Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nearly lost in translation

Now that you’ve heard all about my kids’ language faux pas, it’s probably about time you’ve heard about mine. As is to be expected, living in a different country is not without its challenges. Language barriers in particular can be rather tricky, and Korea is no exception to this rule. Luckily, I’m more than adept at using body language to get a point across, and have no problem turning any conversation into a game of charades when necessary. But, this can only help so much. I often make a fool of myself gesticulating wildly to someone who wants no part in my corporeal convo and who won’t even give a helpful wave as they rattle off sentences that I clearly don’t understand. Indeed, the blame for this rests solely on me - I never made it around to enrolling in Korean classes – but it remains frustrating, nonetheless.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say I haven’t made an effort to pick up some Korean along the way (which, by the way, is much easier said than done.) After giving up on finding a Korean class that fit my budget, schedule, and general convenience I settled for teaching myself. By now I’ve acquired enough to direct a taxi, order a meal, ask for or decline various things in grocery store check out lines, and other language necessities like greetings, thank yous and no thank yous, and the counting systems for money and objects (yes, systems, plural). And when I got fed up with pointing and mumbling all the time I taught myself the Korean alphabet during my long subway rides by deciphering station names. Now I can sound everything out, making it much easier to can struggle my way through menus and maps, but don’t expect me to do much more.

Then there's all the unhelpful Korean I've picked up through my daily activities. After seven months of yoga four times a week, I'm pretty proficient in Korean yoga terms - things like bend, straighten, together, squeeze, point, lift, breathe-in, get the gist - and can now take a class without needing any English. (Although, I have yet to find a use for this vocabulary anywhere else.) I’ve also, unfortunately, picked up a handful of curse words and other inappropriate terms from my classes of 13-year-olds who like to find English words that sound similar to bad Korean words and then try to surreptitiously slip them into class conversations. Let's just say they were not amused when I figured out what they were doing (which, needless to say, didn't take very long) and put an end to their little game.

There has also been the challenge of incorporating Korean gestures into my body language vocabulary. As I said, I’ve come to accept that charades is a necessary game to play when abroad, but even with body language there is a learning curve. For example, never will you see a Korean motion someone to them with an upturned palm, a gesture strictly reserved for calling to animals. Instead, Koreans turn their palm down. This has proven to be a rather hard habit to form (even now, 8 months in), usually resulting in an awkward sideways sweeping arm movement. There is also the preferred method of giving and receiving cash and important documents by touching the left hand to the forearm of the extended right arm, slightly less difficult to master.

Nevertheless, regardless of my meager attempts at learning enough pocket-Korean to get by, it’s been rough goings at times. Korean has so many sounds that we don’t have in English that serious mispronunciation is inevitable; putting the wrong emphasis on the combined k/g, b/p, l/r, and j/ch sounds, or the hard dd and tt sounds can render a word incomprehensible, and don’t even get me started on the vowels! Thus, half my attempts at communicating in Korean are for naught, making even the most mundane daily interactions more complicated than they need to be. A trip to the post office can result in an hour of waiting in the wrong lines and multiple drafts of a simple mailing form if the English-speaking employee is off duty. A meal can turn into a guessing game of sorts, leaving me hoping that the outcomes of any misunderstandings won’t be too disastrous. And a taxi ride can become a wild goose chase costing 20,000w more than it should because of a mispronounced syllable. (Somehow, my subway stop “Gang dong-gu Cheong yuk” is often mistaken for “Gangnam-gu Cheong yuk,” which is in a completely different part of town.) But luckily, Korean has also adopted many English words so that the problem is just translating the word into Konglish, (i.e. while you'll often get blank stares from ordering a "vanilla cone," substituting a b for the v and adding an “-uh” at the end and ordering a “banilla cone-uh” instead can get you exactly what you want.)

I pride myself in being an American who doesn't expect everyone to speak English. But I must say, I'm relieved when I find someone who does because most of the time I'm just lost in translation.

1 comment:

gardenwoman said...

Ah, yes, one of the challenges of international travel is definitely communication. And Asian languages are some of the toughtest. Sounds like you've learned to handle it well for the most part.
One of the funniest signs we say in China was on the elevator wall at the Golden Resources Hotel in Chongqing. It waxed eloquently about not touching the bottoms inappropriately (buttons). Kim