Nimrod, in Translation

Happy Chuseok, everyone.

If you don’t know what that means, I’m talking about the Korean Autumn Harvest Festival. Some people mistranslate it as Korean Thanksgiving, but it’s not a great translation in my opinion.

So… I’m going to geek out about a similar funny Korean-English translation glitch I ran across recently, mostly because it was fascinating. 

I recently mentioned my having copyedited a book of Korean SF short stories translated to English (apparently due out next year). The collection of stories was fascinating and I enjoyed reading many of them.

As always with reading translations, a few oddities cropped up, and one of them led me down a linguistic rabbit-hole. I thought I’d share, since I found it pretty interesting. The particular rabbit-hole came up because of a line in one of the stories, which mentioned about how “Nimrod” was an appropriate nickname for a specific character, because of its (“his”) graceful and precise movements.

Huh? Being a North American born after 1970, the word “nimrod” had always meant one thing to me: idiot. Idiots being neither graceful nor precise, this puzzled me. However, I had a hunch: wasn’t Nimrod also some kind of Biblical reference? 

Yes, it was, as it turned out: a descendant of Ham… and guess what Nimrod was? 

Genesis 10:9 – He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

He gets mentioned quite a bit, in fact, but that verse I’ve quoted above is the relevant one.  I dropped by Google Translate, and typed in the word “Nimrod” and had it translate the word to Korean… and guess what I got… well, here’s a screenshot, since it might be different now, of the primary suggested translation:

That answer, 시냥꾼, means “hunter.” Bingo. That, and the Bible reference, are also the results one gets using Naver dictionary

Apparently the definition linking this word to “hunter” was more widely in use (???) in literary writing, especially outside of North America (and the French version remains a poetical word for hunter, apparently, though how obsure it is, I have no idea).

My first guess was that maybe the word had taken on a pejorative meaning among non-hunters (that is, among city-folk) in the earlier 20th century, but one of the more popular folk etymologies out there suggests it was actually the use of the term in Looney Tunes that changed its usage: Bugs Bunny (and other characters), when mocking Elmer Fudd, called him “poor little nimrod,” and people just sort of assumed it meant “idiot.” It’s a popular amateur theory, and a nice story, though not well-supported, though it’s probably where I learned the word as a kid:

Meanwhile, the OED gives this as an early instance of a pejorative usage, predating Bugs Bunny altogether: 

3. N. Amer. slang. A stupid or contemptible person; an idiot. 
1933 B. Hecht & G. Fowler Great Magoo III.i.183 He’s in love with her. That makes about the tenth. The same old Nimrod. Won’t let her alone for a second.

Mind you, in that example, it could be that the guy being discussed in this line of dialogue is being called “nimrod” in the sense of an indefatigable hunter, someone perpetually trailing one woman or another. Certainly that seems possible from the quote, though the OED seems to suggest the pejorative sense of “idiot” or “fool” is intended by context. (I don’t see a script for the play online, so I can’t check for myself… though it does sound like an interesting play, in and of itself.) 

Whichever way it happened, in (North) American English, the pejorative became the dominant—and then, really, the only—remembered meaning of that word, while the word fell out of general use throughout the rest of the English-speaking world. Which means that, outside of a few religious fundamentalist communities, the Biblical reference and the association with “hunters” have been lost.   

Given the degree of influence American dictionaries have had on Korean-English dictionaries, my guess is that the derogatory usage must be more recent than whenever this entered the Korean-English dictionary lexicon. While I haven’t read about this, my guess is that Catholic and Protestant Christian missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped formulate the earliest translation dictionaries between Korean and English, before the word changed. (Of course, it could also be that they, being unusually religious, were eager to make sure that the names in their translated Bibles remained parseable to Korean readers. As with a lot of cases, once an archaic meaning got put into a dictionary or two, it hung on to the present… in dictionaries, at least, though not in common use. (I’ve never heard a single Korean refer to someone as a 니므롯 in conversation before, let alone refer to the Biblical Nimrod, after all.) 

All of which brings me to the thought that it’s funny that the word “cruft” was invented by software developers, since that’s essentially what this is: linguistic (or interlingual) cruft. Once a weird translation gets into the dictionary—or study lists—it’s hard to remove, and hangs on there forever. (My own post about the phrase “spoony on a woman” that I just linked a moment ago remains the only post in English about the expression. However, someone out there actually sought out help understanding it… and mangled it in the process, and other people offered authoritative answers on the meaning of this nonexistent expression, too!)

This staying power is, of course, handy when you’re looking up words in old texts, but it’s funny when an archaic word gets bounced back into nonce use and ends up being perplexing. And once a weird idiom gets injected into the phrasebooks and translation dictionaries, well… your hovercrafts end up full of eels for many years to come:

Incidentally, since the other translations in the system weren’t particularly helpful either, I suggested my own:

멍청이 is my word of choice for “nimrod” but maybe there’s a better one—feel free to add your suggestion.

Anyway, that’s just one of those little mysteries cleared up. Sort of. I bet 사냥꾼 still comes up as the first translation for “nimrod” for a while yet, though. 

Oh, and as for the translation, I suggested the name Orion to be swapped in, since it has a similarly ancient resonance for a great, mythic hunter, and none of the odd linguistic baggage that Nimrod has in North American English. The author and original translator okayed it, and the rest is apparently history.

Bouncy bouncy! 

As a bonus, if you’re wondering how I learned the Korean word for hunter, it was also from a cartoon:

(My son is pretty much obsessed with both Pinkfong—the company that made this cartoon—and dinosaurs. We’re encouraging the latter interest, and trying to wean him off the former a little.)

4 thoughts on “Nimrod, in Translation

  1. Nimrod was also the name of a super-robot from the future in the X-Men comics. He could control his shape, so turned into a Hispanic longshoreman and disappeared some time around issue 200. That’s the last I heard of him before I stopped reading that comic.

    1. Interesting. I don’t think the author who used the name in his story would be aware of that (he’s of a generation in Korea that I’m pretty sure didn’t have access to the X-Men), but it’s funny that he, too, used it for a robot character.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *