Lost in translation

Today, while out and about with my son, I heard this comment in English for umpteenth time from a Korean:  "Your son is more handsome than you."
If you are a native English speaker, how do you interpret this comment?  It could mean any of the following:
  • "You are handsome, but your son is more handsome than you."
  • "You are ugly, but your son is handsome."
  • "Your son must have gone his good looks from his mom, because he surely could not have gotten them from you."
  • "You and your son are very handsome, and you imparted your best qualities to him."
  • A throw-away comment that means absolutely nothing.

So, which one is it? 


I asked a Korean what it means to a Korean.


Actually,  to Koreans, this utterance is a throw-away comment, something Koreans say to fathers with cute kids.  It’s intended to be small talk, not a referendum on the child’s looks or the father’s appearance.


Now how would a native English speaker interpret that comment?


I may be wrong, but I believe most English speakers would find the comment a bit negative.  Akin to the Chinese comment frequently uttered about people’s weight, "You look fat," (which in its purest sense means you look healthy, not fat), "Your son is more handsome than you" is the kind of comment that can be easily misinterpreted in English.  If you are a narcissist, you might assume that it means you are handsome and have great genes.  If you have self-esteem issues and/or are self-deprecating, you would probably take it to mean that you are ugly while your son is handsome.

I suspected that the comment is a rough interpretation of a common Korean phrase.  I assumed too that it is intended to be a complimentary comment.  It’s just too bad that Koreans have no idea how bad it can sound in English!
  1. Unknown

    It’s funny how a wooden translation of something so innocuous suddenly takes on a negative connotation.  The words themselves have been translated, but some of the original meaning has been left behind.  One example is the Mandarin "不錯".  Literally, it translates as "not wrong", but it’s frequently used to mean ‘good’.  Perhaps the closest approximation in common usage would be ‘not bad’, but that feels more neutral, whereas the Chinese mean it to be very positive.When I was in Taiwan, I was frequently called "英文老師"–literally ‘English Teacher’–by people who did not know or could not pronounce my name.  One fellow insisted upon his daughter calling me ‘Uncle ABC’–the ‘uncle’ to be polite and the letter to refer to my position as English teacher.  However, this grated on me, and I always felt as though I were being called the Chinese equivalent of Gump, Forest Gu-ump.  😀

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