the same, right?

Be careful though; just because we want to argue that languages are not superior or inferior to others, ignoring certain particularities of a language is not smart, either!

And so, the conversation continues. 😉

PS – If you didn’t get the Star Trek reference in the title, you are insufficiently nerdy!


5 thoughts on “Of course Hamlet is Superior in the Original Klingon!

  1. This is the translator. A quick comment before I side track into other thoughts about the recent blog post.

    "some words for colors are exactly the same as the color of the noun to which the refer (e.g. "orange" or "buttercup" – no one even considers the physical critter, instead we know we are talking about color through the CONTEXT of conversation."

    To name a color according to an object, one needs only to name the object without the word "color" next to it, right? To me, this means, in English, one needs a "reference" to describe a color by two folds: first, the object name itself as a reference (i.e. orange) and Second, the context in which the word is used (see above excerpt). Without a context, it is difficult to construe that the word refers a color. For instance, without a name of an object, we need to resort to plain "yellow" or "ochre" as you mentioned in the blog entry. Or if you just turned on a radio and heard "Well, that's just so chocolaty", I could assume that the commentator may be referring to the color or taste.

    In Korean, however, there are many more independent color words, like "yellow" with a variety of shades that one just need to hear it, without any context whatsoever, to know exactly what shade of yellow it is.

    Again, this does not anything that there are more words on "yellow" compared to those in English….

  2. This is the translator again. I just read the blog entry a couple more times because I'm, ahem, anal. With your comments inserted between sections, i actually sound half-intelligent! On top of that…I'm actually wrote something you can put on the morning calm blog!!!! I'm so excited I need beer (no beer from next week anyways…)



    I've surrendered to the reality that Korean is richer in adjectives, including those for color.

    It makes sense, actually.

    I have more to say about how English uses noun/adjective and articles/no-articles to define this difference, but that is for when we sit down with one of those beers. 😉

    And trust me.. I edited your stuff down so I wouldn't look like a retard responding to it. 😉

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