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Nobel Prize in Literature: Japanese vs Korean Language

July 26, 2009

“You all know that Japan is an inferior country.”

[via Japan Probe]

This person claims that Nobel Prizes in Literature were not awarded to Korean writers because Korean language is difficult to translate into English, but Japanese (two laureates) is simple, primitive, and easy to translate. Moreover, Japan is an inferior country.

It is very sad that this person is teaching such things…Nonetheless, I found some interesting facts indirectly related to this video.

A Study by the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages came up with the numbers of needing 1000 words to understand 80%, 2000 words for 87%, and 5000 for 94% of English literature.

The National Institute for Japanese Language came up with 560 for 50%, 1200 for 63%, 2800 for 73%, and 9700 for 89% for Japanese.

This is because English literature commonly uses phrases like “water”, “hot water”, “boiling water”, “boiled and cooled water” using combinations of simpler words to describe things whereas Japanese has a separate distinct word for each of them as in “水”, “お湯”, “熱湯”, “白湯” which racks up the vocabulary count.

Seoul International Heritage Festival

Seungmu (Monk’s Dance) By Chihun Jo
(Work that the person in the video claimed is impossible to translate)

얇은 사(紗) 하이얀 고깔은
고이 접어서 나빌레라.

파르라니 깎은 머리
박사(薄紗) 고깔에 감추오고,

두 볼에 흐르는 빛이
정작으로 고와서 서러워라.

빈 대(臺)에 황촉(黃燭)불이 말없이 녹는 밤에
오동(梧桐)잎 잎새마다 달이 지는데,

소매는 길어서 하늘은 넓고,
돌아설 듯 날아가며 사뿐히 접어 올린 외씨보선이여.

까만 눈동자 살포시 들어
먼 하늘 한 개 별빛에 모두오고,

복사꽃 고운 뺨에 아롱질 듯 두 방울이야
세사(世事)에 시달려도 번뇌(煩惱)는 별빛이라.

휘어져 감기우고 다시 접어 뻗는 손이
깊은 마음 속 거룩한 합장(合掌)인 양하고,

이 밤사 귀또리도 지새우는 삼경(三更)인데,
얇은 사(紗) 하이얀 고깔은 고이 접어서 나빌레라.

Translation by a linguist and a professional Korean-English translator

A pearly veil(*1) of gossamer, folded delicately ’til it flutters by(*2)./Locks of hair, shaven to a cerulean tint, hide beneath the gossamer veil./And the two streams of light trickling down the cheeks, so truly gorgeous as to make me cry.

The stage is the night when the beeswax wordlessly melts away, when the moon sets on the paulownia leaves.

With long sleeves spreading the sky, the slippers(*3) hesitate to roll yet gently glide across./Into the shyly black eyes, a star’s light from a distant sky pours./With two mottled drops on the peach blossom cheeks, even in worldly trappings agony shines as a star./Unfurling, rolling, folding, reaching, yet deep within the hands clasp in sublime prayer(*4).

Even at midnight(*5) when the crickets hold their vigil, a pearly veil of gossamer flutters by.

*1 – Veil is not entirely accurate–고깔 refers to a conic prayer veil-like headdress used in the Buddhist tradition.

*2 – 나빌레라. Butterfly-like. The English word “butterfly” comes from the insect’s archaic name “flutterby”, describing its motion in flight.

*3 – A stand-in for 외씨보선 (Oes’ibosun), a type of dress slippers.

*4 – 합장. Hands clasped in palm-to-palm position. Pranam.

*5 – 삼경. The hours between 23:00 and 1:00

Translator’s Comment

The reason there isn’t much translation of Korean literature is not because Korean is hard to translate, but because there aren’t Korean translators who are also writers and poets. Were I a real poet, I probably would have produced a better translation of Seungmu–the attempt was just a proof of concept. The Korean-English translation community is severely limited to practical forms, such as in sciences and documentation.😐 (Source)

I am not very familiar with Korean literature and was wondering what Korean writer deserves a Nobel Prize in Literature in your opinion?

Further Reading: Seungmu (Wiki)

17 comments

  1. Wow. That’s a….

    I find those percentages pretty accurate, mostly because Japanese is so efficient. Though I love the culture, if the language wasn’t the way it is, I wouldn’t study it…. thankfully, the culture and language complement each other.

    Though, it’s likely that it’s much steeper at the top when compared to Western languages given the extreme complexity of the social structure levels, etc… there’s an incredible amount of, dare I say, foreign information the brain must assimilate as they way things are without thinking about it….

    As for Korean, guu~ I have no clue. There are barely any Japanese courses in my region of the U.S. While Korean, though a more flourishing culture in Central Florida, has virtually no languages courses/teachers (I’m sure there are private teachers somewhere).


    • Yes, the peculiarities of Japanese language make it interesting to study🙂 On the other hand, Hangul is fascinating also: some linguists praised it as “the most perfect phonetic system devised”.

      Indeed, complexity of social structure as well as other cultural aspects make Japanese more difficult to learn to people from other cultures.

      Unfortunately, Korean language classes are rarely offered in the US😦


  2. Very interesting article !🙂
    This is indeed sad to see such a simple and naive teacher say those things… I bet he never studied other languages except english and korean !


    • And he might even never visited other countries😛


  3. My understanding is that Korean and Japanese are closer to each other than they are to any of the other languages in the world, so the man is a bit off there. Korea, sadly, simply doesn’t gather as much attention as Japan and thus there aren’t as many translators. Structure-wise the languages are very similar. And vocabulary-wise they share many many many cognates of Chinese origin so…


    • Yes, Korean and Japanese languages share many features. I wonder what is the difficulty level for a Japanese person to learn Korean language and vice verse in practical terms.


  4. Having only read Korean literature in English translation, I’d suggest either Yi Mun-yol or Cho Se-hui. In his three works in English Yi has a pretty wide range, from traditional “modern Korean” literature about the post-war, to “Twofold Song” which is pretty, er “trippy” (to use the lingo of the canon!).

    Cho Se-hui wrote “The Dwarf” which is a great read and a pretty epic (in a sort of Solzhenitsyn-y way) story about Korean economic development. Heh, it is more interesting than I just made it sound.

    As to that video, I discussed it on my own blog with my translation partner (He’s ethnic Korean and I’m ethnic US) and at the risk of blog-pimping, you can read our conversation here:

    http://www.spunangel.com/2009/07/of-course-hamlet-is-superior-in.htm


    • Thank you for your suggestions and a link to an interesting article🙂


  5. Every language has its own intricacies. I would think that it’s hard to express Shakespeare in translation to other languages, because there’s strange context in some of his lines that are befuddling even to people who do know English.

    That said, the teacher probably just suffers from the yet-to-die anti-Japanese sentiments in Korea. The problem, though, is that he’s a teacher. Hopefully his students know better.


    • Yes, it is hard to translate poetry, especially Shakespeare. For example, Arndt tried to preserve the stanza of Eugene Onegin, but sacrificed exactness, and Nabokov published his own version in four volumes, following the opposite route.

      Indeed, anti-Japanese sentiment is still alive in Korea. Some people did laugh, so not all is lost.


  6. As for Korean not being readily available to learn: I can’t say anything about the US, but I know that where I live (Australia), there are starting to be more and more Korean language courses, and universities are establishing professorships in Korean Studies. I think that it’s being recognised for (what could/will be) future importance… and the Korean Wave helps as well, with more young people willing to learn. ;D


    • Oh, it sounds like Australia is on the right track🙂


  7. Your work has to have an English version in order to be considered?


    • Availability in English raises awareness of the work. Here is a little about the committee.

      Competence for the International Task

      In the Swedish Academy, linguistic competence has, as a rule, been high. French, English, and German have posed no problems and several members have been excellent translators from Italian and Spanish. Also noted Orientalists have found a place in the Academy. One of them (Esaias Tegnér, Jr.) could have read Tagore in Bengali (but in fact contented himself with the author’s own English translation of Gitanjali), another (H. S. Nyberg) could report on Arabic literature. In 1985 Göran Malmqvist, one of the West’s foremost experts on modern Chinese literature, became a member. The present Academy includes competence also in Russian. Above all, however, the area of scrutiny has been extended by means of specialists in the various fields. Where translations into English, French, German or the Scandinavian languages are missing, special translations can also be procured. In several cases such exclusive versions – with no more than eighteen readers – have played an important role in the recent work of the Academy. (Source)


  8. The big problem I see with the Nobel Prizes is the politics involved. In Literature, for example, Thomas Mann had a hard time getting the Nobel because his “Magic Mountain” was deemed too liberal (this is back in the 1910s). When he eventually got it, the committee pointed out he was being awarded specifically for an earlier work, which was a way to slap “Mountain”.

    Since then, of course, the Nobel have turned liberal, so anyone deemed too conservative won’t get it. They say Borges never received a Nobel because he collaborated with one of the military regimes in Argentina.

    It really seems like it’s not about the art at all..


    • Indeed, politics play a significant role in Nobel prizes, and other major awards suffer similarly. Of course, great works of art speak for themselves, but, unfortunately, some are not noticed.


  9. ‘This person claims that Nobel Prizes in Literature were not awarded to Korean writers because Korean language is difficult to translate into English, but Japanese (two laureates) is simple, primitive, and easy to translate. Moreover, Japan is an inferior country.’

    Japan is inferior because of an easier language?

    Uh oh! Retard alert! Retard alert class! Honestly, drives me to murder.



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