On Sunday a former colleague in Korea posted on Facebook that he was attending a performance of the musical Cats in Seoul. Someone else asked him if it was in English or Korean. He replied that it was in English, without mentioning whether the performers were Korean or foreign. I later discovered that the production is, in fact, Australian.

Translating any poetry is difficult, given the competing requirements of meaning, meter and sound, especially in this case Eliot’s idiosyncratic English and Lloyd Webber’s world-famous music. Despite all that, Cats has been translated – Wikipedia says into more than 20 languages (with citing a source), and the show’s official website says 15 languages. Neither source lists the translations.

One obvious problem with any translation is the words cat and cats, which are so important in the meter of the poems and the rhythm of music. These are not necessarily one syllable in other languages. Taking four major European languages as examples, only French (chat, chats) has monosyllable equivalents, while German (Katze, Katzen), Italian (gatto, gatti) and Spanish (gato, gatos) have bisyllabic ones. The situation is even worse in Korean, where cat is 고양이 (go-yang-i) and cats is either 고양이 or 고양이들 (go-yang-i-deul – the plural marker is optional and usually omitted). So 고양이들 has as many syllables as ‘Jellicle cats’. (Google Translate translates ‘Jellicle songs for Jellicle cats’ (9 syllables) as ‘젤리 클 고양이의 젤리 클 노래’ (12 syllables).

From what I’ve found on this internet, all the publicity for this production in Seoul uses the English word Cats. I also found another production called Original 어린이 캣’s (Original children cat’s) which played in Seoul from late 2016 to mid-2017 (I saw posters for this in Daejeon before I left there in August 2016).

I’ve got more to say about this, but I need to do more research.

death by overwork (no, not me)

From How your job is killing you by James Adonis in the Sydney Morning Herald (I try to avoid giving free publicity to companies, but I’ve got to credit my sources):

The Japanese have a word, karōshi, to describe people who work themselves to death. … In China the word used is guolaosi. … South Korea, too, has a term for this pervasive condition: gwarosa.

A little bit of linguistic knowledge shows that those are actually the same word, in the pronunciation systems of those three languages. Japanese and Korean have borrowed a large number of words directly from Chinese, and have also created new words themselves from Chinese characters.

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Korean movie – A melody to remember, revisited

Twice last year I saw the Korean movie 오빠 생각 (o-ppa saeng-gak, Thoughts of my older brother or Thinking of my older brother, titled in English A melody to remember) once in a cinema in Korea (without English subtitles) and once on the aeroplane returning to Australia (with English subtitles), and blogged about it here and here.

I occasionally browse through a language bookshop in the Sydney CBD. Some months ago, sometime after I returned to Australia I saw a book called something like Korean Songs and Stories. One of the songs is Thinking of Older Brother, which provides the title, but not the story, of the movie. (The song dates from the Japanese occupation; the movie is set during the Korean war.) The background to the song is:

During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), eleven-year-old Choi Sun Ae’s brother went to Seoul to buy shoes and never returned, inspiring her to write these lyrics. The cheerful music – written by Park Tae Jun – may seem like a strange contrast to the sad words, but during the occupation the Japanese prohibited songs that were negative or depressing in nature. Having a relatively “happy” melody was a way of masking mournful sentiments.

I didn’t want to buy the book for one song (though I might have been able to make use of the other ones), so I surreptitiously took a photo of this song. Unfortunately I can’t credit the editor and publisher. I am posting this now, some months after finding that book, because I’ve just been sorting through old photos.


Mike Klitschko, The Cock Prohibited and The Icy Python

For a few days now, various contributors to Language Log have been exploring the fact that repeatedly typing one letter, character or syllable, or even a string of random letters, characters or syllables, into Google Translate results in ‘translations’ which a) have nothing to do with those letters, characters or syllables and b) are sometimes funny, baffling or seemingly meaningful. In the first such post, Mark Liberman reported that Japanese ュース (which Google Translate translates as juice) entered repeatedly eventually results in:

It is a good thing for you to do.
It is good to know the things you do not do.
It is good to know the things you do not mind.
It is a good idea to have a good view of the surrounding area.

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Lotte World Tower, Seoul

In July 2016 I visited Lotte World Tower in the Seoul suburb of Jamsil. At that stage the building was complete (at 555 metres, currently the fifth highest building in the world) but still being fitted out, so the observation decks weren’t open, but a shopping mall at the base was open. It was officially opened last week, on the 3rd of April, preceded by a fireworks and laser display on the night of the 2nd.

Short documentary about the building and the fireworks (from Lotte World Tower-Mall’s Youtube Channel)

News report about the fireworks (from YTN News)

My own photo


I live, therefore I buy

A few months ago I downloaded a mobile phone app for studying Korean. The app shows a sentence, question or phrase in Korean, with the option of hearing it. (I generally use this on the train, which means I turn the sound down.) The user mentally or audibly translates it into English, then clicks ‘Show answer’. After checking the answer and any notes the app programmer has provided the user then can then select a period of time after which the sentence will re-appear.

Last night I read the question 어디에서 삽니까? (eo-di-e-seo sam-ni-kka?). 사 is most immediately the root of the verb 사다 (sa–da, to buy), making 어디에서 삽니까? the formal polite question ‘Where do you buy (it)?’ (The ㅂ is part of the verb inflection.) But the answer given was ‘Where do you live?’. ‘Live’ is 살다 (sal-da). Most inflections of 사다 and 살다  are distinct. For example, the standard polite statement form of 사다 is 사요 (sa-yo, I buy) and that of 살다 is 살아요 (sal-a-yo > sa-la-yo, I live). Just occasionally, though, the ㄹ of  살다 disappears, leaving 사. One of these circumstances is when it is followed by ㅂ (usually /b/ but in this case /m/ because is it followed by ㄴ /n/). This is approximately analogous to the silent ‘l’ in ‘calm’ etc. In English, the sound disappears but the spelling remains. In Korean, the sound and the spelling both disappear.

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saeng-il chuk-ha ham-ni-da v Happy birthday to you

This morning my wife was watching a Korean tv reality program about a young man (possibly a K-pop star) travelling around with his grandmother. During the episode, she celebrates her birthday. He sings happy birthday to her in Korean (slowly), then English (up-tempo). Koreans use the standard tune but alter the rhythm to 3/4 + 4/4 by adding a beat to the equivalent of ‘you’. (I get caught out every time.)

The Korean words are: saeng-il chuk-ha ham-ni*-da (extra beat), saeng-il chuk-ha ham-ni-da (extra beat), sa-rang-ha-neun (name) (pause), saeng-il chuk-ha ham-ni-da – approximately: birthday congratulations (to you) we do, loving (name). [*The Korean has an extra syllable here and in the second and fourth lines. These two syllables fit into one beat (dotted quaver – semiquaver).] He made two changes: he sang shin (the formal word for ‘day’) instead of il and hal-meo-ni (grandmother/grandma) instead of ‘(name)’. Korean names traditionally have two syllables, so usually fit those two notes better than English-speaking names (with a greater range in the number of syllables) do. Except that he sang hal-meo-ni, which required two small notes (dotted quaver – semiquaver) in that beat (compare ‘Jennifer’ or a similar name). (hal-a-beo-ji (grandfather) has four syllables: compare ‘Olivia’.)

When he sang it in English, he changed the whole rhythm to 4/4, with an extra beat on ‘day’ as well as ‘you’. Instead of ‘dear grandmother/grandma’, he sang hal-meo-ni, which really messed up the rhythm.

(I’ve been meaning to write about the Korean version of Happy birthday. The tv program was a convenient prompt.)