It's been a watershed year for K-pop, as crossover superstars BTS have led the charge in the States by breaking records on the Hot 100, making their debut on the awards ceremony circuit and touring American talk shows.
What makes this a particularly stunning achievement is that they racked up all of these overseas accomplishments with primarily Korean-language music. Their recent remix of “MIC Drop” was one of the group’s most English-intensive songs, but the septet remains committed to their native tongue.
"I'm not a believer in releasing full English songs to the U.S. market, like many K-pop artists have," said Big Hit Entertainment CEO Bang Si-Hyuk in an April interview with Billboard. "We must focus on what we do best as K-pop artists and producers and maybe add some special features to which international or U.S. music fans can feel attached.”
So, how do seven South Korean boys get their message across to international audiences when only one member is fluent in English? One huge factor: fan translators, who are an integral part of the K-pop fandom.
K-pop is a deeply immersive art form buoyed in the public sphere by a constant output of content. Idols regularly participate in variety shows, stream their own broadcasts, sit down for interviews, post on social media and are written about by Korean media. Given the nonstop barrage of idol activities, fans across the world have made it their mission to make even the smallest news about their favorite idols immediately accessible to fans who don’t speak Korean.
Fan-translating accounts exist across social media platforms, but Twitter is one of the main English-speaking hubs. “Twitter's an easy way to get the word out and communicate with all the hashtags we always trend worldwide,” says translator Sophia Shin (@jintellectually). “We always have a way to get the word out there, and it's an easy way of communication that we all have.”
Accounts tend to be artist-specific, so translators from BTS’s fan base, called ARMY, solely interpret content about BTS. They can range from personal accounts to intricately woven organizations. Bangtan Translations (@BTS_Trans) is one of the biggest teams on the block with over 1 million Twitter followers and nearly 800,000 YouTube subscribers on their Bangtan Subs channel.
A lot of labor goes into making translations immediately accessible to an English-speaking fan base. While fan translations are largely unmonetized, the unpredictable nature of a group’s content output can leave fans dedicating anywhere between a few minutes to 10 hours translating on a given day.
However, one ARMY translator, Myungji Chae (@btsarmy_salon), is careful to note that BTS’ success isn’t solely attributed to the culture of translation surrounding their work. “BTS’ popularity or globalization can't be summed up just because they use social media platforms and there are translators to help with language barrier,” the translator tells Billboard. “The main factor and importance of BTS is their genuine personality, quality content and sincere music. As a translator, I cannot create something that isn’t [from] the original context. BTS [is] successful because they are simply really good at what they do.”
To get a more nuanced glimpse of how ARMY translators approach their work, Billboard let them speak for themselves.
What drives translators to dedicate their time to translating?
Bangtan Translations: “We have always been fueled by the love and admiration we have for BTS. We watched with our own eyes as BTS conquered year after year, and to us, there is no better reward than that. BTS has always been an easy-to-access group, even for international fans. They’ve always been active on Twitter, YouTube and their own blog.
As long as we kept an eye out for those and the main Korean outlets, we had enough to fuel our work as translators. BTS-Trans started as a way to help fans know more about BTS and we are thrilled to have been active for so long and to still be able to help spread the word about BTS.”
Audrey P. (@glitter_jk): “I have seen many mistranslated, exaggerated or trans-lacking contents, and [I] have witnessed many foreign fans left in the dark, not knowing what’s going on. Further, people start assuming and saying things that aren’t true, which needed to be prevented.”
Chae: “[ARMYs] work so hard despite all the hardships and language barrier, their love for BTS is beyond anyone’s imagination. I hope they can receive the complete package BTS offers to Korean ARMYs. … Also, fans who don’t have English as their mother tongue also read my translation. Thus, when I translate for I-ARMYs, I tend to keep it easy and avoid complicated expressions or difficult vocabularies. Many of them will then re-translate my English translation into their native language. When articles and contents get translated into English, it spreads and gets translated into different languages as well, it's amazing.”
Ellie Lee (@peachisoda): “The reason why I began translating from the first day is because I'm Korean, so while I was learning English, it was so hard to understand anything I watched without subtitles. And back then, it was so hard to find subtitles as well. It's not as convenient as now. I cannot search for subtitles online and find subtitles back then. So I think I kind of understood the frustration of wanting to understand something and then not understanding because of the language barrier. And I wanted to do my part, whatever I could to kind of adjust that bridge or try to help them in some way if I could. And that's actually how I began to translate online.”
Peach Boy team (@peachBOY_0613): “BTS is such a unique group, composed of talented individuals who not only produce, sing, rap and dance, but stand for such a meaningful message. Their lyrics talk about mental health, social issues, society, the economy and other topics that not many artists have addressed on a personal level through their music. Despite their success, they stay incredibly humble, down to earth, and continue to be hardworking. They are truly a group that can bring happiness, inspiration, and hope. Their influence shouldn't be restricted to only one area.
Therefore, we think it’s important for not only English speaking fans, but fans of all ages across the world to learn and grow from their stories together. … Not only do they produce and perform great music, they give back so much to the fans. Because of this, our team decided to start translating, to contribute to fans' support towards the group.”
Fostering the international-Korean fan connection
The more you delve into the fan translation community, the more you see that interpreters aren’t just making content about BTS accessible. ARMYs of different tongues are connecting with each other as translators work as messengers.
Rachel Kim (@vlissful): “Having a fandom where all ARMYs have healthy relationships with each other helps. This is only my opinion, but I feel like ARMYs, our fandom, has a really good International-Korean relationship. Korean ARMYs call international ARMYs International Lovelies [I-Lovelies], and international ARMYs call Korean fans Korean Diamonds [K-Diamonds]. And I think that's really sweet. I really like seeing their communications, like their interactions, whenever I inform them [about] something, because it's really cute.”
Lee: “I used to take messages from international fans and then translate it, post it on Korean sites so that Korean fans can read it… I put a post on my Twitter saying I would be collecting 10 top letters from international ARMYs and then post it on Korean sites so that Korean ARMYs could read it. And from there, all the comments I receive from Korean fans, I translate it back to English and post it on my blog.
We've been doing that about four times or five times, I think… A lot of ARMYs say that really helps international ARMYs and Korean ARMYs to come together. These messages are really sweet. They express how grateful they are to each other.”
Peach Boy: “Languages can seem like a barrier to many people, but translations break the wall down. Through translations, many more people can communicate with one another and share ideas and thoughts. Both the K-ARMYs [Korean ARMYs] and I-ARMYs [International ARMYs] continuously send encouragements and support to each other. It truly proves that love and support can surpass obstacles and be shared among people across the world, regardless of where they are from. It brings Korean fans as well as International fans together and bonds us as one family.”
Shin: “There's such a strong bond. Sometimes I talk to K-Diamonds, and they're always so cute and appreciative. At the AMAs, the fan chants, the K-Diamonds were like, ‘You guys did so well. We're so proud.' Stuff like that's really nice to hear.”
Challenges that come with translating
Kim: “Sometimes I get really frustrated when I do translations, because I don't want to give the wrong information or make an error. ... I don't like making errors. All of my followers are like, 'Oh my god, you delete tweets every single second.' Whenever I find something that's incorrect or if I make a grammar mistake or anything like that, it bothers me a lot.
But also I don't wanna give wrong information. When BTS announced the UNICEF information [about their ‘Love Myself’ anti-violence campaign], before that, there was really vague information about it two hours before they released it, and I wasn't sure if it was confirmed or not because it had such little information. But I had tweeted it to let the international ARMYs know first. But they were all like, 'Is this actually confirmed?' And I was like, ‘I don't know.’
It really frustrated me, because I knew that UNICEF was huge, huge news. So I didn't want to disappoint them or anything if it was a rumor, so I really think carefully before tweeting big news like that. Sometimes it really scares me because I don't want to make a mistake and disappoint our fandom.”
Shin: “In Korean, the sentence structure, it's like the verb and then the noun and then the sentence is flipped backwards, and you have to try to flip it back while trying to make it still make sense. Sometimes, that can be a bit confusing.”
Lee: “English is very different from Korean. So the grammar and all these new words and some of the expressions are not familiar with us [in Korea]. … So when I try to translate videos or any articles or posts, I try to explain everything as well as I can. Most of my posts, I have the translator's note, "t/n," and I try to explain every meaning of the word so that the readers can enjoy the post as much as I can.”
Gloria Jun (@glojunjun): “When I translate, I try to do direct translations at first, and then I will go in and try to make it sound more colloquial because a lot of times, something will translate into English but it won't sound the way that [it should] or the meaning will be a little bit different, like the feeling of it, than what was portrayed in Korean and vice versa... I try to rectify [the meaning] as much as I can. Even if I have to maybe skip out on directly translating a little word, just to get the meaning across.”
The role fan translators play in globalization
Bangtan Translations: “Fan translations help to fill the gap that exists where official subtitles (released by broadcasters and networks, like KBS World) do not, as not all content that is released on Korean programmes gets subtitled. That has definitely made K-pop more accessible to fans worldwide, as it would be very difficult to become a fan of an artist when you have no idea what the person is saying.
In addition, as fan translators we try to deliver not only the shallow but the deep ends of what BTS really has inside themselves. We as fans understand not only the quality of their music and content, but the ‘behind the scenes’ and emotional process they may go through for this content to be produced.
This differentiates our translations from the ‘official’ or ‘brief’ translations done by professional translators/subtitlers whose only aim is to deliver meaning accurately and in the space allotted. We as a fan-translating community try our best to give any details in the Korean that we catch, using ‘Translator’s Note (T/N)’, to help international fans with any Korean cultural references they may not be able to catch simply in the direct translation.”
Audrey P.: “I believe fan translators play [a] vital role in the globalization of K-pop because our duties are to spread information and news/updates about K-pop stars to foreign fans. The more we deliver the news and interesting information, the more foreign fans show interest and start joining the fandom. That way, K-pop stars are becoming more and more globalized.”
Peach Boy: “Fan translators are one of the many elements in the globalization of Kpop. Translators aren't only the ones bringing the success -- the drive is definitely the fans and the artist themselves- but we simply are here to further strengthen the bond already made.
By having groups of many translators, updates and messages between the group and the fans are instantly translated. People from all over the globe are able to understand the content within minutes. Not only do fans see it themselves but the public as well, due to the widespread use of social media. This brings a wider audience of people to listen to K-pop and become fans themselves, spreading the globalization of the K-pop music genre.”
Shin: “I feel like fan translators have a pretty big role in the fandom because a lot of the stuff we talk about and a lot of the information comes directly from them translating to English. The fan translating community is slowly getting bigger and bigger, and I feel like that's great because there's always more stuff to translate.”
Jun: “[Translation accounts are] able to make not just BTS, but K-pop in general, very accessible to people who don't understand or are learning or people who may not have the means to learn just yet. And I also think they're a form of inspiration sometimes. Especially fan translators who are not Korean ethnically and have learned the language and have become fluent enough to translate for people, they are an inspiration for others to keep learning and to keep working hard. Because they did, so you can too, pretty much.”