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(still) translating 백색왜성

Written By: daveski on May 1, 2010 No Comment

I got introduced to the music of the Nell more than a year ago by my good friend Minsook, on a road trip here in California. And you know how those songs that you hear on road trips have a way of staying with you in ways that others might not? That, added to the fact that Nell’s songs are in Korean (mostly, at least!), has left their music in this kind of state of suspended animation in my mind. Yes, I have to admit to myself, while I’ve spent years studying and using the language, I still have a very hard time understanding Korean in songs, movies, and other media.

This song–Baeksaek Waesung (백색왜성, “White Dwarf Star”)–has remained in my head above all the rest from the iPod mix that we were listening to in the car on that day. In the months since, I could go weeks without thinking about it. But now and again, a word or phrase would slip back into my mind, fragments of sound and emotion in another tongue–far removed from their original contexts:

ummm, 뭐라고 하고 있지? what is he saying?

…잠이 들었는데…

oh, i understood that bit, he fell asleep. but what happened after he fell asleep?

…여긴 아주 많이 조용해…

so he’s somewhere really quiet, and his voice sounds so anguished, and knowing what I know about songs like this in Korean it’s gotta be some kind of heartbreak….but what kind of heartbreak? there are so many colors of heartbreak in Korean music, dramas…

And so on and so on, went the dialog in my mind, while listening to 백색왜성. Well, after hearing it again recently, right around the time of the Lera Boroditsky talk on linguistic relativity at the BLC, actually, and then reading someone else’s translation of the song’s lyrics, I decided to do something about this swirling cloud of words.

Translating. I’ve pasted the song lyrics from the 가사집 (Gasazip) website under the video below, with my translations following each verse, and then a running commentary of thoughts that came up in the course of translating. And I want this to be a work in progress–I’m still not sure about a lot of these meanings, so please do comment with any corrections or suggestions or questions! 자신이 많이 없거든요.  (:

OK, let’s get singing. You can hear the studio version with lyrics that are easier to make out, and read  오미자 (Oh Mi Ja)’s English translation here on YouTube. But for the purposes of this post, and a more immersive sense of being in the song, I like this extended concert video:

어젠 울며 잠이 들었어
빨간 눈물 흘리며
(그렇게) 평소처럼 잠이 들었는데
오늘 눈을 떠보니
내가 부서져 있었어
(더 이상) 내 눈물엔 네가 없어

Yesterday I fell asleep crying
Shedding red tears
Just like I always do when I fall asleep
But when I woke up this morning
I was broken into pieces
You weren’t in my tears anymore

빨간 눈물을 흘리다 sounds to me like “shed tears”, but I guess I could say “crying red tears” too…besides that distinction, though, it makes me wonder: what’s a “red tear”? It doesn’t sound good. Tears of pain? Sadness? Blood? Should I actually be translating this as “red” rather than “sadness” or something? … And then the expression, 부서져 있었어 which I translated as “I was broken into pieces.” This sounds very mechanical, very material to me in English. Does it sound the same in Korean? What does a native Korean speaker metaphorically imagine the body to be, that it can be “all broken up” or “broken into pieces”?

OK, on to verse 2:

초록 비가 내리고
파란 달이 빛나던
온통 보라빛으로
물든 나의 시간에 입을 맞추던 그 곳 . .

In that place where we used to kiss, in my own time
all bathed in purple light
where the blue moon shone
and the green rain fell…

OK, so this is where I may have taken the most liberties with the original. This is a 4-phrase sequence that starts in Korean with the green rain falling (“초록 비가 내리고…”) but in English it seemed much more sonorous(? satisfying?) to move the location, “that place”, to the beginning of the verse. But isn’t it consequential to hear FIRST in English that it was the place where there was this history of physical intimacy (입을 맞추다, “to kiss” in traditional Korean expression and not the transliteration from the English “kiss” that’s used in a lot of other contexts), and THEN hear about all the dreamy sights and colors that made that place what it was? In the Korean original there seems to be more tension with these things coming first and the fact of kissing only revealed in the end of the last line … And then there’s the question for me of the subjects of all this action. I mean, it takes two to kiss, sure, but the subject(s) are implied in these lines, with no mention of “us” kissing, and the weird-looking (to me) “in my own time” (나의 시간에). I’ve never heard someone say “in my time” like that in Korean. And I’m not really sure what it means in English either…

여긴 아주 많이 조용해
심장 소린 들리지 않고
(서로의) 안엔 서로가 존재하지 않아
그래서 아마 눈물도
투명한 색인 가봐
(그 안엔) 아무도 없으니까

This place is so quiet
You can’t even hear a heartbeat
(here where) we don’t exist inside each other
That must be why
Even my tears are colorless
‘cause there’s nobody inside

This was a little easier to translate. And the idea that tears are colorless “’cause there’s nobody inside” (그 안엔 아무도 없으니까) makes the “red tears” from before make a little more sense now. But, still, I wonder where this color symbolism comes from. Does it resonate with other songs, poems, broadly shared cultural ideas of how feelings are tied to colors?

초록 비가 내리고
파란 달이 빛나던
온통 보랏빛으로
물든 나의 시간에 입을 맞추던 그 곳 . .
모두 망쳐버렸어
모두 사라져버렸어
더 이상은 눈부시게 빛날 수가 없어

In that place where we used to kiss, in my own time
all bathed in purple light
where the blue moon shone
and the green rain fell…
Those things are all in ruins
They’ve all disappeared
And they just can’t shine so bright anymore

So, again, here’s that “special place” where all these things were visible. I’m mostly satisfied with this translation (unless I’ve been reading something really wrong about the intent of the song!), except for the last line. Mostly it’s because of the verb 빛나다, “to shine”, or “to emanate light”. There seems to be a difference between these two English ways of saying it: shining things, to me, can emanate their own light (like the sun), but as often as not it seems like they’re reflecting the light of something else. Does the moon shine the same way the sun shines? Do we mean the same thing when we say “the sun shines”, “the moon shines”, “the light shines”, “your eyes shine”? one little victory I had in this section was translating “모두” as “they all”, referring anaphorically to the purple light, the blue moon, and the green rain. I don’t know why it feels like a victory. “모두” in my mental lexicon seems to more often than not refer to living people, and not to inanimate objects like the rain. Is that right on? Or just my imagination? Either way, it makes the light, moon, and rain seem to have more life here…

난 잘못돼 버렸다고
부서져 버렸다고
다신 나의 별로 돌아갈 수 없다고

I’m all messed up
I’m broken all into pieces
And I just can’t go back to my star

This is where my most serious misunderstanding/lack of understanding came to play. I had to talk to a few people to actually learn the grammar right, since I thought that the “다고” ending on these verbs was indication that someone else said those things (quotation), rather than how they’re actually being used, in the first person, by the singer to emphasize his point. That is, for the Korean “난 잘못돼 버렸다고”, I originally had “You say that I’m all messed up”, when it’s supposed to be the singer making a forceful statement about himself: “I’m all messed up.” And this structure repeats in the next two lines too. Whew!

초록 비가 내리고
파란 달이 빛나던
온통 보랏빛으로
물든 나의 시간에 입을 맞추던 그 곳 . .

In that place where we used to kiss, in my own time
all bathed in purple light
where the blue moon shone
and the green rain fell…

Yes, we’ve seen this before…

잘못돼 버렸어
부서져 버렸어
돌아가고 싶어
초록 비가 내리던 그 곳 . .

I’m all wrong (I’m all messed up)
I’m broken all in pieces
I want to go back
To that place where the green rain fell…

That’s it…for now. Maybe, in this little exercise, I’ve done something about that cloud of words that had been swirling around in my mind since hearing this song the first few times. That’s not to say they’re not still swirling. And that’s probably because those words are still connected to memories, emotions, and colors of my own, in my own time and place.

Which also makes me think: maybe the real thing I don’t like about Google Translate is that it takes the swirl away.

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