Wednesday, August 16, 2006

How do you say "narf" in Korean?

Last weekend, I took in the new M. Night Shymalan film "Lady in the Water". (In case you're worried, there are no spoilers in this entry.) It's received a lot of criticism, to be sure, and I don't want to get into most of it here. But the aspect I most object to, as a language lover, is something I haven't seen addressed in any of the reviews I've read. Paul Giamatti's character learns about a hidden "Blue World" populated with fanciful creatures called narfs, scrunts, and tartutics. Most of his knowledge of this world is obtained from a Korean lady with her daughter as interpreter. And yet, in none of the Korean do we ever hear sounds resembling "narf" or "scrunt." So how does the daughter come up the English words for them?

Translating names is an tricky task. The common practice is to leave names as they are. Thus, in Spanish newspapers our president is still George Bush, not Jorge Arbusto. There are exceptions; in my Spanish version of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the protagonist's name appears as Cindy-Lou Quien, rather than Cindy-Lou Who. But at least these are names that happen to be identical to English words. "Narf", "scrunt", and "tartutic" are not, at least according to Merriam-Webster's. So I wonder what the Korean version of the story could possibly use in their place.

I don't speak Korean, so it's possible that the words were there and I just missed them among all the other unfamiliar sounds. I'd love to consult a Korean speaker and find out if the dialogue was actually real, or whether it was a bunch of nonsense syllables. If the latter, that's unfortunately one more strike against a movie I'd really hoped to respect more than I did.

And speaking of strange name translations, I've still never figured out why Smurfs are "Pitufos" in Spanish.


Anonymous said...

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Language Lover said...

Huān yíng guāng lín, Jamie! Thanks for the nice comment and I hope you'll be back!

Sibauchi said...

Hi, writing from South Korea. I haven't watched the movie yet (it just opened here) and not sure about watching it, and even if I do watch it, I'm not sure if the actors' Korean will be comprehensible for most Koreans since they are played by non-Korean actors. Still, for your information, I'll tell you as much as I can about the narf; no such thing exists in Korean folklore! (or the scrunt, for that matter) Everybody here in Korea is bewildered of its supposedly Korean origins. The most well-known humanoid water being is the Mul-guishin(water-ghost), the spirit of drowned victims, cursed to roam the waters and always looking for more 'companions'-that is, they try to increase drowning cases. (for instance, underwater leg cramps were often thought to be [the water-ghost's grab]) Fishery villages were naturally very afraid of the evil spirits and would often have the local shaman hold rituals when somebody dies at sea and the body goes unrecovered. So they're malevolent beings, quite different from the narf in the movie. As for benevolent humanoid water beings-well, they're mostly limited to the children of the Dragon King (ruler of the sea), or a deity almost always in the form of an old man. None of their Korean names resemble 'narf,' however. I think if the director truly got the narf idea from Korean folk tales, it would have to be the stories about the Dragon King's son (Yong-wang adeul). Hero saves a fish (almost always a carp, which is considered lucky and somewhat mystical) from a fisherman's basket. Next day, a handsome young man introduces himself as the Dragon King's son, and thanks the hero for saving his life the previous day. He was touring the outside world in the form of a carp, when danger befell him. Then the young man either bestows the hero with riches, or saves him from a drastic fate, depending on the type of the story. The elements of beneficial humanoid water being/ the being's visit to land/ rescue (or need) of human help to return to water is there. (however there are no mortal enemies involved) The Dragon King's daughters (Yong-nyeo) on the other hand are not as reckless, but still are benevolent and friendly toward humans. I'm thinking that the director either loosely shaped his ideas from these stories, or just slapped the Korean reference to give the water being an impression of authenticity. I hope that helped.

Language Lover said...

Thank you for your long explanation! I had always assumed that M. Night Shymalan picked Korean somewhat at random as the culture from which the mythology originated, so I'm not surprised that no such story actually exists. My issue, though, was how one decides that "narf" is the English translation for a presumably unrelated Korean word. I'm very curious as to what Korean names are used to describe the creatures in the Korean dialogue between the woman and her mother. If you do end up watching the movie, please let me know!

KOREAN said...

I saw the movie yesterday and thought it was so ridiculous that "narf, scrunt, and tartutic" are supposed to be Korean. And the so-called fairy tale, ugh.

So I googled "narf scrunt tartutic korean." just to know why the director came up with this weird idea. (Still don't know why.)

There are no Korean names for those words. In Korean subtitle (translation) they are still narf, scrunt and tartutic, too. They are proper nouns, it's just like John is still John in Korea. Plus, Shyamalan made them up anyway.

By the way, in Korean version, Korean people in this movie were dubbed in Korean by Korean native speakers.

I was able to see American version too, I found it really hard to follow what Koreans in this movie were saying in Korean. It didn't even sound like Korean. It almost sounded like Chinese. :-)

Language Lover said...

Thanks a lot for responding, KOREAN. I'm glad someone who saw the movie finally cleared that up for me. Yeah, you'd think that if Shyamalan wanted to pretend the story was a Korean folk tale, he'd have picked names that sounded Korean.

Your comment about finding it difficult to understand the "Korean" in the American version reminded me that of a criticism I've heard about "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", namely that Chow Yun-Fat's Mandarin has such a heavy Cantonese accent that no real Chinese person can stand to listen to it. :)

Anonymous said...

One of the funniest things about "narf" being a Korean word is that there is no F sound in Korean!

Yeah, it is weird that the director made up a whole fairy tale and attributed it to a country with a whole lot of immigrants in the US who would say, "yeah, there's no such thing in Korea!"