Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Oldboy, language, and translation

When Oh Dae-Su is harrassed by a group of young thugs shortly after his 15-year imprisonment, he doesn't recognize the curse word one of them throws at him, and comments that TV doesn't teach you curse words. This is a small example of how media falls short of fully transmitting culture to an audience, and of the significance of language as means of exclusion from a community. Anderson talks about how the rise of vernacular journalism helped to crystalize nationalism, but in a world where media is increasingly international, are language barriers being marginalized? The increase in international tourism and the (however unfounded) growing assumption that everyone speaks English makes us forget the important role of one's native language in conceptualizing the world, and language's role as a means of access to national identity. Oh Dae-Su's failure to understand Korean street slang reflects his alienation from his own national identity.

Oldboy is subtitled--even though we can still hear the inflections of the original Korean dialogue, we must trust that the written translations of the dialogue are accurate. In this sense, even though we may feel that this film is more 'authentically Korean' than if it were dubbed, we can't understand the nuances of language that a Korean viewer might be able to appreciate. Appadurai points to the culturally-loaded meanings of words--how it's problematic to expect the word "freedom", for example, to have the same connotations for an Iraqi as for an American. This makes me wonder about the connotations of "oldboy" in its original Korean form. In its English translation, "oldboy" is both familiar and strange--familiar because "old boy" evokes British slang definitions (a familiar way of addressing a grown male, or a fellow alum, but also the "old boy network," a system of male nepotism), but these two words are combined into one word, making it newly unfamiliar. Does the original title, 올드보이, hold the same web of meanings? Also, the film is based on a Japanese manga that shares this name--is the Japanese meaning of "oldboy" the same as the Korean one?

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