(44) Court Interpreters Deemed Critical in Diplomacy, Yet Largely Discriminated Against by Aristocrats

By Yang Sung-jin

One of the most fashionable jobs for college graduates these days is simultaneous interpreter. There are currently two specialized graduate schools for that profession in Seoul and the competition is getting tougher and tougher. Perhaps its image — a freelance job with a handsome income — strongly appeals to job-seekers.

During the Choson Kingdom, the competition to become a “yok-kwan,” or official government interpreter and translator, was as fierce as it is today — but for a different reason.
Besides being fluent in a foreign language, Choson yok-kwans were also expected to function as intermediaries in diplomacy, a delicate area where a slight mistake in interpretation might result in serious diplomatic repercussions.

In 1404, Sahonbu, or the Office of the Inspector-General, issued an appeal to the king which said, “As a small nation, it is our obligation to serve a big country, but since our nation is isolated in a seaside area, we have a different language from Chinese. Given that we cannot communicate without yok-kwans, the role of the yok-kwan cannot be stressed too much.”

On Oct. 13, 1794, King Chongjo emphasized the importance of yok-kwans in a formal announcement to court officials: “Second only to the social status of the yangban bureaucrats are doctors and yok-kwans. While only the yangban class can climb to the highest levels of government, doctors and yok-kwans are entitled to a special exemption owing to their importance.”

The king’s remarks came after the occurrence of an incident which gravely marred the image of yok-kwans. According to related documents, some Choson diplomats visiting China were reported to have openly cudgeled the chief of the yok-kwans accompanying the delegates.

Given that yok-kwans were considered to be of equal ranking to diplomats, King Chongjo thought it inappropriate for officials to downplay their crucial diplomatic role.

Frailty, Thy Name is Yok-kwan!

In fact, to become a yok-kwan was far from easy. The process was the same as that for other highly-coveted civil service positions: the writing of state examinations, a pertinent social background as well as knowledge necessary for the job.

Candidates had to go through either the official screening process called “Yok-kwa” or write a special examination designed to set highly-competent foreign speakers apart from those who completed the regular state examinations. In addition, those fluent in Chinese yet unable to read Chinese characters were given secondary governmental posts as interpreters.

The Koryo Kingdom, which antedated the Choson, had no official government interpreters. It was King Taejo, founder of the Choson, who installed the system as soon as he ascended the throne in 1392.

The state examination for aspiring yok-kwans covered one of four main languages — Chinese, Mongolese, Jurchen or Japanese. Since Choson made much of its relations with Ming China, Chinese language speakers received better treatment than the others.

As a result, the Chinese department was the largest, accepting as many as 13 applicants from the state examination finalists. Meanwhile, only two persons were allowed to work at each of the other departments.

Though the examinations for yok-kwans were tough to pass, yok-kwans at “Sayokwon”‘ (where the foreign language speakers worked as public interpreters in the Choson court) had to live with low self-esteem as well as unfriendly stares from other court officials.

The reason for their lowly status was that most yok-kwans came from the middle class and discriminating against lower class people in the Choson period was readily accepted, especially by officials of upper class background.

In 1407, animosity toward yok-kwans reached a peak, with regular officials boycotting a class they were obliged to take together with the interpreters. King Taejong, angered by the pretentious officials’ protest, called them on to the royal carpet for a rebuke.

Discrimination against yok-kwans did not stop there, however. An article dated 1538 states that many officials refused to learn the Chinese language because they saw it as “vulgar.”

Interpreters Deemed Vulgar

Indifference to language study took a different twist in mid-1764 when King Yongjo ordered a Chinese teacher named Hong Sul-hae to give a lecture using the then authoritative Chinese language text, “Nokoldae.” Unfortunately, Hong was unable to deliver the lecture because he wasn’t a fluent Chinese speaker, a fact which caused considerable embarrassment to the king.

“Even though Sayokwon claims that it recruits only competent language teachers, some of them seem to be completely ignorant of the language they are said to speak. From now on, you are only to teach Chinese to young and intelligent officials so that they can do their job properly,” King Yongjo fumed at court officials.

In 1482, King Songjong issued a directive opening the high-ranking government post of “Tansangkwan” to competent yok-kwans, citing the importance of yok-kwans to diplomacy with neighboring nations.

But those who already occupied these posts did not welcome the king’s abrupt announcement favoring the yok-kwan. As a host of disgruntled officials staged a strident protest, the king finally withdrew his decision.

At the time, yok-kwans were prohibited from climbing up the government ladder beyond Tansangkwan both in principle and in practice. Even if one broke through the glass ceiling, formal recognition from incumbent court officials was considered wishful thinking.

For instance, in 1486, Chang Yu-song and Hwang Jung were yok-kwan-turned-officials. Although they had achieved government rankings beyond the Tansangkwan level, mainstream court officials continued to treat them as outsiders.

According to an article dated 1543, some officials boasting what they considered to be more “legitimate” backgrounds went so far as to state that yok-kwans were “ignorant.” Furthermore, the same article quotes the officials saying that yok-kwans “interpret nothing more than side issues, while failing to deliver the crux of the message.”

Though today’s simultaneous interpreters are far better treated than their Choson predecessors, they still have to live with the same occupational hazard. Instead of a humiliating cudgeling, a serious mistake, say, at an important international conference, has the potential to result in a critical loss of the interpreter’s credibility — and the loss of their lucrative position.