Lost in Translation

This is a few days late, but in the Washington Post last week, Tong Kim had a fascinating article on the ways in which mistranslations and misinterpretations of language led to confusion between the United States and North Korea, during their haggling over the latter’s nuclear program:

For example, the statement issued in Beijing defined the goal of the six-party talks as “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” which could allow the Pyongyang regime to link inspections in the North to demands that South Korea, as part of the “Korean peninsula,” also be subject to verification — which I’m certain is not what Seoul had in mind. North Korea made a commitment to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” — but its translation used the Korean verb pogi hada, which could be interpreted to mean leaving the weapons in place rather than dismantling them. And what exactly did the United States mean when it agreed to help North Korea obtain a nuclear energy reactor at an “appropriate time”? Somewhere between yesterday and never, no doubt…

The words are hard enough to decipher. They come with traditions, hang-ups and history. Often the North Koreans deliberately choose ambiguous expressions. Until they revealed their alleged possession of nuclear weapons last February, their term for “nuclear deterrent” connoted a “nuclear capability” but didn’t spell that out. It could mean nuclear weapons, or technology, or fissile material or processing facilities — or all of these. To make matters worse, the North’s interpreter repeatedly and incorrectly translated the Korean word for deterrent, okjeryok, as restraint. When pressed about the uranium enrichment program, a North Korean official said that Pyongyang was “bound to produce more powerful weapons than that.” The North Korean interpreter translated the Korean phrase mandlgiro deo itta as “entitled to.” If you’re entitled to do something, you have a right that you may or may not exercise. But the Korean phrase really means that you’re going to do it — not just that you have the option.

In the same edition, the Post‘s Glenn Kessler went through the recent agreement line-by-line, hashing out the various ambiguities in the text. Short version: It turns out there’s a lot more wiggle room—for both North Korea and the United States—then early reports suggested, which doesn’t exactly make one optimistic that this deal will hold.