Why is There So Little Translated Korean Humor?

Lost in Translation

On Monday I talked about the few pieces of translated Korean humor that I knew of. Today we’ll talk about possible reasons that so little humor has been translated; possible reasons that have to do with translation in general and Korean modern literature specifically.

This is a problem I discussed in the PhD class I taught last semester, and as the students and I worked through our examples, we theorized that there were at least three reasons that there is not much translated humor. The first problem is a general one: It is difficult enough to do translation of any sort, and translating humor is even more difficult. The second problem is that there appears to be a bias in Korean modern literature against humor. Added to this, perhaps, is the fact that the “serious” novels tend to be translated, as those who choose what will be translated seem to require that their choices are of “serious cultural” content, and this is infrequently amusing. Add it all up, and it doesn’t add up to many translations of humorous work.

The general problem is that some kinds of humor are nearly impossible to translate. Situational humor, irony or otherwise, can be translated, and the works I mentioned yesterday derive their much of their humor from this kind of setup. But linguistic humor can be virtually impossible to translate.

Raphaelson-West (1989:130) has also divided jokes into three main categories:

  • linguistic jokes (e.g. puns)
  • cultural jokes (e.g. the ethnic jokes), and
  • universal jokes (the unexpected)

Raphaelson-West also notes that by going from linguistic to univeral, following her schema, “jokes are progressively easier to translate” (ibid.).

Linguistic jokes – puns, for instance – often rely on language-specific similarities in sound and dissimilarities in meaning. These are often impossible to find equivalences for in the other language. In these cases, ‘other’ translation approaches such as explicitation will fail, because part of what makes humor funny is its unexpected nature – once explanations are necessary, humor has failed, even if the ‘joke’ is being explained within one language. In some cases linguistic jokes can be handled by a clever translator. Yesterday I noted Ch’ae Man-sik’s My Innocent Uncle and its clever use of “Scotchalism” to translate a similar semi-homonym in Korean. But often this is difficult, and sometimes translators don’t even seem to try. In Kim Young-ha’s amusing “Whatever Happened to the Guy in the Elevator” a particularly heartless character is (in both English and Korean) is named “Miss Jeong.” This is a highly ironic name in Korean, since “Jeong” (정) refers to a Korean feeling of connectedness and love. The translator, inexplicably, left the name to simple transliteration, rather than picking an English name that could have carried the joke, such as Felicity, or Harmony.

Cultural jokes are translatable partly in relationship to how well the cultures involved are known to each other. In this way Korean literature is at a substantial disadvantage in translation, because Korean culture is mis-understood or almost completely unknown to the English speaking world. In 1997 Craig S. Coleman, Ph. D. published American Images of Korea. In this work he included the results of a study (which he characterized as “informal”) that spanned nearly a decade and interviewed nearly 2,000 United States Citizens. This study asked only 14 questions, and many of the questions should have required no special knowledge to answer. Some indicative results were that only 15% of U.S. citizens could name the then President of the Republic of Korea; only 8% could come within 20% of the national population of Korea, and; only 20% could identify the era of the Korean War. Coleman concludes that it is “apparent that the majority of Americans [sic]—no matter educational level or occupation— do no have much knowledge concerning the basic facts about Korea history, government, society of culture” (Coleman, 229). This reality means that if the unknown culture isn’t shared, jokes based on cultural realities are likely to fail. Since Korea’s culture is radically different from that of the west, there is little shared culture (although that is changing rapidly) and thus humor is quite difficult to translate.

This leaves only broader humor to translate, and as discussed yesterday, that tends to be the humor that is translated.

The second problem is that a lot of Korean literature simply isn’t funny, because it does not strive to be funny. Out of all the “schools” of Korean literature, really only the naturalists and some very recent authors seem to have striven for humor. A large section of modern Korean literature focused on topics and themes that basically ruled humor out. Pundan Munhak (separation literature), the national literature of the 80s, and Minjeok literature were all about serious topics and had serious aims. To say this is not to judge negatively; obviously, very serious things have happened to Korea in the modern literature era, and these are the things that Korean literature has naturally focused on. It is one of the charms of Korean literature, as opposed to western literature, that it focuses on real things, general social realities, and is in many ways a didactic literature. But that does not lead to funny. Entire generations of translation seem to be topically unsuited to humor.

Finally, there is the “gatekeeping” problem, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, but will briefly reprise here. This problem results from the current structure of translation in Korea. Most translation is done by government-funded institutions, and consequently follows government-mandated approaches in search of government-mandated goals. This seems to have lead to a conscious effort to ‘push’ Korean culture in the translated literature. Unfortunately, as indicated above, this culture is often impenetrable to the west (this is a problem in general translation, above and beyond issues relating to humor) and tends to be very serious culture. This is changing, to some extent, largely as more and more Korean works are translated (and chosen for translation) overseas, but the effect is already quite embedded.

NOTE: This article is deeply indebted to Translating Humor for Subtitling by Katia Spanakaki

NOTE (The Second): This is of course, highly speculative, and I’d love to hear A) Other theories, and B) of more translated humorous works.


Coleman, C. S. (1997). American Images of Korea. Elizabeth, New Jersey & Seoul: Hollym Publishing.

Raphaelson-West, Debra S. (1989) “On the Feasibility and Strategies of Translating Humor.” In Meta, Volume 34, Number 1, 1989. Special Issue on Humor and Translation, pp. 128-141.

Spanakaki, Katia, Translating Humor for Subtitling. Translation Journal. Volume 11, No. 2 April 2007. http://translationjournal.net/journal//40humor.htm

11 thoughts on “Why is There So Little Translated Korean Humor?

  1. Pingback: Korean translator | SellWaste

  2. Let me preface my comments by stating that I know nothing regarding Korean literature or Korean literary culture (e.g. writers, publishers, reviewers, translaters, etc.).

    However, I think that there must be more to the issue of a lack of humour in Korean literature, given the innateness of humour (non-human primates have been shown to exhibit a sense of humour).

    You note that “Minjeok literature were all about serious topics and had serious aims.” “very serious things have happened to Korea in the modern literature era, and these are the things that Korean literature has naturally focused on. It is one of the charms of Korean literature, as opposed to western literature, that it focuses on real things, general social realities, and is in many ways a didactic literature. ”

    As a rejoinder, one might say though that humour, including humourous literature, in many cultures has been widely accepted especially during serious times: (World War II in the USSR in which 20 million Soviets were killed and the Soviet Civil War of the 1920s in which as many as an additional 20 million may have been killed), the Great Depression in the USA, apartheid South Africa.

    Indeed, humourous literature has been seen in different cultures as a way to reflect on serious things (the brutality of fate in War II and the Depression, the bitter consequences of racialism in South Africa) in a manner that does not simply depress a reader or imbue a reader with an overwhelming sense of fatalism.

    For the gatekeeping problem, the notion of dull-witted bureaucrats preferring “serious” fare does resonate, although more for the leaden DPRK than for the ROK, and so merits further inquiry.

    Given that ROK is internationally successful only in its production of very light culture (K-POP comes to mind), and given that the forms of literature that are most commercially successful are genre literature (mysteries, romance, uptown, vampire, etc.) and that this trend is equally true for literature in translation, it is odd that ROK gatekeepers do not encourage the translation of such works.

    A bodice-ripper romance novel or similar romance novel by a Korean would have far more readers in translation, and would have the effect of humanising Korea for foreign readers.

    Similarly, a comedy of manners showing the human foibles of its characters would encourage far more foreign interest in ROK than a dull, tendentious tract on the rightness of democracy compared to military authoritarianism.

    Savvy ROK governmental gatekeepers would do far more to broaden acceptance of Korean literature by translating a steamy romance novel than an uplifting tract.

    I would also offer the thought that Western literature does indeed “focus on real things, general social realities”.

    For example, look at Nobel laureates in literature who have written on Apartheid, World War 2, the Holocaust, the Great Depression, military dictatorship in Latin America, etc.’

    Incidentally, does Korean literature produce steamy romance novels? Not too steamy, or it leaves the genre of romance.

    Another genre would be thrillers. ROK with an “arch-villain” nation to its immediate north, is well-suited geographically for thriller literature involving the chasm that separates the two sides.

    West Germany produced a great deal of such thriller, genre literature when the Berlin Wall was in place.

    ROK would be even better suited for such writing.

    Consider, for example, the commercial success of James Church [http://us.macmillan.com/author/jameschurch] using this theme.

    Back to humour, I only offer the observation that given the innate nature of humour, the absence of humourous Korean literature is puzzling.

  3. Charles,

    Just a thought: Why not fix up the “Chattering Dragons” piece I partially translated for your amusement and post it here. It would be great if you can get an authorization from the publisher. If not, post only a portion of it for the purpose of getting feedback from those who frequent this site. Will that kind of humor sell? I can translate some more of that short fiction if you want since the story actually gets more funny toward the end. We’ll, of course, pull off the posting if the publisher ever complains.

  4. One more thing: Do some search on Lee Mi Do (or Yi Mi Do). He translates mostly movies, but lately did some English study books(?) for children. When talking about translating humor, you can’t do without him. I don’t know too many of his movie works, but I do recall watching (and carefully listening to) the movie Monsters Inc. It is a Pixar animation for children. The film involves so many native English jokes, puns and humor that I regarded it as an impossible feat. Lee Mi Do, however, did it so beautifully I had to watch it twice on the airplane bound for Seoul. He would be one person I can count on to translate everything, even names (i.e. Jeong), to give them their proper role in a translated work. The Korean government and the “serious” literature circle in Korea may make light of movie scripts. In doing so, however, they won’t know what they are missing in the business of translation….

  5. Charles,

    It just dawned on me. Mr. Lee usually translates from English to Korea. Although his work is quite priceless, he wouldn’t be of much use for K to E literary translation which this blog targets.

  6. I’m sorry to sound negative but it doesn’t require a rocket linguist to figure out why most humour is not translated. Any person who speaks two languages would tell you all the reasons above. (In fact, when I first watched Korean comedy programs I couldn’t figure out why they were funny despite understanding everything being said in Korean.) However I might have a go at translating an episode of “개그콘서트” just for fun to see how much can be translated and how much cannot.

  7. Charles (the other(,

    I’m sure there is humor behind the wall of translation, but in my Phd class, my students (All Koreans), felt that humor was in some ways considered inappropriate for certain genres of fiction. It is just one of the elements involved and I intend to look into that more closely in Spring. The other elements, I think we can all agree on as they are part and parcel of translation. This includes the gatekeeping, although I feel it was more impactful (to mangle English) because nearly all translation was internal and government funded.

    Finally, I love your comparison to K-pop, which is dead on and one I would never have thought of. Funny though, I really don’t like K-pop. I’ll have to process this thought. ^^


    Some of it is obvious to two-language people and I suppose some of it is not (Gatekeeping, for instance, isn’t a thought most people come across until they get involved in translation, which narrows the field). Since most of what is on this blog is written for one-language people, I sometimes do explain things that might be obvious to you or me. I’m more like a blog-surgeon than a rocket-linguist. ^^

  8. Pingback: SeoulPodcast #109: K-Illiterate | SeoulPodcast

  9. Pingback: 박민규/Park Min-gyu and his many faces....

  10. Pingback: Writer Park Min-gyu and His Many Faces | Nanoomi.net

  11. Actually, this is an interesting issue for me right now, as someone is working on a translation of some of my work. into Korean. (No announcement yet, but I should have one soonish.)

    In any case, it’s funny for me because, while I don’t write a lot of humor, the pieces I do write are usually linguistic/cultural humor; in one case, the humor hinges on presenting stereotyped Korean characters (the mom nagging her son to get married, the South Korean superhero who is simultaneously resentful of and fascinated by his sexy Japanese fellow superhero, the KJI-ish supervillain). I wonder how much of the humor will still be in the story when it’s in Korean. Meanwhile, in a couple of other cases, a good part of the humor comes from the voice of the character and his specialized vocabulary — pickup-artist-meets-cyberpunk lingo, and 1940s Harlem jazzman dialect. (With part of the “humor” being the use of these dialects/jargons in such an unusual way. Meanwhile, there’s very, very little universal humor in my stories, so I imagine the humor will be very hard to translate.

    I am, needless to say, extremely curious about how the translations will work out.

Leave a Reply