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The Perils and Possibilities of Translation

A Letter from Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee, serving in Korea

July 2018

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The moderator of the Ecumenical Forum for Korea (EFK), Peter Prove, had just presented the proposal that I be appointed as the new EFK coordinator. The request for confirmation was now being translated from English into Korean for the North Korean delegation, and I have to admit I could not help but feel a twinge of apprehension — translating what I thought was a simple question with a simple answer was taking longer than I imagined! Earlier, I had given a brief statement to introduce myself in front of the more than 40 forum members and observers from denominations and church institutions of various countries. When I went to sit at my round table next to some of the German and South Korean delegates, our moderator was explaining that all the other members had already given tacit approval. We were only waiting on North Korean confirmation. As I sat a few tables over, I watched the North Korean translator lean over to speak to the chair of their delegation. The translation took so long that I felt an awkward silence and began to wonder, “Are they having a conversation rather than simply translating? Maybe they understand but are actually trying to figure out how to disapprove of the proposal?”

At this point, I should give some context. The Ecumenical Forum for Korea (EFK) is a forum hosted by the World Council of Churches (WCC) based on the face-to-face meetings between the National Council of Churches of South Korea and the Korean Christian Federation (KCF) of North Korea. The KFC is the federation of Protestant Christians officially recognized by the North Korean government. These consultations that include other international church partners began in 1984 in Tozanso, Japan, hence are referred to as the “Tozanso Process.” The North Koreans first attended in 1986, at the consultation in Glion, Switzerland. Since then, they have met almost every year, and later they created the EFK forum, whose longer name is the Ecumenical Forum for Peace, Reunification and Development Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula, which also helped to expand membership to other international partner denominations and organizations. This year was the first EFK meeting since the Panmunjom Summit between North and South Korea and the North Korea-US Singapore Summit, so our discussions focused on follow-up to those summit agreements. (Panmunjom is the joint security village on the border of North and South Korea where the armistice agreement was signed and where the current leaders met this April.)

This was my first experience meeting people who currently live in North Korea. I heard the chair of the KCF, Rev. Myong Chol Kang, present their delegation’s opening remarks for this EFK meeting alongside the South Korean NCCK (National Council of Churches in Korea). They spoke of the positive reaction within North Korea to the news of the April Inter-Korean Summit and the North Korea-US Summit in Singapore in June, and the rising hope for an end to the war and peaceful reunification among the Korean people. He explained that justice and peace are not merely abstract concepts for North Koreans, but rather their spiritual lifeline. Rev. Kang affirmed that the Lord had taught us to be salt and light to the world in order to bring peace, which is why the KCF considers this ecumenical forum to be so important. He also emphasized the need for any denuclearization agreement to reference weapons of destruction on the entire peninsula, rather than the unilateral disarmament of North Korea. Both the NCCK and the WCC reiterated their concurrence with this position of denuclearization of the entire peninsula in their presentations that followed.

That evening, we took a boat tour on Lake Geneva, and I found the opportunity to strike up conversation as forum members gathered outside the boat to watch the sunset. Koreans in North and South speak the Korean language, but dialects differ, as there are also different dialects within South Korea. To my dismay, after I had tried to use my Korean language, Rev. Kang immediately turned to my South Korean friend, Dr. Hyunju Bae, and asked, “What is he trying to say?” My Korean wasn’t quite good enough to transcend the North-South border. That was quite a blow to my ego and the work I’ve put into learning Korean.

I thought, maybe I can take this as an opportunity! If they ask me to make a comment when they announce the proposal for my appointment, I’ll mention that I hope to learn from them how to better communicate with them. I planned out what I would say, that I have learned the South Korean dialect of Korean, but I hope to learn the North Korean dialect from our sisters and brothers in the KCF, so we can understand each other. However, I used the Korean word “saturi,” which means, “dialect,” to say, “I hope to learn North Korean saturi from you.” As I learned that night, saturi carries a diminutive connotation, as if Seoul is the upper standard and all other saturi are deviations! So just before hearing the North Korean response to my appointment, I imply that they speak an inferior dialect. Another shot to my ego!

Then came the extra-long translation. I began to sweat. Thankfully, despite me sticking my foot in my mouth, after the translation and the explanation of the need for an answer, Rev. Kang pronounced loudly in English, “I agree!” Thus, I became the new coordinator for the EFK. During that meeting, the EFK also set its vision to follow up on the Panmunjom Declaration of the two Korean leaders, to move from a Tozanso Process to a Panmunjom Process. The EFK will increase its focus on humanitarian exchanges inspired by the Panmunjom Declaration.

The next day, I unexpectedly met Rev. Kang and the KCF delegation walking around Geneva looking for a cafe in which to watch a World Cup match between England and Panama. He stepped out of a gift shop and greeted me heartily. I finally remembered to ask for a picture, since I had not yet gotten one together with any of the KCF members. He agreed, and said he looks forward to our next meeting, at least I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.

I want to thank you for all your support and prayers, especially in this time of growing roles and appointments and international summits to end the war in Korea. I depend upon your gifts and support to cultivate these relationships across the boundaries of conflict, re-humanizing our images of each other. I hope to share more stories of God’s work for reconciliation on both sides of the Korean peninsula through the EFK with you in the future. Amen.

Kurt and Hyeyoung


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