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