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[Editorial] Translation errors

In a press briefing Monday, Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon apologized to the public for translation errors in the Korean language version of the Korea-European Union Free Trade Agreement. With the Cabinet approval of a corrected version on Tuesday, the bill for the ratification of the trade pact will now be submitted to the National Assembly for the third time, an embarrassing record in the country’s administrative history.

The minister will have to say a thousand thanks to lawyer Song Ki-ho who singlehandedly discovered discrepancies between the Korean and English texts of the Korea-EU FTA as well as simple mistranslations and typographical errors. Minister Kim said 207 errors have now been corrected from the 1,400-odd pages of the FTA, which was first sent to the Assembly in October last year. The EU parliament already ratified the trade pact with Korea in February.

Hoping that there will be no more fuss over translation mistakes in this particular document and that the ratification process will be completed during the first half of the year as is widely expected by the EU side and local industries, we wonder what drawbacks in our system allowed such blunders to happen. First, we cannot but suspect a lack of coordination between the negotiating party and supporting functions with legal and linguistic expertise.

Translation is a tricky business and no translation can be perfect, especially between two languages belonging to different linguistic systems such as Korean and English. In international negotiations using the English language, extreme care should be taken to correctly reflect the contents of agreement in the Korean text so as not to hurt the national interest.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has established a six-stage translation process to ensure producing fool-proof texts of international pacts, which includes a triple checking system. Officials say this process is being applied to the review of the Korean text of the Korea-U.S. FTA which has yet to be ratified by the two countries. What is most important in these efforts is securing expert manpower, or if not, using reliable outside resources.
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