2014년 6월 1일 일요일

Overuse of English terminology in English-to-Korean technical translations

Recently I've been doing a technical translation project in the civil engineering and light rail sector. For those of you who have experience doing technical translation you will know that the biggest challenge in such projects is dealing with specialized terminology. In the engineering field common terminology might include terms such as

torque, leverage, pivot...

while in light rail projects common terms include

guideway, M&SF (Maintenance and Storage Facility), PSD (Platform Screen Door)...

and so on.

One problem I have noticed is that field engineers oftentimes transliterate these English terms to Korean, i.e. torque would become 토크 (which sounds like toe-keu for those of you who can't read Hangul). If you are an engineer who is familiar with the English term torque, than maybe transliteration (phonetic decomposition into another language) isn't such a big deal. But the problem is that engineering spec sheets and design review documents contain hundreds of such terms and in many cases, translators simply transliterate these to Korean without trying to find an appropriate term in Sino-Korean. As the final end-users of technical specification sheets include non-engineering personnel, naive transliteration that fails to convey meaning creates the risk of misunderstanding.

Looking up torque in Google using the search term: "define torque" returns:

1. MECHANICS - a twisting force that tends to cause rotation.

The Sino-Korean for this term is 회전력(回轉力) which literally means rotation(回轉) power(力).

In fact, most science and engineering terminology in Asia has Traditional Chinese character (aka hanja in Korean, kanji in Japanese) equivalents. The advantage of Chinese ideographs is that the actual principle explaining a word is contained in its symbolic representation. Even if you have no idea what torque means, if you look at its ideograph 回轉力 you can at least know that it has something to do with rotation. The ideograph is certainly more informative than the transliteration toe-keu (토그).

In Korea, there has been a systematic move away from the use of Chinese ideographs in favor of Hangul (native Korean script) over the past century and over the past 50 years or so, English transliteration into Hangul has become rampant.

But first, a historical detour into the background of Sino-Korean's decline in the Korean language. In 1894~1895, Korea's teetering Chosun dynasty passed the Second Gabo Reform (갑오개혁 甲午改革) which eliminated the civil service exam system (과거제도 科擧制度 ) based on the Chinese Classics while mandating the use of Hangul in lieu of Chinese characters in official documents. Fast forward 15 years to 1910, when Japan annexed Korea -- according to Japanese colonial gov't statistics (link in Korean), more than 90% of the Korean population could read neither Chinese nor Korean characters. (Note: the statistics from the colonial Japanese gov't should be taken with a grain of salt, as it was in their interest to discredit the natives as much as possible to justify their annexation) After Japan's defeat in WWII and Syngman Rhee's rise to power in South Korea, the illiteracy rate stood at 78% (link in Korean). Let me note that high illiteracy rates were common even in Western pre-industrial societies.

With the rise of nationalism in Korea's North and South, there was a movement to use pure Hangul free of Chinese characters. One problem with this plan, however, is that 70% of Korean originates from Chinese characters. The DPRK's solution was to remove many Sino-Korean words from the popular lexicon and replace them with pure Korean, a task at which they've been quite successful (one drawback, however, is that after 60 years of national division, people from the North and South sometimes have trouble communicating). South Korea, in contrast, pushed ahead with the Hangul-ization of school curricula, government publications, newspapers, etc. without removing Sino-Korean vocabulary from wide use.

This is problematic for one big reason -- different Chinese characters have lots of homophones in Korean. For example, the Chinese characters 鎭痛 (zhèn tòng, pain relief) and 陣痛 (zhèntòng, labor pains) have slightly different pronunciations in Chinese:



If you listen carefully to the Chinese pronunciation, you will notice that 鎭 has more stress on the first syllable than does 陣. Also the waveform display in the Soundcloud link above shows that the two are distinct. In Korean, however, the pronunciation for both 鎭痛 and 陣痛 is 진통 (jin-tong). Because these two different words are homophones, the only way you can know they mean different things is by using Chinese characters to disambiguate or by guessing from the context. But guessing from context is not foolproof. If you are a doctor in a busy hospital and you hear 'jin-tong' (진통), you might be confused as to whether it's referring to labor pains or the need for painkiller.

There are tens of thousands of such homophones in Korean and the meaning often cannot be gleaned from context alone. In conservative circles, there is much lament (link in Korean) about Korean language becoming a kind of Ebonics in which contemporary meaning and usage have been divorced from their linguistic roots.

I am no stickler for Korean tradition, but these critics have a point. Chinese ideographs can coexist with Hangul script for disambiguation purposes and provide more meaning than simple transliteration alone. Because of the growing role of English loan-words in Korean, reading comprehension is taking a hit. If Koreans were fluent English-speakers, then using such loan-words wouldn't matter, but I've noticed that my fellow translators often have no understanding of the technical material they're translating from English. This is exacerbated by the fact that most interpreters/translators in Korea are women, the vast majority of whom major in the humanities.

I believe this problem could be ameliorated somewhat if English-to-Korean technical translators used more Sino-Korean terminology, which includes semantics in their symbolic representation. Then translators could at least get a glimpse at the principles behind the terms they're translating.

Postscript
Some English engineering terms, their naive transliterations into Korean, and Sino-Korean equivalents:

English Transliterated Sino-Korean
torque 토크 회전력(回轉力), 선전력(旋轉力)
actuator 엑추에이터 작동기(作動機)
leverage 레버리지 공간력(槓杆力)
buffer 버퍼 완충장치(緩衝裝置)
detailing 디테일 세부장식(細部裝飾)