Sunday, December 11, 2011

'Translation is process of finding second best'

Many Broadway and West End musicals are staged in Korea and the majority of them are licensed Korean-language productions. Some of them are translated well, smoothly conveying the original message while others are poorly rendered with mistranslation and do not even have the translator’s name in the program. However, there are a few credible translators on the Korean theater scene and Park Chun-hwi is one of them.

Park, 40, is the translator of two hot musicals currently being staged in Seoul — “Zorro” and “Next to Normal.” Though completely different in style, the two shows are receiving critical acclaim as well as applause from the audiences.

Park is a translator and composer, but surprisingly, he majored in math at Yonsei University.

“A borrowed LP of the musical ‘Les Miserables’ led me to the world of musicals,” Park said in an interview with The Korea Times. “I really loved the music and did not return the record for a year until I got my own copy from abroad.”

Other works he translated into Korean include Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Assassins,” Michael John LaChiusa’s “See What I Wanna See” and Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker’s “Altar Boyz.”

Translating ‘Zorro’

Park said translating “Zorro” was an interesting job as the Korean production was allowed to adapt the show as long as the changes did not harm the original spirit. “For ‘Zorro,’ I did not do the rough draft translation, but revised the first draft, rendered lyrics and wrote lyrics for two new songs,” he said.

Composer Oh Sang-joon added two new songs “His Shadow” and “Life Is War” and Park wrote words.

The musical also features up-tempo tunes of the Gypsy Kings such as “Baila Me,” “Bamboleo” and “Djobi Djoba.”

“To maintain the charm of the language, I used some Spanish words from the original lyrics. In the Gypsy Kings’ songs, there were some almost gibberish words created by the group and I had to search the Internet to find what they meant. Luckily, their fans have interpreted what they mean and it served as a good reference,” Park said. “There are many online dictionaries and references and the answer is somewhere out there.”

For Park, it is more difficult to write lyrics for slow songs. “I have to be economic as the number of syllables is limited. I cannot let a syllable pass by without meaning something.”

He emphasized that translating a musical is a collaborative effort.

“I translate and make lyrics for the songs, but it could be changed by the musical director or actors during rehearsal. Sometimes, I have to make compromises that I don’t want to,” he said. “I cannot assert my pride in translation or always agree with others I work with. At first, I tried to do both and it almost made me crazy. However, I now accept that creating a musical is based on cooperation after all.”

Park admits the limit of translating. “A Translator cannot be perfect,” he said. “It is impossible to render the words, structure, accent in a language to another in exactly the same way, so translating is compromising. I think there is no best in translation and I try to find the most appropriate second best.”

Park said he tries to read the original author’s intention in the script. “I wonder what the author would have written if he or she was able to speak Korean,” he said. “There is no word-for-word translation, especially in musical lyrics. So I tend to see the forest from the position of the author.”

Translation is a series of choices as the translator continuously makes decisions. “I have to choose the best possible word to represent the original intention.”

He said translators should be diligent as they have to perform intensive research to understand the author.

“I read interviews and other works by the person and try to understand what he or she was thinking in writing the musical,” he said. “The translator should speak for the original author, but be careful not to be absorbed by subjectivity.”

Park hopes to translate all of Sondheim’s works to Korean someday. “He was the composer who created the momentum for me to write songs,” Park said. “I know the dream is not likely to come true as some of Sondheim’s works are not commercially feasible in Korea. But there are many hidden gems and I hope to introduce them to the Korean musical scene.”

“Zorro” runs through Jan. 15 at Blue Square in Hannam-dong, Seoul. For more information, visit “Next to Normal” is staged at Yonkang Hall, Doosan Art Center in central Seoul, through Feb. 12. For more, visit

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