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Interpreting for Presidents

Posted July. 02, 2005 03:39,   


“Listen, Park Jin, you must interpret these words exactly.”

After jogging with U.S. President Bill Clinton who paid a visit to South Korea in July 1993 and writing in his own handwriting in a bid to give President Clinton a gift at Nokjiwon of Cheong Wa Dae, President Kim Young-sam said the above. Park Jin (currently a Grand National Party lawmaker), then foreign press secretary, was embarrassed at the sight of the handwriting.

“Daedomumun (four letters written in Chinese characters)”-

“Daedomumun” means “if one heads for the path of righteousness, one will not be hindered by anything.” First, Secretary Park translated it freely as follows: “Righteousness overcomes all obstacles.” President Clinton, however, tilted his head slightly to one side over Park’s interpretation.

So, in a second attempt, Park translated it literally as follows: “A high street has no main gate.” This time, however, President Clinton made an even more puzzled expression. In response, Park explained the word in the way Americans would usually express it: “A freeway has no tollgate.” Then, President Clinton laughed loudly clapping his hands, while giving the expression that he finally understood it.

Kim Dong-hyeon (American name: Dong Kim, 69), who worked as an interpreter for successive U.S. Presidents and has interpreted talks between North Korea and the U.S. in the U.S. Department of State for almost 30 years, recently retired, which aroused the public’s interest in a job of an interpreter for the president.

An interpreter for the president is a difficult job. Even if this job seemingly appears to be splendid, if an interpreter conveys even one letter inaccurately, a nation’s important affairs might be spoiled. At times, interpreters should become a “talk mediator” in order to reconcile the president’s wrong words.

An example of the difficulty of this job can be shown in the summit meeting between President Roh Moo-hyun and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi held in Jeju Island last July. During a press conference held after completing the summit, in response to a Japanese reporter’s question, “What do you think of the issue of Takeshima (Japanese name for Dokdo),” President Roh unintentionally said, “The matter of Takeshima is…” Thereupon, an interpreter from South Korea displayed savoir-faire by rapidly replacing “the matter of Takeshima” with “the issue of Dokdo.”

Another example was shown when President Roh, who paid a visit to Brazil in November 2004, dined with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. During the dinner meeting, Brazilian Agriculture Minister called for South Korea to open its market, saying, “Since South Korea did not open its agricultural products market, prices of its agricultural products is about ten times as expensive as Brazil’s.” In response, President Roh ambiguously replied, “All products are worthy of their prices.” However, since an interpreter conveyed it to the effect that “foreign agricultural products are poor in quality,” President Lula gave a nervous expression because he did not understand it exactly.

Young-Chan Yoon Yong-Gwan Jung yyc11@donga.com yongari@donga.com