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[Book Review] Interpreters

Posted March. 25, 2006 03:10,   


By selecting 3,300 Chinese characters relevant to daily life and giving them Hangul (Korean language) sounds and translations, authors have rewritten China’s “Hun Mong Ja Hoi” (“Children’s Book of Chinese Characters”) and translated classics such as “Hyo Gyeong” (“Book of Filial Duty”) and “Soh Hak” (“Basic Studies”).

King Jeongjong praised the interpreters, saying, “It’s hard to find such characters as these,” and attempted to elevate their rank, but the nobles resisted. It was against the will of the heavens for an interpreter to become a high ranking official, they said.

Nobles looked down upon these interpreters, who immersed themselves in international trade during that era, as “translation merchants.” Following the tradition that placed more importance on agriculture than in commerce, it also reflected their perception of the superiority of landowners in the Joseon hierarchy.

The author of this book presents a new and original way of looking at history by examining the conflicting views of Korean history and drawing the attention of the public. By basing his theories on sound facts, the author attempts to read between the lines in order to reestablish the historical position of interpreters.

Joseon Interpreters were Excellent Diplomats-

Taking the place of the nobles, who insisted on full utilization of Chinese characters yet were ignorant on their usage and were frequently the laughingstock of the Chinese diplomats, the interpreters negotiated with the Chinese and pursued national interests.

Kim Ji-nam, who protected the southern side of Mount Baekdu after negotiating with the Chinese Ch’ing dynasty during the era of King Sukjong, was also an interpreter.

Interpreters had two jobs, as diplomats and international traders. They were Joseon’s richest people. In Park Ji-won’s “Hoesaeng Story,” Merchant Byun, who gave the shabby Hoesaeng 10,000 nyang (currency), was the grandson of Byun Seung-eop, an actual character whose family descended from a line of interpreters. In today’s terms, the Byun family had properties amounting to approximately 100 billion won.

How Did the Interpreters Amass Such Wealth?-

Joseon gained much in profits by providing services between China and Japan, as well as between China and the Manchurian ethnic groups, and the interpreters who were knowledgeable on internal and external politics were the main brokers. In addition, “Interpreters were at close quarters with the higher-ups (Hong Dae-yong, ‘Dam Heon Yeon Gi’),” where they met frequently with kings during work and accompanied high ranking officials or kings traveling for diplomatic purposes, which led to better connections.

The authors assess that the trade during the Joseon era that had an imperial, hierarchical flair was not demeaning, but actually functional diplomacy that Joseon used to its full advantage. “During early Joseon, the Chinese Ming dynasty called for one tribute every three years, while Joseon opted to bestow three tributes each year. The rule of tributes was that ‘tributes lead to reciprocal gifts,’ and China bestowed more gifts than its tributes, such that both countries stood to gain from the transactions.”

Interpreters moved to becoming the heads of politics with their acquired wealth. Born as a child out of wedlock, Jang Hee-bin was nevertheless able to enter the palace as a court lady and reestablish politics due to the strong backing of the Indong Jang family, who were late Joseon’s leading interpreters.

Though possessing more fortune and perception than the nobles, the middle-class interpreters were forced to be relegated to lower hierarchical positions.

By traveling overseas, they were the first to recognize changes in international politics, and they were eager to receive new ideas and advanced tools.

During conflicts with foreign countries, they would call upon their human resources and perform valuable spying, and under Japanese occupation, they aided the independence association through their financial resources accumulated up till then. They were also active participants during the March 1 Independence Movement.

“Interpreters weren’t mere nouveau riches. Though they were Joseon’s richest people, they knew how to use that money for their country. They were the shapers of Joseon’s economy, as well as pioneers that led to the enlightenment of a closed society.”

Gi-U Lee keywoo@donga.com