Category Archives: foreign language

Why are Korean song titles so hard to translate?

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So, one thing that people often notice about K-Pop song titles is that their English translations can vary–sometimes a whole lot.

It seems like in recent years a lot of Korean acts have gotten better about putting up English titles on iTunes, so at least there’s usually an official title (although it may be completely different than the Korean title). But that typically happens only once the song is released–when something’s being teased in pre-release, like Taeil’s upcoming song, an official English title is nowhere to be found, and the English translations can seem really chaotic.

That’s not because the translators don’t know what they’re doing or anything–it’s because English and Korean are very, very different from each other, and things that we take for granted in English don’t always happen in Korean.

Keep in mind, too, that one goal of a Korean title is to be memorable to a Korean-speaking audience. A native Korean speaker trying to come up with a song title to appeal to other native Korean speakers isn’t going to have ease of translation into English as a goal. Think about all the English-language songs that have titles like “Nothing Compares 2 U” or “If You Seek Amy”–no one’s trying to make all that easy to translate into another language, and why would they?

(Although I should point out that sometimes Korean/English wordplay is very much a goal. Block B’s “H.E.R” is “헐” in Hangeul; 헐 is a Korean slang expression meaning something along the lines of “Oh, my!” Likewise the song title “U Hoo Hoo” is a play both on the English word “you” and the Korean word “유흥,” yooheung, which means pleasure (and, yes, it can have adult connotations).)

So, let’s take a gander at the Korean title of Taeil’s upcoming song, “좋아한다안한다.”

“좋아한다” is the declarative form of 좋아하다, which means to like. More specifically, 좋아하다 is a kind of portmanteau verb common in Korean; 하다 means to do, and a lot of the time Korean takes a word (like 요리, cooking), tacks on a 하다, and gets a verb, 요리하다, which means to cook.

So, what’s the 좋아 part mean? It means that something is good. This isn’t quite the logic we’d use in English, but it is logical: In Korean if you tack together good and to do, it doesn’t mean to do good, it means to act as though you think something is good, or to find something to be good–in short, to like. (The same thing happens when you tack together pretty and to do–it doesn’t mean to do something prettily, it means to find something pretty or to like it.)

“안한다” is the declarative form of 안하다, which means to not do. (안 means not; 하다 still means to do.) What aren’t you doing? You’re not liking–that’s why 좋아한다 and 안한다 are stuck together as “좋아한다안한다.”

But who’s liking or not liking what?

This is where Korean gets VERY different from English: You don’t have to say! 좋아한다안한다 is a grammatically correct sentence in Korean–you don’t need a subject, you don’t need an object (although you can use both if you want). “Like not like” is fine!

In real life, a Korean speaker wouldn’t use a sentence like 좋아한다안한다 unless the context made it totally clear who was liking/not liking whatever or whoever they couldn’t quite make up their mind about. The fact that this sentence is grammatically correct doesn’t mean that Koreans necessarily talk this way–except in dramas, of course, where no one ever communicates clearly with anyone else, because then you wouldn’t have 16 episodes’ worth of relationship problems!

So part of the issue for people trying to translate a title like “좋아한다안한다” into English is that, if that phrase is all you have, it’s basically impossible to come up with something that is both an accurate translation and grammatically correct in English. Until you get a look at the lyrics and have more context, you are without a clue as to whether it should be I Like/Don’t Like You, You Like/Don’t Like Me, She Likes/Doesn’t Like Him, or even We Like/Don’t Like Them (or You or Me)!

But the other really interesting complication is that, just like writers of Korean dramas, writers of Korean song lyrics (and Korean poetry too, or so I’m told) often deliberately use the ambiguity inherent in phrases like 좋아한다안한다 (an ambiguity, remember, that could be easily cleared up by the simple addition of a direct object).

Once some of the lyrics of “좋아한다안한다” were released, the translators could say with some certainty that “좋아한다안한다” means Likes Me, Likes Me Not. But if you look at those lyrics, things aren’t quite that straightforward–after all, the tricky part of starting a relationship is that both people involved have to like each other the same way and at the same time. So, just like the beginning of a relationship, “좋아한다안한다” is not quite as simple as Likes Me, Likes Me Not–and that’s on purpose.

Taeil reminds us that you can’t evaluate lyrical quality based on a translation.

Another song title where this happens is Block B’s “했어 안했어,” which literally translates as “Did Didn’t.” If you look at the lyrics, the most-straightforward interpretation is Did I or Didn’t I?–as in, I told you to stop hanging around with that guy and to not call him and not text him constantly, didn’t I? Huh? Did I or didn’t I?

But the other meaning, of course, is Did You or Didn’t You?–cheat.

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In the Heights/London Fashion Week

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Man, things are just crazy busy these days, right?

So, if you are thinking of going to see In the Heights (and it’s supposed to be a really good show), they’ve put up the casting schedule:

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They seem to be putting Jaehyo and U-Kwon in the same shows, so that makes things a little simpler for Block B fans. You’re looking for 김유권 (Kim Yu Kwon) and 안재효 (Ahn Jae Hyo)–right now they’re up for December 22, 23, 28, and 30.

The show is supposed to run until February 12, but the schedule only goes through early January–keep your eye on the show’s Twitter or Facebook if you want later dates.

And Zico is going to be at London Fashion Week, doing a show! They actually give a fairly detailed breakdown of the show schedule, including before and after activities, so that’s nice. [ETA: VVIP and VIP tickets sold out within a minute, and the rest sold out not long after. Whoot!]

No idea if Zico will be joined soon after by the rest of Block B. My Music Taste isn’t giving out any details about a European tour, but then again, they aren’t saying it’s not happening, so…. Fingers crossed.

ETA: And this is happening.

Yes, Zico’s dating has destroyed yet another career….

This exciting multilingual Internet world we live in….

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So apparently there’s something untrue that’s been having some legs in the non-English-speaking, non-Korean-speaking fan population, and that is the idea that Zico recently released a diss track targeting Rap Monster.

The reason this hasn’t been a thing in the Korean-speaking fan population is because it didn’t actually happen–Zico has never released a diss targeting Rap Monster. It was a thing for only about two seconds among English-speaking fans until they figured out 1. it didn’t actually happen, and 2. what was floating around was not a translation, but rather something that was written in English to begin with (which is not something that is really hard to determine if you are a native speaker).

So, here is the English-language original: You’ll notice that “Zico” didn’t merely diss Rap Monster, he managed to bring in Exo’s Chanyeol and Unpretty Rapstar as well, and then he ended it with a–what else?–“sha sha sha.” Later on, a diss from “Chanyeol” surfaced. At this point no English speaker thought any of it was real, so I stopped paying attention to it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if “Rap Monster” and “some Unpretty Rapstar contestant” also got involved in this wholly imaginary diss battle, since that’s how fan fiction typically operates. (And then they all had sex!)

It’s doubly stupid because this supposed diss came out right after Zico got back from Japan–he hadn’t performed in Korea in weeks, and he didn’t release it on his Soundcloud, so when, exactly, was he supposed to have done this? Plus, despite what netizens seem to think is true, I haven’t seen Zico diss a specific individual since his pre-debut mixtapes. He sat out the Control feud, and given how well he’s been doing, I don’t know why he’d start something now–it’s not like he needs more attention.

Anyway: Obviously understanding that something in English is totally fake is a lot easier if you know the language well (and here I am writing in, yes, English–sorry, I’m trying to help, and this is the only way I can). If non-English-speaking BTS fans are giving Zico a hard time, just do your best to straighten them out–this was a complete counterfeit, and (as has happened in the past) probably wasn’t even intended to be believed. But stuff gets removed from its context and circulated among people who don’t really understand it, and here we are.

* * *

A bit of a flip side to this: Kpopalypse has an interesting post about how non-Korean T-ara fans have managed to flood Korean news sites with positive comments about the group. I have mixed feeling about the tactic, because I feel like K-netz hate is something that just doesn’t really matter, but you know, if you’re really sick of reading the crap and want to put an end to it, this does appear to work. Plus all you’re really doing is leaving nice words, so I think it’s a far more effective and positive tactic than, I dunno, fan wars or whatever.

What are those idiots shouting about?

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So, this is the captions and the shouted commentary–obviously they’re singing “Make It Rain,” which is mostly what’s subtitled (you can see that translated here ETA: Now the video itself has been translated, sort of–click the “CC” button for English subs), and the first few things P.O shouts are just lyrics from the song.

Live in the waiting room -Block B’s Bastarz-

P.O: We’re at the top!

P.O: It’s not my problem!

P.O: Yeah, we’re at the top!

P.O: Bingle Bingle!

A lyrical twist

P.O: What are the lyrics?

U-Kwon: It’s our turn! It’s our turn! We’re coming out!

P.O: Get out of the way, manager hyungs!

U-Kwon: Stay on the beat!

P.O: Oh, man, how long will it take to clean all this up?

I kept taking my hands off the wheel to dance

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I was listening to the new Bastarz album while driving–or more properly, I was listening to “That’s Right” and “The Hidden Girl” OVER AND OVER AND OVER again. And then a few times more.

I knew P.O had composed three of the Welcome 2 Bastarz songs, and that one of those songs was “Selfish & Beautiful Girl,” but it turns out he did those two as well. Keep up the good work, P.O!

I like B-Bomb’s “Tightly” as well, but it seems that he’s of the “Anything is sexy as long as it’s said in French” school of thought. The opening spoken-word bit means:

Ugh, I’m so hungry. I guess I could go get something. Wanna do that?

I mean, I guess that could lead to something sexy–many a porn movie is built on no firmer a premise. Speaking for myself, though, if I start a sentence, “Ugh, I’m so hungry,” I’m going to respond very poorly to an offer of anything other than food.

But, hey! Let’s give B-Bomb a few more super-duper sexy French opening lines!

Eh bien, nous sommes hors de lait. Pourquoi ne pas tu jamais l’achètes?

Translation: Well, we’re out of milk. Why don’t you ever buy any?

Il n’y a pas de shampoing. Puis-je utiliser du savon à vaisselle?

Translation: There’s no shampoo. Can I use dish soap?

Si tu me réveilles une fois de plus je vais te tuer.

Translation: If you wake me up one more time, I’m going to kill you.

ETA: U-Kwon asks the tough questions!

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-10-36-32-pm screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-10-36-34-pm screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-10-36-39-pm

Let’s translate wreaths!

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I’m supposed to be doing my Korean homework, but I’m too tired, and surely translating the silly wreaths Zico took a picture of in front of his froyo shop shouldn’t be difficult, right? I mean, they wouldn’t be some Godforsaken mixture of slang, arcane jokes, illegible text, and Hanja, would they?

Wanna find out?

센스들 터지네.. #가게오신분들비오니까조심히귀가하세요고맙습니다^-^

A post shared by 지아코 (@woozico0914) on

Starting from the top left:

Jackpot!! [rest of ribbon is cropped out] Do you eat alone?

Block B members. Do we get a free lifetime supply?

Seven Seasons CEO Kim Kyu Wook. Hit the jackpot!

Pop Time. [The rest is cropped out]

Actor Choi Tae Joon. Hit the jackpot, ultimate cosmic Woo Ji Ho’s Yogorino.

DEAN TRBL. Judging from you, this won’t work with half of half of half the calories, but, uh, I’m sure you’ll succeed.

Lower row:

CN Blue’s Lee Jonghyn. [Oh, crap! Hanja!] Hit the jackpot!

Swings. Congratulations on [Flowers are in the way!] LOL

Loyalty. [The rest is cropped out]

KUSH. Coming from Italy, this VIBE will be felt!

Jackpot!! Jaehyo. [The rest is cropped out, but looking at it I think it’s also the top left wreath]

ETA: Now I want froyo. I blame Block B.