21 June 2010

"Ah, yes, she is virgin."

The first day I came to school, my co-teacher showed me around. He took me to the cafeteria, the gym, and pointed out all of the classrooms and teachers' rooms. He was without fail helpful and courteous, trying to anticipate where I would need to go. And last of all, he introduced me to the rest of the faculty.

Co-teacher: "This is history teacher. This is health teacher. This is science teacher. And this is music teacher. She is virgin."

Me: "Yes, hello, nice to meet you, nice to meet you, he-... what?!"
I made him repeat himself, sure it was a mistake. But it wasn't. And not only was it not a mistake, he also proceeded to point at three other female teachers, declaring with a smile, "Virgin, virgin, virgin!"

What a strange goddamn country, I thought. They hide the condoms out of sight in the mini-marts, but will discuss their coworker's virginity!

It wasn't until much later that I thought about what happened, of course. My usually fluent and polite co-teacher had been thinking ahead to this moment, and maybe he was nervous about making an English mistake with his first foreign teacher buddy. He planned what he would say to me about where we were going and who we were meeting, and looked up the words he didn't know.

When it came to the faculty, my co-teacher wanted to describe how some of the female teachers were "single" or "unmarried," so he could point them out with a roguish wink and smile. "Hey hey, they're available," was how he wanted to kid me.  But he hadn't known that particular word, and so he must have looked it up earlier in an online translator or on his phone. Sure enough:

처녀 處女
a virgin; a maiden; a maid; a girl;【처녀성】virginity
Since then, I've seen this pop up in a dozen places - usually on someone else's first day or week. It's not the only common problem with automated translators, but it's one that might be hard to figure out: it's a very sensitive area and a new foreigner might be especially hesitant to ask questions and solve the confusion. The problem is complicated by the fact that there's little on the Internet about it. But hopefully this post will solve that!

Just for reference so you know I'm right, an article called Korean Women— Poetry, Identity, Place: A Conversation with Kim Hye-sun mentions:

DMC: For those of us who are not familiar with Korean culture, could you explain what 처녀 (ch’y˘ony˘o) [is]?

KHS: 처녀 (Ch’y˘ony˘o) can be used in two ways. It refers to a young unmarried woman, but it can also mean a woman who is a virgin.

1 comment:

  1. lol.
    Reminds me of a story my Spanish teacher told us, way back when.
    He was in Argentina, talking to a women and her daughter. The mother was recounting an incident about her daughter's childhood that made the girl blush a little. My Spanish teacher wished to say
    "You must have been embarrassed." Not recalling the Spanish word for embarrassed, he decided to wing it and said "Debieras embarrassada."
    This caused the girl to turn very very red, and created an awkward silence. Not sure of what he did, my Spanish teacher rushed through his Spanish-English dictionary and burst out laughing. As it turns out, embarrassada means "pregnant" in Spanish.