With the possibility of another US-North Korea summit (in Seoul) in sight, the role of translation, accurate and precise translation, is a subject not often touched on in the deluge of media content circulating the web. Everyday we consume media content assuming that everyone is reading and analyzing from the same script. However this is terrifyingly not the reality. The reality is that for both Korean and English audiences the content they consume is often dramatically different; tailored and shaped by historical and cultural narratives. Some quick examples just to get the ball rolling. Below you will find the homepage for the Korean and English versions of JoongAng-Ilbo’s daily newspaper; one of three major daily newspapers in South Korea.
Media Content and Translation
At first glance any observer can see that the layout, pictures, and languages are different. Even without the ability to read in both English and Korean, the common observer can likely assume that the content being presented is completely different. On the left, the headlines read: “Three-day strike disrupts some rail trips,” “Pyongyang lashes out, State Dept. Issues caution,” and “Denials of report linking prosecutor general to sex scandal.” On the right the Korean version of JoongAng-Ilbo presents an article entitled, “‘에티오피아 기적’ 불린 남자, 100번째 노벨화상” about the Prime Minister of Ethiopian Prime Minister receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. It is quite obvious the editors are focused on two different audiences: an English speaking audience and a Korean speaking audience.
I always naively assumed that when a newspaper published multi-lingual versions of its content, those multi-lingual versions were derived from one source site. But this is clearly not the case. I am not singling out JoongAng-Ilbo. I am quite sure a quick visit to either Chosun-Ilbo, Donga-Ilbo, or North Korea’s Central News Agency would reveal similar results. Perhaps this is just standard practice in the translation world? So I looked for other examples in popular media content. I didn’t have to look too far.
Movies and Translation
In the two movie posters above we have clear examples of Korean movies and their titles, in both English and Korean. The movie titles were translated from their Korean source title into English; the editors were quite flexible in their interpretation of the titles from Korean to English. In the first poster “국제시장 (International Market)” is liberally translated to “Ode to My Father.” An accurate, one-to-one translation, would have simply yielded “International Market” as the translation. Moving on to the second title “공작 (Engineering Work or Maneuvering)," the editors chose to go with “The Spy Gone North,” instead of a possible one-to-one, accurate translation of “Engineering Work or Maneuvering.”
Continuing on, in the two examples above we find the same phenomenon. In both Korean movie titles, the Korean title is not accurately translated into English; rather it is transformed into a more eye-catching or sensational title. The very unappealing “South Mountain Fortress” turns into “The Fortress” and “Ansi Fortress” into “The Great Battle.” This author is not the first one to recognize this phenomenon. A quick google search will discover a reddit thread on the topic.
However, not all Korean film titles enjoy such liberal translations/interpretations of their titles into English. Interested in the data, we took a short look at all South Korean film titles for the year of 2018 and found about 50% of the titles were accurate translations of the original Korean version, and 50% were liberal ‘loose’ interpretations. Perhaps we can find more insights if we look into movie titles translated from English into Korean.
Remarkably, some of the major, recent English film titles were not even translated, but were merely transliterated into Korean. “First Man,” “Mission Impossible Fallout,” “Black Panther,” and “Civil War” were all transliterated directly into Korean, instead of an accurate one-to-one translation into Korean. What in the world is going on?
I am not the only one who has noticed this trend in “loose” interpretation. Jonah Hicap for the Metro reported, “Korean moviegoers complain of mistranslation of Avengers dialogue,” reporting that Korean audiences were so upset about mistranslations that they filed a petition calling for the firing of translator Ji-hoon Park, who wrote the Korean subtitles for “Avengers: Infinity War” and past films like “Suicide Squad,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” and “Captain America: Civil War.”
But it doesn’t end there. So I tested another google search, “Korean translation errors.” The results were as follows: In 2011 Reuters among other news outlets reported on translation errors related to the Free Trade Agreement between South Korea and the United States.
“It is the third time this year Seoul has been left embarrassed by mistakes in the Korean text… the FTA between South Korea and the European Union has twice been put on hold due to errors.”
“Apparently South Korea’s Trade Ministry admitted to no less than 207 different translation errors in the Korean version of an FTA bill between the EU and South Korea. Worse still, this was the country’s second attempt at drafting the bill in both English and Korean – and the second time it was forcibly withdrawn.”
Another search result pointed to the notorious ‘lost in translation’ moment between President George W. Bush and President Moo-hyun Roh reported on September 9, 2007 by the Guardian.
President George W. Bush offered North Korea a peace deal yesterday that would end the world's oldest and bloodiest cold war conflict on condition that Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons programme.
Mr Bush's move towards engagement rather than confrontation was the subject of an awkward dialogue with Mr. Roh played out in front of the TV cameras.
Mr Roh leaned across and urged the president to be more explicit about the security arrangement.
"I might be wrong. I think I did not hear President Bush mention a declaration to end the Korean war just now," Mr. Roh said through an interpreter. "Did you say that, President Bush?" Mr. Bush replied it was "up to Kim Jong-il".
The South Korean leader remained unconvinced: "If you could be a little clearer," he said.
"I can't make it any more clear, Mr. President," Mr. Bush said. "We're looking forward to the day when we can end the Korean war. That will happen when Kim Jong-il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programmes and his weapons."
A translator from the recent June 12th US-NK Summit returned to South Korea to appear on a daily talk show and she pulled no punches in her assessment of the President of the United States; “Korean Reporter Reveals Why Donald Trump is Hard to Translate, ‘Sounds Like an Elementary Kid’” reported the following.
A former SBS reporter who is now working as an interpreter recently revealed that the hardest person she has ever translated was President Donald Trump.
She states, “If the interpreter translates that directly then he will sound like an elementary kid. So I try to vary the words, like ‘fabulous’, ‘good’, ‘fantastic’ (for each time he says ‘great’).”
So what is going here? Is it matter of the interpreter/translator merely playing to the audience or decision-maker? Where is the line between entertainment, news, and national security? With the lines being blurred every day it’s a terrifying thought that the very “loose” translation practices found in the entertainment world might bleed over into matters of national security.
A Seoul Betrayal
Any summit between the United States and North Korea has historical ramifications. With another possible US-NK Summit on the horizon I worry that the importance of translation is being overlooked. Numerous articles have already discussed the significant difference in meaning of the term “denuclearization” between the United States and North Korea. In this article we will focus on the lack of a substantive discussion regarding the implications and meaning of “Korean Unification.”
The popular understanding of “Korean Unification (Korean: 통일, 統一),” according to most of the western world refers to the potential reunification of North Korea and South Korea into a single Korean sovereign state. The image below, of the light blue, united Korean peninsula is the popular, common understanding of Korean Unification. Like most things, the devil is in the details and when we dig deeper regarding the meaning and implications of unification in KOREAN, we are in for a disturbing surprise. Even in the example above, “통일 (Unification)” is loosely translated to “Korean Unification.” But what does “Korean Unfication” actually mean if it doesn’t mean the united blue peninsula we see below?
The answer to our question lies in accurate, one-to-one translations of Korean to English. After years of experience working in the Korean-English translation and interpretation community I have witnessed a disturbing industry practice; simplified translations of complex terms. When I ask why we simplify Korean when we translate to English, the usually response is, “Korean is just too complex for English speakers to understand.” The screen-capture below demonstrates, in Google Translate, the practice of loose or simplified translation. This practice of simplification notably translates various kingdoms throughout Korea’s history as just - “Korea”. More importantly, it demonstrates how distinctly different concepts and meanings in Korean, are being translated to one simplistic meaning in English. Perhaps the Korean language is just too difficult and complex for English speakers to understand?
In the image above “한국통일,” “조국통일,” “고려통일,” are all simply translated as “Korean Unification” or “Reunification”. But “한국 - 대한민국 (Republic of Korea),” “조국 (Ancestral Land),” “고려 (Goryeo),” represent completely different territorial implications for “Korean Unification”. This article from JoongAng Ilbo discusses the ‘real’ territory of the “고려” Kingdom, without “distortion from the Japanese colonizers.”
North Korea, since August 14th, 1960, has pushed its plan for “Korean Unification” entitled, “고려연방제 통일방안.” In the plan Kim Il Sung’s North Korea advocated for a federation system: one nation, two systems. In June of 1963 Kim Il Sung expanded his ambitions for “Korean Unification”, introducing a plan entitled, “조국통일 5대방침.” Now we have the use of both “고려 (Goryeo)” and “조국 (Ancestral Land).”
At the 6th Party Congress, in October of 1980, the term “민주 (democracy)” was added to the title of the initial unification proposal, “고려연방공화국 (Goryeo Federation Republic),” making it “고려민주연방공화국 (Goryeo Democratic Federation Repubilc).” Under this new title, the proposal’s aim was a unified nation in the form of a one-ethnic people, one-state, two-system, and two-governments.
The meaning of “조국통일 (Ancestral Land Unification/Fatherland Unification)” is actually quite ambiguous but you don’t have to search long online to gather an understanding of its implications. The map below is an excellent start.
Korean historians now argue that the current understanding of “Korean” territory is limited to the “peninsula” merely as a result of treaties imposed by Imperial Japan during the colonial period. The maps above represent historically occupied territory by “Korean speaking peoples,” prior to 1910. The connection between language and territory is now the main driver of a modern-day policy push for reclamation of all territories were Korean speaking peoples reside: think modern-day China and Russia.
South Korean proposal’s for “Korean Unification” leverage this very concept. In 1989, President Roh, of South Korea, introduced the government’s new plan for unification, entitled, “한민족공동체통일방안 (Han Nation Community Unification Plan).“ Most recently, Mr. Hee-sang Moon, Chairman of the National Assembly spoke about the current government’s plan for unification (한민족공동체통일방안).
Before President Trump signs off on any deal in Seoul, he and his administration should be careful they are not signing an agreement legitimizing Korean territorial claims to large swaths of land in Russia, China, and anywhere Korean speaking peoples reside. I am sure the U.S. government’s Korean language professionals (translators and interpreters) would certainly point out the territorial meaning and implications of any proposal.
U.S. policymakers should keep in the mind the lessons of history, and not appease totalitarian ethnic-nationalist movements - rooted in racial supremacy - using terrorism in their pursuit of territorial expansion and “unification of the ancestral homeland.“
Nationalism left unchecked and appeased most certainly leads to war. Korean ethnic-nationalists will stop at nothing in their drive to resurrect the kingdoms of the past, glories of the past, and wars of the past.
Americans, in our grand impatience, in our love to get things done, fail to realize the colossal error in appeasement to the ethnic-nationalist terrorist state, North Korea. Like Chamberlain’s betrayal at Munich, President Trump’s possible Seoul Betrayal would only lead to more instability in the region, not less. Ethnic-nationalist terrorist states should never be appeased: never, never, never.