[Eye on English] ‘Interpretation is about more than language’

By Korea Herald

Wide range of skills, in-depth knowledge needed

  • Published : Apr 23, 2014 - 20:10
  • Updated : Apr 23, 2014 - 20:10
Interpreters are often just seen as people who have mastered a foreign language. But interpretation goes far beyond the linguistic aspect, calling for an array of attributes including cultural understanding, analytical acumen, technical knowledge and even social skills.

Many with English proficiency have dabbled in interpretation, but becoming a full-fledged professional interpreter is a time-consuming, grueling undertaking.

“People easily say that you can become an interpreter if you speak a foreign language. But it is far more (challenging) than generally thought,” Bang Gyo-young, the dean of the Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

“You should also have good control of your mother tongue and sufficient knowledge about current political, cultural and economic affairs, and about the law, medical fields and many other areas, which you might engage in as an interpreter.”

In Korea, there is no official license to enter the interpretation market. But getting a degree from a graduate school such as HUFS’ GSIT is regarded as a necessary step to start an interpretation career and build a network of interpreters and clients.
Students take an interpretation class at the Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies on Tuesday. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

Among the several Korean graduate schools for interpretation and translation, HUFS’ GSIT is the only local institution that holds membership in CIUTI, a Geneva-based association of interpretation and translation schools across the world.

In line with the high CIUTI standards, the GSIT, established in 1979, has so far trained nearly 3,000 students in eight languages ― English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic.

The school curriculum includes simultaneous and consecutive interpretation, and an assortment of programs designed to enhance students’ understanding of various subjects ranging from science to industries, and to politics and diplomacy.

Apart from academic lectures, the school also tries to inculcate students with an interpreter’s work ethic and a sense of responsibility the GSIT chief underscored.

“A sense of responsibility for accurate interpretation and successful communication is another critical point we stress here,” said Bang. “Also in terms of work ethics, we emphasize that interpreters should not reveal what they have interpreted, as we deal with clients’ new, secret information on many occasions.”

Due to the top-notch interpreters among the faculty with training know-how and ample experience in the interpretation field, the competition rate for annual GSIT admission is at around 10:1.

Among the seasoned professors is Lim Hyang-ok, chief professor of the Korean-English Department.

Lim pointed out that interpretation is creative work that gives “new clothes” to a speaker’s message.

“Interpreters should look for what’s behind a speaker’s words. To put it another way, his or her words are a kind of clothes, and we have to take them off to find the gist of the message. Then, we give new clothes to it (for interpretation),” she said.

Since 1987, Lim has participated in numerous interpretation projects to facilitate international forums including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit and the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

For Lim, interpretation is apparently a great source of pleasure and confidence. Yet, there are times when interpretation is an extremely difficult experience.

“For instance, there are some scientists who are touted for their research feats, but not good at making speeches. They may ramble, mumble or speak haphazardly, which would make it difficult for interpreters to follow their storylines,” she said.

“There are also speakers who just read a script hurriedly. Then, they themselves feel bored and so do the interpreters and the audience.”

As for the privileges of being an interpreter, Lim touched on the dynamic, ever-changing nature of interpretation.

“There is nothing old that we, interpreters, deal with. It is always something on the cutting-edge. Even when we happen to deal with an old issue, it should not be old, as it might be a reinterpretation of the issue,” said Lim.

“Office workers may be caught in the daily grind, but we meet new speakers, new subjects, new venues … No time to get bored.”

Lee Ju-yeon, another professor at the GSIT, echoed Lim’s opinion, saying that the preparatory process for an interpretation project was painstaking, but “highly rewarding.”

“An interpreter should have an unceasing curiosity for new things and pursue the learning process with pleasure, or else you would not be able to continue this job given that you have to keep on updating your knowledge and memorizing new terms,” Lee said.

To carry out the energy-consuming, stressful work, maintaining both physical and mental health is a crucial part of interpreters’ lives, Lee stressed.

“Health is critical particularly on the day of your interpretation. You never know whether you might have a sore throat, hoarse voice on the very day ― a reason why I always wear a scarf around my neck except in summer,” she said.

For culture-oriented languages such as Arabic, a full grasp of cultural mores is of paramount importance, Gwag Soon-lei, a professor in the Korean-Arabic Department, said.

“An interpreter is also a cultural messenger. The religion is just their lives and Arabic is replete with religious expressions and words, for which people with no knowledge of Islam would have no clues whatsoever,” she said.

“Students often feel concerned about those difficult expressions, but I always stress the importance of having a positive mindset during their language training here at the school.”

Stepping into the graduate school, one may be startled to see students passionately memorizing words and expressions, and practicing interpretation in groups in the school building.

Mindful of the high expectations of GSIT graduates, they spend every single minute honing their language skills.

“English has become prevalent in Korea, so no one hires professional interpreters to take care of simple business. This means that our clients have high expectations for interpreters and expect us to excel in all aspects of the job ― communication, spontaneity, professional understanding, understanding of social interaction,” said Lee Sang-ju, a 26-year-old GSIT student.

“When the bar is set that high, it can be quite hard to meet it. It’s sometimes very intimidating.”

While attending the GSIT, Lee hopes to become a “true expert” in the Korean language.

“This is because one’s second language can only be as good as one’s first language. This means that unless I develop my Korean further, I won’t be able to fully utilize my English for interpreting,” he said.

“This is because a capable interpreter must utilize both Korean and English simultaneously and have a broad knowledge on many topics in both languages to interpret back and forth between Korean and English.”

Among the students, there are some who have never been abroad to study a foreign language for long periods. This is the case for Park Seung-hyun, 33, who joined the school after four years of working at a trade company.

“As a person who studied here in Korea, my focus is on speaking and writing English naturally, not in a way that gives the impression that I memorized expressions mechanically. So I read as many books as possible,” he said.

“Students like me do have shortcomings, but those can be covered through hard training, to a certain extent.”

By Song Sang-ho (