This month, VICE is doubling down on all things K-pop and Korean music, featuring articles and videos on music, fandom, and celebrity.
Anyone planning to get into K-pop knows all about the massive amount of content they need to consume, to be acquainted with their group of choice. Music videos and the odd press tour usually do the trick for their Western counterparts, but with K-pop acts, there are seasons worth of reality and variety programs, behind-the-scenes footage, drama episodes—the list goes on.
Conversion from curious onlooker to committed fan would be impossible if international supporters aren’t able to understand what they all mean, which makes fan translators indispensable today, when K-pop has become a global phenomenon. This loyal legion of supporters has made it their life’s mission to provide correct, consistent translations to those who don’t speak Korean—all for the affordable price of zero dollars and zero cents, and the promise of undying support for their idols.
Fan translators often rise to the challenge due to the lack of Korean media coverage available in other languages. Though company-made transcripts in other languages like English, Spanish, and Indonesian—among many others—are provided from time to time, they’re often rife with inaccuracies.
“Those are always the ones that seem to blow up and cause a lot of miscommunication,” Young (@17_HAMZZI on Twitter), a 29-year-old translator for K-pop boy group SEVENTEEN, told VICE. “I wished someone who was fluent in both [English and Korean] would come out and fix [the mess], so I guess that’s a reason why I started doing it.” She and the other translators VICE spoke with asked to only be identified by their first names to protect their privacy.
This line of work is nothing new, having served as the bridge between supporter and idol since the days of LiveJournal and Dailymotion. But what sets the current generation apart is how they’ve managed to convert this simple hobby into a successful enterprise, with a level of organization and online savvy that was just budding in the mid-2000s. While most of these translators hang around on Twitter, they’re also on other corners of the internet such as YouTube and V Live, a broadcasting platform for Korean celebrities.
Since K-pop content usually covers several categories, most translators adopt a certain niche that allows them to home in on a specialty and manage the workload. Some take charge of shorter yet more frequent social media updates, like Misa (@misayeon), an admin of a Twitter fan account dedicated to girl group TWICE, with almost half a million followers.
“Generally, what I would do is around morning time in Korea, I would open the Naver page,” she told VICE, referring to the South Korean search engine and news portal. “I know around what time important articles usually come out, so I just check a few times to see if they have anything important. If they don’t, I carry on with my day and mostly rely on notifications for new stuff that could possibly be translated.”
Meanwhile, others oversee larger-scale projects such as hour-long radio episodes and entire seasons of pre-debut survival shows. Raw footage is usually viewed in sections, then subjected to several rounds of revisions before being released to the public. Given that this is no easy feat, fans often band together to divide the load. Suvi, 28, project manager of K-pop translation YouTube channel @Like17Subs, told VICE that their 50-person team is comprised by Korean language learners of varying locations and skill levels.
“There are the typists and timesetters who can only speak [Korean] well enough to understand where sentences start and end, and quality checkers—heritage speakers who can read lips, when we have difficulty hearing what [SEVENTEEN] are saying,” Suvi said. Since she only has time for administrative work these days, her role is to continue to “look for volunteers and keep everyone up to date on what parts have already been completed and which ones we need still filled.”
It’s a lot of hard work to balance on top of real-life responsibilities, especially since fan translators cater to a market that wants everything on demand.
“A lot of people on Twitter and YouTube message me, asking when this radio show is gonna be out or if I can focus on this one instead because they want to see this member,” Young lamented.
The tediousness of this entire process can take the fun out of fandom.
“I watch [what I translate] so many times to the point where I sometimes get sick of it. I love the group, I love the members, but by the time I’m done, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m tired of their voices!’ As much as I want to help, I don’t want this to be something that will cause me more stress and make me want to leave [fan translation work].”
“I watch [what I translate] so many times to the point where I sometimes get sick of it. I love the group, I love the members, but by the time I’m done, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’m tired of their voices!’”
Releasing updates at blinding speeds also doesn’t give them much time to provide context, which could adversely affect the image of the idols they want to represent. This risk is particularly apparent in the field of live translation. Cel, 21, an admin for Twitter account @_KingdomUpdates, knows this all too well, as her posts for the Mnet survival show once sparked a word war among fans of the participating groups. What was actually a casual observation of one contestant was mistaken for shade directed towards their competitor, resulting in hurtful online exchanges.
“It wasn’t in any way controversial from a Korean speaker’s point of view, but it was taken out of context. I remember looking afterwards and seeing the number of retweets and likes on the tweets I made shoot up dramatically,” she recalled. “That was definitely a challenge because you’re trying to go fast but also be accurate and present everyone in an unbiased light, while also keeping in mind the American speaker’s point of view when you’re translating from Korean as well.”
Not much leeway is given to those who commit errors in the process, since fan translators are generally held to a higher standard by their idols’ other fans. There’s constant pressure to represent their idols perfectly and even take on leadership positions, which is a responsibility none of them signed up nor prepared for.
“I don’t like it, to be honest,” Misa admitted. “I’d love to be seen as just a regular fan who’s able to fangirl over my favorite artists, but I feel like a lot of people take what I say as an official statement. I can’t even say that I love this member’s hair today without anyone being like, ‘Oh, what about the other members’ hair?’ I can’t be a personal account anymore, and it’s kind of sad. But it is what it is.”
“I’d love to be seen as just a regular fan who’s able to fangirl over my favorite artists, but I feel like a lot of people take what I say as an official statement. I can’t even say that I love this member’s hair today without anyone being like, ‘Oh, what about the other members’ hair?’ I can’t be a personal account anymore, and it’s kind of sad. But it is what it is.”
Despite the challenges they collectively face, the fulfillment they gain in return and the impact they have on fans’ lives are immense. For instance, VICE spoke to Zhali Lucina, a fan who relies on translations to dissect the girl group aespa’s quirky AI universe. “Some of [aespa’s] content come with auto-generated English subtitles, but it’s still different when translations are made by fans themselves,” she said.
“Because of [fan translations], I get to appreciate the details [of the members’ comebacks] more and feel connected to the group. Sometimes, it makes me feel like I’m also in KWANGYA, even if i don’t know where that actually is,” she elaborated, referring to the alternate dimension part of aespa’s mythology.
When Lou del Rosario fell into a DAY6 rabbit hole in early 2021, she discovered another dimension to the industry she has loved for a decade.
“I now keep a notebook with the Korean lyrics and their English versions of the songs that really hit me. Even when I’m alone, I’m able to comfort myself and find the solace I would normally get from friends and family,” she mused, flipping through her notebook.
“I now keep a notebook with the Korean lyrics and their English versions of the songs that really hit me. Even when I’m alone, I’m able to comfort myself and find the solace I would normally get from friends and family.”
None of this would be possible without fan translators, she said. “We really rely on fans who know Korean well to get the message across.”
In many ways, these translators are the unseen promoters partly responsible for K-pop’s global success, which is precisely why they choose to soldier on every day.
“My core reason [for running my account] is just because I love TWICE: I want to translate their words properly, convey them to the international community, and give them a good image,” Misa shared.
“I’d rather be a part of the team that helps make translations as accurate as possible than just wait for someone to do it themselves,” Suvi said.
But this high-risk, high-reward environment is not for everyone. An aspiring translator must not only possess a firm grasp of both languages, but also an awareness of what’s truly at stake.
“There’s a concept of communication as a way of constructing reality—the things we say influence how we perceive things, and how we perceive things is [what makes up] our reality,” Cel said. “When I communicate something, I take a lot of responsibility, knowing that what I say has an impact.”
“People don’t necessarily take translations with a grain of salt—they usually just take one translation that is trusted by others without thinking about [it],” Suvi said. “These fans can come up with a twisted view of how an idol is like because the only way they’re consuming their idols’ work is through your translations. Keep in mind that you affect the way other people interact with a group.”