THE "A" SPOTLIGHT: Humans of Seoul
Updated: Apr 13
"Humans of Seoul was not created for the tales of celebrities seen in newspapers but rather to show the genuine stories of our lives. We randomly cast strangers on the street and ask about the things that form the basis of life, like happiness, sorrow, and courage, each of which we tend to forget as life goes on. Each time, we have stumbled the truly unique stories of strangers who once all looked the same. In November of 2013, Humans of Seoul was launched, and it has now grown into a project viewed by 300,000 people every week."
Anuvada: Hi Jamie, Tell us a bit about your career and what did you make in the past.
Jamie Forgacs: Hi there! I’m the English Edition Editor at Humans of Seoul, which is a volunteer project near and dear to my heart. In terms of my day job, I’m a communications specialist at the University of Michigan, with a passion for using words to build bridges and foster community that has guided not just my career path in higher education but how I spend my free time, too.
Previously, I’ve worked as a freelance writer, editor, and translator for individual clients as well as companies and corporations including Kia Motors and Samsung. I joined the Humans of Seoul team as a volunteer translator in 2016, when I was still a college student double majoring in Korean Studies and Comparative Culture and Identity. My teammates elected me as the new English Edition Editor in 2017, a role I’ve held ever since. Fortunately, no signs of mutiny yet!
A: Since when you had an interest in this culture?
JF: Like many others, my interest in learning more about Korean culture came about through exposure to K-pop and K-dramas — but I didn’t know it at the time. When I was in high school, I visited my uncle’s family in New Zealand and discovered a love for learning about other cultures and languages after exploring the museums and learning about Maori history and culture there. When I came home, I decided I wanted to learn a language, and I settled on Japanese since I was already a fan of anime.
Self-studying the Japanese language was quite a struggle, however. It was so different from Latin and Spanish, which I studied in school, so I found myself trying every possible method to learn. Music became a focus in my studies, and I’d break down the lyrics of J-pop songs to try to understand the grammar and vocabulary.
But then one day, I saw a comment on a Japanese music video saying that the group singing the song
wasn’t Japanese at all — they were Korean singers. I was nonplussed. Why were Koreans singing in Japanese? I found out that they were K-pop singers, and then I started listening to their Korean songs, and one thing led to another. Before I knew it, I had taken out as many books as I could from my local library after searching the keyword “Korea.”
The more I read about the culture and history of Korea, the more fascinated I became. For example, I was amazed to find out that the writing system, Hangul, was phenomenally easy to learn because it was designed to be easy to learn, to help educate the Korean people. Once I learned Hangul, I was hooked. I began to self-study Korean, too.
By the time I started applying to universities, I knew I needed to go somewhere with a great Korean Studies program. As luck would have it, my own hometown university, the University of Michigan, had the Nam Center for Korean Studies. I began attending free public lectures from leading Korean Studies experts after my high school classes were done for the day, and that in turn led to my college career at the University of Michigan, where I was supported in not just one but three academic trips to Seoul, South Korea. I went there as an exchange student at Yonsei University, then as a summer program student also at Yonsei, and finally completed a research fellowship at Sungkyunkwan University, all in the span of just two years.
A: Coming from Michigan (USA). What impacted you the most when you arrived there?
JF: My first visit to Seoul was in the fall of 2014, and what impacted me the most then and what continues to be a feature of the city that I hold dear, is the juxtaposition of the ultra-modern and the truly ancient. The city is arranged across mountains that have seen thousands of years of kingdoms rising and falling, and many palaces and places of that history are there to mark it all — right alongside skyscrapers and a phenomenally convenient public transportation system.
I love Seoul. I love the convenience of being able to explore an ancient palace knowing that if I feel like singing, a coin noraebang (karaoke) place is just around the block, and I can get triangle kimbap or an iced Americano in a matter of minutes if I’m hungry or thirsty.
I recognize that this kind of convenience isn’t necessarily unique to Seoul. Lots of large cities have convenience due to the fact that everything is built so close together… But there is something different about Seoul to me. Something special, something stamped with a true appreciation and respect for both the new and old in the same space.
A: How the idea of Humans of Seoul came up?
JF: Many people have heard of the famous project called Humans of New York, fondly referred to as HONY. The photographer Brandon Stanton began this effort in 2010 and it became a global phenomenon, with people around the world following the stories of regular New Yorkers with rapt attention.
Humans of Seoul, like many similar projects in other cities, was founded by two friends in the spirit of HONY. It was a passion project, never intended to be a moneymaker but simply to tell the stories of Seoulites and build bridges across cultures and countries. It has no official affiliation with HONY, but the same soul of true storytelling.
Over time, the project grew. The two founders recruited other regular people — people whose day jobs often had nothing to do with photography, interviewing, or even translation. But people with the same passion for stories, for intercultural exchange, for sharing the human experience globally. Today, it continues as a project formed entirely of unpaid volunteers scattered not just around Seoul but around the world. While our interviewers and photographers are located in Seoul, our translation team members live in five different time zones.
A: How do you make the interviews and the photography? How it has been with the lockdown?
JF: The majority of our interviews are unplanned and highly spontaneous. An interviewer and a photographer meet up at a predetermined time and place and explore it on foot, looking for Seoulites to interview. They often try to find new and different parts of the sprawling city of Seoul to do this in, and interview as varied Seoulites as possible. There is an element of rejection, of course — not every person on the street has the time or interest to chat with a complete stranger! Anyone out and about in Seoul could be interviewed at any time. As for the photos that go with the story, the photographer may photograph the interview during the interview or after, in the location where the interview takes place.
Interviewers try to ask questions to get into a more personal and in-depth conversation with the random person they speak with, and may chat with them for quite a long time only to use a single snippet of that interview. It is a challenging role to say the least!
The pandemic presented new difficulties with this system, and so we had to switch to online
interviews to keep our team members safe. The workaround method asks Seoulites to submit their interest in being interviewed.
The interview team looks over these and selects applicants with what they deemed compelling stories and then interviews them via video chat, rather than having Humans of Seoul members going out on the street.
This is the same approach HONY took in response to COVID-19, and it has been successful in keeping our members safe while maintaining follower engagement. We have branched out more recently as the pandemic situation became better in Seoul, and some interviews have been conducted outside again, with masks and distancing.
A: It is already 8 years since Humans of Seoul started. How has been the journey so far?
JF: I’ve been a part of this project for over five years ago, which is hard to believe. My portion of the journey has seen huge expansion. When I joined the team, we were just expanding to add more translators. Our translation team grew to number 11 volunteers, including myself and the Editor-in-Chief, who is also one of the founding members. That means nine volunteers who translate, proofread, and manage the English versions of our interviews. Our team also runs a sister page called Learning Korean with Humans of Seoul, which develops intermediate and advanced Korean language lessons using the content of our interviews.
Meanwhile, our overall team size has grown from two founders (Seongkyoon Jeong and Kihun Park) to a staggering two dozen volunteers. In fact, the last time we recruited new translators, we received around 150 applications. People love what we do, and they want to keep our project alive. I think this is a sign of how much we as humans want to feel connected, across languages, across cultures, and across the world. Our journey is a human one, and every step along the way, we’re telling the story of the human experience — the story of Seoul as Korean pop culture spreads around the world.
A: Wich interview impacted you the most?
JF: It’s hard to pick a single, most impactful interview out of so many, so I’ll tell you about the one that inspired me to apply to join Humans of Seoul in the first place. It was an interview from many years ago, with a young man and his friends BMX biking late at night near the Han River. The interviewer asked him how he made the time to practice BMX tricks if he was so busy with his work. The interviewee responded, “시간이 있어서 하나요? 시간을 만들어서 하는거죠.”
One of our translators at the time wrote this in English as, “I’m not doing this because I have the time to. I make the time.”
That phrase stuck in my head. I repeated it to myself under my breath as I walked across campus for days afterwards. “I make the time.” I read this translation at a point of being completely overwhelmed with working part-time while a college student who was also involved in multiple student organizations. I was so struck by this young officer worker across the world in Korea having such a similar human experience to me — having no time, and yet making the time for the things that made our souls sing.
Studying Korean, learning about other cultures, these were the things that made me happy. So, I made the time. I applied to be a translator for Humans of Seoul not longer after.
And five years later, here I am.
A: How many translators are involved in the project? In South Korea are few dialects, how complex is the localization process regarding dialects?
JF: We have nine translators, and the Editor-in-Chief and myself also translate as needed or when we’re itching for the chance to work directly on a story. This means our translation team has 11 members total. Six of our team are native English speakers, and three are native Korean speakers, with the idea being that the balance of native speakers and secondary language speakers helps us ensure more natural translations.
Given that the majority of our interviewees speak the standard Korean dialect as they live and/or work in Seoul, our localization process is not too difficult. We do use American English as our standard for translations, and strive to use colloquial language to immerse our followers so deeply that they might forget it’s even translated at all.
We do get more challenging translations from time to time, either from interviewees speaking in regional dialects or being significantly older to the point that their Korean is different from what is standard now. Our translators quite enjoy these. The challenge is fun and the mental gymnastics often lead to interesting conversations among team members about different ways to translate a term or word. Sometimes, the language is nuanced enough that we also involve the interviewer to provide additional insights on the interviewee’s word usage.
A: 26 of March you published an interview with a woman from North Korea. She is living now in South Korea for 20 years. How do you think is the reaction of people from the South when they read something like this? Do you believe that it is going to end soon the situation?
JF: The dynamics between South Korea and its neighbor to the north are exceedingly complex, and new generations are growing up in both countries, generations that did not live through the Korean War or the separation of families across the 38th parallel that divides the two countries. The reaction of a South Korean to a story about a North Korean coming to Seoul as a refugee is as varied as a citizen of another country when asked about refugees entering their own nation, so it is hard to guess how a specific person might feel.
I will say that I often find my own local, non-Korean connections in the U.S., to be far more interested and anxious about what North Korea is going to do next than the average Seoulite in my social or professional circles. The division between north and south has lasted over 70 years — it makes sense that if your neighbor to the north has been making threats for that long, you might stop paying that much attention to him when you have more pressing daily life things to attend to, like finishing a project for your boss or paying your rent on time.
A: Are you thinking to bring this project to other languages like Spanish?
JF: We haven’t considered expanding our translation team to translate to languages other than English, but with the strong interest in Korean culture from Latin American countries, it is certainly something to consider.
A: To finish, which one is your favorite word in Korean? What does mean? Wich one is the most difficult to translate?
JF: It’s hard to pick a favorite word in any language, but I think I’ll go with “소확행" which is a slang abbreviation of a longer phrase: “소소하지만 확실한 행복.” It’s formed by taking the first syllable of the three words in this sentence, a common method of shortening phrases into new slang in Korean. Often translated as “a small but certain happiness,” this phrase actually originated from an essay by author Haruki Murakami, although I’m not sure that this is a well-known fact.
The thing that sets 소확행 apart from other kinds of happiness is that it is guaranteed. It’s not some expansive, massive feeling of happiness that is overpowering, but at minimum, you’re guaranteed some pleasure from it. For example, a 소확행 of mine is an iced green tea latte with eight scoops of matcha. That’s double the recommended scoops of matcha. It isn’t life-changing, it isn’t going to change my needs or aspirations, but it is going to be tasty. Ordering myself a double-scooped latte guarantees a small, nice bit of happiness each and every time I treat myself to it.
As for the most difficult word to translate, it isn’t necessarily a specific word or phrase but rather the difference in how subjects of sentences are often omitted in Korean, or how you can have an entire conversation with someone about another person and never once clarify that other person’s pronouns. In American English, we place a lot of importance on using the right pronouns. In translation, sometimes we’re never given a cue, so we have defaulted to the singular “they” if we are unable to gather that information from the interviewee or interviewer.
In Korean, people often say that you have to listen to the very end of the sentence to make sure you know what’s being said. This is because that’s where the verb often is placed. Korean is a Subject-Object-Verb language and so you might know who is involved in a sentence but at the same time you won’t know what happened with them unless you listen all the way through to the very end. This is different from the many complex English sentences, which often frontload the vital information and add details of lesser importance to the end. This can make the nuance of a surprise in the Korean text that much more difficult to express naturally in English.
But we translators at Humans of Seoul, well — we love this sort of thing! Just as the human experience is varied and nuanced, so too are the ways we humans tell our stories. No matter what language we use.