*This problem isn’t exclusive to perfect bilinguals, but I’ve found that perfect bilinguals are the most susceptible to it.

The Perfect Bilingual Problem is when a translator is so thoroughly aware of each nuance of the source text, and is so adept in the target language that they end up carrying over every semantic unit of the source into their translation.

Which may sound like a good thing at first. But what you really end up with is a verbose mess: a short story that’s fifteen pages in Korean and 9,000 words in English, paragraphs that are thickets of rhetorical flourishes, sentences that take ten words to say what could be said in three.

“But it’s in the original!” “But you’re corrupting the sacredness of the source text!” “But that’s what it means!”


At some point, the Sacred Cow Approach to Literary Translation just becomes an excuse.

An excuse to blame the author instead of taking responsibility for the ugliness of your translation and doing something about it.

An excuse to coast through the work instead of engaging with the original text and struggling with it.

An excuse to run the original text through some mindless machine of preset rhetorical cognates and call it a day.

But translation is so easy for perfect bilinguals!

Except, it shouldn’t be.