Meet the K-pop translators who are helping BTS conquer the world
How do groups like Blackpink, Red Velvet and NCT reach out to non-Korean-speaking audiences? It’s all thanks to fans-turned-translators on social media. BTS, in particular, has a massive team behind it.
Last month, Korean pop group BTS observed its sixth anniversary with an annual celebration called Festa – 10 days of new interviews, behind-the-scenes clips, choreography videos and the release of its member Jin’s first solo song, Tonight. The group also held its fifth Muster fan gathering, continued its Love Yourself: Speak Yourself tour and released a new mobile game.
But the boyband’s seven members weren’t the only ones with hectic schedules. A network of dedicated volunteer translators also got to work churning out content for the fandom known as the BTS Army.
BTS isn’t the only K-pop group with a linguistic battalion to translate Korean into other languages – fellow stars like Blackpink, Red Velvet and NCT have teams on the task, as well – but its scale is massive, with a legion of translators on Twitter whose followings range from tens of thousands into the low millions.
While Korean-to-English translators on Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr and Instagram are numerous, around a dozen Twitter accounts are the primary resources for English-speaking BTS listeners. That includes solo accounts like @doolsetbangtan (115,000 followers), @btstranslation7 (280,000) and @doyou_bangtan (139,000), as well as larger organisations under one umbrella, like Bangtan Translations, known as @bts_trans, (1.48 million), which has been around since BTS’ debut and boasts 16 staff members, according to its website. In between are handfuls of midsized teams, like @peachboy_0613 (337,000) and @SPOTLIGHTBTS (240,000). All of them work for free.
INCORRECT ENGLISH TRANSCRIPTS
Many of these translators got involved because they noticed incorrect or incomplete English transcripts online but also because they saw an opportunity to participate in the rise of a group they wanted to see succeed.
At the first BTS concert 20-something fan Jiye Kim (who posts as @doyou_bangtan) attended, she saw the band wanted “the concert to be a way for us to share in our joys and pain, just as humans walking alongside each other,” she said in a phone interview. She left the show thinking, “I’m really happy that I exist in this world and these people do too.”
Each translator account has different areas of expertise and interest. Bangtan Translations is one of the largest, posting comprehensive, authoritative interpretations of lyrics, tweets and long videos. The six-person Peachboy team does social media posts, lyrics and letters from the subscription-based Fancafe platform. Spotlight, which has four members, has a special knack for live interpreting. For in-depth looks at lyrics, @doolsetbangtan and @doyou_bangtan offer heavily contextualised, almost academic deep dives.
Translating for one of K-pop’s biggest groups comes with pressures. The sheer amount of content requires some discernment, even as a growing English-speaking market demands more and wants it faster. Some translators have experienced burnout, especially those working alone at the mercy of an incredibly active and devoted fan base. The person behind the popular account @cafe_army shared a letter to followers on Jun 27 announcing an “indefinite rest” to focus on their personal life, which had been “compromised” by so much time translating. Others can relate: Kim averages more than 1,000 phone notifications a day. Katie H, who runs @doolsetbangtan, took a short break last year after realising she felt “guilty” when she didn’t have time to translate everything.
‘PEOPLE THINK WE’RE MACHINES’
“People think we’re machines,” said Rachel, whose Korean name is Yejin, about her work helping run @SPOTLIGHTBTS as a busy 20-year-old college student in the United States. She said Twitter fans will tell her, “I don’t know how you balance your life with all of this.”
Time isn’t the only stressor. The translators are keenly aware of the power they wield in conveying the message of BTS to an English-speaking audience. “Our account is not a tiny account,” Rachel said. “There’s actually a lot of people seeing this stuff.”
Errors are a danger, especially when words are retranslated from English into other languages. So is omission. Kim, whose lyric translation work stands out as especially poetic, once spent time carefully translating BTS members V and RM’s 2018 Festa song 4 O’Clock because she loved it so much.
“But then there’s a contrast of, why did you write all these beautiful words for V but you didn’t when Jimin or Jin wrote theirs?” she said, referring to other members of the group. “I recognise that by not speaking about the others, it feels as if V is a better lyricist, or is more in control of his emotions and he can show that through song.”
A CREATIVE, COLLABORATIVE ACT
Fan translators don’t have the opportunity to ask BTS or the songwriters the group works with about the intent of a given track, instead inferring context from interviews and past lyrics. Korean also comes with its own particularities, idioms and references. (BTS song “Ddaeng” uses the title word in at least six different ways over four minutes.)
Janet Hong, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based literary translator with the Centre for the Art of Translation, said she has grappled with the inevitable contradictions built into transferring words and their meaning from one language to another.
“I’m often surprised when people think there is only one way a work can be translated into a language, as if each work comes with perfect, identical equivalents in different languages,” she said. “Literary translation is a creative act.”
If it’s creative, it’s also collaborative. Peachboy translator ChanHee Jeong, 18, said she appreciates her partner Camila on days when she “just can’t Korean.” Both Kim and Katie H noted that the translator landscape has shifted from competitive to communal – the two became friends in real life after bonding over the language of BTS on Reddit. Now they see each other as valuable sounding boards for trickier lyrics and as support systems for dealing with a stan culture that can be militant.
Fans, meanwhile, appreciate the reassurance that comes from having a variety of interpretations to choose from. Myla Adjin, 18, creator of the popular BTS fan account @cosmosdior, is just beginning to learn Korean. She looks at multiple accounts for translations, then adds her own perspective based on her knowledge of the group. “I’m not set on one, like they’re definitely right,” Adjin said. “I try to get everyone’s point of view before I make a final decision.”
Ultimately, all the hours translators put in to heighten the experience of BTS for non-Korean-speaking fans is a chance to celebrate what they see as a positive force in pop music today.
By P Claire Dodson © 2019 The New York Times