Sunday, February 12, 2017

Lost in Translation

The Far Side by Gary Larson(Image source: The Far Side by Gary Larson)

 The other day my phone rang.  It always makes my heart stop for a moment when this happens and my kids are at school, because my honestly my first reaction is, Oh no! Which of the kids is sick?! Or, What did my son do now

But once I've determined that either the school is calling me with something benign, like informing me I forgot to put 10,000 won ($10 or so) into the envelope for one kid's school pictures and could I please send the full amount? (um, yes, that just happened), or someone other than the school is calling, my heart resumes its regular rhythm and I answer confidently.  

This time, however, the man on the other end yelled.  He did not start his rant with the usual "Anyeonghaseo," as do most people, but he rattled off a string of rapid-fire Korean words.  

"I... ah... speak English?" I replied when he finally paused for breath. 

More yelling.  

"Sorry, no, I don't understand."  I hung up.  Two seconds later, the phone rang again and the man yelled some more.  I was truly scared.  Had I done something wrong without realizing it?  Entirely possible, but I couldn't think of anything! Was he some kind of hired kneebreaker and this was a case of mistaken identity?  I was glad it was my mobile phone and not a landline connected to my apartment.

I hung up again, and after his third call, I was actually shaking a little, so I texted Matt.  His office assistant called the man to ask if there was something wrong, and determined, finally, it was just a wrong number.

You'd think he might have caught on a little sooner?

Anyway.  Most of the time, with my conversations here in Korea, I'm rather astonished at how two individuals can speak totally different languages to each other, and still, at least to some level, communicate.  Buying vegetables, for instance, is amazingly easy.  I point to the vegetable and ask -- yes in English -- "How much?"  The produce vendor rattles something off in Korean and as I stand there with a blank look on my face, slowly racking my brain for the numbers I know, she holds up certain fingers and I then act like I knew that's what she was saying all along, present the money, and the transaction is made.  Piece of cake!

Other times, I think it should be easy -- like buying a subway card for my mom at the convenience store.  I bought my card and cards for my kids at convenience stores, but when I was in a hurry, of course, and went to buy my mom, the cashier and I ended up at impasse, with me shrugging and walking away, telling Mom I'd just buy it for her in the station.  

And Korean is not an easy language to learn.  I'm trying, but I don't know if my brain is getting old or it's just that hard.  At the Christmas party, I mildly bragged to one of the kids that I was learning Korean.  He speaks fairly good English, so he suggested I try out what I know.  I did, and he cocked his head to one side and said, "What?" several times before finally shaking his head and saying, "I'm sorry.  I don't understand."  Ugh, how embarrassing. 

So instead, I rely on:

1) The International Language of Smile, or ILS. I smile a lot anyway, anywhere, but I think it's especially useful outside my homeland.  Sometimes (okay, often) it's the I'm an Idiot Smile, a sheepish grin accompanied by a shrug that says, "Sorry, I just don't know better."  Or sometimes it's Pleading Smile, the showing-all-my-teeth slightly-desperate smile, accompanied by Praying Hands.  Or sometimes it's the Soulful Smile that I hope conveys all the warmth and goodwill in my heart.  Or sometimes it's the Don't Mess With This Smile, the plastered-on smile that should be read as, "I'm smiling, but it doesn't mean I'm happy.  Trust me, you do not want to push me over the edge. I'm thisclose to crazy mad."  

2) Charades.  Or miming.  I'm getting really good at this.  In fact, if Charades ever becomes an Olympic sport, I just might be a gold medal contender.

3) When Charades fails, I move on to interpretive dance.  Sometimes, when I know I'm going to have to communicate something particularly difficult, I just lead with this.  For instance, I took my car to get the oil changed.  I could not even imagine using Charades, so instead I began to choreograph an elaborate Interpretive Dance.  Not only was I asking for an oil change, I was taking in my only-one-in-Busan Odyssey, a Japanese car in the land of Hyundai and Kia.  My palms were sweating and my heart was pounding about my upcoming performance as I walked into the repair shop, so I decided -- against my better judgment -- to try English and The ILS.  "Oil Change?" I asked, with Pleading Smile.  "Honda Odyssey?  Is possible?"  To my utter relief and delight, the man replied, "Hone-dah?  Ode-dish-shay?  Okay."  I seriously almost kissed him.  However, I did end up paying $150 for it, because I think I agreed to some kind of tune-up package.  Matt wasn't thrilled, but as I pointed out, I'd gone in for an oil change and come out with an oil change -- did the price even matter???

Now, some of you tech-savvy types are probably reading this and thinking, Why not use Google Translate?

*Sigh.* I'll tell you why.  I don't trust it at all.  Yes, whenever I have a label or sign I need to read, I do try the app first.  At best, it's confusing.  At worst, it makes me think a tiny psychopath is living in my phone.  For instance, we bought one of my kids an alarm clock and were trying to set it up, but the instructions were only in Korean.  Our first try rendered the words, "..Kill the Killer 'Killer's Killer: Kill the Killer'".   
Well if that's not a little scary!  We tried again.  "And the ark. Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh."  
Nope.  Not particularly helpful.  I was dealing with an alarm clock, not a Bible story.

Other times it seems to have a bit of a dirty mind.   When I first arrived, I purchased some soy milk.  It was weird, though, because there was a picture of black beans as well, and it had an almost mauve color to it as well as a... different taste.  Not bad, per se, just different.  

Matt, itching to try Google Translate, scanned the label.  Most of the translation was gobbledegoop that didn't make sense, but there was also something about "twisted black beans", which I decided will be the name of my alternative rock band someday.  And then it said, "BlahblahblahTESTICLESblahblahblah."

Say WHAT?!?!  Of course, my dear husband found this uproariously funny.  I felt unsettled and not just a little queasy.  Whose "blahblahblahtesticles" was it talking about and what did they have to do with my soy milk?!  For better or worse, though, the more I got to know the app, the more common I found this kind of error.  One of my friends used it on a thermostat setting that translated to "Remove sex."  Yikes!  A scan of the ingredients in an orange-flavored vitamin drink I'd bought for the kids when they were sick translated to something about "your manhood".

So thank you very much, I will stick to my methods, however faulty they may be.  I've also started a new Korean course (this one) and will continue to annoy my Korean friends with tips for how to say... well, everything.  And maybe, hopefully, one of these days, I will not be quite so scared, queasy, confused, or lost in translation any more.


  1. Joy, you probably don't watch TV, but Hulu used to have marvelous Korean dramas with English subtitles. Other than a lot of beheadings in the historical dramas, they are even safe for the kids to watch. The closest to romance they get is usually a kiss about 20 episodes in. The costumes, actors, acting and sets are totally awesome. (South Korea must have an incredible film industry.) Hearing the words over and over with the subtitles is a fun way to jump a vocabulary.

    1. We do watch some of the romances! The problem is, we just don't watch much television. Everyone gets home pretty late, and the older girls have lots of homework. Maybe we will do this more in the summer, though!

  2. I really like the Living Language courses--that's what I had Angel use before we moved to China. I think it really helped him get started...although, I'll be honest, I tried to not let him talk whenever possible. He once tried to ask at the grocery store for "chicken breastmilk" even though I had thoroughly explained that that didn't make any sense as a method of describing chicken breasts.
    Learning a language is hard! About half of my family is going to Korea next month and some of them are studying a bit of basic Korean to hopefully makes things a bit smoother.

    1. I'm so glad to hear that about the Living Language courses! Sounds like it was money well spent.

      Will your family be in Busan at all? If so, let me know!


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