By Lee Hana
Photos = Kim Sunjoo
Video = Choi Tae-soon
Seoul | June 14, 2019
Darcy Paquet, an American movie critic who has lived in Korea for close to 20 years, wears many hats in the Korean film industry: critic, lecturer, author, translator, artistic director and part-time actor.
Most recently, he has grabbed the media spotlight as translator of the English subtitles for director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
The black comedy delivers a specific kind of humor through its dialogue. Critics have praised the quality of the movie’s subtitles, saying they allow foreign audiences “to laugh in all the right places.”
In an interview with Korea.net on June 14, Paquet said he was happy that the art of subtitle translation was in the news and that a close partnership with the director, combined with good planning and ample time for subtitle revision, ultimately led to a better result.
“To get great subtitles, you need a good translator and a good system in place. You’re often making creative decisions when translating subtitles, because there are so many ways to interpret the same line of dialogue. It’s best to have the option to ask the director. Then you can get closest to the intended meaning.”
A soft-spoken man with eyes that light up when discussing Korean cinema, the Massachusetts native spoke about working with Bong and other famous Korean directors and how he found his niche in Korean cinema.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
– How did you get started in the Korean film industry?
I came to Korea in 1997 to teach English at Korea University. At the time, movies were just a hobby, a way to learn the language and the culture. Some interesting movies came out at that time like “Christmas in August” (1998), the first Korean movie I got excited about. But when I searched online for information in English about Korean films, I found nothing came up. So in 1999, I launched a film review site called Koreanfilm.org. Surprisingly, it grew much faster than I ever expected, and eventually I got offers to write for Screen International, a film trade magazine based in London, and Korean Film Weekly (Cine21), a (Korean) film magazine. Through these gigs, people in Korea started to figure out who I was.
– When did you start translating subtitles?
Translation work came by coincidence. When I was teaching at Korea University, just down the road was the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), and they were looking for a part-time copy editor to proofread existing subtitles and other marketing materials. When a friend turned down the job, I took it instead. That’s how I got my start, and how I met Bong Joon-ho as well.
Bong’s first film “Barking Dogs Never Bite” came out in 2000, and the distribution company had commissioned a translation, but the director wasn’t satisfied with it and asked KOFIC to recommend an editor. They sent me. And so I sat down with Bong, and we watched the movie together, laughing at the jokes, making changes as we went through. Bong told me later that he liked that I kept throwing in suggestions for potential translations. When he made his second movie “Memories of Murder,” (2003) he asked me to do the translation.
In the early 2000s, I mostly worked with my wife or a friend to complete the first draft of the translation. About five years ago, I started translating more or less on my own.
– For “Parasite,” you and Bong jointly revised the final version of the subtitles. What was that process like?
I typed up the subtitles for about a week and half. We sent some emails back and forth. Afterwards, there were two days of long meetings with the director, the producer, me and several people from the distribution company. They all spoke English and offered suggestions. It was helpful to have a group of us thinking together about the challenging parts of the translation.
– In one scene, a woman calls a dish “jjapaguri” but the subtitle says “ramdon.” Is it true that “jjapaguri” was the hardest to translate?
I was embarrassed because I made up this word “ramdon.” I thought people would laugh at me for it, but it works in the film. The word is first used during a phone conversation. Later, as one character prepares the food, we see the packages on the screen and I wrote “ramyeon” and “udon” over them to show how “ramdon” came about. I did actually Google “ramdon” before writing it and nothing came up. It appears to not be a word in any language at all.
– Couldn’t you have written in “jjapaguri” so that foreign audiences could look it up later?
There are always debates like that. In that case, if you put the original Korean word, people can search it up later. There are other examples, like “Seoul National University” (SNU) being translated to “Oxford.” The first time I did the translation, I did write out SNU but we ultimately decided to change it because it’s a very funny line, and in order for humor to work, people need to understand it immediately. With an unfamiliar word, the humor is lost.
– Was there a reason you went with Oxford rather than Harvard?
I think Bong likes England a lot. I’ve been joking about this as well, but when I was a high school student, I applied to Harvard and didn’t get in. Jokes aside, I think Harvard is too obvious a choice. It’s more memorable when you say Oxford.
– Do you like working on comedies?
One of the most satisfying things to watch for me is a well-made comedy. In a way, “Parasite” is like that. It’s much more than just a comedy but has a lot of comic elements. As a translator, comedies are a fun challenge because timing is so important.
– With Korean and English, the timing of the punch line can be quite different. How do you work around this?
You have to match them. Sitting in a theater watching a Korean film with a foreign audience, I’ve noticed that when they laugh at something funny, they don’t laugh with the timing of the subtitles, they laugh at the exact moment when the actor’s voice delivers the punch line. Even if they don’t understand the language, they know when the punch line comes, so it works much better if you place the punch line at the time they would hear it.
– You’ve worked a lot with Bong Joon-ho, but you’ve also translated subtitles for movies by other famous directors. Which of them had a process that was noticeably different?
Working with Park Chan-wook was quite memorable because he likes wordplay. There’s something quite unusual about his dialogue in all of his films. Park has said he was influenced by a 1960s director, Kim Ki-young, who uses strange but very expressive dialogue in his films, so I think Park tries to do something similar. Whereas other directors might want something very smooth and natural, Park was fine if it felt a bit artificial but he wanted to preserve the wordplay and creative things in the original language.
– Were you pleased with how your subtitles turned out for Park Chan-wook’s psychological thriller “The Handmaiden?”
I do like the final product. The film itself is visually so beautiful, and director Park is so good at controlling mood and tempo. When you put the subtitles into it, it’s thrilling for me to see the words I came up with blend in with such great filmmaking. It’s really exciting.
– You’ve done some acting and apparently plan to write and/or produce films as well. Do have you any upcoming projects?
As someone who has talked a lot about the film industry, written about it and taught it, explaining it or interpreting it, it’s a good feeling to jump into it sometimes.
I would be interested in producing or writing a screenplay. There are a couple projects that I have in mind but I haven’t been able to find enough time to really concentrate on those yet. I’m hoping in the next year or two, I’ll make a bit of progress.
– What advice do you have for people wanting to break into subtitle translation for big-time directors?
Translating is a tough job because it’s a lot of work. It’s not that well paid and it needs a certain kind of personality because it’s never perfect. Compared to the original, it’s never going to be exactly what you want it to be. The biggest challenge is writing in a very compact way. The first time you do it, it’ll be very difficult but the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. I’d recommend reading a lot and being conscious of language as you go through life. Listen to the language that people use.
If it’s hard to get a first job, there are lots of independent filmmakers who are making short films that need help. So if you can contact one of them and gain some experience, you can later move on to bigger projects.