[GLOBAL EYE]Much is lost in translation

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[GLOBAL EYE]Much is lost in translation

“Lost in Translation” has recently been released in Korea. The movie was directed by Sophia Coppola, the daughter of the acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola. As the title implies, the movie is about two Americans who found themselves in an unfamiliar country, Japan, and then fall in platonic love and share cultural shock and solitude. Most critics praised the delicate portrait of the romantic relationship, but the movie is actually a product of the director’s experience in Japan.
At age 32, Ms. Coppola is an established clothing designer as well as a writer and director, and frequently visited Japan on business trips. In her latest film, she expressed genuinely the unfamiliarity of another culture that she felt in her travels there because of limited communication resulting from the language barrier. When I watched the movie in the United States last fall, the refreshing title struck me as especially apt.
The language barrier inevitably brings frustration and confusion, but misunderstandings and incidents because of miscommunication beyond language are not limited to foreigners who find themselves in a strange culture.
Since the Roh Moo-hyun administration took office last year, many Koreans have experienced a similar perplexity and felt just as lost in the new values as the characters in “Lost in Translation” did. A considerable part of the friction here because of the unfamiliar setting is a problem of translating the words of our new leader, not the essence of the matters.
Misunderstandings and over-reactions that stem from them have exaggerated the discord. The controversy over Mr. Roh’s rhetoric of a “code” was an example.
Ruling and opposition politicians alike seem to be competing to disappoint voters with off-tune melodies as the April legislative elections near, and neither side has yet won the support of citizens, largely because they still do not understand what the people want. The opposition’s implosion can be traced to misinterpretations about what voters want; they are singing a different tune, but they don’t know the right world. And those who call themselves interpreters of public opinion are making things worse.
No one seems to have a competent interpreter on hand.The countries that are wrestling with North Korea’s nuclear weapons issue are also struggling to understand Pyeongyang’s language and respond accordingly. Pyeongyang once acknowledged that it had an enriched uranium program, and then denied its existence.
The nuclear program has become a graver issue between Washington and Pyeongyang than it should have been because the two sides misread the signs the other party was sending. It was not a simple matter of mistranslation. In fact, Pyeongyang originally did not intend to use the uranium enrichment project as a tactic in negotiations with Washington. It played that card too soon; when antagonism is combined with a sense of persecution, making a rational decision becomes harder.
The Western world had a lopsided view of Pyeongyang, and the North was seething with loathing and fear against the rest of the world. In that confrontational atmosphere, it was not easy for either party to understand the other’s subtle signals and language.
The South and the North have snarled at each other for over five decades. Thanks to the consistent efforts toward negotiation and dialogue, we have slowly improved the situation and finally have begun to understand each other.
Korea-U.S. relations are not so much different. Even after a half-century alliance, Korea’s understanding of the United States still has much room for improvement. Similarly, the arrogance of a superpower has made the United States insensitive to Korea’s new-found pride, and the dissonances have sometimes created awkward situations.
Fortunately, Korea and the United States share fundamental political and economic values, and on top of the solid foundation of democracy and a market economy, there is no obstacle arising from misunderstanding that the two countries cannot overcome.
When we meet a stranger, the uncomfortable and unfamiliar atmosphere will gradually fade away if we try and open our hearts to what we are not accustomed to. If we are to become the economic center of northeast Asia, unbiased understanding of our neighbors, Japan and China, is a priority. To resolve the tensions arising from North Korea’s nuclear armaments, to make the six-nation nuclear talks work and to make them a cornerstone of regional security and peace, we need to understand the concerns of North Korea, whose place in the international community has been undermined.
In the second round of the six-nation meetings, scheduled to begin Wednesday, both Pyeongyang and Washington should open their hearts to avoid the trap of uneasiness and frustration that Bill Murray’s character had to go through in “Lost in Translation.”

* The writer is an editorial writer and director of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute.

by Kil Jeong-woo
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