When different cultures mean ideas don’t translate

I was never an interpretation and translation guy, but when I taught linguistics in the College of English at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, I ran into lots of students and teachers from the Interpretation Department. One of the most interesting lectures I saw came from a group of students talking about Korean phrases that don’t translate well into English and English phrases that don’t translate well into Korean.

So I wanted to share some experience and start a discussion based on words that get lost in translation when traveling abroad. There are some good ones in the article I link to here, like feeling L’appel du vide when waiting for a cruise ship to dock. That’s a French idea for feeling something like homesickness only for a place you have never been.

For a personal example, living in Korea I often heard the word jung. It took a few years for me to get the concept. Jung is sort of a feeling of camaraderie and building jung is important in Korea. It’s still a somewhat foreign concept to me, but from my perspective, jung often involves getting together for drinks. Office workers go out drinking together, college students go out drinking together, professors go out drinking together. Sometimes students and professors take an overnight trip and drink together. We take the bus to some cabin in the country and hang out overnight. That’s called MT (Membership Training) but it’s about drinking and creating jung – not about training.

I’ve seen all sorts of things during MT. There is always a barbecue and there are always drinking games. Students stay up drinking all night, I think. I’m not sure because professors always go to bed before students. Professors might have a 2 room cabin with all the male professors sleeping in one room and all the female professors sleeping in the other room. Everyone gets a thick blanket / thin mattress thing to throw on the floor and sleep on. I have never seen a western style bed (box spring and mattress) at an MT. I assume the students have a similar set up, just two bigger rooms, if they sleep at all.

You might be wondering about privacy, but this is a concept that doesn’t translate so well from English into Korean. For example if you say in English that you prefer to yoga in the privacy of your own home, that privacy seems like a good thing. However it’s hard to translate “in the privacy of my home” into Korean and maintain the same positive connotation. I don’t mean to say that there is no privacy in Korea, but the concept of privacy and the expectation for privacy is a bit different in Korean culture than in American (and I assume other Western countries’) culture. The different cultural concepts of privacy can definitely impact your travel experience.

Here’s another cool article that talks about “hygge” a term that they say doesn’t translate well into English. Hygge kind of reminds me of jung except instead of building camaraderie with colleagues, hygge is more for family and friends:

“Hygge is a deep sense of cosy that can originate from many different sources. Here is a good example from my life: a cloudy winter Sunday morning at the country house, fire in the stove and 20 candles lit to dispel the gloom. My husband, puppy and I curled up on our sheepskins wearing felt slippers, warm snuggly clothes and hands clasped around hot mugs of tea. A full day ahead with long walks on the cold beach, back for pancake lunch, reading, more snuggling, etc. This is a very hyggligt day.”

So what phrases do you know like hygge and jung? What words or phrases have you encountered in your travels that don’t translate well into English?

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