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How Translation Principles Helped Parasite Win Four Oscars

by Sharon Tan

The South Korean film Parasite made the news recently for winning the Palme d'Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival as well as four Oscars, including Best Picture, at the 92nd Academy Awards in Feb 2020. It was the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture award.

Director Bong Joon-ho attributed much of the win to the English subtitles translated by Darcy Parquet, saying that the “subtle and elegant translations” of the Korean dialogue made audiences “laugh, sigh and cry at the right moments”. This was echoed by critics who praised the movie's subtitles for allowing foreign audiences “to laugh in all the right places”.

South Korean culture critic Kim Heon-sik commented:

"The subtitlers don’t translate literally or simply deliver the words, but they identify the message the director intends and “design the language” so that the foreign viewers can arrive at the core of the message. It’s a complicated job that requires both professional insight in filmmaking and linguistic proficiency."

That is an excellent description of the task faced by Bible translators! When the Bible is translated into another language, a literal translation would never be able to convey the meaning well. Especially when there are idioms or concepts that are not easily expressed in the target language, translators often have to “design” expressions in order to transmit the meaning clearly and accurately. It is as much an art as a science.

Paquet, an American who lives in Seoul with his Korean wife, said Bong wanted the translated dialogue to sound natural to English-speaking audiences. He comments:

"You're often making creative decisions when translating subtitles, because there are so many ways to interpret the same line of dialogue … It was helpful to have a group of us thinking together about the challenging parts of the translation … Then you can get closest to the intended meaning."

An example of one of his “creative decisions” is the word ramdon. In the film’s dialogue, the word used is Chapaguri, a combination of two noodle brands which foreigners would be unfamiliar with. He chose to combine two more-familiar words ramyeon and udon instead. Another example is his replacement of SNU (Seoul National University) with Oxford in a humorous exchange, because he felt it was important that international audiences (who would be more familiar with Oxford than SNU) understood the meaning of the humour immediately.

Bible translators also face such decisions as they seek the best way to express the meaning of the scriptures in a clear, accurate and natural way, so that their hearers will be able to understand and be transformed by the Word of God. They also work in teams, with drafters, testers and checkers collaborating to ensure a high-quality translation. The same translation principles apply!

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