Thursday, April 30, 2009

Korean Airlines and the Cultural Clash

"A Korean Airlines plane that crashed a few years ago did so because of the hierarchical culture, and not some hardware malfunctioning. The reason this particular plane crashed was due to a disagreement between the pilot and co-pilot on the way to solve a problem with landing the plane, and to make matters worse there was a disagreement with ground control in Korea. This all stemmed from their communications in Korean because Korean is a hierarchical language where honorifics and speech level play and important part in grammar and verbiage used between conversations of people with different status. By status I mean either ones job position, age, and education level.

Allegedly, there was verbiage and tone that was incorrectly used between the co-pilot (lower status), and the pilot (higher status) as they disputed ideas to solve the problem they were encountering. This created an argument, and when the ground control officer got involved it elevated the communication breakdown that had occurred between the pilot and co-pilot. The language hierarchical problem that occurred was a costly life-ending event for Korean Airlines and since that incident, they have enforced the use of English for all instructions and commands on their airplanes."

So, says the blogger above, translators should not only translate language, but culture as well. Sounds logical, right? No. According to a large number of my colleagues here in Australia the Fair, a translator or interpreter should never act as a cultural consultant. Of course, no one really knows what a cultural consultant does for a living (I do) and as such, they cannot explain why such cultural consulting has any conflict of interest or ethics with translating/interpreting. So I happily hobble around on my two unfitting (or befitting) professional legs - I translate, and I consult on cultural issues.

Simply put, when we translate a text - in the post-modern meaning of the term - we must be in some way or another bridging the cultural gap between the two languages. No language exists without a culture, and no culture without a language.

Some ideas, though, are embedded in our Aussie mind-sets and are hard to eradicate.

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