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Korean language and culture series: Analyzing Korean drama and film titles, part 1

A Korean friend once asked me, “Have you seen Love and Soul (사랑과 영혼)?” I looked at her quizzically and asked, “What’s that?” She looked surprised at my response and proceeded to describe an American film starring Patrick Swayze in which he played a spirit wandering on earth near his girlfriend, played by Demi Moore, after he was prematurely killed. I turned to her. “You mean the film Ghost?”

INTRODUCTION

When we import a foreign language film or a tv show, a decision has to be made as to how to adapt the title of the work into our own language. For instance, when Korea imported Ghost, there were three options to choose from as to what to call the film.

The first option is to simply call the film by the English word “Ghost.” For instance, when the film Transformers came to Korea, it was called “트랜스포머,” or “Teu-ren-seu-po-meo.” In other words, the title of the film was the Korean pronunciation of the English word “Transformers.” If Ghost had chosen this option, it would have been called “고스트,” pronounced “Go-seu-teu.”

The second option is to translate the English word “ghost” to the Korean equivalent “귀신” (romanized as “Gwi-shin”). An example of a Hollywood film whose official Korean title is a translation of the English words in the title is “미녀와 야수” (romanized as “Minyeo wah Yasoo”). “Minyeo” means a “beautiful woman”; “wah” means “and”;  and “yasoo” means a “wild animal” or “beast.”  Yup, you guessed it correct! It is the official Korean title for the Disney film Beauty and the Beast.

Finally, the third option is to come up with a new title that gives the viewers a better sense of what the film or drama is about. And of course, this is the route that Ghost took when it was renamed 사랑과 영혼 (romanized as “Sarang gwa Younghon”). “Sarang” means “love”; “gwa” means “and”; and “younghon” means “soul” or “spirit”.

Although I do not know the exact reason why the film distributor chose to translate the title as such, I think I have a pretty good idea why. To an average Korean person, the word “gwi-shin” would conjure up an image of a pale, long haired, bloody-lipped female ghost that frequently appears in horror flicks like Whispering Corridors or Hometown Legends. Although the translation would have been the most “accurate,” it would also likely mislead the audience. By renaming the film Love and Soul/Spirit, the Korean audience would be able guess that the film falls under a romance genre and that within the genre, a soul or spirt comes into play.

TRANSLATING KOREAN DRAMA AND FILM TITLES

This is all swell and interesting, and I’m sure it’s not a phenomenon that is only seen in Korea. But Electric Ground purports to be a Korean entertainment blog and that’s really my area of “specialty.” So this post will take a closer look at the known English titles of Korean dramas and films.

An interesting phenomenon that we see with English translations of Korean drama and film titles is the many great diversity that we see for even the same work. That’s because as much as Korean production companies speak of Hallyu wave and pet themselves on their back for their successful publicity effort, Korean entertainment is still mostly spread through word of mouth, blogs, forums, and fansubbing groups by average folks who are fans (or addicts) of the genre. Yup, that would be me and you!

This also means that a drama or a film may be known and called by several different titles as each of these outlets come up with their own translations. And of course, these titles are in addition to the “official” English title as given by the tv network or the production company.

Here, I will take a closer look at some of the English titles available and attempt to give you a better sense of which translation best represents the original title in Korean.

TYPES OF TITLES

1. Original title is already in the English language or it is an English-language name (Some examples: All InBeatBrainCity HallDreamDream HighFull HouseGiantGoodbye SoloIrisLoving YouMMy GirlOld BoyOn AirRomance TownSecret GardenSpotlight, etc)

Some of these words are loanwords, whereas others don’t exist in the Korean language at all but they’re common English words that an average Korean would know the meaning of. Thus, the titles usually sound generic and not as creative. (Hey, English is not the first language for most Koreans, including those who come up with the titles!) Since the titles are already in English, though, they do not need to be translated any further.

But why would they use English titles? I do not know the individual reasons because I have never been in the brainstorming room as they came up with the titles. (I do wish I did though!) But I can tell your right off the bat that you can get away with some of these titles because they’re in English. For example, if the title Old Boy had been in Korean, it would have been “늙은 소년” (romanized as “Neulgeun So-nyun”) or perhaps “나이든 소년” (romanized as “Na-yi-deun So-nyun”). First, the title in Korean would have been four (or five) syllables, compared to the two in “Old Boy.” Second, anyone who knows Korean would sense that the same title in Korean just does not have the same impact as the English-language “Old Boy.” Another possibility is “노인” (romanized as “No-in”), which means an elder or a senior citizen. Hmm, this title could work and potentially sound like it has an impact… for some other movie. (I understand that calling a movie “Senior Citizen” in English would just not have the same impact as “No-in” in Korean, but that’s because the same meaning words have a differing level of impact in different languages. Which I guess is the whole point of this post…)

So Old Boy is an example of a title that just works better because it is in English. Unfortunately, there are other titles that don’t work any better or have stronger impact in English, but those coming up with the title just don’t know any better, are misled, or just simply lazy. The Korean word for “brain” is “뇌” (romanized as “noe,” but pronounced more like “ne”). The word “뇌” just don’t work as a title for a drama about neurosurgeons. I can just picture the creators of a drama about neurosurgeons having a discussion, and deciding that it sounds more intelligent (you know, neurosurgeon-like) if it was instead in English. Umm, who wants to break it to them that the English-language title “Brain” doesn’t sound any better than “뇌” was in Korean?

Drama or film titles that are already in the English-language tend to be short one or two word titles. This makes sense because such titles are usually chosen because the particular English words in these titles are shorter than the equivalent Korean counterparts. The idea is that a clear and succinct title can leave a strong impact. Sometimes it works, like in the case of Giant. Sometimes it doesn’t, like in the case of Dream. Here, I think the Korean equivalent “꿈” (romanized as “Ggoom”) would have been a better choice.

2. People’s names

Some titles have the character’s name in them. Examples include Baking King Kim Tak GuDae Jang GeumFinding Kim Jong-wook, Hong Gil DongHwang Jin YiIljimae, JeonwoochiMy Name is Kim Sam Soon, and Wandeuki. Many of these titles with Korean names often get renamed (no pun intended) for their official English titles. Let’s take a closer look at each of these examples.

* 대장금 (대=”Dae”, 장=”Jang”, 금=”Geum”): “Dae” here is not part of the name. Instead, it is the Chinese character 大, which can mean “Great” or “Big.”  Jang Geum is the protagonist’s name. Hence, the literal translation would be “The Great Jang Geum,” although I’ve seen this drama referred to as both The Great Jang Geum and Dae Jang Geum. The official English title of Dae Jang Geum is Jewel in the Palace, and this is the title that is used when it is marketed worldwide. Don’t ask me how the heck they came up with the title Jewel in the Palace, although I don’t think it’s a bad title in its own rights.

* 김종욱 찾기 (김종욱=”Kim Jong Wook”, 찾기=”Chat-gi”): Kim Jong-wook is a male name. “Chat-da” means “to find” or “to search,” but the way the verb is conjugated here as “찾기” (“Chat-gi”), it is in fact being used as a noun. This film starring Gong Yoo and Im Soo Jung is frequently translated as Finding Kim Jong Wook, but if you want to be really technical about it, the Korean title is actually closer to “The Search for Kim Jong Wook.” The official English title of this film is neither “Finding Kim Jong-wook” nor “The Search for Kim Jong Wook,” but Finding Mr. Destiny.

Note: Articles (or Korean equivalent of them) like “the,” “a,” and “an” don’t exist in Korean. They’re just added in to English titles because they sound more grammatically correct in English.

* 제빵왕 김탁구 (romanized as “Je-bbang Wang Kim Tak Gu”): “Je-bbang” means “baking” (the noun form, as in “the act or process of baking”).  “Wang” means “king.” And of course, Kim Tak Gu is the protagonist’s name. Hence, the literal translation of this 2010 KBS drama is Baking King Kim Tak Gu, and it is widely known as that. The official English title omitted the protagonist’s name and became Bread, Love and Dreams.

* 내 이름은 김삼순 (romanized as “Nae Ireum eun Kim Sam Soon”): “Nae” means “my.” “Ireum” means “name.” “Eun” has multiple meanings, but as used here, it means “is.” And finally, Kim Sam Soon is a female name, and a very old-fashioned one at that. (You can read about this name in greater detail in Korean language and culture series: Korean names, part 4.) So the literal translation of this 2005 MBC drama is My Name is Kim Sam Soon, which is the title that most international fans of this drama know it by. However, the official English title is My Lovely Sam Soon.

* 완득이 (romanized as “Wandeuk-yi”): “Wandeuk” is the given name of the protagonist in this latest film starring Yoo Ah-in. “Yi” is a part of speech in the Korean language called a particle. Unlike the exclamatory particles like “yah” and “ah” that when added to a name indicate that the person with that name is being directly addressed, “yi” attached to a name indicates that the person with that name is the subject of the sentence. So “Wandeuk-yi” can be interpreted/implied as “About Wandeuk.” The official English title of this film is Punch.

Most dramas and films whose title is a name of an action hero or an action hero-like figure retains the original name. Examples include Iljimae and Hong Gil Dong. It makes sense considering that you wouldn’t go around changing titles of films like Batman or Spiderman. These names are like their own brand. Can you imagine if Batman was changed to Masked Man in Bat Suit or  Spiderman to Hero’s Spiderweb? Yeah, not going to work.

Interestingly, Jeonwoochi (or perhaps more like Jeon Woochi) was shortened to Woochi for its international release.

3 . “You can’t mess this up” titles

There are still other Korean-language titles that are so translatable into the English language that “you can’t mess this up.” Here are some examples:

49일 (romanized as “49 Il”): Well, 49 is just 49. “Il” means “day” or “days” as “il” can be used as a singular form or a plural. So this 2011 drama starring Lee Yo Won and Jo Hyun Jae is 49 Days.

* 아름다운 날들 (romanized as “Ahreum-da-woon Nal-deul”): “Ahreum-da-woon” means “beautiful.” “Nal” means “day” and “deul” attached to a noun makes it plural. Thus, “Nal-deul” means “days.” Together, the title can (only) be translated as Beautiful Days.

* 추격자 (romanized as “Chu-gyuk-ja”): “Chu-gyuk” means a “chase” or a “pursuit.” “Ja” indicates that it is a person doing it, similar to how “-er” is used in English. Thus, “Chu-gyuk-ja” means “Chaser.” Remember how I said earlier that the Korean language doesn’t have articles. Well, once again, for the English title, an article got added and this 2008 film starring Kim Yoon Suk and Ha Jung Woo came to be known as The Chaser.

뿌리깊은 나무 (romanized as “Bburi Gip-eun Namoo”): “Bburi” means “root(s)”. Gip-eun means “deep.”  “Namoo” means “tree.” Put all these words together and you have Tree With Deep Roots or Deep-Rooted Tree, the title of the 2011 SBS sageuk drama starring Han Suk Kyu and Jang Hyuk. Both translations are equally correct, although I personally prefer the former because it sounds better. I believe it is also the official English title, although we’ll have to wait and see when the DVD gets released.

4. Things got lost in translation

The last type is the most interesting- those drama and film titles where things have the potential to get lost in translation, they did get lost in translation, or even worse, they were simply mistranslated. But this discussion will come in Part 2. Stay tuned!

 

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  1. estel

    Excellent post, unni! I really love it when you do these, because I like your no-nonsense (but still elegant) explanations. I always learn something, too, which is always helpful.

    1. sumida

      I’m glad I found this site….from regular Kdrama addict to getting educated into anything and everything about Korea. Of all cultures,I find Korea most intriguing. Kwave is trully responsible to this and as well as people such as yourself helping me understand more of Korea in general ..thus appreciate more whatever Kdrama I watch…I speak for myself.

  2. caffeinate_me

    Another awesome post!

    It’s weird, though, why local distributors tend to change the drama’s name when it’s already so recognizable as is. For example, (and I have a feeling some readers will find out what country I’m from), when “49 Days” was aired locally, it aired as “Pure Love”. “Scent of a Woman” aired as “Janet’s Dream” or something. It annoys my sis-in-law to no end because when she searches the drama online (because the dubbing gives her a headache, har), she has to text me to ask what the actual title is because she can’t find it.

    I’m not sure what the deal is with Eng titles. Hallyu or not, I think it just ends up confusing everybody because you have no idea that you’re talking about the same thing. When everyone was raving about “Ajussi”, it took awhile for me to figure out they were talking about “A Man From Nowhere”. Same thing with “Story of a Man” aka “The Slingshot”. Now I hear that “Man of Honor’s” Eng title is “Glory Jane”. Huh?

  3. diorama

    Thanks for this post! I admit, kdrama titles have given me something of a headache in the past. Usually on the blogs, we refer to kdramas by their original Korean titles or the direct translation, whereas on the streaming sites they go under totally unrelated titles, like Caffeinate_me was saying.

    I like the titles that are closest to the original Korean because that seems the most authentic. There are some dramas with English titles (Scent of a Woman, Secret Garden), that already have special connotations to other works which makes it confusing. I admit while watching Secret Garden I kept thinking of the kids’ book. All in all, this is a really fascinating post. Thanks!

  4. snow

    yay, another post in the KLC series! :D i’ve just started learning korean and posts like this are really helpful and interesting. thank you again!

  5. joonni

    Another excellent post! Thank you!

  6. PurpleLee

    Hello! Thank you for this amazing post! I learned a lot. :)

    By the way, I just wanna share this to you. I’m currently living in U.S. but I heard from my friends that in my homeland, which is the Philippines aired 49 DAYS dubbed in Filipino but the issue here is, they changed the title to PURE LOVE. I’m cracking my brain to think why the hell they changed it! 49 DAYS is a great title and for me, it’s more exciting than the boring PURE LOVE! Yikes! ^^

    Oh! Another thing, they air Scent of Woman now but the title becomes HELENA’S PROMISE.

    1. nonski

      i think the reason for the change of 49 Days to Pure Love was due to the fact that during its airing there is another drama shown on that station called 100 Days, I dunno about Helena’s Promise, i find it odd that they change that and also Scent was a beautiful title.

  7. Laica

    Great post! I’ve done my share of headdesking over kdrama title translations, especially the last category you mentioned – looking forward to part 2.

    Wow, I had no idea that Dae Jang Geum and Jewel in the Palace were the same drama. I always learn something when I read your posts. :)

    I think they always remove the character names from titles because they probably think English speakers will find Korean names hard to remember and/or pronounce. They’re probably right, although the purist in me wishes everything could have as close to a literal translation as possible. But that’s not always so simple, as you pointed out. I think the titles which have more than one meaning tend to lose their impact when they’re translated. I remember when I Am Legend was airing, someone mentioned the main character’s name literally meant “legend” which added another meaning to the title, but that obviously wouldn’t be apparent to viewers who watch it subbed. Wait, I’m anticipating part 2 here, aren’t I? Sorry.

    I hate that they changed MNKSS to My Lovely Sam Soon, because the fact that it is her name and her journey to accepting it is such a huge theme of the drama. In fact it’s one of the most perfect titles for a kdrama that I’ve seen.

    Question: why do you think they used “City Hall” and not the Korean equivalent? Is it much longer, or do you think that sometimes there is a perception that things just sound cooler in English?

  8. nonski

    thanks for the post blue! kdrama titles had been a wonder for me, there are just some outrigh huh? title and others are just okay. this made me understand them better.

  9. InLove

    Thanks so much! Still my favorite series of post ever! :D

  10. armirod

    Great post! I think this kind of things happen in another countries, because the cultural differences. It´s facinating. I´m from Mexico and for example Ghost is was translated here “La sombra del amor” (The shadow of love), some times(very few times) the translated title is better than the original, like “St. Elmo´s fire” a 1985 film about post-adolescent-almost-adult-film, the spanish title was “The first day of the rest of our lives”

  1. On Electric Ground | My Korean Corner

    [...] enjoyed reading their Analyzing Korean drama and film titles Series (Parts 1 & 2) and is currently reading and learning from their post [...]

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