Translation in Isolation: The Rare, the Bad, and the Weird

By | July 06, 2017 | No Comments

Kim Jong-un inspects the KPA Air and Anti-Air Force Unit 991 in November 2014. | Image: KCNA

In the first and second parts of his series on reading (and interpreting) North Korean media, Martin Weiser took a deep dive down the well of the North Korean digital archive, bringing to our attention a wealth of additions, changes, and omissions that shed light on key aspects of North Korean government policy, and which, at times, inform third-country responses to it.

In this, the third part of the series, Weiser returns to the question of translation. By tracing the process by which translations come into being, he highlights the limitations and bottlenecks — some of them serious — that are created by the need to translate into multiple languages on a daily basis with very limited resources and, often, time. While the reader may assume that differences and omissions in official translations are always strategic, they are just as often down to resource and time limitations, and where one North Korean media organization might translate something correctly, elsewhere confusion can be inserted by a slightly unnatural word choice. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

Translation in Isolation: The Rare, the Bad, and the Weird

by Martin Weiser

Like any country, North Korea maintains a large pool of translators and interpreters, who help it to not only translate its materials into foreign languages but also import texts from other languages into Korean. But as a 2005 book on Asian translation traditions had to admit, “Virtually no information is available about translation in North Korea.”1) Judy Wakabayashi, “Translation in the East Asian Cultural Sphere,” in Eva Hung and Judy Wakabayashi, eds., Asian Translation Traditions (St. Jerome, 2005), 18. In fact, searching through English books on the topic leads to only two pieces of information: first, that the Grand People’s Study House claims to employ 200 translators2)Chansik Cho and Myoung Chung Wilson. “National Libraries of Korea,” in David H. Stam, ed. International Dictionary of Library Histories (Routledge, 2001), 483.; and second, that in North Korea translators for Spanish language broadcasts have to be civil servants to “assure the political allegiance of the translator.”3) Allison Beeby Lonsdale, “Directionality,” in Mona Baker and Gabriela Saldanha, eds., Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, 2nd Edition (Routledge, 2011), 86. It is not surprising given this dearth of insights that the way the translation process works in North Korean media organizations, how good North Korean translators are, and how they might have improved have not been raised in the literature.

But today, libraries provide access to a wide range of North Korean translations and leadership speeches, which lends them to analysis. While it is practically impossible to trace the work and effect of individual translators – due to partial non-disclosure of translators but also the lack of access to those translated materials – more general trends are traceable. It is, for example, still relatively under-explored how a crackdown in 1967 on both literature (domestic and foreign) and also translators undermined North Korea’s ability to make itself understood abroad.4)Among the foreign translators in Pyongyang, Venezuelan Ali Lameda and French Jacques Sedillot were imprisoned on espionage charges, while Charles Robert Jenkins says English translator Ann Sue was executed, likely because she was American and had before the Korean War even worked for the US military. The importance placed on translating phrases about and by Kim Il-sung correctly after fall 1967 and the severe repercussions for deviation can also be glimpsed from diplomatic records: In December 1967, the North Korean vice-foreign minister expressed his disappointment that the phrases “in the embrace of Comrade Kim Il-sung” and “the love of the Korean people for Kim Il-sung” had been left out of Czech press reports on his country. Charles Robert Jenkins, The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 115-116; “Aktenvermerk über eine Gespräch mit dem Attaché der Botschaft der CSSR in der KVDR, Genossen Schindler, am 12. 1. 1968, 14.00-16.00 Uhr [Notes on a Conversation with the Attaché of the CSSR Embassy in the DPRK, Comrade Schindler, on January 12, 1968 from 2 to 4 pm],” Embassy of the GDR in the DPRK, January 18, 1968, L 89/21-LG 5.1, C 147/75, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, GDR, as available at the National Institute of Korean History, South Korea. But it likely was severe, as a commentary on the first German volume of Kim Il-sung’s speeches makes clear: in 1973, exile South Korean M.Y. Cho criticized this translation to be “bizarre, not to say terrible.… Kim may not be a rhetorician like Mao, but he writes correct and clear Korean; the translation, however, is at times extremely clumsy.” Next to which, Cho also noted that the North Korean translator apparently was unaware that the prominently displayed sentence in each of Kim Il-sung’s volumes had a German origin, the Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848: It is not simply “workers” of all countries that should unite, but proletarians.

The final sentence of the Communist Manifesto in its German original and official English translation (top) differ with what is printed in Kim Il Sung’s works as they are an apparent retranslation of the Korean. | Source: Deutsches Textarchiv/Project Gutenberg

Only the sudden expansion of literature and translations in the 1980s might again have slowly reversed this trend in translation quality. In particular, the recruiting of foreign translators in the 1980s to revise translations of the Kims’ speeches seems to have had an important impact on North Korean translators, as they thereafter basically received free tutoring.5)In March 1987, Michael Harrold went from the UK to Pyongyang to be their English revisor until 1994, taking over the work of another foreigner, while German Holmer Brochlos corrected German translations from 1987 to 1988. Michael Harrold wrote a book about his time in North Korea, while for Holger Brochlos a South Korean interview is available. Michael Harrold, Comrades and Strangers: Behind the Closed Doors of North Korea (John Wiley & Sons, 2004); Korea Institute of National Unification (ed.), 북한체제 형성과 구술자료: 일본과 독일 [The Formation of the North Korean System and Oral History: Japan and Germany] (Sunin, 2006). Differences between translations of the same text might therefore be due to this outside input.6)Charles Armstrong pointed to differences in the English translation of Kim Il-sung’s speech, “All for the Postwar Rehabilitation and Development of the National Economy” which was published in 1961 as booklet and again in a changed version as part of Kim Il-sung’s Works in 1982. Charles Armstrong, Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992 (Cornell University Press, 2013), 54, f.n. 10.

The change of translation quality is supported by what we can glean from the official selections of both leaders. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il appear to have differed strongly on the topic of foreign literature. While Kim Il-sung constantly advocated for translations of scientific literature, Kim Jong-il in 1980 demanded that more foreign novels should be translated and distributed to the public. If public distribution were not possible for whatever reason, then at least summaries of texts were to be distributed to writers, the successor even decreed. In fact, it was only when Kim Jong-il slowly began to take over power in the late 1970s – also receiving his first Kim Il-sung award – that suddenly the “Hundred Copy Collection” (100부도서) was initiated, providing higher-quality translations of foreign works first to the elite but later likely trickling down to lower strata as well. Jang Jin-sung appears to be the only source on this thanks to his work in literature propaganda in the North, including the claim that Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” was circulated through this collection in 2013. But while Jang claims that these one hundred copies were only distributed to the elite, he also testified that he could get his hands on the Collected Works of Lord Byron, one of the series, at the age of 15 in 1985.7)Jang Jin-sung, Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 32.

The entry for bark in an English-Korean dictionary published in North Korea.

Lack of Qualified Translators | Given the lack of support by foreign translators for texts besides the leaders’ speeches, those North Koreans translating daily news presumably were largely left alone with whatever language skills they had. Michael Harrold, who dealt with English in Pyongyang between 1987 and 1993, recently stated that he still receives requests to translate important speeches of the Kims, which underlines that North Korea still lacks reliable domestic translators, at least for Western languages. But the very recent addition of Russian to KCNA’s online presence suggests a chronic shortage of translators across even traditionally important languages. A look at the first official translation of parts of Kim Jong-un’s speech on May 8 to the 7th KWP Congress reveals the extent to which even the state news agency is not able to produce good English translations when things have to go online fast. This lack of English skills was further underlined by the man who interrogated BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in May 2016. Although this North Korean claimed to have studied English literature, he still insisted that “bark” was only to be used for dogs and “grim-faced” to mean only “ugly.” That even official translations of major documents cannot be trusted completely was also recently underlined by a minor slip in the official translation of North Korea’s revised constitution. While journalists were quick to notice that Naenara updated its page on the North Korean constitution with a so far unavailable preamble, they did not consider it worth mentioning that the official English translation now spoke of the National Defence Committee (Article 103, clause 7), instead of the National Defence Commission. South and North Korean know only one word (위원회) for both committee and commission, which caused the mistake. Michael Madden from North Korea Leadership Watch asserted that this Committee now had taken the place of the Commission. But at least in name, it is still the same.

Anyone reading North Korea’s major newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, online also might have noticed how little is translated into English every day, and that translators are apparently so few in number that no one is left to translate on Sundays as well as around special holidays. In 2016, translators were on holiday from February 7 to 11 with only two short articles on Kim Jong-un published during that time in a prelude to Kim Jong-il’s birthday on February 16. On the actual birthday, again translators were on holiday, while on the next day again only one article on Kim Jong-un was translated. In 2015, translators had almost the whole week around Kim Jong-il’s birthday off, except for Wednesday, with someone having to translate the four mandatory articles on Kim Jong-un which came up that week. In 2017, this week of pre-celebration holiday was reduced to a Saturday off, still keeping the birthday and the following day as holidays. For Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15, the translators’ desks were empty for two days in 2015, but in 2016 were surprisingly fully staffed.

On Kim Il-sung’s birthday this year only two English translations on Kim Jong-un were uploaded at the website of Rodong Sinmun, contrasting with nineteen Chinese texts. | Source: Rodong Sinmun

Chinese translators do things a little differently. For the party anniversary on October 11, 2015, only three articles appeared in English, but fifteen in Chinese. Around Kim Jong-il’s birthday twelve more articles were translated into Chinese than into English in 2015 and again in 2016. On April 15, 2015, only two articles translated into English contrasted with twenty Chinese ones. Although fewer articles are translated into Chinese than into English on regular working days, Chinese translator have a habit of translating their usual workload on holidays, while the English only take time to translate the mandatory ones on Kim Jong-un – a curious difference in work ethics. Rodong Sinmun translators in general also do not work on New Year’s Day, Liberation Day (August 15), and the traditional Korean holiday Chusok. The holiday policy appears rather strict, as exceptions were made only three times for Sundays in the last two years: for the 70th founding anniversary of the KWP (October 11, 2015), for the 7th Party Congress (May 8, 2016) and for New Year’s Day this year. Sometimes translators do make an effort to translate older articles once they return from holidays, but usually those articles are simply never translated. Sometimes translations are even released a day earlier than they go to print in Korean. Apparently, this is because of the screening of outside contributions which, once approved, go directly to the translator.8)See, for example, the commentary “U.S. Brigandish Action of Snubbing S. Korean People’s No-THAAD Petition” by Ho Yong Min of 24 October, 2016, published only the next day in Rodong Sinmun in Korean.

If North Korea’s central party organ lacks translators for weekends, this implies a much grimmer picture for publications of lower political importance and smaller budgets. And a look into, for example, German translations of texts at Naenara – despite being operated by the Foreign Languages Publishing House – makes it quite clear that translators have not mastered the language sufficiently and at times prefer to summarize content instead of translating everything. Quantitatively, a comparison of news articles available at Naenara also shows this disparity across languages. While about 3,100 articles were published in Korean between May and September 2016, only about 1,500 were translated into English. Spanish, Japanese and Chinese followed close behind with about 1,300 articles each. Those four languages were also originally selected by KCNA for its online service and appear to receive preferential treatment. The four remaining languages (German, Russian, French, Arabic) featured only about 600 translations. The discrepancy is even more visible when the number of KCNA translations are compared. While the current archive gives about 33,000 Korean texts, 25,000 English translations exist, which identifies it as the major target language, compared to 16,000 Japanese and Spanish texts and only 13,000 Chinese ones – an even more uneven distribution than at Naenara. Considering these numbers, I suggest that the practical lack of translators and translation skills should be considered first, before one rushes to the conclusion that an untranslated article at the website of KCNA or Rodong Sinmun was aimed only at domestic readers.

Mistranslating | A mistranslation which even got reported in Western news came from KCNA’s coverage of North Korean archeology. The announcement on the discovery of a cave labeled a “unicorn lair” in November 2012 led to the ridicule of the Northern government. But KCNA’s translators apparently could not find a better Western expression for the mythical animal kirin (기린) which, in fact, looks very much like a unicorn. Translators already faced the same problem the year before when they decided to translate the mythical animal haetae (혜태) as “unicorn-lion.” Again, a mythical animal unknown to the average Westerner was described in terms of the way it looks, like a lion with a horn on its forehead. But no journalist was curious enough to look for more possible unicorn references by KCNA. One article published by Naenara in May 2013 on the same cave then avoided this ambiguity using simply a transcription of the term in the title, “Monument to Kirin Cave,” and explained in the article that the “kirin, or unicorn, is a mythological animal.” Whether the Naenara translators had learned from the international reaction from a few months earlier is impossible to say.

A drawing of a kirin in an old Chinese book (L) and a haetae sculpture with its very small horn at a palace in Seoul (R). | Source: Wikicommons

One KCNA article mentioned in the second piece in this series, in which former US President Barack Obama was described as monkey-born among other things, also included a term usually mistranslated by the North Koreans themselves: nature park (자연동물원), which is usually mistranslated as “natural zoo.“ Apparently, North Korean translators had looked up both parts of this composite separately and had not bothered to think about the actual concept behind the term. This in turn led to confusion among foreign journalists. An NK News article even translated that this one interviewee had said the perfect place for Obama would be “Africa’s national zoo.” But a quick look into North Korean rhetoric shows that “zoo” is not the right translation here. Referred to by North Korean media only a few times, those types of “zoos” are said to exist in Namibia, Tanzania, Congo, Sweden, and even in the area around Jong Il Peak at Mt. Baekdu. But hidden in a short article on Tanzania in a 2009 issue of Minju Choson, the term is clearly identifiable as a “nature park.”9)“정향향기 그윽한 탄자니아 [Tanzania, A Country of Clove Fragrance],” Minju Chosun, April 26, 2009. Here it was used for the Serengeti National Park in Africa, making it clear that this term does not refer to a “zoo,” despite the word being itself included in the North Korean term, but to nature parks. As this specific “natural zoo” was said to be the largest in the world and located in Africa, one could also have easily guessed that it is not a normal zoo. The area referred to in the article likely was the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conversation Area with its 520,000 square kilometers, calling itself the “potentially largest conversation area” and, although only by a small newspaper in Namibia, the “largest connected nature conservation area in the world.” How this North Korean knew of the park and why he assumed that even there people would throw bread at monkeys is, nonetheless, surprising.

More severe examples of mistranslation are plentiful and include, for example, an offensive Arabic translation of a book title, “Kim Il Sung is God,” a threat of double and thrice retaliation in English where the original spoke of secondary and tertiary retaliation,10)“KPA Will Blow Up Balloons Carrying Anti-DPRK Leaflets: Open Notice of KPA Frontline Units” [조선인민군 전선부대들 반공화국삐라살포행위를 무자비하게 징벌해버릴것이라고 남조선괴뢰당국에 공개통고], KCNA, March 22, 2015. This mistranslation was pointed out by Subin Kim on his personal blog., as well as imprecise statements regarding the restarting of its nuclear reactor in early 200311)Howard W. French, “North Korea’s Atomic Bravado Incites a Host of Skeptics,” New York Times, April 19, 2003. The exact North Korean statement Daniel Pinkston referred to in this article could not be identified. and the stage of its plutonium reprocessing in April 2003. On April 18, 2003, KCNA originally published a statement by the Foreign Ministry that North Korea was “successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase,” but three days later changed it into “successfully completing the final phase, to the point of the reprocessing operation, for some 8,000 fuel rods,” a translation previously offered by the US Federal Broadcast Information Service as being more accurate. This claim was, however, again disputed by a Korean linguist who argued that “North Korea had changed its English translation to conform to the US version” in a diplomatic move.12)Hae-young Kim, “Lost in Translation,” Guardian, 15 May 2003.

What the Internet Archive has saved from the Japanese KCNA website is, however, different. As the first saved version of the page dates to April 30, I cannot trace how this translation was taken down. But it shows instead an apparent revised translation reading “we are successfully going forward to reprocess work more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase.” That a mistake was included in this translation might attest to how urgently it was uploaded. Surprisingly, the next saved version of June again included the original wording again.13)The Internet Archive has the article on April 30 and June 22. Why North Korea played this diplomatic game only to go back few weeks later is unclear. But when both sides met later in April for talks in Beijing, North Korea’s representative made clear that the original translation by KCNA was right: “As we warned you earlier in New York, we finished reprocessing.” This confirmation also came with the North Korean claim that it now possessed nuclear weapons.14)Yoichi Funabashi, The Peninsula Question: A Cronicle of the Second Nuclear Crisis (Brookings Institutions, 2007), 507, fn. 64. In a case of inter-Korean mistranslation/miscommunication in 2002, even South Koreans were not quite sure how to interpret a North Korean radio announcement: While Yonhap quickly reported that North Korea “had come to have nuclear weapons,” a South Korean official claimed it was the usual North Korean statement that it “was entitled to have nuclear weapons.”

Sometimes the Korean text might even be a translation of an English original. In 2011, a short English KCNA article reported on a joint complaint by GLAAD, an LGBT organization, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition against a talk show in the USA. It referred to “gay and lesbian minorities,“ but in the Korean article it was turned into “ethnic minorities“ (소수민족출신 주민) and a range of other details was dropped as well.15)Hispanic Groups in US Complain Obscene Spanish-Language Talk Show” translated as “에스빠냐계 미국인들 차별행위에 항의” [Hispanic US Americans Protest Discriminating Behavior], KCNA, March 3, 2011. An editorial decision which completely distorted the facts, as the talk show was itself part of the Hispanic minority, but disparaged LGBTs, especially gay men, and – something KCNA did not delete – women. 

Toning Down | Sometimes translators also accidentally tone down a key term. So far unmentioned in the press, North Korea’s frequent usage of “human scum” (인간쓰레기) was joined by an alternative translation, bête noire, also used for other defamatory references. While this term had been in use by KCNA since 2007, more frequent usage began only in 2014. This translation is, however, not used consistently by KCNA with only about 20 percent of translations choosing this term, and North Korea has yet to use it in a more formal setting like the United Nations or in its official human rights report. Although KCNA translators use “human scum” and “bête noire” interchangeably in the same article, recently in the response to the defection of UK diplomat Thae Yong Ho16)동족대결의 새로운 모략극 – 조선중앙통신사 론평” translated as “KCNA Commentary Accuses S. Korean Regime of Orchestrating Fresh Smear Campaign against DPRK,” KCNA, August 20, 2016., the two terms are quite different. “Bête noire” is not even listed as offensive in dictionaries and only defined as someone one dislikes very much. But mistranslation of this term also went the other way once at Voice of Korea, where a German translator spoke of the “Abschaum der Menschheit” (scum of mankind) instead of only “human scum.”17)“Der bestochene Abschaum der Menschheit (1)” [The Bribed Scum of Mankind], video at Voice of Korea, available as of September 1, 2016. The English translation of the same article was titled “Human Scum Bribed with Trifling Amount of Money.” But how to exactly capture the scope of this insult is a problem one can also find outside of North Korea. An NK News reporter and an official interpreter at the UN had decided for the broader “filth of mankind” and “scum of mankind,” respectively, over the usual North Korean translation as they apparently considered this a more appropriate translation of the term.

Claims about an alleged mistranslation of a March 2013 statement on an immediate state of war were correctly rejected by Adam Cathcart here at Sino-NK. But arguing that “it was the North Koreans themselves who did the translating” might not have been the way to make his point, as the examples above hopefully show. As simple as it is, the same expression that was disputed, “from this moment” (이 시각부터), had been used by KCNA before, as recently as a few days before the statement, and was always translated in this way. But often even the North Koreans preferred to be more precise and used “from this moment now” (지금 이 시각부터) instead. In the same article, Adam Cathcart also implied that the vastly different titles given to the article in Korean, English and Chinese might be due to targeting different audiences. Namely, the English title was giving the international reporters one message (“Korea will be on fire soon”) and the Chinese headline another one to the Chinese government (“Don’t attempt to interfere”). Surprisingly, Cathcart forgot that the message in the Chinese title usually was targeted against the USA, as they should not interfere on the Korean peninsula and obstruct unification. But the assumption that the North Korean government abuses only the headlines of news to forward diplomatic messages seem hardly believable. While this form of signalling might be a theoretical possibility in crisis situations, journalists rushed to point out that no symptoms of crisis like troop movements, all-out mobilization of civilians or fierce rhetoric in newspapers were visible.

A better explanation for this wide divergence in headlines would be that translators have a certain leeway how to rephrase headlines to focus on the main message. Translators with a sufficient understanding of the target culture, i.e. the West for English translations, then, of course, choose the facts they consider most important. If a foreigner is overseeing these translations including headlines, the difference in interpretation due to cultural differences would perfectly explain why in English the state of war features in the headline, while for a Chinese — used to Communist war rhetoric and North Korean behavior — this was not the main focus. While in this case the English title was more aggressive, often it is the other way around. After the knife attack on the US ambassador to South Korea in March 2015, KCNA directly published an article titled, offensively, “Just Punishment for War Crazy USA (전쟁광 미국에 가해진 응당한 징벌).” The English translation, however, featured only the facts, as would be expected in Western media: “U.S. Ambassador Attacked by S. Korean.” Translators’ freedom regarding the headlines accordingly appears to work in both directions. The headline for this specific headline also shows a cultural divide. While the Spanish title resembled the English one, Chinese and Japanese versions were exact translations of the Korean using the offensive phrase. Of course, targeting Koreans loyal to the North in China and Japan could have been a reason, while revisions for the West tried to comply with Western media standards. But again, it might also imply that for English and Spanish, foreigners play a greater role in daily news translations.

In Need of Bilingual Scrutiny | As can be expected from a developing country with little exchange with the outside world, translations by North Korea of its own media are neither as numerous nor as reliable as we would like. For non-speakers of Korean this has left only a tiny and often blurred window into the North. But with so many journalists and researchers on the North relying on North Korea’s own English translations, what is translated and how it is translated eventually has an enormous impact on how we come to see and understand the country. As mentioned already in previous parts of this series, approaching North Korea through this bottle neck has severe downsides. Not only is just a part of coverage made available in English, it often is severely shortened, and last but not least all too often mistranslated. But of course, these are all problems we can also find in the South Korean media.

No academic service will appear out of nowhere to offer the missing translations and correct what is wrong. Automatic translation services also still have a long way to go. Nonetheless they could help give access to North Korean daily news content that is improved and better organized than is currently the case. In particular, when news stories focus on a single term, it becomes rather easy to confirm. With ease journalists could have found that 2011 reference to LGBT discrimination was not made in Korean, and that unicorns are the usual way KCNA uses to describe mythological animals with a horn.

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