Being an expat in Korea, I experience many situations where important facts are inevitably, lost in translation. Whether it’s a co-teacher not wanting to explain something thoroughly, decoding content labels on a bottle or trying to converse with other Koreans, the gap of misinterpretation can be well… wide.
A couple weekends ago, I took a train trip to Pohang with my friend, Chance.
Pohang is a port city, an hour east of Daegu. The tourist booth outside Pohang train station informed us of our tourist options: mountain hikes with waterfalls, a historical temple or a beach with two giant statues of hands!
Korea is filled with temples and mountains, so sometimes I get a little bored with them. It was a hot and sticky day and we wanted to go to the beach and see the giant hand!
The town of Mother Crabs
We took the bus out to… Guryongpo town, a fishing town where they are known for mother crabs. There’s a street lined with restaurants advertising and selling… crabs. Normally, this is my favorite dish, but as it was hot outside, it didn’t seem appealing.
Pohang’s Monster Hands
Homigot is the easternmost part of Pohang, touching the Sea of Japan and houses two landmark statues of giant hands. Paralleling each other, one is on land while the other is in the ocean. This landmark is said to be a place where Koreans gather to watch the sunrise at the beginning of the New Year. When aligned correctly, the hand looks like it’s actually holding the sun.
Lost in Translation: Dokdo, the island of dispute
Walking along the shoreline, we came upon some outdoor food stalls with tables on the rocks below. Just then, a sea-faring ajosshi (Korean: older man or uncle) approached me, chattering excitedly in Korean, while pointing to an information plaque mounted on the rocky shore. Further in the distance were two Korean flags wedged into rocks sitting in the sea.
In times like these, when I’m overwhelmed by gibberish and don’t want to disappoint, I give into a lie.
I nodded kamsahamnida (Korean: thank you) to the ajosshi and returned to Chance.
Chance, witnessing this conversation was very impressed. To her, it seemed like my Korean language classes were really paying off!
In effect, I had no clue what he was saying. Ulleung-do and Dokdo were the only names I could make out, but now I was certain those mounted flags were something important. In our EPIK orientation, we learned that Dokdo was a teenie-tiny island in dispute between Japan and Korea. Koreans call it Dokdo and Japan calls it Takeshima and both countries are fighting over it. This issue is something very precious and passionate with Koreans.
2 + 2 appears to equal four if you don’t know the full facts and the ajosshi situation, the plaque, the flags were all surmounting into the appearance that Dokdo, was literally that piece of rock with the flag stuck in it! Imagine my surprise! I was shocked and couldn’t understand how the Japan-Korea dispute so petty as to fight over a tiny piece of reef!
Lost in translation.
Not only did Korea almost lose their island to a piece of rock, but they almost lost their credibility in my eyes. Only after I got home and Googled it, did I discover that Dokdo wasn’t a rock, but a legitimate island and that Korean fishing couple lives on it in the hope of keeping it in Korea’s property. Thus, that reef and the flags were only models of the actual thing.
I feel a bit foolish to make such a gross mis-translation. But that’s life in and mistaken translations in Korea.