K-pop English

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[This is a guest post by Alex Baumans]

I've been following the Kpop scene for a bit, and I noticed that there is a special flavour of English being used on websites and the like. This is different from the English being used in the songs themselves, which is also worthy of study. In the major websites (Koreaboo, Allkpop…) the English is basically OK. However, there are obviously specific Korean terms (oppa, maknae, aegyo), and English words that are used in a specific Kpop sense (visual, bias, schedule, stage…). This makes this English slightly strange, though not actually weird.

Things do get weird in fansubbed reality programs and variety shows. You get a number of literal translations (work hard, youthful feeling pictorial) and odd sentence constructions (girls fooling around cutely – hamburger deliciously cooking). Now, these expressions appear consistently in various shows, it is not just an idiosyncracy of a single translator. I have no idea why this is so, nor whether the phenomenon also occurs in other languages (Viet of Spanish, for instance). My guess is that it is some kind of machine translation of the text that appears in the Korean original. Anyhow, the result is that there now exists a specific variety of Korean English (K-English?) that is used in fansubbed programs.

The examples come mainly from this series [4MFSUBS] 140721 Hyunah's Free Month E01.


  1. Matt said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 7:28 pm

    Thanks, this is really interesting! If this can be compared to what you see in anime fansubs, then I would call it closer to insider jargon than a variety of English per se. There is a tension between translating "naturally" and translating in such a way that preserves linguistic features of the original – simple loanwords are one example of the latter, entire calqued constructions another. Of course this tension exists in any translation situation but a speech community that is unusually concerned with "authenticity" and, in many cases, actively trying to acquire the source language and using the subtitles as a learning aid, will tend to exacerbate it and push things away from the "natural" side. (Many fansubbing teams now include on-screen "footnotes" explaining their choices to those less versed in Japanese than they.)

    In fansub community forums you sometimed see debates on exactly this topic thst are surprisingly reminiscent of much older debates regarding the translation of holy writ – Jerome's "non verbum e verbo sed sensum de sensu" and all that.

  2. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 7:35 pm

    Matt's comment made me think of bible translations. Apparently a major source of the difference between the way abstract words are constructed in English (mainly loanwords) vs. German (mainly compounds, sometimes calqued) is how the early translators chose to handle Latin words that didn't exist in their target languages.

  3. Chris C. said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 7:38 pm

    @Matt — Not just the linguistic features, but the cultural ideas for which the original language contains a convenient expression, but which can't be briefly expressed in the target language whose native culture doesn't embrace the underlying idea either. Failure to convey them distorts the story to one extent or another.

    If you know what I mean. At least two examples immediately spring to mind, but I'm afraid they might be boring to most.

  4. Jeff W said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 7:49 pm

    I noticed that there is a special flavour of English being used on websites and the like.

    I’m not so sure it’s just on the websites and the like. It just seems there is a jargon that is specific to K-pop—I would use it (well, maybe) if I were talking to another K-pop fan. The two words, mentioned in the post, that immediately come to mind for me are “bias” for “favorite” and “visual” for the most attractive member of a group (or, maybe it’s the member who is designated by the music label as the one who is supposed to be the most attractive member of the group—I’m not sure). I guess “stage” means what—appearance? I think I’ve heard it used somewhat like “making their fifth stage on this show.” In any case, the lingo is definitely noticeable.

  5. Matt said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 8:14 pm

    Chris C: Yes, quite, and I know exactly what you mean. Not to make it all about Japanese (I would love to hear more examples from the K-pop world specifically) , but one example that often comes up in Japanese anime/manga is "おにぎり." A fansubber/fanslator might prefer loan it as "onigiri", translate it as "rice balls", or even localize it to "sandwiches" if the visuals allow them to get away with it — all depending on how they conceive their audience and the role of their work in the community.

  6. Bloix said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 9:11 pm

    "how the early translators chose to handle Latin words"

    I don't doubt that the translators of the Bible handled Latin words differently. But I don't think that the decision was arbitrary. I suspect that we English speakers are more comfortable with loanwords than speakers of most other languages because English is a creole, with a vocabulary mashed together from Old English and Norman French. The mixed Germanic/Romance vocabulary meant that from the beginning, English speakers got used to having words whose etymology was impenetrable. When you don't feel the need to understand where a word comes from, accepting loanwords becomes easier. But if you expect to understand the pieces of a word, then foreign words feel indigestible. The German Bible translators, I suspect, didn't like loanwords much because a German speaker can't take them apart – while we English speakers don't even think of doing that.

  7. enkiv2 said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 11:54 am

    To add to Matt's original comment — while I'm unfamiliar with Korean fansub culture, I know that in Japanese->English fansub culture, the use of particular habitual literal translations of common phrases is useful as a shibboleth for particular communities (along with intentionally awkward but not strictly literal translations). Sometimes these fall more toward the intentionally-bad-translation end of the spectrum — in-groups can be defined by which terms they use even when such terms are derived from a sarcastic mockery of poor translation. Because there's a certain amount of overlap between the native-English-speaking KPop fandom and the native-English-speaking JPop & anime fandoms, these tendencies may have transferred over, justifying the unnecessary use of Korean words expected to be familiar to the audience even when English words do not lose information and justifying unnecessarily literal translations as part of a group identity.

  8. Rod Johnson said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 10:05 am

    This post is very cryptic to me. It claims there are "specific zpop senses" of words like "visual, bias, schedule, stage," but what are they? It seems like an interesting area, but without any specifics it's hard to get handle on it.

  9. AlexB said,

    November 21, 2015 @ 4:51 am

    Well, in view there are three levels of oddness (again, not counting actual lyrics, which is a different story entirely).

    The first would be the Kpop news websites. Here, the English is basically normal, except for a specific jargon. These are either Korean words, or English words used in a specialised sense (Bias, for favourite member of e group, visual for most attractive/stylish member, schedule for an appointment/activity, stage for a performance…) This can make these sites quite opaque for the non-fan.

    Second are fansubs of dialogue in variety programs. These are generally quite OK, but suffer from ordinary translation problems, such as Koreanisms, choice of register, cultural references and puns…. But generally, these remain comprehensible

    Where it gets most weird, is when the various commentary texts in the screen are translated. (for those unfamiliar with Korean TV, for reality shows etc, Koreans don't believe in a voice off/narrator, but use pop up text to an insane degree). These invariably look like they have passed through machine translation. Here you get the 'hamburgers deliciously cooking' constructions.

  10. KWillets said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 3:12 pm

    Those on-screen texts seem to be aimed at Koreans learning English; they highlight phrases and vocabulary terms with the same color in each language. My guess is that they try to present each term separately rather than going for a smooth sentence structure. For multi-line texts they translate each line individually, again probably to keep proximity between translations.

    Reality shows like this are a weird sub-industry of their own; they have their own crews and producers, etc., and the post-production is usually aimed at jazzing up otherwise mundane footage with emoticons and so forth. The English is likely added for the same reason.

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