Translators, Interpreters Finding it Tough to Survive

    August 29, 2004 19:28

    "I thought that if you become a simultaneous interpreter, there was lots of work at international conferences. We studied our brains out for two years to graduate, and not only can we not even dream of becoming a freelancer, but even most in-house translation and interpretation work is contract work."

    This is the cry of the translators. At Hanguk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS)' Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation, there are ten students aspiring for jobs this year. Even last year, when the nation experienced the worth employment rate ever, all the university's graduates managed to find jobs. In addition to English, majors in relatively less employable languages like Chinese and Japanese had suffered quite a bit during the last two years due to the SARS crisis in China and recession in Japan. Besides Hanguk University of Foreign Studies, there are five other graduate schools of translation. Graduates say, "After graduation, most of us end up doing part time jobs that earn W700,000 a day, but those kinds of jobs come only once or twice a month nowadays... In the case of those simultaneous translators who participate in international conferences, its hard for them to work nine times a year."

    Graduate school officials count the decrease in international conferences and events as a reason for the lack of work. Korea has already missed out on hosting three major world events -- the Winter Olympics, the World Expo and a major congress held by the International Diabetes Federation. As the economy worsens, ones price comes down, too. 31-year-old freelance translator Mr. Choe said, "Before, if you worked as an in-house translator, you could make between W4 million and W5 million a month, but now, that's been cut about 30 or 40 percent... Not only are there no jobs, but in official offices like City Hall, they recruit translators on two year contracts, so the work is unstable, too."

    While demand for translators is limited, the supply of translators is rapidly increasing; this is an issue that will have to be solved by the translating schools themselves. Domestically, there are six graduate schools that produce translators. Among these, HUFS' Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation, established in 1979, has the longest tradition and most of Korea's nearly 900 translators are graduates of the school. In 1997, however, Ewha Womans University founded its Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation, Sunmoon University started a similar school in 2001, and in 2003, Seoul University of Foreign Studies was established, and the number of translators and interpreters skyrocketed. Each year, these schools graduate about 200 students.

    In this situation, the number of students favoring graduate schools of translation and interpretation is growing. One school official said that while it was a problem that more and more students were favoring English, it was a bigger problem that students majoring in other languages and cultures were decreasing. This is because being a translator requires more than simply words. It also requires in-depth knowledge of the region's society and culture. In the case of HUFS, because of the Iraq War, much attention has focused on its translation and interpretation graduate school's Arabic department, with people crying that there was a need for regional specialists. There's still not a lot of work for them, however. This is because with the exception of English, for which there is fairly stable demand, other majors are sensitive to international trends like wars, SARS and the economy. In the case of HUFS' graduate school, it has the most majors in the country (English, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, German, French, and others), but more than half the students can be found in its English department. In Ehwa's case, its graduation program has four majors -- English, Chinese, Japanese, and French -- but of the 100 students in recruits annually, between 40 and 50 percent go into English. The industry predicts that the market for languages other than English will not grow in the future. In HUFS case, it will reduce staff in languages other than English.

    Meanwhile, as English secures its place as the language of international communication, even its demand as been decreasing. An official from the convention-planning firm Intercom said, "Not just in specialist gatherings like academic conferences, but also in other events, there have been more cases in which we didn't need English translators."

    (Kim Nam-in,
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