4.09.2010

Untranslatable.

Alright kids. I won't get to the two big posts tonight about teaching/work place advice. Just too exhausted. But since I wake up at the hour the average grandparent does these days, I may have time to get to them before the wedding tomorrow. Before I hit the sack with my dear old Hemingway, however, I wanted to cover a word that has caused me a lot of confusion during my time in Korea, that I finally understood (thanks to Seongyoo) the other day.

Last year, a couple of students "ran away" from my seven class one day. When I reported it to my co-teacher, she said something extremely odd in reply: "You must have been embarrassed."

Well. Not really. Angry, moreso, actually.

I've noticed, over the course of the school year, that my co-teachers will often use "embarrassed" to mean something that's quite different from our Western, English understanding of the word. One example would be how my new co-teacher has had the head teacher on her ass about her students, lecturing to her extensively about how to properly manage the students, although my co has been a teacher for seven years, and has a system that I've rarely seen rivaled -- her students are excellent. Even when she has bad students, they don't cause problems. While talking to me about the situation with the head teacher she said, "You know she is trying to advise me, but I have been a teacher for seven years, so I felt kind of embarrassed."

There has been example after example of the word "embarrassed" being used in this manner, in a situation that in Western culture would mean something closer to feeling that something is unjust, or an attack on or undermining of one's given authority.

Of course, as I grew to better understand face saving culture, I sort of started to work this out on my own. This is a combination of two problems -- a language mistranslation, and a cultural mistranslation.

Finally, when Seongyoo was in the office the other day, he used a word to explain the situation with the private school teacher: 억울하다. If you put it into a dictionary, it comes up as something like "feeling mortified". My basic understanding of the word, based on the translations I've been given, was that it means feeling embarrassed. But I suddenly realized that that wasn't what Seongyoo meant at all. He meant that the situation was unjusitified and unfair.

Talking with the private school teacher later about the situation, I wanted to draw special attention to Seongyoo, because I thought he had been lumped in with the other boys.... well, unfairly. I pointed out that he was the student who had fought back against the trouble makers during my class, and that I had talked with him in Korean and that he wanted to be able to study, but was angry with the other boys for getting in the way. I repeated the word he had used to her, because I was, at that point, genuinely confused about its meaning, although I suspected that I was getting close to the bottom of it.

She said that it meant embarrassed. I told her my thoughts on the word, and how I suspected there was a cultural difference at play. She asked what I meant.

I said, "Well.... sometimes Koreans use the word 'embarrassed', where an American would more times than not use the word 'angry' or 'upset'. I think 억울하다 might mean something entirely different than the Western idea of being embarrassed. I think it's an emotion that we don't really have, because our reactions, maybe, are a bit different." Or at least, from the view of Korean culture, they should be.

She said that 'angry' was not exactly the right word in that situation, and I said I knew that, but that for an American, it usually would be. Or, at the very least, 'upset'. When we feel that something is unjust or unfair, or like we are being questioned or accused of something when we shouldn't be, we don't feel embarrassed -- we feel angry.

Or rather, we feel closer to angry. But the emotion isn't really exactly embarrassed or angry. I suspect the emotion is rather close in both cultures. It's just that the expression of it is slightly different.

It was nice to finally figure out what this word was, and to get some more final confirmation on what I had suspected about it. Just another one of those moments in language learning when you hit on something that's just simply untranslatable, without the context of culture. I find myself at times, these days, when in mixed Korean and foreigner company, sometimes using a Korean word in the midst of English conversation, because there's no real English equivalent. My foreigner friends are put off by it, until they press me enough for a translation, and regret it when they get the paragraph it takes to explain what I was trying to say.

6 comments:

asadalthought said...

I'd say 억울하다 means sort of like at a loss. It's when something or someone makes you feel small or weaker than they are in a certain situation, perhaps when you feel it should be the other way round, but it's just not.

Clearly, I know what you mean by taking a paragraph to explain one Korean word, and I haven't done it very well at that!

Helena said...

My dictionary says, "feel pent-up (depressed); feel undeserved (mistreated). feel oneself wronged; (be) false; innocent; groundless. Be falsely charged (accused)."

I had an epiphany when I realized that 아마 doesn't really mean maybe (like a 50-50 chance of something). It means probably.

I'm no Picasso said...

Asadal -- no, that's perfect. That's exactly what I was trying to get at, was that it seems like somehow the hierarchy is at play with this emotion. Because it almost always seems to be like, someone above me chastised me unfairly. Or the other big one is that "embarrassed" gets used a lot when we might say a situation is awkward, but not necessarily embarrassing. More like one person doesn't realize something, and the other is (or would be) angry about it.

Helena -- Those all sound like much better definitions.

I always wonder how things seem to get mistranslated on a mass scale like that. My Korean teacher told me 아마 was "maybe" as well, and even did this little hand back-and-forth 50/50 gesture to back it up!

asadalthought said...

아마 can mean maybe, but it also means probably. It's one of those cases where the Korean word covers two different meanings in English. Another one I can think of is expect/look forward to.

I've experienced it in situations like, I will say: "I'll buy you dinner next time," if someone's just bought me dinner. They say, "ok, I expect it."

Oh you expect it, do you? But this is another case of dictionaries causing problems for the people using them. I think if some of the rote learning in Korea was replaced with more actual language usage it would happen less this way round, but whatever. Anyways, the Korean word 기대하다 would be translated as "to expect" by just about every Korean, and this isn't incorrect, it's just that it is also used when we would say "to look forward to" in English.

So my Korean friends are actually trying to say "I look forward to it" to me, which is much more polite and friendly and not rude.

If I think of a few more I might try and put a post together about this, there must be loads! There should be a good number the other way round as well. Let me know if you think of any more!

I'm no Picasso said...

Haha 기대하다 is one of the first ones I figured out, because it was so shocking to me to hear 'expect' used that way. It's been an uphill battle correcting that one in the classroom, but I have a strange kind of fondness for the way it comes out sometimes.

I had a hard time explaining it to my co, though. Because on the one hand, "expect" is sort of neutral, devoid of either hope or dread. So you can say "expect" means simply "I think it will happen." On the other hand, when used in the context of the example you've given, it means, instead, "I think it should happen."

You're obviously right about the language learning.

I'll try to think of some more too. I've got loads of questions on this subject, words that I've picked up from listening to Koreans speak English, but the problem is, since they are using a word that is kind of off, you can't exactly ask them to explain it in reverse, because they don't necessarily understand themselves. It's one of those things you just have to kind of plug away at, or else ask someone who's already encountered the problem.

Anonymous said...

this was very educational. thank you!