'What Koreans are talking about, so are we'
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Raphael Rashid, left, and James Pearson, editors of koreaBANG
Two foreigners translate Korea's popular news, comments into English on website
By Kim Rahn
Not all expats in Korea or foreigners abroad will want to hear about government-promoted national advertising like K-pop or skin care programs. Many will rather want to know about what ordinary Koreans are talking about and how they feel while going about their daily lives.
For such people, two men from the United Kingdom ― James Pearson and Raphael Rashid ― have started a website named koreaBANG, www.koreabang.com, geared to offer English translations of Korea's most popular online stories and related comments.
The students are majors in Korean studies and got their idea from a similar website chinaSMACK, which is popular among expats in China, and decided to open a sister site.
"It translates Chinese Internet and comments from Chinese netizens into English. You can see what people are talking about. It's like bridge for people who don't speak Chinese", Pearson, who is currently studying for a master's degree in Korean studies at Cambridge University, said in an interview with The Korea Times on March 28 during his visit to the country.
The 24-year-old found chinaSMACK very useful while he was living in China during his studies in Chinese and Korean at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.
He suggested chinaSMACK export the idea, and the Chinese website agreed, sharing the format and design. Pearson asked Rashid, who he had met at SOAS, to be the co-editor. Rashid, who had majored in Japanese and Korean, is now studying for his master's in Korean studies at Korea University.
They are working with four other regular members, half Korean and half non-Korean, along with several part-timers.
Regarding the name chinaSMACK, they said the Chinese operators thought looking at raw, unedited comments from netizens would be like getting a slap in the face. But the two opted for koreaBANG instead of koreaSMACK.
"Bang in English could mean just like a smack. But 'bang' is also like PC bang (PC room), it has a broad meaning in Korean. It works for both audiences, Korean and foreigners", Pearson said.
The website, launched about a month ago, is already attracting 2,500 daily visitors from 140 countries.
The criterion for selecting articles is simple: What Koreans are talking about, so are we.
"If you go to Nate, Daum or Naver, you have the most viewed, most discussed ones, so generally we take them. Maybe the top story has 5,000 comments and the next story has 1,000, so we know the number one is a hot issue in Korea", Rashid said, adding not many people on the street would pay attention to the Nuclear Security Summit but everyone has heard about the "maekjunyeo" (beer lady). The video clip of her drinking beer on the subway went viral.
They said many more little things are happening all the time in Korea, like maekjunyeo, besides the big issues covered in the media, such as K-pop or North Korea. And their goal is to make accessible and share these tidbits with interested people who don't speak Korean.
"Korea has an incredibly rich culture and the government tries hard to push that through magical Korean features like kimchi or hanbok. That is part of Korean culture but that's only one way and doesn't really represent what people really think and what they are really talking about", Pearson said.
The website covers all subjects. "We're not here to be selective. The people who are selecting the articles are Koreans themselves. If an article about politics pops up, we cover it but we don't choose to cover politics. Why? It's because Koreans are talking about these political issues at the moment", Rashid said.
Comments show we're all humans
The unique thing about koreaBANG is it translates not only the news stories but also netizens' comments ― the most recommended ones. Visitors can view the original Korean comments by hovering the cursor over the translation and thereby grasp the nuance and tone of the original version.
"If you have just English language news translations, that's accessible but you don't really get an idea on how people are responding to it", Pearson said.
Western visitors of the website write comments on the Koreans' comments. "Some of them agree, some of them say the most stupid things just like Koreans who say stupid things. Netizens are netizens. One of the really good things about this is that it's transparent, showing how across the whole world everywhere there are idiots, as everywhere there are good people, too", he said.
They said some of their Korean friends worried that the website may seem like airing Korea's dirty laundry, but said they are doing this not just out of curiosity but also out of respect to present the entire picture of the country.
"There are people who want to know more about Korea than what is deliberately presented. If we can contribute to showing a different side, or the real side, that will be great", Rashid said.