The Korea Herald


Translation is creation

By 황주리

Published : March 23, 2011 - 09:21

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Top movie translator Lee discusses his craft and language

Should a translation be considered a creation?

“Of course,” answers Korea’s No. 1 movie translator, both in quality and quantity.

“Translating a movie is a process of creation. Hence it is more than delivering word-for-word language but it is a work that requires the translator to blow in a fresh new meaning into it,” Lee Mi-do told The Korea Herald.

Known as the “certified check for Hollywood box office hits” in Korea, Lee has so far translated more than 470 overseas movies into Korean over 18 years. His most renowned works include “Shrek,” “Armageddon,” “As Good As It Gets,” and his first ever work, “Trois Couleurs Bleu,” a winner for best picture at the Venice Film Festival in 1993.

As he gained confidence through repeated successes, he re-started the translator’s real-name system during the ending credits of the movie, which had ceased after the ‘80s with the death of the nation’s only existing translator. Lee suggested that translators’ names should appear at the end of movies, thus giving more authority to movie translators.

Despite his contributions, Lee has been blamed for monopolizing the market, and for his movie choices.

“I did try to choose the scripts with excellent storylines, and they just happened to be successful Hollywood movies. But most of all I did not choose, the works, but I was requested to do so. For all I know, it may be the other way around, since many people watch blockbusters, I just happened to have translated the most-seen movies.”

From the beginning of his career, he dubbed himself Hollywood’s ‘raw fish’ cook. He explained that it was a catchy metaphor describing the freshness of words. ‘Hwal-eo’ is the word for raw fish, but it’s also a synonym for live-language ― Lee implied that translations should be done as to be something of a ‘lip sync’ to the actors, or else the language will lose its liveliness.

He is more than a bilingual translator. Although he is not well-acquainted with foreign languages other than English, his name appears on films originally shot in Japanese, Chinese, Arabic and other languages. Lee explained that he is often asked not to translate the language but to liven up the meaning and to spice it up.

“As much as language study is important, the skills and training to become more creative and imaginative takes up as much of the effort in a meaningful translation,” Lee said. 
Movie translator Lee Mi-do gives his opinions on language in Gwanghwamun, Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald) Movie translator Lee Mi-do gives his opinions on language in Gwanghwamun, Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Mikhail Bakhtin, in 1929, criticized the splitting of langue (words) and parole (meaning) and developed a “dialogic” theory of utterances where language is understood in terms of how it orients the speaker/writer to the listener/reader. Lee Mi-do would strongly agree with this.

For him, language is strongly affected by social context, and therefore its “trendiness” has been apparent in his works.

Lee is on a role in the industry. He has, however, fears and regrets.

“Translation naturally has its limits, yet what I try to do is to overcome those limits despite its difficulty in portraying the exact meaning from the original author.”

Though generally confident in his works, he does have regrets about his earlier work. “For instance, on ‘Good Will Hunting,’ I wish I just had more room for more explanation, I mean the actors had a lot to say but I couldn’t portray all that on the screen, due to the limit on words on one screen.”

He said he necessarily has to avoid certain genres of movies. “I try to avoid as much as possible the traditional comedies, and original pieces of great authors, like Shakespeare because they are too hard,” he said. In these cases, when the company makes the request, he suggests that they use dubbing rather than subtitles, or allow a lengthy line across the screen.

“But they rarely apply my suggestions,” he said.

He even has “anti-fans” who criticize his translations as being “too trendy,” resulting in “over-translation.”

Lee receives such criticism as a compliment. “People who know how to enjoy my subtitles would not get distracted but will enjoy twice as much of movie, both with the audio and the subtitles.”

As to the trendiness, he said he has an ironclad rule. “I never try to use in-words from TV that are a creation, I try to blend in my imagination. To bring in the exact in-word slang that someone has already used, I consider that just being lazy, so I try to create my own trendy word within the translation.”

However, recently, the number of his translated pieces has been decreasing.

He said it is because a lot of translators “jumped in together” into the industry, and also because he has managed to branch out from just translating movies, to writing a book and newspaper columns. “I have adopted so many children until now I had decided to have a child of my own.”

When asked whether he could expand his career into the Korean-to-English movie-translating market, he refused without hesitation, “No, I believe, (Korean-English translators) should be protective of their own territory. It’s their pie, I need to secure whatever piece of pie I have now first; I do not want to corner the market by myself.”

Lee also touched on the amateur translators that practice through illegally downloaded movies online. “We must pursue excellence in all areas of life. Film directors and writers produce movies of excellence, but through some people who find mere ‘pleasure’ doing it, I’ll just have to say that they are harming the value of the movie, and the viewer’s rights. I demand it stop immediately.”

On the recent cases with mistranslation on government level documents, Lee said: “Translation should not be disregarded as something easy, shallow and insignificant, as it can have a major impact in economy, and even social matters. If we had put in more consideration, we could have prevented some of the mistakes we made through translation in the past.”

“If creation is giving birth to an enwombed baby, translation is like giving birth to an unwombed baby.”

By Hwang Jurie  (

<한글 요약> 

국내 최다 수 영화 번역가 이미도 인터뷰

“번역은 제 2의 창작물이지요. 창작이 뱃속에 밴 아이를 낳는 것이라면 번역은 배지 않은 아이를 낳는 것 아닐까요.”

우리나라에서 최고, 최다 영화 번역가로 알려진 이미도 (49) 씨는 “슈렉” “아마겟돈” “이보다 좋을 순 없다” 등 수많은 할리우드 흥행작들을 번역했다. 그리고 그에게 ‘할리우드 흥행의 보증수표’ 라는 별명이 생겼다.

그의 첫 작품은 “블루”. 그는 93년 베니스 필름 영화제등 각종 영화제 수상으로 유명해진 이 영화를 통해 영화업계에서 유명해져 1993년부터 지금까지 18년간 총 470여편의 외화물을 번역한 영화 번역계의 ‘거장’ 이다. 

또한, 그는 영화종료 후 블랙아웃 시점에 번역가 실명을 넣자고 제안하여 영화 번역계에 센세이션을 일으킨 적도 있었다. 번역가가 만든 영화 자막이 영화와 함께 상영될때는 번역가의 책임도 있다고 생각했기 때문. 

그의 이름은 원작이 영어로된 영화에서만 볼 수 있는 것이 아니다. 일본 애니메이션인  “센과 치히로의 행방불명” 또는 중국의 “와호장룡” 등 일본어, 중국어, 아랍어, 프랑스어, 러시아어, 이탈리아어 등 영어권 외의 작품들도 그의 손을 거쳐갔다. 이것은 바로 그의 탁월한 한국어 실력 덕분이다. 그는 영어가 아닌 언어를 번역할 때는 외국어 전문가와 함께 공동 작업을 해 영화 자막을 좀 더 ‘살아있는 한국어 표현으로 바꾸는 것’ 이 그의 몫이라고 한다. 

그의 ‘살아있는 표현’ 의 핵심은 바로 트렌디한 언어 구사. 그러나 이씨는 가급적 은어나 속어는 피하며 TV속 유행어 사용은 자제한다고 한다. 

“남이 만든 유행어를 그대로 쓴다면 그만큼 게으른 일이 또 있을까요?”
그러나 최근 그의 손을 거쳐가는 작품 수가 줄고 있다. 이에 이미도씨는 “그만큼 많은 번역가들이 생겨났다는 것” 이라고 답했다. 또한 한-영 번역시장에 대한 도전 의지를 묻자, 그는 “나의 파이를 지키는데 힘쓸 것” 이라며 앞으로는 과거와 달리 작품의 수 보다 그 질에 더욱 신경 쓰겠다는 각오를 내비쳤다. 

그는 또한 영화 불법 다운로드 사이트에서‘아마추어 번역가’ 들이 올리는 번역물에 대해 근심을 표했다. “재미삼아 번역한 그들의 연습본이 얼마나 그 작품에 대한 해가 되는데요. 또 그를 보는 시청자들에게도 위험한 영향이 가는 것 입니다.” 

“번역에 대한 국가차원의 인식이 선진화 되야 합니다. 최근 오역 문서도 있었고, 번역이 나라에 미치는 큰 영향에 대해 생각해보면 정부 차원에서 나서서 번역가와 번역에 대해 좀더 체계적인 구조가 갖춰져야 한다 생각합니다.”