The WaPo’s Max Fisher penned an interesting story on the controversy regarding the translation of the controversial lyrics sung by PSY in 2004. Here’s a sample:
“There is a bit of ambiguity in the third line of the original,” the interpreter, who works in Korean and English professionally, said. “It’s unclear whether ‘daughter, mother’ are referring to the Westerners’ family or Iraqi POWs.” That’s a big distinction, and would imply a very different reading than the one implied by the original translation, which has driven much of the controversy.
A Korean American who spends time in both countries and is versed in South Korean pop culture said he found the same ambiguity in the lyrics’ references to killing. Though the wording of the original, CNN iReport translation clearly suggests that Psy is calling for killing Americans, that’s largely because the translation begins the first two lines with “kill.” But no translation I solicited drew the same conclusion: they all characterize the first two lines as slurring the American servicemen rather than calling for their deaths. That would seem to open the possibility that the lyrics say something very different from the call-for-American-deaths that has been ascribed to them. Using a racial slur to accuse Americans of killing Iraqis’ family members is still pretty serious, but it’s a good deal less so than cheering for listeners to murder American soldiers.
Still, these translations also suggest that we may have been underplaying the slur that the lyrics use to reference Americans. The word commonly translated as “Yankee” or “—— Yankee” is actually a unique Korean word that’s meant as “a derogatory term for American,” according to Lois Nam, a Korean-American who works at Al Jazeera English. Roger Cavazos, the American coordinator who worked on the translations with his Korean wife, also said the word “Yankees” doesn’t capture the slur’s full meaning. It’s “impolite in most circles” and “commonly used in protest crowds but would be like dropping [a harsh English swear word] on Western TV.” The Korean American who spends time in both countries called it a “nearly untranslatable” racist “epithet,” perhaps best approximated as “—— foreign barbarian.” Jone translated it as “big nose.”
Just to lend my own assistance in this matter, the term translated as “Yankee” in the original was ssibal yangnyeonnom (씨발양년놈), which appears in the first and second lines. It’s certainly not a nice word, and perhaps best translated as “fucking Western bitches.” The base word of this is, of course, yangnom, or “Western bastard” (or something to that effect). Some of our native speaking Korean readers can offer their own (and probably better) interpretations. Suffice it to say, though, it is not generally regarded by those of the Caucasian persuasion as a term of affection.
In the third line, PSY uses another term, kojaengi (코쟁이), which means “big noser.” Like yangnom, it is a term of abuse directed at those suffering from severe melanin deficiency, which usually presents with long noses, rhythmic difficulties and an unexplained affinity for Duke basketball. Interestingly enough, it’s also used in the Korean name for the elephant seal, but in this case, I’m 65% certain PSY was referring to white people rather than the seals.
Anyway, I don’t really have much to say other than that and what I said earlier.
(HT to Hamel)