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31 May 2020

The perils of COVID reporting – I know there’s a lot going on in the world that I could talk about today, but I want to look back at something that was in the news a few weeks ago. It may seem like an odd thing to bring up now, but it has been on my mind since then, and I figure I just need to get it out of my system. You may remember that, around the beginning of the month, Korea decided that it was time to start relaxing some of the restrictions that had been in place in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Almost immediately, we had another mini-outbreak when a club-goer in Itaewon ended up infecting a number of people, who then of course went on to infect others. Pak Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul, ordered that certain establishments be closed to prevent further spread.

“...translation isn’t about figuring out what words literally mean, but what is meant by them.”

About a day or so after this happened, I started seeing articles on the outbreak—and on the subsequent measures taken to contain the situation—popping up in Western media outlets. On the 11th, Vox reported on the incident as a lesson in the perils of reopening society. That article quoted a France24 article published the day before. On the 12th, CNN reported that the fact that some of the clubs visited by the infected individual were connected to the gay community led to a homophobic backlash. Then, on the 13th, Vox published a follow-up article that again pointed out how easy it was for new outbreaks to occur, with the incident here in Korea as just one example. These are just a few examples, of course, but they are indicative of all the coverage I saw and will suffice to illustrate what I want to talk about.

It is not the incident itself, though, that I want to focus on. Nor is it the homophobic backlash that did indeed occur. Nor is it even, at least directly, the “dangers of reopening.” These are no doubt issues worthy of discussion, but I wanted to instead write about something that I am perhaps more qualified to talk about: the perils of translation. That’s right—you thought this was going to be another COVID entry, but in fact I’m bringing this around to one of my favorite pet topics!

You may not have read all of the articles I linked to above. That’s fine. I only really want to talk about a very small part of each of those articles, specifically how they reported on the measures announced by Mayor Park. At the very top of the France24 article, in bold, it is written that the mayor “ordered the closure of all clubs and bars.” The original Vox article stated that he “ordered all bars and clubs indefinitely closed.” CNN metonymically noted that “Seoul ordered all clubs and bars to temporarily close.” There are some differences in the choice of wording, most significantly “indefinitely” and “temporarily,” which have very different denotations and connotations, but all three articles agree on the “bars and clubs” (or “clubs and bars”) part. The final Vox article I linked to above, though, is the odd man out, writing instead that “the local government ordered bars and restaurants to be closed” (emphasis mine).

It should be obvious that there is something wrong with that last Vox article. What might be less obvious is that there is, in fact, something wrong with all of the articles; not only have restaurants in Seoul not been ordered to close, but bars have not been ordered to close, either. Furthermore, neither bars nor restaurants have ever been closed at any point during this pandemic. So how did these and other news outlets get it wrong?

The problem lies in the term used by the Seoul government when issuing its edict: “yuheung siseol.” If you look this word up in a Korean-English dictionary, you will find the spectacularly unhelpful term “entertainment facilities.” A search on a similar term, “yuheung eopso” (the latter term being the word for “business” or “establishment”), turns up phrases like “adult entertainment establishment,” which makes it sound like we are talking about strip clubs, and the hilarious “pleasure resort.” What is going on here? What exactly is a “yuheung siseol”?

As I explained above, “eopso” refers to businesses or establishments; “siseol” means “facility.” The real hard nut to crack here is “yuheung.” This word is a combination of two Chinese characters: “yu” (遊), which means “to play,” and “heung” (興), which refers to joy, pleasure, or excitement. If I had to translate this word into English and were allowed a little bit of poetic license, I might be tempted to go with something like “revelry” or “carousing,” even though both of those words feel a little archaic. That being said, “revelry facilities” sounds quite absurd.

The truth is that attempting to parse the word literally is not going to get us to where we need to be. What we need to know is not what “yuheung eopso” means—as in the literal meaning of the words—but what is meant by the term. Perhaps a Korean dictionary can help us out. “Yuheung siseol” does not appear in Naver’s online dictionary, but the more common “yuheung eopso” does, and the Korean definition for this translates to (again, taking a bit of poetic license): “A place of business, such as a bar or the like, that has facilities where [patrons] can carouse and have fun.”

“But wait!” I hear you cry in indignation. “Didn’t you say that bars were not ordered to close? It says ‘bars’ right there in the definition!” Well, this just goes to show you that you can’t always simply look a word up in the dictionary—even a native-language dictionary—and expect to achieve a perfect understanding of the concept. In this particular case, we are being tripped up by the fact that “yuheung siseol” linguistically means one thing but practically refers to something else. This is, in fact, more of a legal issue than a linguistic issue. To put it more plainly, many places in Korea where one might “carouse and have fun” are not actually registered as “yuheung eopso.” They are instead registered as “general restaurants (ilban eumsikjeom).” This latter category of businesses is defined as “a shop that cooks and sells food; it is also permitted to sell alcohol along with this food.” Laws regulating “yuheung eopso” tend to be a little more strict, so if it is at all possible, bars will register instead as general restaurants. Since anju (side dishes eaten when drinking) are such a crucial part of drinking culture in Korea, just about every bar I’ve ever been to in Seoul prepares some sort of food and thus qualifies as a general restaurant.

Of course, Western reporters could have also referred to Korean news articles, or even the official Seoul municipal government website. An article published by the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper on the 9th quotes Mayor Park as referring to “all yuheung facilities, such as clubs, gamseong jujeom, cola-theques, and room salons.” A Hankyoreh article from the same day lists the same four examples, although in a different order. The order on the official Seoul government website gives three examples of yuheung facilities: “yuheung jujeom, gamsang jujeom, and cola-theques,” although it also notes that “dallan jujeom” are excluded from the order.

I didn’t try to translate some of the Korean terms above because they need a bit of unpacking if we are to understand what exactly “yuheung siseol” refers to. So let’s unpack them. Firstly, you may have noticed that the term “jujeom” appears a number of times. This may have been a cause of some of the initial confusion, as it basically means “bar” or “pub.” But it is a rather old-fashioned word that only appears in certain contexts, and it is not among the terms that Koreans use to refer to a typical bar—those would be the most common “suljip” (which literally means “house of alcohol” and is the vernacular Korean version of the Sino-Korean “jujeom”), “hof” (a word derived from German, used to refer to a place that primarily serves beer), or even the English “bar” (commonly seen in collocation with “stand,” referring to a bar where people drink standing up rather than sitting at tables).

In the Korean sources above, “jujeom” is paired with “yuheung” and “gamseong.” We’ve already discussed the former; the latter can be translated as “emotion” or “sensibility,” but in this case the more colloquial “vibes” is probably best. I had honestly not heard of “gamseong jujeom” until I started doing the research for today’s entry, but from what I can tell they seem to be a modern reincarnation of the early 90s “rock cafe,” which itself was the predecessor of today’s nightclubs; gamseong jujeom, in other words, are retro-style clubs. On the Seoul government website, “jujeom” is also collocated with “dallan” to specify establishments that are exempt from the order. These are karaoke bars, distinguished from “noraebang” (literally, “singing rooms”) by the fact that they are licensed to serve alcohol (it is technically illegal to serve alcohol in a noraebang... which may surprise you if you’ve ever been to a noraebang late at night with a bunch of people).

As for the rest, “club” is pretty straightforward—it has the same meaning in English, namely, a nightclub or a dance club. Room salons are... well, they are places where men go to drink with girls who provide... companionship. I’ll just leave it at that. Cola-theques are probably the most interesting of the lot. They began to spring up in the 90s as an alternative to the rock cafes and clubs for younger clientele. These younger people, being under the legal drinking age, would have cola rather than alcohol, but they would still be able to dance with their peers—thus the portmanteau “cola + (disco)theque.”

It is important to note that all of these lists are just examples of “yuheung siseol,” not exhaustive lists (the Seoul government website, for example, doesn’t mention clubs, even though clubs are clearly the prime target of the order). There are a wide variety of establishments that might fall under this umbrella. To be honest, it wasn’t really necessary to go into this much detail to get a handle on the scope of “yuheung siseol”; the legal definition alone would have been enough to tell us that this term does not refer to clubs and bars, and certainly not to bars and restaurants. And anyone actually living in Seoul could have told you that the bars and restaurants were not, and never had been, closed. After a little research, it should have been obvious that the closure order was targeted at places where large numbers of clientele tend to be packed into very small places—that is, locations ideal for the spread of COVID.

I actually sent the staff at Vox a message about this, explaining (much more briefly than I have here) that “yuheung siseol” did not at all refer to “bars and restaurants.” Their contact form does not have an option for corrections in the drop-down menu, so I instead chose “editorial tip,” figuring it would be the most likely to get their attention. Still, I was surprised to get an email a few days later from their foreign editor. She explained that a Korean-American freelance journalist living outside of Seoul had translated the document, and she had had no reason to doubt the accuracy of the translation. She also said that he would pass along my note to the writer, and that a correction would be made if necessary.

I balked a little at that last part, to be honest. If necessary? It was obviously necessary, and I had explained why in sufficient detail. Still, I can understand that they would want to verify information received from some random person on the internet. If you’ve been paying attention, though, you already know how this ends—as of today, two weeks after I received that email from the editor—the phrase “bars and restaurants” remains in the article. The only change that I can detect is that the name of the freelance journalist was removed from the byline. It might be far too late to correct an article that is now nearly three weeks old—whatever misinformation has been spread is already out there—but information on the internet also sticks around indefinitely, so I would have appreciated a correction. (You may be wondering what that correction would have been, or how I would have translated this. I think I probably would have just gone with something like “clubs and other such establishments.”)

Why is this so important? Well, for one, it doesn’t seem that a lot of people understand what life is like in Korea in the time of COVID. I’ve written before about the difficulty of conducting classes online, and I certainly don’t want to downplay what COVID has done to schools and other institutions here, but the truth is that society is still functioning. I’m not going to say that it is functioning “normally,” but people are still living their lives. No one is “sheltering in place.” People still go to work, they still go out to parks on the weekend, and they still go out to bars and restaurants. Things aren’t perfect, of course. After the shut-down order was given, we did see a drop in cases, but we recently saw another rise in the number of cases as the virus took advantage of new transmission vectors (this latest time it was delivery services). I think we need to come to terms with the fact that there is no perfect response to COVID—that is, there is no response that is going to make this go away. What we need to do is figure out how we deal with this while still living our lives. People are going to get sick, and people are going to die. Obviously we should do everything we can to minimize that. We want those numbers to be as low as possible (and even with our mini-outbreaks this month, the number of new cases per day never got higher than around 70 or 80, I think), but it is highly unlikely they will drop to zero before we see a vaccine or achieve herd immunity.

I know it may seem like I am making a mountain out of molehill here, but I think this is a prime example of how important accurate translation is. It is also a prime example of the importance of not only linguistic competency, but cultural competency. That is, it’s not enough to just understand the language—you have to understand the culture behind that language. Someone with a reasonable understanding of Korean—enough of an understanding to, say, look up “yuheung eopso” in a dictionary—but insufficient understanding of the reality on the ground here in Seoul could very easily make the mistake of thinking that “clubs and bars” had been closed. But, as I said above, translation isn’t about figuring out what words literally mean, but what is meant by them.

Of course, all of this assumes incompetence on the part of the news outlets. I do wonder if, perhaps, some of these news outlets might not have been as motivated as they could have been to get it right. News is about narratives, and if a Korea thrown into a panic at an outbreak fits your narrative, well, maybe you’re not going to dig deep enough to get at the facts of the matter. But speculating on motivations is a slippery business, so I won’t follow this rabbit hole too far down. I’ll just stick with the facts and say that it started to really annoy me when I saw article after article getting it wrong. It’s probably too late now to make any sort of difference, but at least I’ve gotten it off my chest. And if someone out there happens to benefit from this entry, as well, all the better.

Send me your thoughts.

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