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Seoul’d down the river


In 2011, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) was forced to concede that a Free Trade Agreement then being concluded with the EU was chock-full of errors. The Korean language version contained over 20 mistranslations, but for almost 18 months they ignored them while pressing for the agreement to take effect.

 “Transplant” was mistranslated as “transfusion,” “subsidiary” was mistranslated as “local subsidiary” and “epidemiological” as “skin care services.” There were also embarrassing mistranslations, such as mistranslating the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as the Organisation for Development and Economic Co-operation, while Finland’s (incidentally beautiful) Åland Islands (hello to Carl-Magnus Gardberg) were rendered “Alaend Island.”

The text also included 16 Korean schoolboy howlers; or so I’m told for, to my shame, my Korean is far from fluent. Frequently, items were either left out of the translation or added at will. There were seven instances of the word “any” being left out of negative sentences, while “vegetable ingredients” was translated as “ingredients with vegetable oil”.

The administration had also paid an outside agency 30 million won ($27,503) to verify the text of the treaty, but the agreement also passed this stage without problem.

The errors were discovered almost by chance. A commercial lawyer examining the Korean text found it so difficult to understand that he compared it to the English. Those errors were shrugged off as a “working-level mistake” by MOFAT. The lawyer continued to find (and notify) translation errors, while Lawyers for a Democratic Society joined in and found another 160 of them. In the end, the Foreign Ministry corrected over 200 errors before tabling a third ratification bill.

In the sort of bland and patronising politico-guff that is recognisable in every language, Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon said, “Looking back, the administration’s early response measures were partially mistaken.”


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