If Obama meets Kim Jong-un
Just imagine that the unthinkable has happened. The U.S. and North Korea somehow worked through their Gordian Knot and settled on an agreement that their respective leaders will formalize with a summit.
This would mean that President Obama will come face-to-face with Kim Jong-un to engage in an important conversation over the future of the Korean peninsula. Needless to say, it would be a historic event.
So, what do you think would happen when this meeting finally takes place? When Obama meets Kim for the first time?
Well, nothing, unless you have an interpreter present. Without an interpreter, the best they can do is shake hands and smile awkwardly at each other in their best imitation of a junior high school dance.
This is obviously an outlandish scenario, but I wanted to make the point that an interpreter, who is often overlooked, is a critical piece to any dialogue that involves more than one language. This is more so when the language pair is English and Korean since their underlying culture, syntax, and embedded preconceptions can be very different and lead to unintended misunderstandings.
A famous case in point is when former President Kim Dae-jung met with former President Bush for the first time in 2001. In his introduction for a post-summit press conference, Bush used the term, ``This man…” when referring (glowingly, in fact) to Kim.
This was taken by some Koreans to be offensive because of different cultural optics since Korean language tends to be so sensitive to honorifics; one Korean assemblyman actually sent an official letter of protest to the U.S. government for the ``insulting” word.
Now that we have established that interpretation (as opposed to translation, which refers to written words) is a critical element to any multilingual dialogue, let’s examine what it takes to be a good interpreter.
One, pick your language direction. This means choose whether you want to go primarily English to Korean or Korean to English. Take me, for example. I am definitely better when I go from Korean to English because the latter is my primary language.
This means that I can formulate sentences much more eloquently and effectively in English than I can in Korean. This doesn’t mean that I am useless when it comes to the reverse direction, but it would not be my most effective or preferred direction.
Two, realize that pace and rhythm is often more important than accuracy. Rhythm of a dialogue is far more important in conveying a sense of confidence, trust, and humanity than the actual definition of the words that are spoken. Of course, if you were interpreting in a nuclear negotiation, you would have to be extremely careful with the choice of words, since the words conveyed would change the whole texture of the talks.
However, you should also keep in mind that research shows that only 7 percent of communication actually occurs through words. This means that factors like likeability, trust, energy, atmosphere, and others will dictate what type of a result your client will achieve out of any conversation.
Therefore, when I interpret, I try to keep the rhythm of the dialogue going, syncing my interpretation to the natural rhythm of the speech that each person produces. It’s almost like dancing to the music that the two counterparts are co-producing.
Three, understand that interpretation is an exercise in relationship building. Interpretation is primarily a job of allowing parties to develop human relationships through a conversation. In fact, how else do human beings develop relationships except through dialogue?
In such sense, you are not just relaying words into another language. You are relaying the essence of that person you are interpreting for. Any negotiation class will tell you that developing personal connection is essential to a productive session. An interpreter should know that his or her main goal is for the “person” to come through the dialogue, not just the words.
Four, which follows naturally from three, means that the interpreter shouldn’t really be there. In other words, the interpreter should not be noticeable as a separate presence. You have to blend into the energy and rhythm of the talks. This is almost spiritual. I have found that, when I am deep into the rhythm of the conversation, my conscious awareness suddenly finds itself as a third observer listening in on the interpretation that I am doing. At that moment, I am not personally invested in the process except as an observer.
I have become an audience to my own performance. And since I am just an audience, there is no longer any self-conscious need to do well or fear of failure. There is no me, except as a neutral device for the dialogue between the two principals.
I admit that these are not the normal guidance that you would hear in any formal interpretation training class. And I gloss over the obvious, like being well-versed in current affairs, constantly asking yourself how you might interpret difficult sentences or concepts, and practicing, practicing, and practicing.
But these are little tidbits that I picked up in my journey over the last 20 years as an interpreter. So take them with a grain of salt. Now, how would you say that in Korean?
The author lives and works in Washington D.C. He’s been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. His email address is Jason@jasonlim.net.