[This was written for a presentation I did in 2011 at a translation/interpretation conference]
“Ugh! That speech was soooo Korean!” is a common lament that can be heard almost weekly in my simultaneous interpretation class to indicate that a speech was extremely difficult to interpret from Korean into comprehensible and accurate English. Students and professors have mentioned that “very Korean” speeches are the most difficult for students to deal with.
In this paper, I will attempt to illustrate the potential impact of cultural interference on the performance of novice simultaneous interpreters. This is, of course, not an easy task because it can be hard to ascertain if culture was the deciding factor in confusions, mistakes and errors that have arisen in class. The focus of this paper is very much on my class and what I have heard over the last 13 months as a new teacher of future interpreters.
Culture is notoriously difficult to define. However, in his seminal book on culture in TESOL, “Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice, Pat Moran offers the following definition:
Culture is the evolving way of life of a group of persons, consisting of a shared set of practices associated with a shared set of products, based upon a shared set of perspectives on the world, and set within specific social contexts. (24)
We can treat this definition as a springboard from which to consider the interplay between culture and interpretation. The definition can certainly serve as a useful definition in “standard” ESL/EFL teaching, but the concept of a “shared set of perspectives on the world” can become problematic for interpreters because these perspectives simply might not exist. In fact, it seems that the job of the interpreter is more focused on meditating between people who do not necessarily share perspectives, conveying the message of one to the other.
L1 Interference and C1 Interference
For TESOL instructors, a common explanation for learner errors is first language (L1) interference (also known as L1 transfer). In an “A-Z of ELT” Thornbury writes, “Language transfer is the effect that one language-particularly the first language-has on another. Transfer can occur on all levels: pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and discourse.” (Thornbury 232) It is commonly thought that features that are absent in either language will be among the most difficult for learners to deal with. Does this apply to culture as well?
Perhaps just like the L1 can interfere with utterances our “first culture” can also have a a similar impact. What I am suggesting is that much like L1 can cause interference, so can our first culture (C1). The examples that I have selected to highlight will hopefully show this phenomena.
It would be quite difficult to write, think or talk about culture and language without mentioning the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This theory is generally seen in two ways. The “strong version” suggests that language determines thought and that cognitive categories are limited and determined by linguistic categories. The “weak version” is that linguistic categories and usage can influence thought as well as other non-linguistic behavior.
It is not my intention to suggest that our thoughts are wholly determined by the linguistic categories at our disposal nor that we can find out where culture begins and language ends. In not attempting to do so I am heeding the warning of Snell-Hornby who writes, “The search for a dividing line between language and culture is considered futile. Culture is embodied as much in what people do and what they know as in how they do it and how they talk about what they know.” (Translation Studies 39)
Keeping this in mind, I will not attempt to pinpoint exactly where on the continuum between language and culture certain confusions and difficulties lie nor will I suggest that this can easily be done. I will simply highlight some confusions that have arisen in my particular teaching context.
The examples detailed below all come from utterances of students enrolled in my “Seminar in Interpretation” course. All the examples come from simultaneous translations of Korean texts into English. The texts are from a range of speakers but are mostly focused on government and business
The students are all second-year students in an advanced interpretation and translation MA program. Korean is the dominant language for each of them. They are all highly proficient in English and have varying degrees of knowledge about and experience with English speaking cultures. The students are overwhelmingly female with males only accounting for 4% of the last two second-year cohorts
Each class follows a basic procedure where one student prepares beforehand (by making a glossary and becoming ready to assume the “expert role”) and reads the text aloud to the other students while half of the listeners go to the interpreting booth in the back of the room. They are listened to by their peers as well as their instructor. After receiving feedback from peers on their performance we have a class discussion were I give feedback to individuals and the group and try to address questions that came up as a result of the interpreting performance or subsequent discussion. My role in these discussions ranges from explaining terms or grammar, suggesting alternatives, highlighting useful expressions or words, arbitrating “correctness,” giving my impression of certain utterances, sharing where I was confused, asking for further clarification, and acting as a mediator between cultures. From my perspective, while all the roles listed are essential, it is this final few that are the most important for helping students develop their Korean to English simultaneous interpretation skills.
As a listener and teacher I feel that I have to play multiple roles in order to help students progress as rapidly as they can. Two of these roles include the mythical “typical American” and “the strict grammarian.” The latter is highly concerned with the students getting things exactly right. The former is more concerned with understanding. I can often be heard saying, “My mother would not understand that” when the interpretations trend toward the more difficult or “more Korean.”
Elephants in the room?
First of all, what does “elephant in the room” mean? This is an English idiom that refers to “an obvious truth that is being ignored or goes unaddressed.” From my perspective, the first “elephant” that I willfully ignore in this paper is the idea of English as a lingua franca and the fact the increasingly English is used as a default language of communication for people around the world. Perhaps the future interpreters described above will be working with Malaysian or Filipino business people (as some already have) instead of “typical Americans.”
This shows that only thinking about American or British culture and interlocutors might be a bit shortsighted and that teachers and students might want to consider a more global audience. English is used more and more as an international language and not only a language for interpreters to employ for just American audiences. While this is an extremely large elephant it is beyond the scope of this paper so it will have to be acknowledged but left as is for now.
The second elephant that needs to be acknowledged (and then will also be largely ignored for the rest of the paper) is the fact that even if it were desirable to tailor interpretation performances for “The average American” this is no easy task. The United States is not a monolithic country or culture so it is extremely challenging to speculate or predict what the average American knows or understands. My personal attempt at reifying the average American comes in class when I mention what my mother might not understand something, but this largely just speculation on my part. It should be noted that the phrase and concept “average American” are used in this paper even though the existence of such a person is highly questionable. Additionally, any thoughts and beliefs ascribed to such a person are simply my personal opinion should be treated as such. The lack of a typical American person is the second elephant in the room. As with first elephant, I think it is best to acknowledge its existence but carry on with topic at hand, dealing with possible examples of cultural interference that arises in my classes.
Non-Koreans and foreigners
The word “foreign” can be a sensitive one. It seems to be the default word for people not of Korean blood and this can cause confusion (as well as potentially hurt feelings). This is generally not a problem because the Korean concept of waygookin [외국인] and the English/American concept of foreigner generally seem to match up pretty well.
“Waygookin” and “foreigner” are not always the same. The word foreigner can sound divisive and create distance between the speaker and the person or people being described. For example, imagine the President of Korea is in the United States stating that Korean food is becoming more and more popular in the U.S. Would it be possible for the president (through an interpreter) to say that “Korean food is becoming more popular among ‘foreigners’ in the U.S.?” Who are the foreigners? Americans? In America? This is something that could potentially hurt or even anger American listeners. The speaker’s original intent seems benign but this is a case where it might behoove interpreters to tread lightly around the potential landmines of L1/C1 transfer. Hopefully this simple and exaggerated example helps show the potential problems that might come from L1/C1 interference.
As Korea becomes more multicultural the more this aspect is mentioned in the speeches that we work with in class. Thus, “foreigner” is a word that I hear frequently in my class, although the speeches generally try tend to paint the foreign community and the idea of a multicultural society in a positive light. Unfortunately, the continued use of the simple word ‘foreigner’ by interpreters might alienate the very people that they are trying to help. It is important to note that I am not suggesting that interpreters completely avoid the word foreigner. I am simply advocating a heightened awareness of this word and its possible implications as I believe this is an important issue and concept to think about.
One of the oft-cited examples of L1 interference for Korean learners of English is using “our” when “we” would be much more common in English. As so many of the speeches that we deal with in class are from government officials, this distinction surely warrants consideration.
From my perspective, this is another issue that falls in the gray area between L1 and C1 interference. I don’t think we can say that it is a purely linguistic or purely cultural issue. What, then, can interpreters and interpreters-to-be do? Unfortunately, I don’t have any advice to offer with this except to state that heightened awareness towards this issue is certainly helpful and that interpreters might consider how they will handle the nearly inevitable occurrences of uri [우리] before they start translating a particular speech.
“Frankly speaking” is a phrase commonly mentioned by English teachers in Korea as overused or out of place when said by students. It seems to me that this is an antiquated expression that it is extremely uncommon among the younger generation of Americans. To be honest, “Frankly speaking” is an expression that I have a very hard time imaging myself saying. I recently mentioned the fact that “frankly speaking” is not something I typically say. I saw some surprised faces but I also saw some knowing nods. One student, who was educated from middle school in the US, mentioned that she first learned this expression in Korea after many years of living abroad.
I have heard that “frankly speaking” has been deemed and treated as an extremely important phrase in high school textbooks in Korea. This could simply be a decision of a coterie of textbook writers that trickled down to teachers and their students. Another possibility is that there are cultural influences at play here. I have been told that “frankly speaking” is a very popular expression in Korea due to the Korean ideals of not speaking directly and the need to be clear and announce when one is doing so. This certainly sounds like a reasonable explanation for the phenomena. This sounds very much like linguistic behavior in L2 being influenced by C1.
In a recent class a student said that “South Korea has been praised as a dragon” by the international business community. My thought was the “praised” is not a very common collocation with dragon and highlighted this for the student and the group. This simple comment provoked an interesting response and ensuing discussion. The students asked me I would understand “growing dragon” and I said that it meant “a dragon that is getting bigger and growing up.” After some further clarification the group determined that they wanted to say (something like) “a dragon poised for takeoff” and wondered what this would mean to me. I said it wouldn’t mean much. I was then told that flight was a key aspect in the Korean concept of dragons. When asked to say the first thing that came to mind when I hear the word dragon I responded with “breathing fire.” This seemed to provoke a bit of surprise from one student who mentioned that flight was the first thing she thinks of. We determined that even though the word is the same there are different cultural aspects attributed to the mythical creature.
I don’t want to read too much into this one interaction but I will say that it indicates that even words that we think we know well have different connotations and images in different cultures. I think it is certainly something for interpreters to keep in mind as they try to tailor their output to match the comprehension abilities of their listeners. It is hoped that this example will act as words of caution to those interpreters who might assume that the same word carries the same cultural connotations.
The year of the rabbit
While sometimes there are aspects of culture that interpreters cannot expect certain audiences to understand the reverse is also true. In my view, our mythical average American is likely to be quite familiar with the Western Zodiac. He certainly knows his sign as well as the signs of his close friends and family. He is familiar with the traits ascribed to these signs and might making passing references to these characteristics as joke or an excuse. In a speech that my students and I worked with from January of this year a Korean bureaucrat mentioned that he hoped the audience would have a fruitful and successful year of the rabbit. A student was concerned if American listeners would be able to comprehend such a statement, speculating that Americans would only be familiar with the Western Zodiac. It was my opinion that most Americans (while not necessarily knowing all the associated meanings and cultural significance) would certainly be familiar with the “year of the _____” construction and would easily assume that this was referring to (what we would call) the Chinese Zodiac. Contrasted with the previous example related to the importance of flight to dragons this example seems to be a case where the typical American would have no problem grasping the idea of “the year of the rabbit.” Potential problems might exist if the interpreter expected the listener to know much more than “This is the year of the rabbit.” If, for example, an American listener were expected to assume the specific significance ascribed to the year of the rabbit it might be quite an unfortunate assumption. If a possible takeaway from the previous example is that we can’t assume too much about what our listeners might be able to understand about cultural things, the takeaway here might be that we can (and perhaps must) assume that they can understand other things. In other words we don’t need to assume that all aspects of C1 will be unknown to interlocutors.
From my perspective, unfortunately, there are no easy answers or quick fixes when it comes to dealing with potential C1 culture interference in interpreting. I suppose the best advice is to keep trying to raise awareness about what aspects of culture are difficult to interpret and keep trying to be a better mediator while remembering that it is not an easy task. Hopefully this heightened awareness coupled with a developing sense of one’s own culture and intercultural communication will help interpreters bridge cultural gaps.
Moran, Pat. Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 2001.
Snell-Hornby, Mary. Translation studies: An integrated approach. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Publishing Company, 1995.
Thornbury, Scott. An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan, 2006.