The lovely lotus root and the beauty of mistranslation

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The lovely lotus root and the beauty of mistranslation

I was probably in my early 20s when I first came across someone who told me, “we misunderstand on purpose.”
Back then, I had no idea what this meant. I assumed he was referring to some crafty politicians at a press briefing who rattle on, saying whatever they want, just to avoid the sensitive point of an issue.
But having spent some years in an industry where meeting and talking to strangers is an important part of the job, I finally have come to admit that meanings exist in the world, quite often, to produce misunderstanding.
If that’s not the case, why do people take such odd positions in life, like smiling, using catchwords or making things deliberately vague at moments when they should be more sincere or direct?
Maybe I’m being overly prescriptive here ― not a proper attitude for a journalist.
But whenever I fail to communicate, I find a sense of relief in a comment by a bilingual scholar I came across in a college women’s studies class, in which she described most humans as “naturally bilingual” from the day we are born. Her point was that all humans have their own personal, more familiar way of communicating, versus the more generalized attitude they take in interacting with strangers. Lost in my translation?
It’s true, although maybe it’s also time for me to make some compromises.
For years I suffered from horrible guilt at not being truly able to understand anyone exactly, because we are all born with different mindsets, and I somehow believed it was entirely my fault that there was a silent distance which even our honesty could not overcome. I couldn’t have guessed that language is so incomplete that even if we try, we can hardly get a full grasp of it.
The probable turning point came with my Japanese roommate Kumiko, who could barely complete a sentence in English when I first met her. But one night, as we sat in our kitchen after dinner, we started talking about interesting moments in our lives. At first, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. But by the end of the conversation, I almost had a complete sense of what kind of person she is, and the kind of life she lived. It was strange, in a nice way.
Now I’m starting to see the beauty of mistranslation. I can understand why clever authors don’t bother explaining much about their works, because they want readers “to misunderstand on purpose,” taking the story beyond what it is. Yet that’s in a novel.
As a child, I couldn’t understand how people could think of killing the root of a graceful water plant like the lotus and eating it as a side dish.
For those who don’t see the connection between a lotus root and the art of communication, maybe there’s a mistranslation between us. Or maybe I misunderstand the point of my food column on purpose.

How to Cook

Seasoned lotus root

Ingredients (for 1 serving): 300 grams of lotus roots, 3 teaspoons soy sauce, 3 teaspoons water, 2 teaspoons sugar, 1 teaspoon cooking syrup (mulyeot), a splash of vinegar, sesame seeds.
1. Peel the skin off the lotus roots. Cut crosswise in slices of about 5 millimeters.
2. In a pot of boiling water to which the vinegar has been added, cook the roots for about 2 to 3 minutes. Place in cold water.
3. In a separate pot, add sugar, soy sauce, syrup and water. Add the roots and stir until they have absorbed the sauce.
4. Serve sprinkled with sesame seeds.

by Park Soo-mee
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