October 28, 2020
Translation has always played a major role in Korea’s often painful process of modernization. But even in this context, the frequent “translation wars” are a striking phenomenon—especially when the zealous battles about mistranslations are fought not only within the limited confines of professional or aficionado circles, but also (as periodically occurs) captivate the general public. The fact that public discourse about the quality and reliability of translations is much more common in South Korea than anywhere in the West is very telling in cultural anthropological terms. This significance has, however, never been considered a matter deserving of academic attention in and of itself. Conspicuously, the public denunciation of translation mistakes, as practiced in Korea, often targets not only the immediate culprits but claims to expose a fundamental (culturally conditioned) mentality among the general Korean population. The implication is that Korean audiences lack self-assurance and tend to accept dubious passages meekly because they are conditioned to suspect themselves of being simply too stupid to understand. Korea’s ongoing translation wars are epitomized by encyclopedic books that present vast collections of detected mistakes and usually receive a great deal of media coverage. One regularly recurring motif of the multifaceted debates on mistranslations is the supposed disgrace and disadvantage sustained by Koreans when they are left with imperfect renderings of insights easily gleaned by those elsewhere in the world, who read, if not the originals, at least perfectly faithful translations.