The Ministry that Couldn’t Translate Straight

by Translation Guy on April 6, 2011

When does mistranslation become dystranslation? Dys as in dysfunctional or dysentery. It’s a slippery slope. Most of the time, a bad translation is just plain bad, but sometimes bad gets baroque, especially once you get a ministry or two involved. Looks like that may be the case of a trade agreement translation gone south in South Korea.

At first it looked like the new EU-South Korean Trade Pact signed last October was a fine piece of diplomatic craftsmanship, headed toward easy approval. But as the agreement came under scrutiny before the signing in Seoul, Korean readers found a lot of translation error. So the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) went back to the drawing board, promising a more careful translation. Still, critics found problems with the “corrected” translation. It contained Korean that was not even contained in the English version approved by the European Parliament.

MOFAT claimed that the Korean-language clauses on the five years of experience are only clarifications. No reason was given on why the clarifications were only required in Korean versions of the contract.

Song Ki-ho, the lawyer who first flagged the mistranslation, isn’t buying it. “I cannot understand why they cause these controversies through disparities in the two versions. The disparities themselves must be corrected to weed out any misunderstanding.”

Song believes that many of the errors were added as an aid to misunderstanding, a deliberate attempt that allowed negotiators to have it both ways. “All the mistakes should be corrected. I don’t know why, but MOFAT is not ready to accept this,” Song said.

So a few weeks ago, while refusing to admit their mistakes, MOFAT eventually accepted the requests of Song to overhaul the translation.

Version three immediately ran into trouble. Last week, an association of liberal lawyers, named “Lawyers for Democratic Society,” found 160 differences between the English- and Korean-language versions of the deal and informed the foreign ministry of them.

So back to the drawing board. It used to be that the foreign-ministry types could do as they pleased on the assumption that the guys in one language would be clueless about what the guys in the other language were up to. It used to be routine for political leaders to send out one message in one language and a different message in another language. I mean, really, the whole point of being an elite information broker is that you can have your cake and eat it too. As for the peasants, let them eat cake too…

But times are changing. Public business is public business. There are too many intrepid bilinguals sitting screenside in their bathrobes with a bone to pick on translation, and their noisy talents can be brought to bear on anything they read on the Web. Some will choose to translate for free for large corporations, and others will apply their volunteer efforts to actual public services rather than corporate good. They can be so damned snooty and irritating. But we must suffer the insufferable for the integrity of translation. I wonder how much political ideology has to do with the way the translations are being corrected. But I’m always on the side of the editors.

Oh ye sons and daughters of translation accuracy, translation checkers of Korea, we salute you.




  1. Lynn S says:

    It really makes you wonder when the ministry has to translate the same document over and over due to translation errors. Sounds like this was down intentally. However now a days you would think they would be a little more diligent since there are many translators ready to pick the document to pieces and highlight the flaws.

  2. jeff says:

    rip it up and start again

  3. Richard says:

    Thank the internet for allowing intrepid individuals to view the goings on of government. Public access to documents is becoming more difficult to obtain and if they continue to screw things up this badly, it’ll be up to the public to keep them in line.

  4. Buzz says:

    So long as the inconsistencies in the agreement can be spun by both governments, no one can be held accountable, leaving everyone to blame the other guy about the inequities of the deal.

  5. Robert says:

    Why is no one paying for knowledge? You don’t have to be good at everything and clearly governments the world over have demonstrated that time and again. In order to have a fair and equal agreement in place, they should first agree to contract this task out. Professional knowledge can be bought with the public’s $$ through private channels.

  6. If it is baroque, it must be fixed…unadorned perhaps?

  7. no one wants to admit that they’re wrong especially if they believe that there version is correct

  8. Evie says:

    Public business has been just that for a long time…if no one is bothering to monitor it, then they deserve whatever they get

  9. this wouldn’t be the first time a deal was signed with no clear direction for either side

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