What does it take to be a Korean translator or interpreter? What kind of person would even want to, let alone be able to, sit at a computer or in court day after day turning words and phrases in one language into words and phrases in another? Isn’t this an awfully tedious and unrewarding profession?
It can be. For many people it is. Some people who love it initially get tired of it, burn out on it, and move on to other endeavors. Others can only do it on the side, a few hours a day or a week or even a month: they are writers or teachers or editors by day, but for an hour every evening, or for an afternoon one or two Saturdays a month, they translate, sometimes for money, sometimes for fun, mostly (one hopes) for both. If a really big job comes along and the timing and money are right, they will spend a whole week translating, eight to ten hours a day; but at the end of that week they feel completely drained and are ready to go back to their regular work.
Other people, possibly even the majority (though to my knowledge there are no statistics on this), translate full time—and don’t burn out. How do they do it? What skills do they possess that makes it possible for them to “become” doctors, lawyers, engineers, poets, business executives, even if only briefly and on the computer screen? Are they talented actors who feel comfortable shifting from role to role? How do they know so much about specialized vocabularies? Are they walking dictionaries and encyclopedias? Are they whizzes at Trivial Pursuit?
These are the questions we’ll be exploring; but briefly, yes, Korean translators and (especially) interpreters do all have something of the actor in them, the mimic, the impersonator, and they do develop remarkable recall skills that will enable them to remember a word (often in a foreign language) that they have heard only once. Korean translators and interpreters are voracious and omnivorous readers, people who are typically in the middle of four books at once, in several languages, fiction and nonfiction, technical and humanistic subjects, anything and everything. They are hungry for real-world experience as well, through travel, living abroad for extended periods, learning foreign languages and cultures, and above all paying attention to how people use language all around them: the plumber, the kids’ teachers, the convenience store clerk, the doctor, the bartender, friends and colleagues from this or that region or social class, and so on.
Korean translation is often called a profession of second choice: many Korean translators were first professionals in other fields, sometimes several other fields in succession, and only turned to Korean translation when they lost or quit those jobs or moved to a country where they were unable to practice them; as Korean translators they often mediate between former colleagues in two or more different language communities. Any gathering of Korean translators is certain to be a diverse group, not only because well over half of the people there will be from different countries, and almost all will have lived abroad, and all will shift effortlessly in conversation from language to language, but because by necessity Korean translators and interpreters carry a wealth of different “selves” or “personalities” around inside them, ready to be reconstructed on the computer screen whenever a new text arrives, or out into the airwaves whenever a new speaker steps up to the podium. A crowd of Korean translators always seems much bigger than the actual bodies present.
But then there are non-Korean Korean translators who share many of these same characteristics: diplomats, language teachers, world travellers … What special skills make a well-travelled, well-read language lover a Korean translator?
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the primary characteristics of a good Korean translator are similar to the expectations Korean translation users have for the ideal Korean translation: a good Korean translator is reliable and fast, and will work for the going rate. From an internal point of view, however, the expectations for Korean translation are rather different than they look from the outside. For the Korean translator, reliability is important mainly as a source of professional pride, which also includes elements that are of little or no significance to Korean translation users; speed is important mainly as a source of increased income, which can be enhanced through other channels as well; and it is extremely important, perhaps even most important of all, that the Korean translator enjoy the work, a factor that is of little significance to outsiders. Let’s consider these three “internal” requirements in order: professional pride, income, and enjoyment.