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So Much Depends Upon the Interpreter Beside the Officials
Six-Party Talks: So Much Depends on Translation
By Sunny Lee

BEIJING - Unlike most other nations' envoys at the nuclear talks in Beijing who often use their hotel lobby for short press comments, North Korean delegates don't stay at a hotel. They find their home at the North Korean Embassy compound. So during the six-nation talks, the international press crews usually wait near the embassy gate for North Korea's chief negotiator. That is a reasonable bet because the top negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, has held spot press briefings there before.

At such an occasion, standing next to Kim, one could also see a female translator, looking to be in her early 30s. To put it simply, she was a very good interpreter. Those who underwent a grueling graduate-school program for interpretation understand the sensitivity involved in doing translation for a negotiation, particularly for one like the ongoing talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament, where every single word from a chief negotiator is carefully analyzed by political analysts from
Beijing to Washington, from Seoul to Pyongyang, from Tokyo to Moscow

Yet so good was her linguistic grasp that she didn't add redundant bits of words, nor did she unwarrantedly simplify the chief negotiator's words. She was usually standing next to Kim, but often one step behind him. When Kim spoke, she took a note and as soon as Kim finished speaking, she started to speak in a flowing voice without a pause or interruption.

But the interpreter doesn't follow Kim or any of the other North Korean negotiators when they encounter the international press crew. Then who translates for the North Koreans? Often it is the media.

There are two ways of doing it. One is to film the encounter and then call the agency's
Seoul bureau and play the tape on the phone. They then hear the English translation over the line. But often doing this is not convenient because the Seoul
bureau people might be busy with other tasks at that time. And more important, it may take time to get it translated.

But major international news agencies literally live on seconds. They want to get the story out faster than their competitors. So they hire translators locally.

One time, a South Korean doctoral student at
was hired to be the "mouth" of North Korean negotiators. With his help, the next day a news article about the North Korean talks was published, including on the Cable News Network (CNN) website.

The piece reported: "A spokesman for
Pyongyang denounced efforts to get it to give up its nuclear program without concessions by the United States
and called such demands 'brigandish'." The only problem with that translation was that the North Korean spokesman didn't use the term "brigandish". What the North Korean actually said was: "This kind of demand is like asking us to disarm first. I think this is a naive request. Our response is: don't even dream of it."

Comparing the two texts, one could guess that the South Korean interpreter used the term "brigandish" in the place where "naive" should be. Maybe the interpreter's version also makes for a good flow of the sentence. But an interpreter shouldn't put a word into someone's mouth.

North Korea
never raised any issue with the piece. It never challenged the accuracy of the writing, not to mention take any legal measures - perhaps because it was a mild mistake, and not totally out of the context given that North Korea's state news agency did criticize the US using the term before.

On another occasion, there was a bit more serious misquoting. A Western reporter, after being debriefed by a Korean interpreter, ran a piece that depicted
North Korea as "pleading" for the US
to lift financial sanctions.

It was plainly inaccurate.
North Korea
didn't beg for it, but demanded it. There is a sea of difference between the two. And given how proudly the communist country thinks of itself, it was also very unlikely that the North Korean would have "pleaded".

The news copy spread to all corners of the world. However, interestingly again, the proud North Koreans didn't protest, didn't call it a humiliating fabrication. Again, they didn't request a correction, either. And as of late, the country has not sued any media for any misrepresentation.

On another occasion, there was a press conference called by
North Korea
during an earlier round of the six-party talks. A North Korean spokesman came in and simply dropped a few copies of a press release on a chair and disappeared. There were more than 50 reporters in the room. Soon, they all scrambled to reach the paper. It was a total mess. After all, journalism is a pretty competitive profession. Some pieces were even torn up by multiple hands trying to grab it for themselves.

Was it, perhaps, a little "revenge" by
North Korea
on the press?

The answer is likely no. A more likely answer is that
North Korea
simply doesn't care much about the press. For one, the international press is mostly negative about the country in its reporting. So why bother to change opinions now?

Secondly, and more practically, North Koreans don't have to be polite to the press because they know they are quite newsworthy. There are always hungry foreign journalists lining up to know more about the secretive country, its nuclear activities, its film buff of a leader and even the leader's son, who recently made headlines (
North Korean heir gambles with his future, February 6).

Few journalists on the day of the press-release fiasco seemed very unhappy with
North Korea's "rude" manner. Rather, they all seemed resigned to their hardened belief that this was business as usual in dealing with North Korea.

There was a time when the Chinese foreign minister held a briefing for the foreign press. When the issue of
North Korea
came up, the translator referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as the "supreme leader" - a proper term in the communist country. Actually, that was what the foreign minister himself said.

However, the minister hurriedly corrected the translator and changed "supreme leader" to "great leader". The foreign minister, who is well versed in English, knew only too well that it might be ungainly, in front of the Western press, to address
North Korea
's leader in such a manner.

As of today,
North Korea hasn't demanded that China
use the term "supreme" to describe its leader. Also, as of today, there hasn't been any report saying the multi-nation negotiation has bogged down on inaccurate translation.

Sunny Lee ( is a journalist based in
Beijing, where he has lived for five years. A native of South Korea, Lee is a graduate of HarvardUniversity and BeijingForeignStudiesUniversity.

(Copyright 2007 Sunny Lee.)
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