It’s an iconic moment. Donald Trump is greeted by Kim Jong-un and together they cross into North Korea. The two men shake hands and exchange speeches expressing appreciation and friendship. They are surrounded by jostling photographers and, less obviously, security details. And, standing discreetly to one side, the two smartly-dressed individuals who make the whole thing possible. These are the interpreters: a man who translates Kim’s words into English, and a woman who translates Trump’s words into Korean. The two protagonists don’t make the interpreters’ work easier, as both leaders speak extensively before leaving space for the interpretation. The interpreters noticeably jot down notes to make sure they don’t forget the content before transforming it into the other language. Their body language expresses a mixture of deference, enthusiasm, and a certain understandable anxiety. After all, a mistranslated expression could trigger a major conflict.
Both interpreters appear to be Korean (or Korean-American, possibly), and the man’s English, though excellent, is inflected with a Korean pronunciation. This may not seem to be remarkable, but in fact it is. Interpreters and translators are ‘supposed’ to work from their second language into their first language. In other words, a native speaker of Korean translates Trump’s words into Korean and a native speaker of English translates Kim’s words into English. For this to happen, a number of Korean speakers have to learn English, which clearly is the case, and a number of English speakers have to learn Korean, which would appear not to be the case.
This kind of asymmetry is commonplace. We get used to hearing interviews in a language other than English, with a voice-over interpretation clearly spoken by someone who shares a first language with the speaker. There is nothing wrong with the quality of the interpretation – that is not my point – but the ‘translation into English’ industry would seem to be dominated by second-language-English professionals. Presumably the reason is a lack of sufficient numbers of speakers of English going into the translation or interpretation business. And this in turn is a consequence of the failure of people in Britain to seize the opportunities available to those who learn other languages.
A report by the British Council (‘Language Trends 2019’) marks the depressing decline in languages take-up at GCSE and A level, while a report commissioned by the British Academy (‘The Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning’) shows ‘a strong positive correlation between additional language-learning and the development of creativity’. More flexible thinking, problem-solving, increased empathy, and an ability to see the world from other perspectives – these are all benefits of learning languages. Seeing language learning in purely instrumental terms – ‘it’s good for business’ – is far too restrictive. But we should not reject such a view entirely. After all, become really good at a language and you could end up saving the world, even if you stand slightly off-camera while doing so.