Friday, January 07, 2011

도대체 왜?

My teacher asked my US classmate to explain the word "도대체" (都大體) in a sentence that we just read. He said it is something like "욕" (辱, expletive). My teacher and the rest of my Chinese classmates was puzzled by his interpretation. I was alone in nodding my head in agreement because I knew exactly how he arrived at that conclusion.

The dictionary's translation of "도대체" is, "(what, how, why) on earth". However, a more crude translation, "what the *beep*" makes sense too, if not more. Sentence like "도대체 뭘 하는 거예요?" can be translated as, "What the *beep* are you doing?" So, if  "what the *beep*" is not "욕" than what is? My US classmate has every good reason to believe so.

My Chinese classmates did not form such connection because "도대체" is translated as "到底" or "究竟" in Chinese and both words are in no way connected to expletives. Sentence "도대체 뭘 하는 거예요?" translated as, "你到底在干什么?", conveys a sense of agitation but nothing profane.

Korean dictionary gives two definitions for "도대체":

1. Definition 1: mainly used in a question to mean "keep to the important points"
e.g.  도대체 뭘 하는 거예요? (Tell me only the important points, what are you doing?)

2. Definition 2: mainly used in negative-tone (부정) sentence to mean "completely"
e.g. 네가 하는 말은 도대체 알 수 없어요 (I totally cannot understand what you say)

Like Chinese, Korean definitions of "도대체" carry the same sense of agitation but nothing more.

The 'Hanja' of  "도대체" - "都大體" is no longer seen in modern Chinese literature. Based on its Chinese characters, 都大體 can be explained in its two root words "都" and "大體". "都" means "all or total" and "大體" means "important points". The meaning of the two root words matches very well with the two Korean definitions of "도대체".

That should explain why my teacher and Chinese classmates were puzzled by my US classmate's unexpected answer. "도대체" is not an expletive but due to translation, it becomes one. What can be say of this episode is, the actual meaning of things can be lost in translation. The more diverse the cultures, the more difficult it is to have faithful translation.

At the end of the class, my US classmate spoke to me, "Isn't 도대체 what a *beep*? Isn't it a expletive?" I agreed with him, "Yes, in some way, it sounds like an expletive but the others won't understand." I misled him but not on purpose, because that was actually what I  thought back then before I checked the Korean definition of the word.


  1. definition #1 can be summarised in 1 word: exactly

    what exactly are you doing?! might be a closer translation to the korean and chinese interpretation and do not contain expletives heh

  2. 'exactly' can be used in both definition #1 and #2. a brillant choice of word ^^

  3. i love your mini korean lesson posting! it's so helpful as i am also learning. please continue!!!

  4. You know, I was quite settled on getting the iriver d100 already, until I checked nurian X16 (I only checked X15 the last time) and realized it has a much much wider range of dictionaries. Plus it has translation function too. Oh nooo. =(

  5. 到底 : in chinese !

  6. hi starxblinded, if dictionary content is impt, x15 is sufficient. i don't think you'll ever need the 'extras' in x16. d100 is gorgeous-looking, has good mp3 sound and a decent dictionary, i don't think you'll regret.

    hi anonymous, thank you.

  7. Hi! Thank you!!! It was very informative, I love complete explanations :)
    I've been wondering, is 젠장 a expletive/profane word? Or is like 도대체, that the meaning can be lost in translation?