The Success of BTS from the Viewpoint of a Korean Teacher: English, Korean, and the ARMY Translation Team (English ver.)

*Korean version: 한국어 선생님이 본 BTS의 성공: 영어와 한국어 그리고 ARMY 번역팀


It’s well-known that K-pop (케이팝), based in Asia, has been very popular around the world. Until recently, no Korean idol group had found success in the US market, where the entry barrier is tough. BTS (Bangtan Boys, Korean: 방탄소년단 [bangtansonyeondan]), however, did what seemed impossible.

Several factors led to BTS becoming the most popular boy group in the world, including excellent musicality, high-quality music videos, lyrics that resonate with listeners, the charisma of the individual band members, and vigorous communication through various social media.

As a Korean teacher, I was interested in the linguistic changes reflected in the activities of BTS. These changes may be due to three phenomena: the dismantling of the power of English, the use of Korean by the fans, and the translation activity of the band’s fan club, ARMY (아미).

1.The Fracturing English Hegemony in the Media

Hegemony refers to the power of the dominant group in society. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the English language has established its absolute status throughout fields of diplomacy, international trade, and cultural arts as a Lingua Franca—a third language used by speakers of different native languages for a common language of communication.

Against that system, BTS has been chipping away at English’s hegemony in the media little by little—which, ironically, means more to Korean people than to English speakers. An “English complex” is so common among Koreans that there is even a saying, “English equals power (영어는 곧 권력).” English fluency is often used to show off one’s education level or status. Thus, the way BTS handles foreign interviews is quite amazing. Even the members who aren’t very good at English still interactively joke and sometimes respond in Korean. Such a self-respecting attitude must have appealed to not only international fans but also to Korean fans.

Before BTS, Korean singers adopted a localization strategy in all aspects, including language, when they tried to penetrate the US market. Agencies chose Asian Americans who can speak English, or taught English to Korean band members to sing a song with English lyrics for the American market. Unfortunately, however, there hadn’t yet been any notable successes. BTS took the opposite strategy. Below is what SiHyuk Bang (방시혁), the CEO of Big Hit Entertainment (빅히트 엔터테인먼트)—the management agency that represents BTS—said in an interview with Billboard:

“Teaching K-pop artists English and signing a contract with an American agency is just making an Asian singer debut in the US. That’s not K-pop already. It’s important for K-pop artists and producers to focus on things we do the best at and mix it with what music fans around the world can relate to.”

While everyone else tried to remove their distinctive Korean markers, BTS solidified its identity. Many foreign presses regard BTS’s pride in its identity as one of the important factors that helped them succeed in the US market. BTS’s music on major broadcasting channels and fans’ sing-alongs and chanting of members’ names indicate that the power of the dominant language in the media is slowly collapsing.

2. Korean: Accept It as It Is

As a Korean content creator, I feel the power of BTS fandom most acutely when international fans use Korean. It had never been used so widely in social media before, regardless of nationality.

Steven Pinker asserts that each person’s brain contains a vocabulary dictionary with a concept dictionary (mental dictionary) and a vocabulary combination rule to convey the relationship between word and concept. According to this theory, fans seem to be accepting not only the Korean dictionary but also the BTS concept dictionary as a whole.

  • Pronouncing Lyrics as Heard

Anyone who is exposed to a foreign language suffers from the interference of the mother tongue, especially in listening. Phonemes that don’t exist in a speaker’s native language are replaced with those most similar in the native language. Look, for example, at the first consonant in Korean, Giyeok (ㄱ). Strictly speaking, pronunciation of Giyeok is not exactly [g] nor [k]; it can be heard as either [g] or [k], depending on the hearer’s native language. In my experience, this is the first difficulty most people face in learning Korean. (Of course, there are certain rules to this: The Sound Change of ㄱ, ㄷ, ㅂ and ㅈ depending on the Location)

When we go further, some lyrics that are easy for Koreans to catch may be very hard for Americans, for this same reason. It requires a lot of effort for them to write down BTS’s lyrics in Roman script. The usual content format is a YouTube video that plays BTS’s song as a background while showing each member’s face to indicate who sings for each part. Subtitles with Korean lyrics and Roman pronunciation and English translation are displayed with the music, too.

This is how international fans who don’t know Korean can sing along with BTS’s songs. Even though I create Korean content, in fact I become quite tired when writing down pronunciations in Roman, and that’s why the passion of BTS’s fans amazes me. It’s meaningless to argue with them about the accuracy of the notation—for example, the notion that the structure of the Korean language is not reflected correctly.

BTS (방탄소년단) – FIRE (불타오르네) (Color Coded Lyrics Han/Rom/Eng)

KPOP. vine

  • Using Korean Expression as It Is

Many BTS fans write on social media in Korean without translation, using Korean words such as members’ names, or hyeong (형), oppa (오빠), mangnae (막내). The fans use words that commonly appear in BTS contents without translating into their own language.

Humboldt believed that language determines human cognition and thought. Because of this, people who speak the same language share the common worldview that it offers. Fans must have noticed some Korean cultural elements that their language couldn’t deliver in BTS content, and this is the driving force behind the fans’ use of the Korean language.

3. Commitment of the ARMY Translation Team

The BTS fan club ARMY is not just about consuming BTS music and contents. ARMY’s international translation teams help BTS’s music communicate around the world, beyond Korean language barriers. One of their main translation teams, Bangtan Translations, has over 1.4 million followers on Twitter @BTS_Trans as of November 2018, and their YouTube channel Bangtan Subs has about 1 million subscribers.

With BTS’s use of social media, their content is posted from time to time without advanced notice. The ARMY translation team translates these contents into English within a few minutes or hours after they’re posted. The English text is then translated into multiple languages and shared on different social media. Of course, the translating is not completely straightforward, because of some expressions or sentence structures that exist only in Korean. Furthermore, BTS’s lyrics contain many unique metaphors. The Korean ARMY (K-ARMY) tries to reduce misunderstandings by annotating all possible interpretations of expressions that are not correctly translated into English.

Thanks to all their efforts, the international ARMY (I-ARMY) can fully understand BTS news in near real time. During this process, both the Korean and the overseas ARMY form a strong bond with each other, and the energy from that bond is clearly passed on to BTS. This is why BTS shouts out to the ARMY at various awards shows.

The success of BTS is not limited to the success of the Korean boy group. Not only did it break down the existing order represented by language in the media, but it also opened up an opportunity for people all over the world to encounter Korean. In addition, the ARMY has stepped in to accelerate BTS’s efforts.


Featured video:

America’s Got Talent


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