Korean pop: BTS and fan translation

BTS at the Golden Disk awards
Sowon S Park

That digital technology is changing the way we live is a truism often repeated but rarely do we hear it mentioned in the same breath as democratization or promotion of minor languages. But the nature of digital innovation is more multifarious and mysterious than one might have been led to expect in recent years.

In May 2018 a Korean-language pop/rap album reached number one on the US Billboard 100. To put this into some historical context, Love Yourself: Tear by BTS was the first album in a non-European language to top the charts. The last non-English song to reach number one on the Billboard charts was by Il Divo twelve years ago in 2006.

A Korean album topping the US charts is hardly less incredible than the Booker Prize being awarded to an untranslated Mongolian novel or the Oscar for Best Picture going to a film in Finnish. Korean is a language that has virtually no presence outside of ethnically Korean communities. ‘English or perish’ is a mantra drummed into every South Korean child. Yet from São Paulo to Moscow, the Philippines to California, millions of BTS fans, known as ARMY, sing along in Korean urban hip-hop infused Korean.

What makes the singalong possible is fan translation on social media platforms. On YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, there are colour-coded translations, romanizations and transcriptions into whatever language or script are used in the various linguistic communities around the world. The translations are of BTS lyrics, first and foremost, but also of their interviews, of the banter in concert clips and video posts of and by BTS. They are provided for fans by fans, updated almost continually round the clock.

At the most organized end is Bangtan Translations (@BTS_Trans), a translation and ‘subbing’ team, which has over 1.4 million Twitter followers. But at the other end are plenty of individual fans who contribute to making every Korean utterance by BTS accessible, as soon as possible. It is not uncommon to find apologies such as “sorry this is so late. I slept 4 hours doing it” or “I have exams tomorrow and could only finish this much” prefacing the uploads. As this suggests, the translations are driven not by profit or personal gain but by love for the band and for the shared community that revolves around it. This is the new digital culture of fan translation.

The conviviality of ARMY culture will not be comprehensible to many of our Creative Multilingualism researchers. I expect that few will have an idea of who or what BTS is. BTS, short for Bang Tan So Nyeon Dan (방탄소년; 防彈少年; Bullet Proof Boy Band), is composed of seven young Korean men, Jin, Suga, J-hope, RM, Jimin, V and JungKook and managed by BigHit Entertainment, who provide high-octane digital accessibility for ARMY through Bangtan TV and various social media channels. The emotional connection sustained between BTS and their fans is intense and mutual. Such is the loyalty and the dedication of the fan-base that when BTS released their single ‘Idol’ on YouTube in August 2018, it racked up 45 million views in 24 hours (source: www.officialcharts.com). They were the most tweeted celebrity in 2017 and 2018. ARMY vote, download, click, re-tweet and request radio airplay. They challenge lazy and condescending reviews in the mainstream media; they lavish each member with considered and fulsome encouragement.

The biggest credit for BTS’s global success goes to ARMY, who were initially non-European, not Western pop music critics or pundits, whose reviews of BTS have often been tinged with condescension and cultural solipsism. In the global entertainment world where English is regarded as the only currency that has purchase, only one member of BTS, RM, is competent in spoken English. One prominent music critic reviewing for a British newspaper lamented with exasperation the fact that BigHit could not hire an English teacher for the boys so that people could understand what they were singing. It seems to have been beyond his imagination that people might come to understand their songs by learning Korean. I daresay that before ARMY, mass-singing in Korean outside of Korea would have been a thought too preposterous to entertain.

In a heartening about-turn, ARMY have stormed the citadels of the music elite through social media platforms and created a digital version of Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community’. The community is so engulfing that admirers of BTS, who don’t identify as ARMY, can only marvel at the plenitude of family-close feeling that they seem to share.  

A large part of the fan/performer attachment is forged through the lyrics, which are mostly ‘street’ Korean, punctuated by hip-hop English. The lyrics are dizzyingly allusive, sources ranging widely from Herman Hesse’s Demian (‘Blood Sweat and Tears’) to the Japanese superhero anime Soreiki! Anpanman (‘Anpanman’) to the Korean modernist poem, ‘Flower’ by Kim Chunsoo (Serendipity). English phrases, introduced at regular intervals, are mostly phatic in function, such as the refrain ‘yoloyoloyolo’ (you only live once) in the song, ‘Go Go’. Or they underline the theme, such as the line ‘today we fight’ in the song ‘Not Today’. What carries the weight of the songs are the rapping sections, which are witty, cutting and searingly candid. Articulating the texture of modern Korean life through such subjects as the ‘jam’ of over-spending sprees, the millennial struggle for existence, living up to a fake image, feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, their often deeply personal and defiant lyrics appear to resonate across cultures and generations.

BTS/ARMY provide robust evidence for creative multilingual practices in everyday life that defy received opinions on the state of language-learning today. It used to be asserted that a cultural product could only have global circulation if it was in a major European language. But the world is not determined by a monolingual English speaking culture, regardless of what critics may think. Furthermore, BTS/ARMY demonstrate that the centre/periphery model of global culture no longer holds. It used to be a given that a cultural product from the margins had to be endorsed by western cultural elites for it to have global significance. Now that artists release their work directly, there is a levelling of old hierarchies. Finally the conviviality of fan translation renders absurd the kind of purism that elevates differences between languages to a metaphysical value. Yes, the internet privileges English but it also creates a condition in which the barriers between languages are surmountable to anyone willing to understand.

Sowon S Park is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Co-Investigator on Creative Multilingualism's 6th strand: Prismatic Translation.

Image: AJEONG_JM [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Where next?

Translating a Russian play into Hip Hop Theatre: a conversation

Research update: tracing prismatic rays of translation

Creative translation in the classroom