Korean Machine Translation Doesn’t Work for Poetry

As a Korean-English translator, the most difficult thing I ever had to translate was poetry. I work on many different types of document translation projects, but I think translating literary works may be the most challenging type of translation.

To accurately deliver meaning, a translator must fully understand the text before translating. A translator’s lack of understanding can be easily reflected in the translation, and causes an additional layer of difficulty for the reader. This is a key reason why machine translation cannot work at the same level as professional translation.

No matter how advanced a machine is, it still cannot understand text, which leads to simple word-to-word translation. Translation of literary work, particular poetry, poses a unique sets of challenges, even for experienced human translators.

I recently translated a collection of a Korean poet’s work. Despite my experience as a translator, it took me a significant amount of time to translate. The biggest difficulty in translating poetry stems from the character of poetry itself. Unlike prose, poetry often doesn’t have singular or clear-cut meanings. Poets even create new words or expressions to accentuate their creativity. Poems can be interpreted in many different ways, but for the purpose of translation, a translator needs to make choices by using context and relying on his or her best interpretation of the original work. Literal word-to-word translation never works and results in meaningless groupings of jumbled words. Special attention to word choice is crucial in poetry translation.

Other challenges come from differences in languages. In Korean, it is typical to omit a subject when a reference to the subject is already clear within the context. However, a problem arises when a writer omits a subject and it is not clear what the subject is. At times, writers, particularly poets, write sentences that make little sense to readers, while immersed in their own imaginative creation. If a translator has both enough time and the ability to communicate with the writers of the work they translate, it can certainly help. Unfortunately, the reality is that most Korean clients require very quick turnaround time. Translators are usually given very limited time and no direct access to writers.

Consequently, a translator has the ultimate responsibility to understand the work they are given and provide the best translation possible, which is quite time-consuming and limits his or her ability to take on more work. The amount of time spent matters a lot for the translator’s compensation.

Also, Korean is a language that has an ample number of adverbs, including onomatopoeia. Poetry tends to be full of adverbs. Sometimes, it is practically impossible to find equivalent English words. My solution is to find an English verb that contains the most similar meaning as a Korean adverb. During my translation of the poetry collection, I made my best effort and spent a lot of time finding the appropriate onomatopoeia in English. When necessary, I spelled out Korean sounds by using Roman characters. There was no possible way to find an onomatopoeia that describes the sounds of Korean traditional musical rhythms, for example.

Another characteristic of Korean is that it doesn’t make a clear distinction between singular and plural nouns, or feminine and masculine nouns. Especially when a subject is omitted, a translator needs to make choices of numbers and genders for each subject. Finding some semantic cues can help determine the forms of nouns. Translation often involves a series of careful decisions on a translator’s part. Translation requires critical thinking, solid experience, and advanced understanding of two languages. Translators must be attentive, intelligent, and most importantly, professional. They must also make the best effort to deliver the highest quality of translations on time. Korean machine translation tools do not yet exhibit the levels of quality required for poetry translation. For these reasons, I think it will take a long time before computer-generated translation can do all of these things, especially where poetry translation is concerned.