The limits of translation tools

The solution to all translation problems is “papago”. Despite an introductory course in Korean in Switzerland, I got into a bit of a rut when I arrived at Incheon Airport. I was surprised by the fact that people in South Korea don’t really know how to communicate in English. This is surprising because English is taught from the basic level and the Korean school system requires a high school diploma. The final exam includes a multiple-choice reading comprehension test, tricky even for native English speakers. And yet only Koreans with an international background can communicate in English. This was not a bad thing for me because it gives me the chance to immerse myself in new spheres of communication.

Everyday short language sequences like ordering a coffee are easy. People appreciate the effort you make to acquire the language. Moreover, it is easy to create a pleasant atmosphere through gestures without saying much. A nod to signal awareness and respect for the other person or the informal wave with both hands – also practised when arriving at the mountain station by chairlift.

It becomes complicated with specific things like official instructions, where Koreans themselves do not understand what it is about – even if you explain it to them in perfect Korean. The idiosyncrasy of Koreans is to say “ne” (English; yes) until something becomes superfluous. And let’s be honest at this point. Many problems as an exchange student arise over time. However, when you need the information from the respective person, it can be really exhausting. It’s worth asking and then asking again. However, this is a fine line. In my experience, Koreans shut down and go silent if you pester them too hard with a problem or with the English language. So, you do your best to explain yourself simply and precisely. This, in turn, can lead to a conflict between the German and the Korean understanding of the language. Pointing out mistakes or even blaming someone for them is associated with loss of face for the other person. And if one cannot accept an invitation, it is urgent to explain why. Working or studying as an excuse is appreciated.

In the new linguistic environment, which is characterised by many international students, the feeling that I am a different Stefan in a foreign language crept up on me. In the beginning, people often understood something different than what I wanted to express. This transformation may still sound plausible in Korean, but it also felt that way in High German and English. This may be due to a lack of feeling for the language. It helped that native speakers pronounce words and sentences differently – not to mention using different words for the same thing. I became aware that my rigid school language skills needed to be linked with dialect, feelings, and expressiveness in everyday life. This way, I am understood and can choose the roles I want to slip into. Before, they were imposed on me. The playful use of language allows me to break out of monotonous situations in everyday life.

It has proven helpful for me to inform myself as best as possible in advance and prepare specific sentences to cope with everyday life. Whether it’s before I go into a tailor’s workshop to have my jacket mended or to buy a subscription at the gym. For more complicated matters, such as when your bank card gets stuck in the ATM, it is advisable to have a native speaker make the call for you. I have developed an essential trust that many things will work out well through my communication difficulties. Firstly, because the other person is an expert in their task and Koreans never abandon you. Not even if you are supposed to check in 20 minutes before departure and the ticket for the domestic flight is only booked for the next day. “Papago” is there to help with translation problems. And if all that doesn’t help: In dubio pro “ne”.

Stefan Schmoker

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