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Controversy over Psy’s anti-American lyrics might be based on shoddy translation

South Korean performer Psy waits backstage before taping a "Christmas in Washington" TV special this Sunday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The controversy over two anti-American performances by Psy, a South Korean rapper famous for his hit song "Gangnam Style," is turning on four lines he sang at a 2004 protest against the U.S. for, among other things, the Iraq war. A single English translation of those Korean-language lyrics has circulated widely, even provoking debate over whether President Obama should have still attended Psy's Sunday performance in the District.

But several independent translations contradict the initial version that has dominated news coverage. They suggest that Psy may have said something that, while still derogatory toward Americans, would be significantly less severe than first thought.

The lyrics, which appeared to call for the deaths of American servicemen and their families, are not actually his, but by a band he called N.EX.T, with whom Psy performed the song "Dear American" at the now-famous 2004 show.

The initial English translation of the 2004 lyrics actually come from an anonymous entry on CNN's iReport site. Some readers e-mailed to suggest that it might not accurately portray the original Korean and urged me to seek different translations. What I found is ambiguous but suggests that the Western backlash against Psy, and our understanding of the super-star's anti-American rhetoric, might be wrong.

I asked a number of Korean speakers to contribute their most precise translations of the original Korean lyrics. I solicited native Korean speakers, native English speakers, academics accustomed to the sensitivity of word-for-word translations, young Koreans familiar with the cultural connotations of Psy's lyrics, and a professional interpreter. Their versions are revealing in both how they differ and don't. They are a reminder of the importance of precision in translating, the depth of language, and the ultimate impossibility of fully translating across disparate cultures.

First, here's the original CNN iReport translation that has been so widely cited. Those dashes before the word "Yankee" indicate a swear word we've held back:

Kill those — Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives
Kill those — Yankees who ordered them to torture
Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, and fathers
Kill them all slowly and painfully

Now here are a few other, sample translations I've solicited. Several others contributed commentary on the most controversial phrases and suggestions that we might be incorrectly interpreting the lyrics' meaning; those are further down the page. I've bolded, in these translations, the bits that diverge from the above version you've seen dominating coverage of the controversy. One thing you'll notice is that none of these translations begin the first two lines with the word "kill," as the original did.

By Steven Denney, an American graduate student and writer living in South Korea since 2009:

All the — Yankees torturing Iraqis
All those — Yankees who ordered the torturing
Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers
Kill them very slowly and painfully

By Roger Cavazos, a Sino-North Korea coordinator at the Nautilus Institute Associate in South Korea and retired U.S. Army. He notes that he worked on the translation with his "very Korean" wife.

All those — Yankees been torturing Iraqi captives and
All those — Yankees who ordered them to torture
Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers
Kill them all slowly, kill them all painfully

By Ben O. Jone, native Korean speaker and U.S.-based graduate student. He kept the original Korean word order, which is why some of the wording is flipped around.

The —— despicable Western women and men who tortured Iraqi war prisoners and
Dog —— despicable Western women and men who gave orders to torture
Their daughter, mother, daughter-in-law, father the big-nose, kill all
Very slowly kill, painfully kill.

I found Jone's version surprising, as it seems to diverge the most from the original. But a professional interpreter who asked to remain anonymous says that his version is "actually pretty literal and accurate." The interpreter also raised an issue that had confused me in reading these translations: Are the song lyrics urging people to kill the Americans and their family members, or is it accusing those Americans of having killed the family members of Iraqis?

"There is a bit of ambiguity in the third line of the original," the interpreter, who works in Korean and English professionally, said. "It's unclear whether 'daughter, mother' are referring to the Westerners' family or Iraqi POWs." That's a big distinction, and would imply a very different reading than the one implied by the original translation, which has driven much of the controversy.

A Korean American who spends time in both countries and is versed in South Korean pop culture said he found the same ambiguity in the lyrics' references to killing. Though the wording of the original, CNN iReport translation clearly suggests that Psy is calling for killing Americans, that's largely because the translation begins the first two lines with "kill." But no translation I solicited drew the same conclusion: they all characterize the first two lines as slurring the American servicemen rather than calling for their deaths. That would seem to open the possibility that the lyrics say something very different from the call-for-American-deaths that has been ascribed to them. Using a racial slur to accuse Americans of killing Iraqis' family members is still pretty serious, but it's a good deal less so than cheering for listeners to murder American soldiers.

Still, these translations also suggest that we may have been underplaying the slur that the lyrics use to reference Americans. The word commonly translated as "Yankee" or "—— Yankee" is actually a unique Korean word that's meant as "a derogatory term for American," according to Lois Nam, a Korean-American who works at Al Jazeera English. Roger Cavazos, the American coordinator who worked on the translations with his Korean wife, also said the word "Yankees" doesn't capture the slur's full meaning. It's "impolite in most circles" and "commonly used in protest crowds but would be like dropping [a harsh English swear word] on Western TV." The Korean American who spends time in both countries called it a "nearly untranslatable" racist "epithet," perhaps best approximated as "—— foreign barbarian." Jone translated it as "big nose."

Though several Koreans and Americans who volunteered their translations independently raised the possibility that we might be dramatically misreading those 2004 lyrics and accusing Psy of saying something that he didn't, most said the exact meaning is unclear. After all, these are four lines of song lyrics by a mid-tier South Korean heavy metal band; clear and precise lyrics are not exactly hallmarks of the metal genre in any country. But the ambiguity goes beyond just the challenge of close-reading song lyrics or of translating them across languages; the problem is also translating them across two very different cultures. Psy's 2004 performance came at a sensitive moment in South Korea, one when anti-American sentiment was widespread for reasons that are not always easy to understand from the other end of the Pacific Ocean. Efforts to understand that cultural moment from our own very different context, like translating South Korean song lyrics into English, are always going to be clouded by ambiguity.