Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thoughts on Bad Korean Writing

My Korean is not perfect. I know that. I sometimes say things that come out garbled because of poor word choice or grammar issues. Not ordinary everyday things, of course, but sometimes it happens when I try to express complex ideas. Or it happens just because I have bad habits with my Korean that my friends have been too gentle to point out. When I write in Korean I tend to keep my sentences fairly short, mostly because I'm confident in my ability to craft simple sentences and much less confident that I can make a long sentence error free. I can, however, read a newspaper without difficulty (although if it's on a topic I've never been interested in I might have to look up a couple key words in the dictionary). I can read academic articles and books, although I don't enjoy it, and search out the most important information for closer reading. I think this qualifies me to comment on the quality of Korean academic writing, although maybe you won't agree that I'm qualified. In Korea sometimes people are antagonistic to a non-Korean criticizing anything Korean—and I can understand that.

Today I want to vent a bit about bad Korean writing, specifically bad academic Korean writing. I have been forced to think a lot about this topic over the past few weeks because UCLA's Center for Korean Studies asked me to translate an article for publication in a journal. The article they asked me to translate was, they said, very close to my own research. I read the title and I was sold—it was about cultural policy and mask dance dramas! I was quite busy at the time that I agreed to do the translation, so I didn't start right away. I printed the article and I started reading it, but mostly for the big ideas. It was slow going, and I put it away and didn't take it back out until I'd made it through a couple of deadlines. It was when I tried to translate it into (academic) English that I began to appreciate just how bad this article was. My main arguments with his writing are:

1) He does not introduce concepts or organizations. For example, if you're going to talk about intangible cultural heritage policy in Korea, you should introduce the governmental bodies that oversee it (such as the Cultural Heritage Administration) and the law that governs it (the Cultural Property Protection Law). You can't just say "the governmental body that manages intangible heritage" and "intangible heritage policy" throughout your article. It just doesn't make sense. He will use a very technical term and not explain what it means. Including some theoretical terms he's apparently made up. In English I have to explain, for example, which established definition of transculturation I am referring to by clarifying that it is transculturation as used in Wallis and Malm (1993). Heck, I have to have a working definition of 'traditional' and 'culture' and a lot of other words you use all the time that you might not think of a definition for if you haven't had professors jump on you for using them without knowing just what you mean.

2) He does not use proper structure, simply speaking he does not: introduce an idea, support the idea with facts and reason and arguments, sum up. He doesn't use this on a paragraph by paragraph basis, and he doesn't do it for each section of the paper, either.

3) He doesn't believe in transition from one paragraph to another. You could almost reorder entire sections of his paper, just scramble the paragraphs. Ideas are introduced and one paragraph does not flow into the next, so it doesn't matter which order they come in.

4) He frequently neglects to clarify the subject of the sentence. In Korean writing the subject is not always necessary. If I asked you if you'd eaten, I'd just say "식사했어요?" (meal+did?), I wouldn't need to say "you" or anything else that might indicate who I was talking to (it's obvious if I'm speaking to you, isn't it?). However, in academic writing omission of the subject quickly becomes confusing.

5) Most of his paragraphs are three or four sentences long. Many sentences contain in excess of two lines (in a journal) of text, sometimes more than three, and Korean is denser than English. In others words he would take something the length of number (4) above and write one sentence. All with academic vocabulary.

Because I know someone will read this who doesn't believe me, here's a sample of his writing. Go ahead, I dare you to translate it into English in less than 15 minutes. Heck, take more than 15 minutes for these three sentences. Do you feel confident in your translation? If you do, post it in the comment section, I'd like to see how it matches up with what I'm going to submit. Yes, I know the last sentence isn't too bad.

Was I able to translate this by myself? No. At first, even though the limit of my previous translation work was making subtitles for Korean TV shows, I thought I'd be able to do it. After all, I felt like I understood his major points as I was reading. And it's about (more or less) the same topic I spend all day everyday thinking about. Mostly my friend Jisoo helped me. We sat together with multiple cups of coffee and talked through each sentence. Some sentences required 10 minutes before we had a decent translation! And frequently we just had to spend a few minutes blowing off steam about how bad his writing is. My friends Kyungjin and Hoijung also helped a bit, they both were shocked at how bad the writing was (considering that it had been chosen for publication).

The article I'm translating was already published in a journal. So how could it be so bad that Jisoo (post-MA, about to enter a US Ph.D. program), Kyungjin (post-MA, fluent in a gazillion languages and more than halfway through a JD) and Hoijung (post-MA, about to take her comp exams for her Ph.D. and a professional teacher of Korean) would all confirm that it was horribly written?

Possible Reasons Why Korean Is Written Poorly:

1) Languages need a long time to develop and get firm rules for writing: Korean was not the written language in Korea until the end of the 19th century. Even though the alphabet was invented in 1443 (promulgated in 1446), it was used mainly for communicating with/by the lower elements in society—it was used by women and merchants. –Educated—people (men) still used Chinese characters (although they were writing Korean) which required too much time to learn for any but the upper classes to learn well (everyone else was too busy working). There were publication projects usually sponsored by the government to translate important works into the Korean Alphabet (한글 Han'geul) but very little was produced in the alphabet. So many things were not standardized (for example where to put a space (like is it correct to write 할수있어요 or 할 수 있어요? Do you write 경진의 or 경진 의? Do you write 우리는냉이된장국먹었다 or 우리는 냉이 된장국 먹었다) until pretty recently.

2) Then Korea was taken over by the Japanese and the elite became educated in Japanese writing, not Korean writing (the best universities were in Tokyo, of course). Near the end of the occupation the use of Korean was even prohibited. So, in other words, academic works were rarely produced in the Korean alphabet until after liberation in 1945. How we write English was hardly developed over night. The rules of composition that clarify meaning were obviously different a few hundred years ago, and I'm just going to remind you—Shakespeare had darned inconsistent spelling.

I don’t know about during the past decades but since I've been in Korea it has been unusual for Korean universities to teach composition or academic writing. The assumption is that the students already know Korean. They're still required to take English in university even if they're in a two-year program to become a car mechanic, but they aren't required to work on their Korean writing skills. In fact, most Korean universities rely on tests and grade students primarily based on those. Even if they do have papers, they're more likely to be 'reports' than an exercise in academic writing. And perhaps the professors would rather just tick off presence and the quality of the major arguments than actually work with the students on how to improve how they presented their ideas. So when could the students ever actually be instructed in how to write? It's not in high school, either, where Korean language classes certainly don't require the teacher to correct the writing of his/her classes. (In the past Korean high school classes had 60 students in a class, by the time I came to Korea the lowering birth rate meant low 50s in a class, now it's often more like the mid 30s, however, if you assign writing to five classes of 30 students, you're still reading and correcting 150 papers, and that's a lot to ask).

4) I think one reason why they wouldn't have a concerted effort to teach Korean writing is because if they taught it then the other professors in the university might feel threatened that the students would now feel they were able to criticize the writing, if not the ideas, in their professors' published works.

5) In addition the legacy of an elite education based on Chinese philosophy is that obtuse writing is more academic. If your writing is impossible to understand it must be because you're smarter than the reader. Not because you don't know how to present your idea. I definitely see this in the preference for 75 cent vocabulary words. It would be easier to just use the super obscure vocab when you had a very specific point to make and 'big' didn't convey the size as accurately as 'humongous,' and use the lower score words the rest of the time. But it wouldn't make you look as smart as if every sentence was packed with those big, long, obscure words. Right?

6) Reputable US Journals require blind review, this means a graduate student can get published and a professor can be denied publication based on how well the ideas are presented. Of course in smaller fields it can be hard to get a truly blind review. I sent in an article on Korean performance to a journal recently. If they sent it for review to someone who works specifically on Korean performance, but is already in a tenured position, there are only about two dozen people in the English-speaking world they could have sent it to. And I'm probably at least in email contact with half of them, if not FB friends. Korean language academia is an even smaller pool than English language academia. A truly blind review is almost impossible here, and most Korean journals don't even bother. With Korea's Confucian values pressing on journal editors, age and length of service to Korean academia will be more likely to guarantee publication than anything else, regardless of how good/bad the writing is.

This only leaves me with one question: why was this article chosen for translation into English? Does someone, somewhere, truly think the ideas are that important? I'll admit he's got some good ideas (along with some not so good ones) but if presentation wasn't important, Korea wouldn't be in the middle of a plastic surgery epidemic.

Feel free to comment if you think I missed a major reason of if you think I'm wrong.


Eugene said...

I salute you CB... I can't even begin to attempt translating that paragraph... but that goes with the territory. Korean (and Japanese) sentences tend to run on so long that often the subject of the end of the sentence is no longer the subject of the beginning.

As far as your theory on Korean academic writing being bad, I can't really comment because I have not read a lot of academic writing, but I don't think that history of Chinese then Japanese domination has much to do with it. If anything, elites switching from Chinese to Japanese would have made their writing in Korean better rather than worse (as Japanese and Korean are so close that often one can simply translate each word one by one and the end result will be just as well written as if a native of the other language had written it.)

More likely, the idea you present in point 4 seems to be where it's at in Korean academia, if I had to guess.

Then again, I am taking your word on it completely, and there may be examples of good Korean academic writing that you simply are not yet aware of.

Anyway good post!

CedarBough said...

I've seen some academic writing a lot easier to read than this, of course, but since my Korean isn't perfect I can't tell if it's clear and beautifully written, or just clearly written.

HappyIsland said...

If I hadn't seen it for myself, I woudln't know what you were talking about. I met a professor who was giving a speech for his tenureship application in English (he spoke almost no english but could read english). He wrote a thesis in academic language, had a grad student translate it into English, and was trying to memorize the speech in two weeks. When I picked up the project he had 4 pages of what I've pasted below. When I tried to turn it into sensible English he protested that I was changing the meanings of things. We had to go back to his original written Korean only to find that it was almost as non-sensical as his English. This from a literature professor.

From what I could tell, he made it to his PhD by taking all concrete ideas out of his theses so that they would be impossible to criticize. It's an emperor's clothes syndrome that has gripped much of the academia. Nobody asks the professor to define any of his jargon because that would mean that they didn't read whatever Foucaultian essay that he took his convoluted jargon from in the first place. What I found was that he didn't want his "speech" to become anything intelligible because then he might have to actually adress the fact that it was devoid of ideas.

"But at this point, we have another matter to watch. There is a big difference between the fact that Honam emotion as a research subject is in open system and the recognition system that we arrange methodologically. Although the recognition is kind of open system,, there is no change. There must exist a gap between the system as an existent and the system as Pistm like the gap between the theory and the real. Without solving the gap, we can not help falling the vicious circle of doubt if the existents or open system is in real or the system as Pistm really conforms to the real. "

CedarBough said...

Bwa-ha ha ha! Oh my. Yep, you know what I'm talking about!

Hilary said...

Geesh--what a nightmare. You have my sympathies, Cedarbough. I don't feel qualified to criticize Korean academic writing from a peer perspective, but I can tell you many times I feel articles or books are tough to get through for many of the reasons you cited above. Interestingly, a Korean colleague (dear Oh Yongnok, r.i.p.) said something to me that mirrors a point you made above. When an article I wrote (admittedly, I was not proud of it and trying to get a quickie in) did not pass review in a local journal (the review was not blind and I know who did it), the criticisms made little sense and showed a complete lack of understanding of what the paper was actually about (again, I do take partial credit here--needed some clarity on my part) and criticing that my sources were not 'important enough' (hello--Yi Haegu, Foucault, Bourdieau, et). When Oh read the review he said, "You know what this sounds like? Sounds like someone saying 'why can't you write as smartly and as obtusely as me?' Forget about it. Your ideas are good. Just submit elsewhere." I appreciated that, because he was recognizing that some people put so much effort into sounding smart that their points are obscure and ideas rather mystifying. One thing you forgot to mention is that most journals in Korea are on a pay-to-publish basis. The average 'publication fee' is 300,000 won (about $300). This also means that, if you are a member of a certain study group or association, then many times publications are simply accepted based on this membership status (oh, and plunking down the mullah for a chance to be published).

CedarBough said...

I hadn't known how pervasive publication fees are! I just knew that was the case for a couple journals, and assumed the rest weren't that way. That's so sad. How can academic writing get better if you just need to cough up some money to get published?

From a peer perspective, I definitely shouldn't criticize as I still can get tongue twisted in my own Korean. Like I commented above I can't tell if it's clear and beautiful or just clear.

Thanks for your feedback!

Oldman said...

Oh, dear...

I am clueless about what that paragraph means. The writer could have conveyed the exact same idea with much easier Korean words and short sentences but chosen to use very complex and long structure.

I am not saying it's a bad writing but I have to admit that something's not right if an average college educated KOREAN man in his 50's like myself can not understand what it says upon reading the paragraph multiple times. :D

By the way, you have an interesting blog!

Cristiano said...

I'm a junior student of Korean Studies and my proficiency in Korean language is really poor, so I did not even try to translate that sentence.
I have just some curiosities.
About point 1: weren't these explanations given in footnotes? And what audience was supposed to read that article? Because I think you can neglect to point out some technical information if you just explain it in footnotes or your paper is conceived for people who are already supposed to know that.
Sorry for my poor English.

CedarBough said...

Thank you for reading. I am not sure what you mean by point 1, do you mean the "1)" that I have in my blog, above?

The paper in question had a very small number of footnotes, most of those did not clarify points, but rather referred the reader to other papers both by the author and by other Korean scholars.

About the audience, let me be clear: I am a scholar of this exact topic. My dear friend who helped me translate this article is a highly educated Korean. Yet (despite assisting me on several projects and years of discussion with me about these ideas) she could not understand his points without my background explanation of the PRECISE topic of the paper. So if a highly educated native Korean with an MA in Korean Studies cannot understand the point without my explanation, this is not an issue of the level at which the paper was written, it is an issue of both bad writing.

CedarBough said...

Thank you "Oldman" and thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

omg i've wanting to READ ABOUT THIS TOPIC about poorly written korean ever since i read

thanks for your insight. it was a fun interesting read.

Anonymous said...

as Japanese and Korean are so close that often one can simply translate each word one by one and the end result will be just as well written as if a native of the other language had written it
this is not true. obviously your korean and japanese aren't very good... come on we're talking about WRITTEN japanese and WRITTEN korean.