Adventures of a Drama Addict: A Case for a Controlled Vocabulary

In which I talk about being a drama addict and obsessing over controlled vocabularies for dramas

Note: This post was first written in 2015 and has since been updated to include new 2021 dramas.

I have a confession to make. I’m a drama addict. I watch Korean and Taiwanese dramas. I check Dramabeans every morning for new recaps of the shows I’m watching. I read the nearly 4000 comments left on Healer: Episode 10. As of January 14, 2015 11:20 am PT, there are 3,879 comments.

But all of that is just for my personal edification until…I meet another drama watcher and we compare notes on our favorite dramas and bias.

What are you watching?

Korean dramas have similar plot lines and multiple broadcasting companies may even air 2 or 3 dramas that have the same themes that year: time travel, aliens, time-traveling doctors, body-swapping, split-personality disorders, genius doctors with split personality disorders.

Of course, my obsession with kdrama isn’t contained to just watching and fan-girling with like-minded addicts. With a background in library and information studies, I take my obsession to another level.

Let's talk about what controlled vocabularies are first.

A controlled vocabulary is an organized arrangement of words and phrases used to index content and/or to retrieve content through browsing or searching. It typically includes preferred and variant terms and has a defined scope or describes a specific domain.

Source: Harpring, Patricia. “Introduction to Controlled Vocabularies.” Getty Research Institute, Spring 2010. https://www.getty.edu/research/publications/electronic_publications/intro_controlled_vocab/.

Let's break that down to plain language. It's an organized list of words to help people find and browse stuff.

How Controlled Vocabularies are important for Dramas

Well, of course, not just for Korean dramas, but anything really.

Imagine this, you’re browsing through Netflix looking for the next thing to watch. Are you using Netflix’s recommendations? How do they come up with those anyway? Are you looking by genre: medical, supernatural, horror, or romance?

Netflix’s new homepage makes it much easier to find movies you like
Netflix has announced that its much anticipated redesign to its user experience had finally begun to roll out to the masses.
Netflix went through a redesign in June 2015

As you peruse through movie and drama listings, what jumps out at you? As a drama addict, I tend to follow certain genres, actors, storylines. Perhaps we could look for a few novel, light/web novel, webtoon, or manga/manhua adaptations I grew up with that are pretty good.

That's looking at genres, which can be its own controlled vocabulary. Today, I want to focus the conversation on titles.

For example, let's think about the localization of drama titles.

  • Preferred title: Nirvana in Fire
  • Original title in traditional Chinese: 瑯琊榜
  • Also Known As: Lang Ya Bang (pinyin romanization of the Chinese title), 琅琊榜 (title in simplified Chinese), Rankings of Lang Ya (literal translation), The Lang Ya Rankings (another literal translation)

There's a lot to unpack there. You have to consider how it's translated and what it means. But if you don't know what the name is in one language, then how can you recommend it to another person who's looking it up on another language? There's nothing in the accepted/preferred title that indicates "fire" in Chinese.

Between domains: same terms with different meanings

There are many titles that are the same but refer to different works within the domain of Asian dramas as well as between domains (mangas, novels, video games, etc).

As you may know, there are dramas that are adapted from books, mangas, video games, etc. Sometimes, the titles are changed; oftentimes, they are the same. This is where having identifiers are helpful to differentiate these works.

Examples of identifiers:™

  • Nirvana in Fire (novel) vs Nirvana in Fire (drama)
  • Orange Marmalade (webtoon) vs Orange Marmalade (drama)
  • Hana Yori Dango (manga) vs Hana Yori Dango (drama)

These examples show identifiers used to indicate the piece of work from a specific domain with the assumption that there is only 1 instance of that work in that domain.

Within domains: same terms with different meanings

In the case of story adaptations over years across cultures, you then have dramas titles that are so similar that you need more identifiers.

Example 1

  • Fated to Love You (Taiwan, 2008) vs Fated to Love You (Korean, 2014)
  • You're My Destiny (Thailand, 2017) vs You are My Destiny (China, 2020)
Updated May 2021 to include 3 more adaptations since the writing of this post in 2015

Example 2

  • Hana Yori Dango (Film, Japan, 1995) vs Hana Yori Dango (Drama, Japan, 2005)
  • Meteor Garden (Taiwan, 2001) vs Meteor Garden (China, 2018)
Adaptations of the same storyline, Hana Yori Dango

In these examples, depending on which English translation of the title you're using, the titles are all the same and it helps to use both country and year to distinguish between them.

Within domains: different terms with the same meaning

At the same time, within a subject domain, you may encounter different terms being used to refer to the same concept use to translations. Different media platforms may use different titles depending on the broadcaster, network, and other reasons. For instance,

Examples:

  • My Love from the Star, You Who Came from the Stars
  • Heartstrings, You’ve Fallen for Me
  • One Who Wants to Wear the Crown, Bear the Crown — The Heirs, Heirs, The Inheritors, 왕관을 쓰려는 자, 그 무게를 견뎌라 — 상속자들
  • I Remember You, Hello Monster
  • Misaeng (Netflix), Incomplete Life (Viki)

Understanding that the title may sometimes be different depending on whether you're watching this title on Netflix vs Viki vs Amazon Prime vs any other video streaming site can help you and other drama fans find it cross-platform.

Controlled vocabularies help deal with transliterations, direct translations, and cultural contexts

how you would refer to that drama you’re watching to your Mandarin-speaking mother-in-law who streams Korean dramas from Chinese sites?

You have the problem of translating between multiple languages

  • Korean to Chinese
  • English to Chinese

Which may is not the same when you’re translating directly from Korean to Chinese

  • English translation: “You’ve Fallen For Me”
  • Official international title: “Heartstrings”

UPDATE: AvenueX gives us more context around "Chinese drama [titles] and their English names"

Controlled vocabularies also have to scale over time as new dramas are introduced and users create more references around them.

[cue: real drama addicts get their friends to join them]

Yes, this is an issue, especially since the hallyu wave has infiltrated Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. How confusing can this be and how can more people get recruited to Korean dramas if there’s no consistency or tool to educate users about these nuances?

At the end of the day, the ultimate question is what are you watching next?