Students clamor for the glamour of a stress-filled professionKim Jeong-yeon gulps a half bottle iced tea as she slides the microphone to her simultaneous interpretation partner, Heo Jin-young, who continues talking without missing a beat. The pair are interpreting a lecture by CNN correspondent Sohn Jie-ae, translating every sentence from English to Korean as Ms. Sohn speaks.
When Ms Sohn cracks a joke, Ms. Heo delivers the punch line with similar emphasis. When Ms. Sohn pauses, Ms. Heo stops mid-sentence.
After 20 minutes, Ms. Heo, a 26-year-old interpretation student at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, passes the microphone back to Ms. Kim.
They’ve been doing well so far. No major slips. That’s the key to simultaneous interpretation where accuracy is often sacrificed for speed.
They keep up the pace for 70 minutes more, staring at Ms. Sohn and translating her words from inside their cramped, soundproofed booth that is bathed in a murky fluorescent lamp’s glow.
They’re tense. They’re hot. It’s hard to believe this is a glamour job.
“There’s a joke among the simultaneous interpreters that silence is a sin,” says said Ms. Kim, 27, also a graduate student in English-Korean interpretation at Hankuk University. “That’s what we fear the most, the pause, or the moment of a complete blackout, when we’d be sitting there and not remembering a single word.”
The past two years have been extremely busy for Korean interpreters. Hordes were needed to translate news reports broadcast from New York following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001. Then there were the World Cup games, the Asian Olympics, major film festivals and the recent war in Iraq.
And, just last month, there was an incident that reminded Koreans how serious misunderstandings can result from the misinterpretation of a nuance or phrase. When President Bush said in the Rose Garden that Roh Moo-hyun was “an easy man to talk to,” the Korean translation of his comment implied that Mr. Roh was an easy man to manipulate. The Blue House had to issue an official statement the next day about the correct meaning of Mr. Bush’s comment ― that making conversation with Mr. Roh was effortless.
Simultaneous interpretation is notoriously difficult, requiring an extensive vocabulary and knowledge about a wide range of topics, including current events. The differing grammatical structures of Korean and English can make phrases sound like nonsense if interpreters don’t rearrange the sequence of the words as they’re translated.
If an interpreter lacks spontaneity or adaptability or is unfamiliar with the subject, chances are he’ll loose control of the situation. As a result, interpreters live in constant fear of failure, even though their greatest fear is often the fear itself.
“You need steady nerves and a sense of wit to handle moments of crisis,” says Kim Ji-soo, an interpreter with the Ministry of Information and Technology. “In unexpected situations, it’s important to control your fear and focus on delivering the main ideas even if that means you’re missing details.”
That requires strict self control. “It comes down to physical strength. That means that I must force myself to sleep on a business trip even when I can’t because of jet lag, and I must eat even when I don’t have an appetite,” Ms. Kim says. “Perhaps the biggest challenge about interpreting is that I can’t relax, not even for a moment.”
Yet it’s precisely these challenges that have many interpreters referring to translation as “a creative process.” It forces them to digest a variety of texts ranging from news journals to poetry books to train themselves to face different crises.
And, at times, the interpreter can be called upon to act as a cultural mediator, filling the gaps that language fails to encompass.
“There’s no such thing as an unnecessary resource to interpreters,” says Hong Sul-yeong, an interpreter at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “In order to have a stable command of the diverse styles of speech that people use every day requires you to be on top of the subject you’re speaking about and collect your own sources before you enter the conference room.”
Kim Ah-seon, a 36-year-old Japanese-Korean interpreter, says translators must study the ever-changing idioms that are part of daily life. “Even if you do get the right meanings across, it’s often very difficult to make the speaker’s exact nuance come alive through your interpretation,” she says. “You need to constantly look into idioms that are used daily and understand the cultural significance behind them.”
What’s just as difficult as interpreting is getting into the schools that specialize in interpretation and translation.
Ewha Womans University and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies have the two most distinguished graduate programs in interpretation in Korea. Their two-year programs mix theory and hands-on training.
The competition to get into both is fierce. Each receives as many as 1,800 applicants a year. Ewha accepts about 70 students; Hankuk accepts 150 people. The number of applicants is astounding, considering that many Korean graduate schools are experiencing a decline in applications.
Students prepare for the entrance exam ― an aural interview and an essay test ― by studying in small study groups or preparing at language institutes for six months to two years.
Among those accepted to the graduate programs, 10 percent drop out and only 70 percent pass the final exam.
Students must decide their area of concentration at the end of the first year. Most apply for simultaneous interpretation, which sells well in the marketplace. Students with writing skills apply for translation.
Some professionals say that sequential interpretation is actually more difficult than simultaneous translation because sequential translation requires greater accuracy. Simultaneous translation is when an interpreter translates instantly. Sequential translators allow a speaker to say a few lines, then the translator repeats those lines in another language.
“There’s a higher demand for accuracy in sequential interpretation, as opposed to simultaneous interpretation, due to its longer time length and a chance for note taking,” says Ms. Hong, who’s trained in both. She says having to stand in front of an audience puts an enormous amount of pressure on interpreters, forcing them to be extra careful about what they say.
“The idea of revealing our face in front of the public puts the consecutive interpreters in a much more vulnerable position,” Ms. Hong says. “Especially if your client or audience has some knowledge of the language you’re translating and they can compare line by line.”
Professional interpreters earn about 700,000 won ($585) for an event lasting six hours, the minimum charge. Each additional hour is $100,000 won.
The average freelance interpreter can expect to work about 15 days a month from March to November, when most international meetings are being held in Seoul. During the off season, many interpreters teach at universities or work for broadcasting companies or at corporate events.
“Like in many professional fields, people who are established get most of the big projects, while starters have to struggle for the first few months,” says Ms. Kim, the Japanese-Korean interpreter.
To maintain the highest level of concentration at all the times, interpreters often work in pairs, rotating every 20 minutes. Even then, the stress burns many out in just a few years.
“I’m not sure if I’ll still be doing this when I am 40,” says Ms. Hong, who’s 27 years old. “There have been several occasions when, after an event, I’ve had to lay on my bed, speechless, for several hours just to cool off from the stress.”
Yet Korean women keep entering the field. Unlike the North American market, where half of the top interpreters are male, nearly 90 percent of Korea’s interpreters are female. Most are between their mid 20s and early 30s, according to the Korea Interpretation and Translation Center.
About 80 percent of interpretation majors at Hankuk University ― the oldest interpreting school, producing about 100 graduates annually ― are female. Ehwa Womans University, which launched its graduate school in interpretation in 1997, has 60 graduates each year.
Choi Su-hee, a professor of simultaneous interpretation at Hankuk University, says the reason more are women is cultural. “It has to do with the social atmosphere in Korea that men should take a central role in their professions ― and interpreters often work behind the scenes,” Ms. Choi says. “That social pressure often discourages men. I’ve seen many talented male interpreters quit their jobs by the time they reach 40 because they’re fed up providing service for others.”
For many interpreters, however, working behind the scenes is an incentive rather than a deterrent. Ms. Kim at the Information and Technology Ministry says she’s happy to toil in the shadow of someone else.
“The role of interpreters shouldn’t stick out,” she says. “But they’re still an indispensable element in so many situations.”
by Park Soo-mee