Wednesday, March 31, 2010 0 comments

Book Review: Interpreter Translators in Their Own Words

Title: Interpreter Translators in Their Own Words (full pdf available)
Author: Jon H. Bahk-Halberg
Paperback: 264 pages
Publisher: KCSI (July 2008)
ISBN-13: 9788953497207

The author's doctoral dissertation turned into a book is about as dry as dissertations go; seemingly no change was made to make it more of an entertaining read. The dissertation as a whole is a valuable contribution to his field but it is a very repetitive and, frankly, boring read. This collection of previous research summations and original interviews with translators and interpreters allows the reader to gain insight on the life of a Korean-English translators-in-training at Hanguk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. Boasting the most prestigious interpreter/translator department in the country, HUFS cranks out the best and the brightest in English-Korean professional translators. The author's background in journalism and teaching at HUFS allowed him to get to know the life of translators in Korea a little bit better. Although what new knowledge can be gained for the field is indeed measurable but the average reader will find himself falling asleep when faced with the realization that after a hundred pages, the book still hasn't started. It's still being introduced.

The biggest fault lies with the lack of substance. The entire book is just one repetition after another. The information for the average reader could have easily been summarized into a text half its size. Important aspects of the book include a mention that most effective translators and interpretators have lived overseas at some point in the life. Also, there exists a division between 국내파 (kungnaepa) and 해외파 (haewaepa) translators (the ones who learned English in Korea and those who learned it overseas, respectively).

A fascinating point discovered here is that most interpreters consider Korean language skills to be more important than proficiency in English. Last and most intriguing is that on the whole, Korean men are, by and large, not attracted to the translation job field because simultaneous interpretation is seen as a service and is not held to the same level of respect that interpreters have in the West. The author explores the reasons why these students are choosing to go into interpretation and what kind of education background could provide such a possible qualified candidate. Despite the mention that translation has typically been a second-choice profession, some indeed primarily choose to go into translation because of the allure of money and the freelance lifestyle it can provide.

All in all, I learned something from the book but a few paragraphs would have sufficed it for me. For a dissertation about translators telling their story, this one is a disappointing void of their real voice. After a brief glance into a thought or two, the author breaks the flow and expounds. I can't blame someone for publishing a dissertation but despite my interest in this particular field, I was bored to tears.

I picked up this book because I wanted to know more about the life of a Korean-English translator. I now know more but I regret the amount of time I spent on it. Indeed the stories the translators had to tell were interesting but sadly their words were few and far between in this heavily padded skipping record of a book. Skip it and move on.

- - -

I feel like I'm ripping this professor's work apart but looking at it as it is, a book, it isn't much to write home about. I feel guilty almost, too, because I wanted to enjoy it. I almost didn't want to publish this review for fear of personally meeting him one day. He certainly has accomplished much more in his field than I in mine, so respect is given where it's due, but there's no excuse for dry writing.

Also, anyone else having trouble finding a print copy of this book? I can't seem to even find it on Amazon or LibraryThing.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010 0 comments

RAS walking tour

I went on a walking tour run by Peter Bartholomew of the Royal Asiatic Society - Korea Branch last Sunday. It was a bit early for me but I am incredibly glad that I went. It was a tiring but enjoyable tour full of stuff that is often left out of some basic books. I was also surprised at how much the tour focused on architecture, something that I had not actively thought of before. The tour focused on the fall of the Choson Dynasty, 한옥, and Japan-Korea relations among others. Some highlights:

  • round support pillars were only for royal homes and not regular 한옥 homes.
  • painted exterior walls were allowed on official royal homes and religious structures only.
  • the arched roofs of old were designed to protrude just enough not not allow rain to enter in nor splash near the actual home.
  • the roofs themselves are extremely heavy necessitating the thick line on top to help distribute he weight.
  • the further the chimney of the 온돌 is from the house, the faster the draw of circulation.
  • Korean granite has a surprisingly high amount of tungsten in it which helps to make it retain heat longer.
  • 광화문 has been moved a lot. it's current reconstruction location is also the original location.
  • the Russian legation suffered a bomb blast in the Korean war leaving a massive wreck and a lone standing tower in the aftermath. what's more interesting is what happened after the cleanup. it's currently a curiously shaped hill with a pointless park at the bottom of what used to be a nice flat piece of land. the explanation? when Russia wanted the land back, Seoul felt compelled to built a slanted piece of land in its stead. Russia not wanting the lemon, politely gave back the land to Seoul. thanks but no thanks kind of thing.
  • Prince Sunjong was an imbecile not by birth but by an attack via an overdose of opium 
  • 경복궁 is the only Korean palace setup in the Chinese style of a single line. 
  • speaking of Gyeongbokgung, every time it gets repaired, the Japanese seem to invade (1590s, 1910s)
  • the tradition of naming a state flower for a dynasty is a Japanese tradition. The Korean Ewha comes to mind.
  • approximately 97% of 덕수궁 was demolished primarily by Japanese occupation (in 1910 310 buildings existed but by 1945 there were only 12 left)
  • also, there's visible Korean war damage at 덕수궁.

I was really happy with the level of detail of the tour. Peter's knowledge of the Korean language, Asian architecture and public speaking skills provided me and the rest of the group with what one hopes for in a historical tour or lecture for that matter. I hope to attend more of RAS's events. This was my second event with RAS; the first being Martin Uden's lecture. Taken from the website:
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Tour Leader: Mr. Peter Bartholomew
For all of the time that we spend in Seoul many of us are not aware of the many historical sites that present themselves to us everyday. Today's tour will help point out some of the many sites that are available.
This tour will help make residents and visitors to Seoul aware of Seoul's vast cultural heritage in and around the extensive royal compound, most especially showing how the five major palaces and their eight "detached" and service palace compounds were contiguously linked (from Doksu to the present Seoul National University Hospital "Daehak ro" area), and why. We will see little known nooks of virtually forgotten royal compounds.
Dok Su Palace Library (former Seoul Club from around 1906 until the 1970's in which King Gojong was forced by the Japanese to put the royal seal on the annexation papers). The former Czarist Russian Legation site and other former diplomatic mission sites in Jeong Dong, most of which were formerly part of Dok su Palace.
Kyong-Hui Palace, a little known minor palace on Shinmun-ro 2-ka (later became Seoul Boy's High School site and now under restoration as a palace).
The compound of the 600 year-old White Pine in Hyo-Ja Dong, and several of the large traditional Korean houses in that former Choson Dynasty aristocratic residential area. Important sites surrounding Gyeongbok Palace, formerly serving the royal compound, when it served as the center of the Joseon Royal Government until the late 19th Century.
The Jong Chin Bu, Office of the Royal Household.The An Dong Detached Palace (An Guk Dong).Seoul's only remaining aristocratic "great house" (99 "kan") house, the home of Korea's second president, Yun Po Sun and other significant homes in the Ga Hoe Dong area.
The Royal Astrological Observatory next to Chang Dok Palace.The Unhyon Palace, former residence of the Daewon-gun, or Prince Regent, Yi Ha-ung. The Taewon-gun's second son, born and raised in Unhyon-gung, went on to become King Kojong, the last reigning king in Korea prior to colonization.
Other interesting Choson Dynasty period homes and structures along the way will be explained and put into context, especially in the "Hyoja-Dong" area and in "Ka-Hoe-Dong", the other primarily aristocratic residential area of the Joseon period, between the major places of Gyeongbok and Changdok.
We are fortunate to have as our tour leader Mr. Peter Bartholomew. Mr. Bartholomew has lived in Korea for more than 20 years and has made an intensive study of the Joseon Dynasty period from the architectural point of view into its history, culture and politics. He has made a special study into the evolutionary aspects of the royal Capital of Seoul, and his fascinating article entitled "Choson Dynasty Royal Compounds Windows to a Lost Culture" can be found in Volume 68 of Transactions of the R.A.S., Korea Branch. He will continuously narrate the tour with historical, cultural and aesthetic/ architectural descriptions. Mr. Bartholomew will be our guide for Dok Su Palace and the remains of the formerly larger Dok-Su compound palace now outside of the palace walls.
Cost of the tour is W20,000 for members and for non members W24,000. The tour will depart from the main gate of Dok-Su Palace at 9:00 a.m. and finish about 3:30 p.m. around the Chang dok Palace. Please remember to bring some money for lunch (W 5,000-6,000). You may bring some soft drinks and snacks for the tour since we will have lunch later in the afternoon. SINCE THIS IS A WALKING TOUR, COMFORTABLE WALKING SHOES AND CLOTHES ARE RECOMMENDED.
Monday, March 22, 2010 4 comments

A brief intoduction to hanja (한자)

It begins.

한자 (Hanja) is like the boogeyman for learning Korean. Hanja is endlessly referenced and is this never-ending source of conversation enders. Want to win an argument about the Korean language? Throw the word "Hanja" in. Bam. pie hole shut. But Hanja shouldn't be this awful beast of an obstacle to learning Korean. I personally grew tired of hearing about it and not knowing why it was important or why people even cared. It really shouldn't be feared.

While certainly not necessary to learn basic and intermediate Korean, Hanja does make life a lot easier. Honestly even a survival knowledge of Hanja makes Korean a lot more manageable. Like all skills in life, there are varying degrees of mastery and the more you learn, the more useful it becomes. Think of it as a car owner's knowledge of auto repair. Necessary? Not at all but if you know even the basics like how to jumpstart a dead battery or change a tire it does tend to make things not as scary.

So let's start out with some history. First and foremost, Hanja is not Chinese (the language). If you hear anyone, including a well meaning native Korean speaker, who refers to Hanja as Chinese, please slap them gently across the face for me. Mandarin is not Hanja. Hanja is not Cantonese. It never was. It never will be. 한자 are individual characters that, when combined into a sentence, form 한문, or Traditional (Classical) Chinese writing. The differences are subtle but clearly exist. From a Korean linguist via email: 한문 consists of 한자. 한문 refers to full sentences whereas 한자 means Chinese letters. Sometimes both terms are used interchangeably to call Chinese characters in general. Simply put, Hanja is a written language that should probably be dead but isn't. 한자 slash 한문 formed the partial basis for many languages including Japanese and Mandarin. Although it is true that knowing Hanja will help one learn these other languages quicker, knowing Hanja is not the same as knowing Chinese or Japanese. It's like the similarities in Romanantic languages; knowing Spanish of course makes learning English or French easier. However, French speakers cannot effectively communicate with Spanish speakers just because they both have Latin-based languages.

Linguistically, it all starts with China. Traditional Chinese script has existed in various forms for thousands of years. However, like all languages, it evolved and underwent reform countless times. One such time occurred around the 1940s with a government-sponsored initiative to add a simplified Chinese script in an effort to increase literacy. This was not designed to replace the traditional script, which other countries had been using for the basis for their own languages. Korean was one such language that maintained the old script. Japanese, in comparison, currently uses hiragana, katakana and kanji (revised Hanja). Since the mid 1940s, Japan has used simplified versions of Traditional Chinese letters and therefore currently don't fully resemble their old forms found in the copy of a original known as Hanja. That is to say, Traditional Chinese, Korean Hanja and Japanese Kyujitai developed relatively independent of each other.

Although Korean has expanded from its original dependency on the 천자문 (Thousand Character Classic), Hanja was still the literary script of choice in Korea for centuries despite the creation of the native script 한글 (Hangul) in the 1440s. Koreans now proudly celebrate Hangul as a gift to the world from the great King Sejong, but it might surprise you to find out that it was not exactly well received back then. The literati were understandably upset when a script that was easy enough to learn in a day emerged as a possible contender to the traditional Chinese script that took them decades to master. Certainly such an uncivilized script could only be used by the lower classes; a poor man's Chinese. Some of Hangul's early nicknames include 암글 (women's script) and 아침글 (the script you can learn within a morning). Hangul did not begin to resemble the nationalistic script of choice that it is today until 1894. Two years later, Hangul was used to publish pro-Korean, anti-Chinese sentiments in The Independent (독립신문). The adoption of Hangul increasingly became related with the spread of anti-Japanese nationalism as well as Korean Catholicism. All that from something that'll take you less than a day to get used to.

As Traditional Chinese took a different linguistic direction, Korea faithfully adhered to their own development of the Korean language with the phonetic preservation of old Hanja as well as the more recent additions of foreign words (외래어) from languages such as English and Japanese. Although currently Hangul is the obvious script of choice to decipher and distribute Hanja-based documents and texts (as well as express original words and thoughts) several other Korean writing systems preceded Hangul including 이두 (Idu), 향찰 (Hyangchal), and 구결 (Gugyeol). Each had their varying levels of usage though all have pretty much been cast to the wayside. Hangul is simply much easier to use.

The upside to Hangul phonetization is you don't have to write in Hanja. No stroke counting, no big calligraphy pen, to questionable looking pictograph, nothing. Just a phonetic spelling of the word. This would be like spelling "hallepehnyo" for the Spanish word "jalapeño". Obvious downfalls to Hangul phonetization include a dangerous amount of homonyms. For example, "성" could mean anything from castle (城), gender (性) to last name (姓). Thankfully, as Hanja is still used sparingly in modern newspapers and moderately in some formal documents, it thus maintains a modest-sized Hanja-literate population. When a word in Hangul needs to be clarified, the original Hanja is used for clarification. This brings up the issue of who learns real Hanja and when.

Native speakers of Korean are ideally fluent (if not just pleasantly exposed) to 1800 different Hanja throughout public school. However, seeing as how Hanja is left out of the dreaded 수능, I imagine the pressure to learn Hanja diligently is quite low. I also imagine the actual number of instantly recognizable characters is actually quite a lot smaller; probably closer to a few hundred if I were to pull a number out of nowhere. It's much more likely that the native speaker of Korean knows the Korean spelling and definition of most major Hanja characters but does not know the proper Hanja spelling. I would also presume that many high frequency words that have both a Korean and Hanja base are also well known such as 대 (大), 중 (), 수 (水), 인 (人), etc.

So why do there exist foreign history buffs who possess a higher understanding of Hanmoon when compared to an average native speaker? What's the point? Two reasons. First, old books (고서) and documents are likely to be written in Chinese, Japanese or Hanja depending the source and time period. Hangul is really not going to do you much good unless it has already be translated into Korean. Second, modern Korean is evolving away from its old roots and adopting an increasing amount of native and loan words. An estimated breakdown of Korean vocabulary in modern use is about 35% native Korean words (e.g. 길, 가죽), 60% Sino-Korean words (e.g. 신문, 약속) and about 5% loan words (e.g. 아르바이트, 택시). Therefore, knowing Hanja is clearly not a necessity but certainly gives one a leg up.

Advantages to knowing Hanja roots? Learning new Korean vocabulary is much easier. It's safe to say that knowing a hundred or so common Hanja roots will make picking up Korean a lot quicker. Disadvantages? Hanja is not always the socially acceptable word. It's not as if Hanja words are inherently dirty it's just that some words might be more easily understood in native Korean. Saying 오른 쪽 for "turn right" will probably be a bit more clear than saying "우회전". Unfortunately, due to the increasing influence of bad Konglish, the more common word instead might be actually be a Konglish word instead. Boo on that.

I leave you with this attempt at a summary in order to inspire those who have put off learning Hanja. Sure it's a little embarrassing to start relearning to write numbers again (just when you finally felt comfortable with the two sets of numbers in Korean) but a little goes a long way. If you're interested in learning Hanja, I'd recommend Useful Chinese Characters for Learners of Korean or the entry over at the Korean Wiki Project. Also, check out this creative Hanja advertising ploy.
Sunday, March 21, 2010 0 comments

Ignorance, Expectations and Comic Books

It's clear that I'm nowhere near the level where I'm ready to write my dissertation let alone thesis, however, I am gaining familiarity with a lot of repeat offenders in the limited scope of Korean history. But of course I feel a bit ashamed to proudly write about something that dozens of authorities have lived and breathed decades before me - let alone the historians who are still living and breathing and who are ready to rip apart my interpretations. It just intimidates me a bit to write 300 words on 김구 when it will surely just expose my lack of understanding. However, what am I do to instead? Pretend I'm an expert, just sit back and don't pursue the passion? Lame. It puts me out there a bit but everyone has to start somewhere.

I like what Jonathan Dresner once wrote over at Frog in a Well - "I freely admit that I blog out of ignorance. I blog when I discover something that I didn’t know; I blog when I want to learn something; I blog when I discover that someone else doesn’t know something that I know." Well said. Everyone's got to start somewhere.

I just finished three short 만화 (Manga) books about Korean history and I can't help but want to write a short review of them. In a nutshell they were effective in telling some of Korea's historical past through cute pictures and easy to follow stories although the nationalistic foreign slandering was set on "high" and no countries were spared. Japan, due to their colonial past, are portrayed like wild animals in many instances while the greedy Russians who provided King Kojong with temporary asylum are drawn with unnaturally large, protruding noses. Do I even need to mention the occasional Chinese emmisary who looks like Krusty the Klown doing his "Me So Solly" bit? I suppose such is propaganda but I just expected more objectivity and less "feel how I feel and hate the Japanese as I do" in a seemingly harmless set of cartoon books. I just expected something else.

Speaking of which, I can't find ISBN numbers for these. It makes it a bit difficult to properly review them. How is that even possible to sell books at a place like 교보문고 without ISBN numbers? Anyways, all I can tell you is that these books are published by SeSe Publish House (세세 출판사), written in English and Korean, are brightly colored and come separately in a set of differently shaped books with the following name: "한국의 역사 문화 - Korean Culture and History" followed by a subtitle for each volume:
- vol 1 - 한국의 고대사 Ancient Korean History
- vol 2 - 한국의 중세사 Medieval History of Korea
- vol 3 - 한국전쟁과 근대사 The Korean War and Modern History
- vol 4 - 6.25전쟁과 박정희 The 6.25 War and Jung Hee Park

If you see them, pick them up and get a laugh out of the predictably biased bits of filtered history. Although at roughly 10 000원 a pop, you might be better off checking them out of a rental shop or reading them in the store.
Monday, March 15, 2010 0 comments

양화진 (Yanghwajin Foreigner's Cemetery in Seoul) and a review of Donald Clark's 1998 book

A wonderful piece of history that deserves better. I recently read Professor Clark's amazingly useful yet hopelessly impossible to find book and thought to myself how sad it is that more people don't know about Yanghwajin. History has a tendency to sink. The best way I could think to contribute was to write this modest post and to start a Yanghwajin page on wikipedia. Without further ado:

Title: The Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery at Yanghwajin: An Informal History with Notes on Other Cemeteries in Korea and Individuals and Families in the History of the Foreign Community in Korea
Author: Donald Clark
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Seoul Union Church (1998)
ISBN-10: N/A
ISBN-13: N/A
Full Listing: Clark, Donald N., comp and ed. The Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery at Yanghwajin: An Informal History with Notes on Other Cemeteries in Korea and Individuals and Families in the History of the Foreign Community in Korea. Seoul: Seoul Union Church, 1998.
Not to be confused with a previous edition: Clark, Donald N. Yanghwajin Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery, Korea: An Informal History, 1890-1984, with Notes on Other Foreign Cemeteries in Korea. Seoul: Yongsan RSOK Library, 1984.

A treasure in every sense of the word: something that is hard to find but worth so much once obtained. I assure you its value is not lost on its relative obscurity. I'm simply shocked that there isn't more written on the foreigners' cemetery in Seoul known as Yangwhajin (양화진외국인묘지공원). Clocking in under 160 pages about half of which is actual written content with the other a sort of directory guide, it certainly isn't a long read but it certainly is a sad read and one that touches me on a personal level.

Regardless of one's politics, I must attempt to draw a parallel. If it seems reaching, please bear with me. This book and its history reminds me of another Korea-related topic known as the Comfort Women; not because the graveyard was wronged by the Japanese but because like the so-called Comfort Women, Yanghwajin, too is having itshistory quickly forgotten. Soon, all women directly affected by the Japanese military will pass away leaving only heartbreaking stories and hopeless pleas behind in their stead. Their memories and hardships will disappear without proper stewardship. Like the tragedy that is the Comfort Women, Yanghwajin has a story that deserves to be told, retold and preserved. I don't mean to draw parallels in terms of importance or sexual slavery or anything like that; it's just that both topics come to mind when I think of history on the verge of disappearing. I certainly mean no disrespect if that parallel is inappropriate. I simply feel connected to the cemetery out of respect for those who have came before me and for their accomplishments and contributions.

Yanghwajin has a history that is full of controversy and Clark's book accurately begins the tale with it's introduction to the cemetery itself and the unofficial steward church, the Seoul Union Church. As both histories are intertwined, to understand the cemetery and it's history, one must understand the plight of this church-without-a-home. Despite confidently proclaiming a permanent home at publication time, the church could not foresee that in 2007, its modest foreign congregation would be forced out of their chapel and away from the cemetery they had taken care of since its creation.

The book was originally published in 1984 and later updated, revised and expanded to include a map in 1998. Although I have not seen the 1984 version, I have been told that all pertinent information is also present in the 1998 version. If you ever are in the market to get a used copy, make it count and get the 1998 pressing as it includes much more content and is more accurate.

If one were to try to obtain a copy of the 1998 book, it's more than a little difficult. First of all, both editions have no ISBN number and therefore fly well under the radar. Secondly, the title doesn't exactly roll off the tip of your tongue. Asking for it by name will likely get one a reference to a modest museum attached to the church next to the cemetery. Unfortunately, the current church management who takes care of the grounds has their own materials to tell their version of the stories of the men and women interred at Yanghwajin but not so much in the way of how they acquired the rights to do so. Therefore, contacting the cemetery itself is not exactly going to work. Just for clarification, according to a personal correspondence via email with the author "The book was meant to be distributed at the cemetery, but as you surely know, that ship sailed a long time ago."

I scored my copy by politely emailing the current pastor of Seoul Union Church if he had any old prints left. Thankfully he did have a few left for a modest 5000원 each. Since I currently live in Seoul, he was able to mail them to me and I made a small donation to the church (in addition to the price of the book) for his efforts. I mention this story of how I acquired my copy not because I want to tell the world of my amazing emailing skills but because of the relative difficulty in obtaining this valuable book. The pastor just happened to have some old copies laying around, thankfully. Basically, if you're looking to read a copy, cross your fingers and hope that a local library has it on file or get friends with someone that bought one a while back because I'm not sure if any new prints are available. Otherwise, attending one of the church's services (currently on Yonsei's campus) is about the only advice I can offer. In hopes of curbing needless emails to the author, contacting the church and hoping for the best was also the advice of the Professor Clark.

If you are in Seoul and you want to experience some genuine history, you owe it to yourself to make plans to visit this cemetery. The current church does indeed have a modest museum that will help tell some of the story. To me, this is certainly better than nothing at all. Simple English language brochures are available and will help to pique interest about the fascinating stories that can be found there.

In closing, some might wonder why it's such a problem to have an organization with less than a high level of vested interest in the cemetery take care of Yanghwajin, take note of the example found in Incheon. The Chemulpo Foreigner's Cemetery, which predates Yangwhajin, was completely removed from its original place in 1965 and relocated without much of a fuss.

If you haven't been to Yanghwajin already, make it a point.