A Facebook friend posted some stunning photos of herself and friends hiking in Jirisan National Park. Facebook’s auto-translation of the post included the rather worrying “Cancer is not an option to postpone”. Reading the Korean original and some research allayed my concerns, fortunately. The Korean original is 사성암은 미룰 수 없어요. I know that 암 is used in the names of usually smaller Buddhist monastic establishments, usually translated as hermitage, by far the most famous being 석굴암, Seokguram. But 암 by itself doesn’t mean hermitage any more than 사 by itself means temple.
So how did the translator get to cancer? The Korean word for cancer is 암, which I previously didn’t know because it’s not included in Korean for beginners or travellers books. The translator encountered a word it didn’t recognise and instead of simply transliterating it (which it did with several other proper nouns in the post), it guessed that the 암 on the end was the relevant part of the word.
Online translators don’t do much better. Google and Bing offer Sandstone cannot/can’t be postponed and Papago (which I have found to be the more accurate overall) the meaningless I can’t delay tetragonal cancer. But sandstone is 사암; 사성암, if it means anything at all, is four star cancer, compare 삼성, three stars. Even though it was the worst translation overall, Papago at least attempted to translate the whole of 사성암. [PS the next day: I commented on my friend’s post and she replied that 사성암 is ‘four saints hermitage’.]
The bigger issues here are how translators deal with proper nouns, and how they recognise that they are proper nouns. Do they transliterate them (eg 경복궁 as Gyeongbokgung) or (attempt to) translate them (eg as Brilliant Fortune Palace or Greatly Blessed by Heaven Palace, just the first two meanings I found)? I suspect that the more famous a place is, the more it is transliterated rather than translated. (There is a map of world countries giving the literal meaning of their name. I am typing this in Southern Land.)
A related issue is the use of common nouns as names. Two Korean-Australian friends named their first daughter 사랑, so once a year I see photos of “Love’s birthday party”. A Korean friend and his wife named their son 우주, so one post included the startling “I put the universe in the car”.