The 6th International Translators’ Conference: Back-translating Race: On Dealing with Racially Sensitive Language in Translation

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • bySora Kim-Russell

The following two papers are from the 6th International Translators’ Conference, co-hosted by LTI Korea and the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation at Ewha Womans University from December 5 to 6, 2014, on the theme “In ‘Other Words’: Challenges in Translating Korean Literature.”


Back-translating Race: On Dealing with Racially Sensitive Language in Translation


A fellow translator and I have a routine. One of us will be translating a text when a difficulty arises: the author has written something that could be construed as insensitive. Maybe it’s a comment on race, or gender, or the use of a word that stigmatizes disability. We ask each other the same questions each time: Do you see what I see? If so, is it a mere glitch, or does it belong in the text? Is it a problem? Will it make the author look bad? Should I let the author look bad? We have this routine because that second opinion helps to balance our personal reactions against our broader understanding of a text, and because the process of translation itself can exacerbate the issuea single shift in word choice can mean the difference between subtly needling the reader vs. slapping the reader in the face. Ideally our goal is to match the effect of the original, but different social histories and mores mean that this is not always possible.

     In regards to race, Korean literature is more diverse than it is sometimes given credit for. African- American characters, for example, make an occasional appearance. When we translate these texts into English, we are translating them for a readership that not only includes African-American readers but also has its own history and set of expectations regarding use of language, sensitivity, and authenticity. So it is worth asking whether translators have a responsibility to address depictions that may be stereotypical or problematic.

     This question arose for me while translating a short story set in New York, in which a Jamaican-American woman tells a Korean man: “처음에 미국땅에 발을 디딜 때만 해도 몸뚱아리 하나밖에 없는 깜둥이 계집애였다고요.”  Translation: “When I first set foot in this country, I was just a [derogatory term for a black person + derogatory term for a woman] with nothing but the clothes on my back.” Ggamdungi (or ggeomdungi) is a native Korean word that refers to anyone with dark skin, but it has also become the standard Korean translation of the English “n-word”the critical difference being that while ggamdungi would never be considered a polite word, it lacks the full shock factor (not to mention genocidal history) of its English equivalent. Nevertheless, in this particular story, the word is meant to echo its American usage. In other words, my task was not actually translating Korean but rather back-translating a culturally specific form of American English.

     For this particular story, the author’s intent was to create an authentically African-American character. The problem was that the language was misapplied. While the “n-word” is used by some African-Americans as a form of linguistic reappropriation, the important distinction is how, when, by, and with whom the word is used. In this case, the dialogue ended up sounding inauthentic: the woman is talking to someone that she’s just met for the first time and who does not share her racial or cultural background, so it’s unlikely that she would use such an intimate form of in-group language with him; also, the character is a first-generation Jamaican immigrant, so this particular use of American English might not actually apply to her. After consulting with the author and editor, I translated the line to read: “When I first set foot in this country, I was just a little black girl with nothing but the clothes on my back.” The phrase “little black girl” preserved the meaning and intent but without slapping the reader in the face.

     The fundamental question, though, behind this translation was whether to preserve the author’s original word choice as accurately as possible, or to adapt the text to the sensitivities of the target readership. The former approach makes sense if the text is meant to be problematic, or if it is in some way a representation of the writer’s personal sentiments, a specific context or historical moment, or simply the prevailing sentiment of that society. But what if the author’s goal was simply to create a character who talks and behaves like a real person? This is where translators can intervene as cultural brokers and speak from the culture of their target language, particularly as more and more Korean literature is being set outside of Korea.

     As individual translators, these situations are tricky, but it can be even trickier as a teacher of translation, particularly when your students lack exposure to other ethnicities. Assuming they even notice the incongruity in the first place, students may feel overly bound by the original text and the strictures of grading or unsure of what would read as authentic in English. During a recent translation workshop, my students and I discussed the following passage: “사격자는 희끗희끗한 곱슬머리의 덩치가 흑인이었다. 곱슬머리는 담배 냄새 풍기는 입을 벌리고 고래고래 소리를 질렀다.”  Translation: “The shooter was a big black man with curly, grey hair. Curly Hair opened his mouth and shouted, his breath reeking of cigarettes.” The epithet “Curly Hair” is repeated throughout the passage. The issue here was that, from an American perspective, it was hard to take seriously the idea that the one black man in a group of white men would be referred to by the texture of his hair and not by his race. Also, the fact that his hair texture is focused on seemed somehow more racialized. The solution arrived at in class was to simply drop the reference to hair texture, as it would not be a remarkable detail for Western readers: “The shooter was a big black man with gray hair. He opened his mouth and shouted, his breath reeking of cigarettes.” The students agreed that the original text wasn’t necessarily offensive in Korean, but what is innocuous in one language can stand out as unusual in another.

     What I wish to emphasize here is that questioning language use is not about some simplistic notion of “politically correct” language or “language policing,” nor is it about burying our heads in the sand and pretending that racist language doesn’t exist. We shouldn’t sanitize a text simply because it bothers us or because there is some slight chance it will offend someone else (the same can be said for profanities or sexual content). It’s about bridging the gap between authorial intent and reader reception, and examining the text itself to figure out what makes sense for that character and for that scene. It also means raising more questions, such as, in the quest to market Korean literature, do we preserve phrases in translation that might put readers off, or do we rewrite and adapt problematic language to match the mores of the target audience? And when it comes to translating characters or dialogue that feel and sound “real” in English, who has the final say on authenticity and offense?

     We talk a lot about the challenges of translating Korean culture for non-Korean readers, but translation is not always unidirectional, particularly when we find ourselves “back-translating” the very language we’re translating into. But self-censorship and gatekeeping are not ideal solutions either, as they patronize readers and writers alike. Instead, it’s worth engaging writers in conversation about language and characterization in order to find creative, constructive approaches that honor both sides.







by Sora Kim-Russell