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Controversy over the PSY translation

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)

About the author: Just the administrator of this humble blog.

  • wangkon936

    Here is a link to the actual video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdmvEDzMiPA

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but PSY isn’t singing the song. I don’t know if I was the only one, but for some reason I thought he actually sang the lyrics in question. Doesn’t appear that he is. What difference does that make? I think one could give PSY plausible deniability such as he can say that he agrees with the anti-Americanism at the time of 2004, but doesn’t literally condone every lyric in the song he bashed the model of the M2 Bradley in. The key “kill” part of the song is in only two choruses.

    Btw, the song is pretty explicit and doesn’t pull any punches. It’s dripping full of hate. It sounds more like heavy metal rather than rap. It’s also a very crappy song. There is no doubt that the singer of the song is advocating the literal killing of American servicemen and their families. How explicit it is is downright scary. I was initially hoping the song would be saying “… die Americans” instead of “[let's go out there and proactively]… kill Americans.”

    I really can’t say anything about the correct translations of the racial epithets because I don’t know them too well. I grew up in the Korean American church and my friends and family hardly used them around me while I was growing up in America. One thing I can say is that ssibal, although it literally means “fuck” it’s not used in the same context. It’s used about as often as the English word “shit,” and the Korean use of the literal word “shit” or “ddhong” isn’t really considered a cuss word in Korean.

    Here is a good summary of the usage and context of ssibal:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTdrgwR_KQQ

  • wangkon936

    Nevermind. Although ssibal could not necessarily mean fucking in certain contexts, when you say ssibalnom, in pretty much means fucking or more specifically fucking asshole or something like that.

  • gbnhj

    Wangkon, that video shows PSY during the 2002 performance in which he smashed a model of an American tank. The song in question, however, was sung at a 2008 rally. It was originally performed by the metal group N.E.X.T.; I believe that’s them, and not PSY, singing in the linked video.

  • wangkon936

    Thanks, but my question is did PSY sing the song?

  • http://www.sperwerslog.com/ Sperwer

    He sang it at the 2004 rally. Do you really think that if had never sung it, such a disclaimer would not have figured prominently in his flawed “apology”?

    Props, though, for having the honesty to ackowledge that Psy said and intended to say what he did so clearly say.

  • wangkon936

    Ugh, that’s bad. The song is not only horrible (sounding) but pure poison (in the viciousness of its lyrics).

    But, having said that, I can see this style of criticism (killing the perpetrators and their families) used by other Koreans against even other Koreans such as Korean nationalists against Korean communists, Korean Saenuri Party members against Korean members of the DUP. Nowadays when Koreans hear that from their opponents across the aisle, they see it as very offensive and explicit, but they don’t literally think that their opponent will kill them or their families.

    East Asia in general has a history of when there is a violent change in power or when traitors are uncovered to not only kill perpetrators, but also their families. I’m guessing that’s where the thinking come from. Still, pretty horrible stuff.

  • wangkon936

    Rob,

    I wouldn’t say “nom” is bitch. Bitch has a female connotation and nom is theoretically gender neutral. Nom, and whatever you put ahead of nom, is pretty much the worse possible thing you can say about a person in Korean. Depending on the context, I would say the nearest English equivalent is jerk or asshole (depending on what’s put ahead of nom).

  • Cloudfive

    I used to think you were informed but am now quite skeptical of how much you actually know. I usually defer to those fluent in Korean but this is a song by heavy metal band N.EX.T from their album “The Return Of N.EX.T Part 3: The Book of War/The Diary of a Soldier” – a band known for their cultural criticism. There are several singers on this song and yes, Psy’s rap is the part about killing.

    There is no doubt that the singer of the song is advocating the literal killing of American servicemen and their families.

    Are you effing kidding me? It’s obvious to me the subtext is “how would you like if it was your sister, mother, daughter-in-law being tortured and killed.” The English words in the song include

    Murder, crime, genocide!

    cash, pepsi, bush, push

    America Stop the crime, Dear America stop the war!

    Full lyrics here: http://www.jetlyrics.com/viewlyrics.php?id=233020

    Anyone who thinks that Psy was actually condoning the killing of American military and their families even back in 2004 is a complete idiot in my book.

    ps – first time using block quotes, hope it works.

  • Cloudfive

    The lyrics are also included here: http://www.antiwarsongs.org/canzone.php?id=4552&lang=en

    According to N.EX.T ‘s wiki page, 5집 – The Return of N.EX.T Part 3 – 개한민국 (2004) includes a 56 page color booklet.

  • will.i.aint

    Hmm . . . it seems as though 놈 is almost always used to describe a man though. And you even have some gender specific equivalents – like 촌녀 vs 촌놈. And as far as words that end with 놈 ~ which is typically considered more harsh 모모놈 or 모모새끼? It seems like you can sling quite a variety of Korean derogatory words out there ~ but if you call someone a 씨발새끼 ~ you better be ready to fight.

  • GerryBevers

    The lyrics are as disguising as the Korean language allows. The lyrics are clearly not talking about killing Iraqi POWs; they are talking about killing Westerners and their families. 코쟁이 모두 죽여 means “Kill every big-nose Westerner,” which makes it very clear that it is not talking about killing Iraqi POWs, and every Korean knows it. Also, 양년놈 means “Western (양) bitches (년) and bastards (놈), and was used to include both sexes.

    Max Fisher and some Koreans seem seem to be trying to use American ignorance of the Korean language to help dig Psy out of the poophole he has dug for himself. Here is the translation of the lyrics.

    “Kill all the big-nose Westerners (코쟁이 모두 죽여 ), the fucking Western bitches and bastards who tortured the Iraqi POWs (이라크 포로를 고문해 댄 씨발양년놈들과) and the fucking bitches and bastards who ordered it (고문 하라고 시킨 개 씨발 양년놈들에). Kill their daugters, their mothers, their daughters-in-law, their fathers (딸래미 애미 며느리 애비 ). Kill them very slowly (죽여 아주 천천히. Kill them painfullly (고통스럽게 죽여).”

    이라크 포로를 고문해 댄 씨발양년놈들과 고문 하라고 시킨 개 씨발 양년놈들에 딸래미 애미 며느리 애비 코쟁이 모두 죽여 아주 천천히 죽여 고통스럽게 죽여.

  • Cloudfive

    You’re so effing tiresome that I would (figuratively) like to see you tortured with a smorgasbord of methods used by the American Military in Iraq and Gitmo.

  • GerryBevers

    What is the subtext of “Go screw yourself, Cloudfive”?

  • Guest

    Important elements of Korean grammar are missing in many songs of many genres, which can often cause some ambiguities. I am in reference specifically to the 을 / 를 indicators of an object of which the verb/action is directed or intended….

    It is also quite well known that in the world of rap and heavy metal (both styles of which I cannot stand, personally), a lot is done/said for shock value or as cynical/satirical emotions that often do not even line up with the signer/performer’s actual beliefs, and is therefore done because it “sells.”

    That being said, I am not going to weigh in on what Psy actually said or intended at the time. After akk, I am not Psy, and only he knows what was in his mind or heart then. However, I do know that people’s viewpoints can change over time, particularly as one matures in age and thinking. So I can accept his apology.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eugene.bolton Eugene Bolton

    Important elements of Korean grammar are missing in many songs of many genres, which can often cause some ambiguities. I am in reference specifically to the 을 / 를 indicators of an object of which the verb/action is directed or intended….

    It is also quite well known that in the world of rap and heavy metal (both styles of which I cannot stand, personally), a lot is done/said for shock value or as cynical/satirical emotions that often do not even line up with the singer/performer’s actual beliefs, and is therefore done because it “sells.”

    That being said, I am not going to weigh in on what Psy actually said or intended at the time. After akk, I am not Psy, and only he knows what was in his mind or heart then. However, I do know that people’s viewpoints can change over time, particularly as one matures in age and thinking. So I can accept his apology.

  • wangkon936

    Cloudfive,

    I would never pretend to be an expert in the Korean music scene. Also, I don’t think there could be any argument to what the lyrics are literally saying. It’s saying to killing as in let’s go out there and do it ourselves. That kind of killing. I was rather shocked by that actually. Now the entirety and subtext of the song is what you say, which is very anti-American at a time when much of the world was anti-American given what was going on in Iraq, etc.

    Any ways, what I was thinking is that since no American service members were killed, or their family members, or there was never any known attempts to do so by Koreans (the worse being some vandalism and a heck of a lot of protests), then what is this song really trying to convey? I think it’s trying to convey what I had said in an earlier comment, which is, “I hate you, the culture and society where you are from and what you represent.” I agree with you that PSY was not actually condoning the killing of any Americans, service members, their families or otherwise.

  • http://kuiwon.wordpress.com/ Kuiwon

    Instead of asking about the nuances of translation of the lyrics, shouldn’t the real question be why there’s so much anti-Americanism around the world, including Korea?

  • cactusmcharris

    So it’s not 씹할놈? I thought I saw it spelled out differently, but I guess it’s a case of not knowing is not too bad….

  • http://www.askakorean.net/ The_Korean

    I thought it was because they hate our freedom. And because they are communists, or terrorists, or both. And because they are ungrateful assholes.

  • wangkon936

    Talking about subtle meanings of cuss words, slurs and epithets is just not my cup of tea. Forces you think about it and that’s a little soul destroying.

  • GerryBevers

    Wangkon wrote:

    Any ways, what I was thinking is that since no American service members were killed, or their family members, or there was never any known attempts to do so by Koreans (the worse being some vandalism and a heck of a lot of protests), then what is this song really trying to convey?

    Not only was an American doctor stabbed and killed in Itaewon while walking down the sidewalk with coworkers in the daytime (LINK), three Korean men cornered and stabbed a Lt. Colonel in an underground walkway as he was walking home from work. The colonel just happened to be the army spokesman in regard to the army vehicle accident that killed the two Korean girls. LINK American soldiers were also attacked with rocks and beaten.

    Have you forgotten about the three American soldiers being assaulted on a Seoul subway, one of which was kidnapped and taken to a college sports stadium where he was forced to sign a statement condemning USFK in front of a crowd and cameras? And it was the US soldiers, believe it or not, who were arrested for assault.

    Why are you and others trying to downplay the message of the song? The message was clear. It was trying to incite violence against US soldiers.

  • Bob Bobbs

    The song also talks nyeon. That means bxxch.

  • que337

    As a native speaker of Korean language, I can tell you that gbevers’ translation is distorted and wrong. He seems, as he said, ” trying to use American ignorance of Korean language” to push Koreans into dirt whenever he finds chances feasible.

  • Cloudfive

    “Dear America” was released by N.EX.T in 2004. It was not used in the 2002 protest concert and I believe these deaths were prior to 2004.

  • http://www.facebook.com/larry.cor Larry Cor

    I assume your main beef with his translation is, as in an earlier discussion I read on this blog, that you would say ‘코쟁이 모두’ , ‘all the Big Noses’ refers to the family members of those he accuses of torture (고문해 댄 씨발양년놈들), and should not be placed at the beginning of the whole sentence. Any other major item?

    Assuming not, and assuming you’re right ( seems to me you are, though I’m neither a native speaker nor professional translator), it’s still not clear, as a matter of ‘cultural translation’ perhaps, that the lyric is not a blanket call to violence (albeit figurative, hyperbolic, etc). Americans generally interpret the identification of groups via slurs as implying blanket statements. IOW if for example, long ago, WASP’s had spoken of ‘F’ing Paddies who engaged in murderous rioting on the streets of NY; their families, those pot lickers, should all be killed’, my ancestors would have been hard pressed to interpret that statement as other than a general incitement to violence, not only a complaint about the actual people who caused disorder. Also, though modern US culture may have gone too far in this respect, in the US if honest people have to debate whether some term is a group slur or not, then it is.

    At the end of the day the whole episode is in the tempest in a teapot category IMO. But I still find fascinating, for example why the various translators completely whitewashed the racial terms out of that lyric. What were they thinking? (not a rhetorical question). Also, I wonder if people of different cultural backgrounds really don’t see a contradiction between using a slur to denote a group, and at the same time claiming they are carefully distinguishing the faults and merits of individuals within that group.

  • bulgasari

    That youtube video is mixing the audio from the cd (or
    mp3) version of the song (released in 2004) with video from the 2002
    performance, which is why they don’t match (as should be obvious from
    the visible play button and paused images!). I don’t know where this
    idea that Psy performed the song live has come from. I suspect from the
    Busan Haps article; the problem is the two Korean language articles it
    links to make no mention of a 2004 live performance. According to the
    Chosun
    Ilbo article (below), Psy and Shin Hae-chul (frontman of N.E.X.T.)
    performed together at the 2002 MNET Music Video Festival where he
    smashed the tank. Then, in 2004, he contributed vocals to the song ‘Dear
    America’ on the album N.E.X.T. released that year. The Chosun Ilbo
    article does mistakenly claim that ‘Dear America’ mentions the girls
    killed in the 2002 Yangju incident, however, which perhaps contributed
    to the confusion.

    As for Shin Hae-chul, you might remember this show that he hosted.

  • Towelthief

    I liked this comment on the subject.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/08/psy-lyrics-anti-us-anger?INTCMP=SRCH

    In my mind it should be required reading for ignorant Americans.

  • que337

    You would not spit out racial slur to those who do good. When gbevers and sperwer called me kimchi, then would they have in their minds “good” Koreans they might have affection?

  • Cloudfive

    Oops – I was wrong about Psy. It turns out he is responsible for the death of one man in the UK. Guess he can forget about an invitation to 10 Downing Street after this.

    http://www.itv.com/news/update/2012-12-12/man-dies-from-heart-attack-after-dancing-gangnam-style/

  • bballi

    And Brits and the British government are angels?

  • GerryBevers

    Show me where I have ever called you “kimchi,” you goofball. I do not use racial slurs, but you use them all the time, Q.

  • Towelthief

    Where did I say that?

  • http://www.facebook.com/larry.cor Larry Cor

    que337, I don’t wish to be involved in any dispute you have with other people posting here, just to be clear about that first.

    Besides that, if I understand your point correctly you are saying that the use of a racial slur just makes it obvious to the reader that the writer is speaking of members of the group who (he believes) have done wrong. To most Americans, I believe, in contrast, the use of a racial slur to refer to a group automatically signifies the writer’s lack of interest in distinguishing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ members of the [slurs]. If you refer to them as the [slurs], it signifies that you don’t view them as individuals, hence 이라크 포로를 고문해 댄 씨발양년놈들 would tend to be equal, ‘f’ing Western bitches *the group* who tortured prisoners in Iraq’.

    Another example from history. Early in WWII Eisenhower told his officers stationed in the UK, something like “if you call a British officer an ‘SOB’, well I don’t recommend that, but if you call him a ‘British SOB’, I’ll have you on the first slow convoy home”. So, even much milder language which could be perceived as prejudicial to the whole group (which the US Army had to work with) was perceived as much more serious than words clearly only aimed at individual(s) or their actions.

    I’m just explaining why I think ‘Psy/NEXT was just referring to certain people who did certain wrong things’ doesn’t wash with a lot of Americans, even though fortunately for Psy most Americans only saw the sanitized translation ‘Yankees’, which ignores the racial overtone in the actual lyric.

    And do you object to GB’s translation in any major way besides where the phrase ‘kill all the big nosers’ fits in?

  • que337

    I was talking about what the lyric literally means in Korean language, whilst you are talking about culturally adapted interpretation by which syntax of the original text is killed.  Primary job of a translator should be honestly translating ‘original text’ true to the text.  Then, interpretation could follow, which is you’re doing. 

  • que337

    I was talking about what the lyric literally means in Korean language, whilst you are talking about culturally adapted interpretation by which syntax of the original text is killed. Primary job of a translator should be honestly translating ‘original text’ true to the text. Then, free interpretation of readers could follow, which is you’re doing.