from Paul Gallagher, KLD Administrator
When I tell people I’m a Russian translator, they often, ask, “how long did it take you to learn Russian?” I answer, “I’m not done yet.” Then I add, “I’m not done learning English, either.” After 12 years of higher education and 35 years as a full-time professional, I still have a lot to learn. And that’s one of the things I love about our translation business—that every day, on every job, and even in my spare time, I’m constantly learning.
When I accepted my first paid freelance translation job in May of 1985, I was still in graduate school, and I was in way over my head. Even after studying Russian for 12 years in college and graduate school, I was challenged by every sentence of Памятники древнего Ирана (“The Monuments of Ancient Iran”) to look up unfamiliar words and sometimes even parse unfamiliar grammar. I learned the English word stele (석비, 石碑) for the first time. And that $300 job took me a month. But I took it seriously, I did my best, and I did all the research needed to understand the terms and concepts and express them faithfully and naturally in English. That approach has stood me in good stead ever since.
So how do I learn now, with all that experience?
The most obvious way is by looking up an unfamiliar word in a dictionary, sometimes in several dictionaries. But that isn’t always a complete solution. The best dictionaries usually offer several options for any given word, because different languages divide up the world in different ways. If the English text says “wife,” should the Korean say 아내, 처, 부인, 마누라, 집사람, 와이프, or something else? And if the English says “better half” or “ball and chain,” what then? Of course, Korean isn’t my target language, so I don’t face that particular challenge, but any language pair presents similar ones. For my pair, an excellent source is https://dic.academic.ru/, which is a dictionary aggregator: it submits my search to hundreds of online dictionaries and collects the results in one place. Is there something like that for Korean? Tell us in the comment section below.
My second choice, when dictionaries fail me, is to consult professional colleagues whose native language is Russian (if I’m having trouble understanding the source term), or whose specialization is the particular subject field (if I’m having trouble finding a good target term). In both cases, I also search for the source term or candidate target terms in natural texts written by practitioners of that field, so I can see how the word is used in context. And of course the client can sometimes be an expert resource as well: if I’m working for a mapmaking company, they will know cartographic terminology very well.
Another technique I use regularly for English is to look up words in the Online Etymology Dictionary. Knowing a word’s roots and how its meaning has evolved over the centuries helps me understand what the word truly means and how it’s used. It’s also fun recreation. Is there something like that for Korean? Tell us in the comment section below.
Most recently, as I study Korean, I’ve invented a couple of odd techniques that have been very helpful. Suppose I’m interested in the word 심 (心). It’s not enough for me to learn that it means “heart.” So I look up 心 (not 심, which is too common) in the Naver Online Dictionary, and I read through all the compounds (관심, 열심히, 점심, 욕심…). I learn all these compounds as a group, and that helps me understand and remember them. Similarly, if I’m interested in a more easily searched word like 열심히, I look that up and read each of the examples aloud, learning how it’s used in context, and after 40 or 50 I have a pretty good understanding. And practicing it this way helps me remember it. But this isn’t just a beginner’s technique: in my working language, Russian, reading millions of words and doing thousands of translations over the years has helped me develop a feel for how their words are used.
Finally, I’ve found karaoke (노래방) very helpful (I do it at home, of course, to avoid torturing my friends). I pick songs I like from dramas I like and learn the words, analyze them so I understand them, and learn to sing them. I remember one song in particular, 꽃향기 from the drama 응급남녀, sung by 임정희 (and also by the male lead 최진혁 as 오창민), because that’s where I first learned the word 방법: “사랑하는 방법을 책으로 알 수는 없는 거잖아.”
What techniques do you use to develop your language skills? Do you use different ones in your source and target languages? Tell us in the comment section below.