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.