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Meet the Carl who majored in Russian and wound up translating ‘Parasite:’ A conversation with Darcy Paquet ’95

“My phone wouldn’t stop ringing,” said Paquet. After Parasite received the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Darcy Paquet ’95 came into the spotlight for his translation of the film’s subtitles. This year, the film won four Oscars, becoming the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. “It’s gotten a lot of press coverage in Korea, and so it’s changed a lot for me. Translators are usually people who like working quietly on their own and don’t need a lot of attention. But I’ve had much more attention than I ever thought I would get,” said Paquet.

Paquet now resides in Korea, but in 1991 he arrived at Carleton intending to major in Biology.  Originally from Massachusetts, Paquet said that Carleton “was a place where I felt very at home.” He recalls that “it was only in my final year that my parents were able to visit the campus. But after spending some time here, they said, ‘this place is so Darcy.’ It fit me really well, and that’s been unusual. Most of the time I’ve been in places where I kind of stand out.”

“From high school, I’d thought of living abroad,” Paquet said. “In some ways I didn’t really feel like I fit in in the US, except for Carleton maybe.” He switched his major to Russian after taking classes in the department to fulfill the language requirement, but said that it didn’t come easily.  “I kind of struggled with the language actually,” he said, but he felt he could “use it to do things I otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.”

After graduating from Carleton, Paquet entered a graduate program in Slavic Linguistics at Indiana University. He was originally intending to complete a Ph.D., but quickly realized that job prospects were few and far between. “Somebody told me that in the previous year, only one position had opened up in the entire country for Russian literature and language, and it was at that point that I thought, well maybe I’ll just move abroad and teach English.”

“Just sort of by chance, I made a lot of Korean friends in Indiana. Partly just people who were living close to me in the dormitory, or some people who were studying Russian in the same department as me. And through my friends I became more curious about Korea,” Paquet continued. “It was later when I put everything together and really started getting into film more deeply, and then watching a lot of world cinema.”

At the end of his program, Paquet’s plan was to spend two years in Korea before continuing on to Eastern Europe to continue Slavic studies. “I had my eye on the Czech Republic as my long-term destination, but I never made it, even to visit.” He laughed. “I’ve still never been to the Czech Republic.”  

In Korea, Paquet began studying the language and watching Korean movies, but found it difficult to get information about Korean cinema online, especially in English. To fill the gap, he made a website introducing Korean films in English, koreanfilm.org.

“It started small but it got big within a few years. Partly because I had no competition.” Paquet added, “part of me wonders now—it would have been really interesting if I had focused all of my energy on the website.”

Instead, the popularity of the site led him to accept a position as a journalist for a film trade magazine in London, Screen International. “That was what started me working in the film industry and getting to know the people in the film industry,” Paquet said, “and that’s how I got translation work as well. Through the people that I met working as a journalist.”

Paquet started with proofreading others’ translations. “It began when people I knew in the film industry would ask me to try to fix subtitles that they weren’t happy with,” he said. “Film companies in Korea were learning about the process of doing film subtitle translation and there weren’t a lot of experienced translators, so it was quite common to get poor-quality subtitles.”

He then transitioned to co-translation, where he would translate together with a Korean speaker. When his Korean had advanced enough, he was able to complete the drafts on his own. “It takes maybe a week to do the first draft, and then I go through it a couple more times, and then send it to the film company. Then, often there’s a back and forth, if they have ideas for things to change,” Paquet said. “Sometimes I meet the filmmakers and sometimes I do not.”

When translating the darkly comedic lines of Parasite, Paquet often had to make decisions about words or jokes that were unfamiliar to an English-speaking audience. The Korean dish that Chung-sook Kim makes in haste, jjapaguri, was too difficult to translate.  In its place, Paquet invented the term “ram-don,” by combining the words “ramen” and “udon.”  He also chose to translate Seoul National University to Oxford, so that people immediately understood a joke about the quickly forged diploma.

Paquet said that humorous moments are often a question of timing. “I think even if the audience doesn’t understand the language that they’re speaking, they can hear when there is a release of tension and they can hear the emotion in the actors’ voices,” said Paquet. “Humor also works best when it’s more condensed, so you try to take out everything that’s extraneous and shape the sentence so that it has as strong an impact as possible.”

In January, Bong Joon-ho accepted the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.  In his acceptance speech, Joon-ho said, “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you’re introduced to so many more amazing films.” Paquet thinks the barrier of reading subtitles is mostly an image problem—people see it as a task that is tiring, difficult, or boring, “and certainly not as exciting as most films that you would go to see in theater.”

“Hopefully one thing that Parasite did is that it broke people’s preconceptions about what a subtitled film is,” he said. “Because even though it is a film that’s very complex and artistically accomplished, I think it is entertaining at the same time. My hope is that, going forward, people might be more willing to take a chance on a subtitled film, if they like Parasite.” 

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we discussed the role of art and films like Parasite.  Paquet said the crisis has highlighted how “without art, life is more difficult.” The pandemic also inspires questions, noted Paquet. “If art is valuable, then why do people get paid so little to create it? People say that the pandemic is going to change things forever, and they say people are never going to go to a movie theater again, which I don’t believe. I think people will go back to the things that they liked before, but people’s perspectives certainly will change.”Paquet admitted that he’s been watching a lot of Bergman films lately. “I’m not sure that’s something I’d necessarily recommend to somebody else,” Paquet said. He also has been reading, and added, “I think it helps reading something set in another century. Books are especially good at taking us out of the present and giving us a sense of the broader sweep of time.” 

One Comment

  1. Dave Dave July 19, 2020

    When he says “people” he means Americans. In the rest of the world we watch foreign movies all the time

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