Blessings and Curses of Bilingualism from a Korean Translator

Being a bilingual professional Korean translator is a blessing, but it can also be a source of frustration. Having lived in both the United States and South Korea for many years, speaking English and Korean and obtaining bachelor’s degrees in both countries, I have come to recognize many episodes that are linguistically and culturally off-key, and I cannot help but smile as I wonder who else may be privy to this knowledge.

Have you seen the Progressive Insurance commercial on TV with the caption “Speaking Japanese”? The Progressive Insurance girl Flo and a couple of people are actually speaking in Korean in a food truck. This commercial has aired for many months without correction.

Do you know the famous South Korean professional golfer KJ Choi? During golf season, his name can be heard very often on TV, but his last name is mispronounced by all American television commentators! Choi – a one syllable name – is consistently pronounced Cho-i, with two syllables! When heard repeatedly, this can be irritating. It is well-known that some vowels and consonants in the Korean language are nearly impossible for Westerners to pronounce correctly (Choi is an example of this). This is a difficult impediment for many Korean language learners to overcome. Of course, this also effects English learners from Asia who learned English in adulthood.

Another episode involves the word “profile”. This word crossed over to South Korea and has become a very popular term that, like numerous other English words, is misused widely – it is pronounced [propil]. An American IT Company doing research on “the relationship between IT and the internet” interviewed Korean executives managing government-run facilities in Korea. The company was targeting technologically-advanced and efficiently-operated government agencies utilizing the Internet and IT technologies in creative ways in order to create profiles of these government facilities to serve as examples of best practices.

After the audio interviews with agency employees were compiled, the American company asked the Korean interviewees for 3-4 pictures to go with each profile. What did they receive? They received portraits of many of the interviewees, not pictures of the facilities. This mix-up occurred because the word “profile” was mentioned, as this word has come to have a limited meaning in Korea. While I feel bad for the Korean IT executives who made this mistake, this type of thing happens all the time due to frequent misuse of words from other languages.

In the midst of this global confusion, a professional Korean translator often saves the day, and they deserve credit for their work. The ability to observe and understand two different cultures does not just emerge with migration, nor does the ability to translate and/or interpret in both directions. Rather, hardworking professionals devote considerable time and effort to what they do, studying their languages constantly, practicing typing, learning to use translation tools, taking speed tests in various languages, and seeking certification opportunities. I hope that these skills will be valued fairly in the marketplace and that the need for these professional translators and interpreters continues to grow.

About Yeong Gruber

I am a native South Korean translator living in Atlanta, USA. I have worked primarily translating business documents (technical specifications, emails, business letters, and so on) for US corporations and interpreting various teleconferences between my clients in the US and their partnering companies in South Korea. I have also worked with a research company as a transcriptionist, interviewing Korean IT executives and transcribing interview audio files.