by Elena Chang
Several months after my 2019 ATA conference presentation, “Translating Hollywood: The Limits of Localization,” Parasite won the Best Picture Academy Award. This work by Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho secured a place in history as the first non-English-language film to win the award. As a movie buff as well as a professional translator/interpreter, it was also
exciting to see Parasite win the Palme d’Or—another first for a Korean film—at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2019.
Linguistically and culturally, English and Korean share very little common ground. Yet this “very Korean film”, as Bong (Bong is a surname) describes it, has strongly resonated with global
audiences, as demonstrated by record-breaking worldwide box office revenues ($264.4 million as of September 2020). To be sure, the film is a universal saga of rich versus poor, but what made
In October of 2019, I was contracted by Parasite’s U.S. distributor Neonrated to interpret for lead actor Song Kang-ho during a Los Angeles press tour. In preparation for this role, I viewed the film
and understood at once what made it uniquely successful when other Korean films had failed.
A crucial element of its popularity is the exceptional quality of its English subtitles that enable the audience to overcome the dreaded “one-inch-tall barrier”—Sharon Choi’s apt interpretation of Bong’s wry observation—and appreciate the work on its own merits.
I was inspired, so I proposed analyzing the film’s subtitles and discussing potential improvements in an ATA conference session. While session slots are highly sought after, I had two advantages. First, having previously explored English to Korean subtitling issues at ATA60, a companion piece concerning translation in the other direction was attractive to conference organizers. Second, I thought I might ride the coattails, so to speak, of Parasite’s huge success.
A Brief History of Korean Cinema
Cinema was introduced to the Korean public shortly before the peninsula was forcibly annexed by Japan in 1910, an occupation that continued until August 15, 1945. In the early days, films were imported, but soon a domestic film industry took root, and the first Korean film Loyal Revenge (Korean: 의리적 구투, pronounced Uirijeok Gutu) was produced in 1919. Though its offerings were
often outperformed by imported movies, mainly from Hollywood, the Korean film industry never looked back, enduring boom and bust cycles over the years. However, by 2005 South Koreans watched more domestic films than imported ones thanks to both its protective screen quota system and maturing entertainment industry. Around the same time, Korean cinema began reaching non-Korean-speaking audiences beyond the minority connoisseurs of international films. This expansion was largely made possible through the contribution of highly skilled Korean to English
Among them, Darcy Paquet stands out. Mr. Paquet fell in love with Korean films when he arrived in Korea to teach English in 1997.
Soon after, he cancelled plans to move to Eastern Europe. Instead, he became the biggest nonnative proponent of Korean films by writing about them on his English-language website. Soon, Korean filmmakers reached out, asking him to provide English subtitles for their films. Bong Joon-ho was among them, thus beginning a long collaboration culminating in Parasite. Of seven feature films directed by Bong, Paquet has provided English subtitles for all except Okja (2017). In interviews, Paquet reveals how he and Bong worked closely—incorporating input from the film’s marketing and creative staff—to optimize the film’s subtitles. Bong’s notoriously detail-oriented work habits earned him his nickname ‘Bong-tail’ (a portmanteau of Bong and detail). Paquet welcomed the director’s careful attention which complemented his own meticulous approach.
As an experienced subtitle translator, Paquet fully understood the key elements of success: succinctness of speech and familiarity of context.
Korean names and products that are not internationally familiar were modified. For example:
1. “Seoul National University” became “Oxford”— According to Paquet, “Harvard”, was rejected because it was too familiar. Another reason cited was Bong’s fondness of all things British, which
shows, again, close communication between filmmaker and subtitler, which is all too rare in this business.
2. “KaTalk” (the abbreviation of “KakaoTalk”, the ubiquitous Korean instant messaging/VoIP app) became “WhatsApp”. One might imagine that for a Chinese audience, the name would be changed to the popular “WeChat”.
3. “Chapaguri”, a dish made by combining two different packaged noodles, needs no explanation for contemporary Koreans. However, even this translator, who lived her first 32 years in Korea, did not understand the label before seeing the Chapagetti and Neoguri packets laid side by side. Koreans simply love portmanteaus! It must have been daunting for Paquet to find a workable substitute that would be immediately understood by a global audience. He created Ram-don (a portmanteau of Ramen and Udon, two better known noodle dishes, both originally Japanese). In addition, he had “Ramen/Udon” appear on screen along with the two packages (a screenshot of the scene provided).
4. Secondary but plot-critical character names are effectively shortened to aid audience memorization. For example, “Min” was used instead of “Min-hyeok” and “Namgoong” instead of “Namgoong Hyun-ja”. The former appears only in the beginning of the film in one sequence and the latter never appears in person, only in photographs. However, both characters are critical to the plot and to understanding the main characters’ motivations. Thus, the non-Koreanspeaking audience needed to recall their names easily and quickly.
These examples are but a few of Darcy Paquet’s thoughtful solutions to the “one-inch-barrier” evidenced throughout the film. This author’s task is, however, to identify places where modifications could move the work toward perfection. With that goal in mind, here are some observations:
1. He made some puzzling choices, such as translating “downstairs, upstairs, living room and study” as “the annex, the study, every room”. The “annex” should have been “guest house” since no residential dwellings—even those of the superrich—are likely to have an “annex”.
2. There was a clear mistake arising from unfamiliarity with Korea’s educational system. In the U.S., one completes 2 years of junior high and four years of high school whereas in Korea the period consists of three years of middle school and three years of high school. Thus, a second-year high school student in Korea would be a junior in an American high school, not a sophomore (as Da-hye, the rich family’s teenage girl is described).
3. Draw/drawing was consistently mistranslated as paint/painting, which I suppose has to do with the Korean word “그림(Keu-rim)” that applies to either painting or drawing. Since Paquet has
lived in Korea for decades, perhaps he, like native speakers, fails to distinguish between the two. Thus, having “gone native”, Paquet translates “drawing” as “painting”. There is a scene in a cafeteria where the poor Kim family celebrates the hiring of their daughter by the rich Park family. The eatery was translated as a “driver’s cafeteria”, a literal translation of “기사 식당(ki-sa
shik-dahng)”, which is unfortunate. The meaning is more correctly translated as “hired driver cafeteria”, referring to taxi drivers.
4. There are thousands of small restaurants catering to taxi drivers in urban areas all over Korea. The “cabby’s cafeteria” is an inexpensive eatery popular among the working class. (By the way, those who drive their own vehicles are called “자가운전자(⾃家運轉者, “owner drivers”)”.
Many more examples of Darcy Paquet’s skill along with suggested improvements can be found in my session slides.
Los Angeles-based Korean linguist Elena Chang provides translation, interpreting, voiceover, copywriting, and directing services. Elena specializes in entertainment industry needs such as dialect coaching/consulting script translation, lip-sync dubbing and subtitling. Her recent credits include: Adopt a Highway, Clemency, UglyDolls, The Magnificent Seven, Little Women, Jumanji: The Next Level, 21 Bridges, Dark Waters, Black and Blue, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, MIB: International, West Side Story, Olympus Has Fallen, and Life in a Day. Website: https://www.hollywoodinterpreter.com/ Email: email@example.com.