Korea’s translation problem
The similarities and difference between Korea and Japan remain an endless source of fascination.
Korea is the land of lively spontaneity, Japan of stoic order. The food says it all: Korean food explodes with flavor, Japanese food tempts the eyes. Amid these differences, the similarities abound: safe streets, efficient public transportation and polite service.
One difference that rarely gets attention is language translation. Both nations speak languages that are not closely related to most others, which makes learning foreign languages a difficult task.
Ironically, Korean and Japanese have the same word order, many grammatical similarities, and a large common vocabulary based on Chinese characters. Koreans and Japanese can learn each other’s languages easily, but face steep challenges learning other languages.
Except for immigrant communities, both languages are not used outside their place of origin. Native speakers comprise almost all users of the language, which contrasts with languages, such as English and French, which have a large number of non-native users.
All of which means translation is a difficult but important task. Korea and Japan rely on translation to interact with the rest of the world in writing. Ideas and information flow in and out through translation. Reading texts written in foreign languages in the original helps things flow in, but it does little to help them flow out.
As in other civilizations, translation has played a key role in the development of Korean and Japanese civilization. Buddhism, Confucianism and later Christianity all took root because of translation. The same is true for Western science, technology, and political philosophy. At various junctures, Korea and Japan have transformed themselves by learning intensively from other civilizations.
But as casual visitors to Korea and Japan soon learn, guides and information in foreign languages in Japan are of a higher quality than in Korea. There is more information available and the number of languages more diverse. The same is true information on the Web. Yet the same visitors would wonder why Koreans are more willing to speak English.
Koreans like to tell native speakers that they speak better English than the Japanese. Though hard to prove, casual observation bears this out but when it comes to translation, Japan wins hands down. Why?
In short, the translation industry in Japan is a highly developed service industry that attracts paying customers. Companies and governments are willing to pay professional translators well for quality work. This in turn attracts people to the field, which creates a large cohort of professional translators.
This holds true for Japanese and non-native speakers of Japanese who focus on translation from Japanese into their native language. The large translation industry also supports a large proofreading industry that helps improve the quality of translations.
By contrast, translation in Korea is seen as a work best done on the cheap. This makes it difficult for the field to attract and retain quality people. The number of foreign translators working from Korean into their native language is much smaller than in Japan. The proofreading industry also lags behind for the same reason.
The urge to save money, particularly in government circles, means that people with good foreign language skills but no professional translation experience, end up doing important translations on the rough. Earlier this year, the government was embarrassed by mistranslations in free trade agreements between Korea and the European Union and Korea and the United States. If anything requires a near-perfect translation, a treaty with a foreign nation does.
The gap between Korea and Japan may be even larger in translations from foreign languages. Important books, particularly bestsellers, are translated into Japanese very quickly. But more than speed, the number of books translated into Japanese is much greater. This is particularly true with scholarly books in the humanities and social sciences.
The assumption in Korea may be that all scholars read English well so translations into Korean are not necessary. This is a mistake because it limits access to important works in English to those who have a high level of reading ability.
At a deeper level, the lack of activity in translating scholarly works weakens the vitality of Korean as a language for scholarly activity. For a language to remain vital as a tool for thought and knowledge creation, it must be used for intellectual activity. It follows that the availability of a large body of foreign scholarly works helps Korean remain alive and vital.
The costs of Korea’s weak translation industry are high but a solution remains elusive. Progress awaits a change in mindset to one that values quality translations and is willing to pay for them. The wait may be long.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. He can be reached at email@example.com.