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A gov’t that’s often lost in translation

Joongang Daily, Seoul

A gov’t that’s often lost in translation

6 June 2011

By Ser Myo-ja

The embarrassing translation errors in Korea’s free trade agreements have revealed the government’s weakness in translation skills and a startling overconfidence in its civil servants’ foreign language abilities.

The shoddy work in translating the Korea-EU free trade agreement brought the situation to light. The original Korean version of the FTA submitted to the National Assembly contained 207 errors. Alarmed, the government turned its attention to the more politically sensitive FTA with the U.S. After the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade hired three professional translators and posted the agreement online for the public to read, it found 296 errors in 1,259 pages, one error for every five pages. The errors included 166 mistranslations, nine grammatical errors and 65 omissions.

Another 145 errors were found in the Korean version of the FTA with Peru, which was signed in March and has not been ratified. The government now says it will review five other FTAs that are already in effect, including the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with India.

People in the translation industry say they weren’t surprised. Despite the importance of good translation for an economy so dependent on exports, the government doesn’t hire many, doesn’t compensate them well and believes that the language skills of its general civil servants are good enough to get the work done.

“The foreign service exam requires a minimum of 700 points in the TEPS test, so everyone at the Foreign Ministry is capable of translation,” said a Foreign Ministry human resources department official. “Over the past decade, about 300 civil servants were hired for their language skills, and they all work on translation.”

As of this month, the major government ministries only employ a handful of professional translators.

The Ministry of Strategy and Finance has 19 translators, while the Ministry of Knowledge Economy has six. The Ministry of Unification has four, while the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs has three. Only two translators are working for the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has 10 English-speaking editors and two Spanish editors specialized in translation and proofreading. Three more professional translators were hired to proofread the FTAs recently.

“When we secure enough [money from the] budget, we will hire more translators so they can fully commit to the translation operation,” said a Foreign Ministry official.

The Foreign Ministry admitted that the translation of the 1,300-page Korea-EU FTA was primarily done by unpaid interns because commissioning professional translators would have cost about 260 million won ($232,000). The attempt to save the budget backfired with the embarrassing 207 errors.

When translation errors in the Korea-EU FTA became public earlier this year, Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon admitted that the government needs to upgrade its system for translation. At a meeting with reporters in April, he candidly discussed the process of how the ministry dealt with the translation of the trade pacts.

“We began negotiating the FTA with EU in 2006,” Kim said. “It was an unprecedented scale of negotiation, and the government had some shortcomings in its system.”

He admitted translation of trade pacts is not a job that anyone with second-language skills can do.

“There were 81 jurilinguists in the EU payroll handling the task,” Kim said. “In the Korean government, such a position has not existed. This is something that we must improve in the system.”

In addition to private educational institutes, eight major universities including the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and Ewha Womans’ University operate graduate schools specialized in translation and interpretation, producing world-class professionals. Their graduates, however, avoid working with the government to find to more lucrative jobs in private business, and many work freelance.

“I get paid up to 200,000 won per page when working with a major company,” said a 36-year-old freelance translator with four years of experience. “I manage to keep a string of good clients, and I can make about 80 million won a year. I can control my schedule, while feeling satisfied about what I do. I am happy with my job.”

In contrast, the government offers relatively low salaries for translators, ranging between 20 million won to 30 million won a year. The translators are also hired as yearly contract workers, not civil servants.

“By the time we graduate, we see a range of job offers,” said a 30-year-old translator working for a major accounting firm, who specializes in English-Korean interpretation and translation. After studying at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies for graduate school, she and her classmates had no trouble landing lucrative jobs, she said.

“Some of my friends went to work for the government,” she said. “But they said they work for the government only because it looks good on the resume. They all have plans to move to better positions after a couple years, because the pay is so low.”

Experts said the time has come for Korea to realize the crucial role of translators in the globalized world.

“Translation, as much as interpretation, is a professional specialty,” said Choi Jung-wha, president of Corea Image Communication Institute and a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies’ Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation. “The problem is that the government thinks anyone who can speak a foreign language can do the job.”

Choi said Korea has more than enough translating manpower, but they stay away from government.

“What we need is the awareness that translation is a special field. Treating them professionally and properly will bring about major improvement,” she said.

Sources in the translation industry said the domestic market for translation reached 700 billion won in 2007 and is growing rapidly, about 90 percent every year since then. Including the publishing industry, the translation market was estimated to be worth about 2 trillion won.