English PatienceHaving English subtitles used to be a bother for Korean filmmakers. Times have changed, and it’s now a must, not an option.
This was no exception for “Champion” (2001), the tragic tale of the boxer Kim Duk-koo, who never regained consciousness after a bout in Las Vegas against Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in 1982. The film was much-anticipated, and not only on the peninsula: Miramax, the U.S. distributor, asked that a version with English subtitles be created for a special screening session. Robert De Niro, who gained fame playing boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorcese’s “Raging Bull” (1980), showed up at the screening.
But it is not likely that Mr. De Niro raved about the film. More likely, it confused him. The boxer’s name was spelled two different ways through the 117-minute-long running time ― Kim Duk-koo and Deuk-koo Kim. In the middle of the film, there’s a scene where the boxer’s girlfriend says “I’m tired of fried chicken!” What viewers see on-screen is “I’m going to eat it now.” Another blunder lies in the last scene, a line from the boxer’s diary. The subtitles read, “I have courage and will for last fighting,” while it should read, “I have courage and will to fight to the last minute.”
It’s not only “Champion,” says Kim Hyung-geun, or Hank Kim, who runs Seoul Selection, a downtown bookstore. Mr. Kim, who hosts Korean movie screenings with English subtitles weekly, puts in his two cents. “I’ve had viewers who are expatriates complaining of poor English subtitles,” Mr. Kim says. After a screening of “Musa” (Warriors), an American teacher of English said that he would not buy the DVD of the movie, though he liked it, until the subtitles got better. It’s hard to blame the poor English subtitles upon translators only, according to Mr. Kim. “It is more of a structural problem,” he says, “than a matter of individual translators.”
Ha Yeun-ju, or Samuel Ha, a 31-year-old Korean-American, stays busy translating Korean movies into English. Mr. Ha, who came to Korea in 2000 to pursue a filmmaking career, has translated more than 50 Korean films into English, including “Champion.” Mr. Ha, who majored in Asian Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, came to the United States with his parents when he was a year old. Kim Sung-jae, or Jay Kim, 31, a staff member in charge of international promotion at Korean Film Commission, says, “Mr. Ha is the most sought-after translator, for his understanding of movies as well as his fluency in English.”
A recent weekday afternoon found Mr. Ha working on “Ijung Gancheop” (Double Agent), the latest big-budget local film produced by the director of “Shiri.” On his laptop, he scrolls through the script, Korean on the left side of the screen, English on the right, which he has translated in advance. Mr. Ha always reviews and translates the original script first, then looks at the videotape.
Mr. Ha has a lineup of friends to help him with Korean. “Double Agent” had scenes presented in Portuguese, about which Mr. Ha says, “I had to follow my gut feelings to translate the language that I don’t know at all.”
After working on the film translation itself, it’s time to work with Kim Jae-kyu, a technical director, who takes care of audio-visual equipment. Mr. Kim and Mr. Ha find the exact places to write the subtitles on special videotape with a time code called BetaCam. It takes about four hours on average, but this afternoon, it takes six. What slowed Mr. Ha was the translating of the names of the lead actor. The film is about a North Korean spy on a secret mission in South Korea. His name in the North was Lim Byung-ho but in the South, his last name should be “Im” due to the linguistic difference. While giving it a last check, Mr. Ha decided that he had to have the name be either “Lim” or “Im” all the way through. “Foreigners would not understand the difference between ‘Mr. Lim’ and ‘Mr. Im,’” he says, desperate. Then Mr. Ha and Mr. Kim replay the film from the start to find and change Mr. Lim to Mr. Im more than 150 times. As the two worked, Mr. Ha sipped coffee and cursed (in English) while Mr. Kim chain-smoked.
The hardest part of the job is not these monotonous changes, but what Mr. Ha calls “spotting” ― finding the right amount of words to match with the scene. “Subtitles should be short: otherwise it would be like reading a book, not watching a movie,” Mr. Ha says. Simplicity, however, sometimes leads to ambiguity, which Mr. Ha is pointedly trying to avoid.
Another difficulty comes from the differences between the two languages and cultures. For one thing, the Korean language has different forms of grammar in its levels of formal and informal speech. Mr. Ha decides to use four-letter-words when characters use informal language, to promote quick understanding for those who don’t know the language.
The movie that gave Mr. Ha the hardest time was “Chunhyang” (2000), directed by Im Kwon-taek, a story of star-crossed lovers set in the Joseon Dynasty and featuring archaic Korean language. The easiest one? Mr. Ha says “Chingu” (Friend, 2001), a story of four friends with entangled destinies. Though the film is much in the dialect of Gyeongsang province, Mr. Ha says it was much easier, for his father was a Gyeongsang native. “I’m better in the dialect,” Mr. Ha says smiling. The film he enjoyed the most was “Oasis” (2002), which earned the director Lee Chang-dong honors at the Venice Film Festival. “It was such a quality film,” Mr. Ha says.
Mr. Ha also likes to take part in titling Korean movies in English. For “Dongapnaegi Gwa-waehagi,” literally meaning “tutoring a person of the same age,” Mr. Ha came up with “My Tutor Friend.” For “Ildan Ttwi-eo,” meaning “Let’s run anyway,” he had “Make it Big,” which was truer to what the movie was about. His suggestion for “Friend,” which was “Those Were the Days,” was not picked, however, against the will of the director.
Mr. Ha on average works on four films a month, but with the American Film Market coming on Wednesday, he’s been going at a hectic pace lately. At the American Film Market, which is held annually in Santa Monica, California, local distributors present films to sell abroad. Mr. Ha also gets loaded with work before local and international film festivals, such as Cannes.
The Korean Film Commission has run a program that supports giving Korean movies English subtitles since 2000. Jay Kim, a member of the commission, says, “Korean filmmakers, as compared to the past, have become much more attentive about having English subtitles.” Mr. Kim says there’s still a long and winding road ahead. “In France, there are subtitle-specialized firms like LVT, with highly advanced processes. In terms of technology, there’s still a lot to do for us,” he says.
Hank Kim at Seoul Selection puts the blame elsewhere: “DVD production companies don’t want to spend a decent amount of money on the translating process.” A translator is generally offered 1 million won ($900) per film, an absurd amount, considering all the labor and trouble required. “It means the translators might not give their best shot, he says. “DVD firms are penny-wise and pound-foolish. They are just too blind to go global.”
by Chun Su-jin