(Not so) Lost in Translation

By Regina Hong, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio

In fulfillment of a pact I made with one of my best girlfriends in secondary school, I headed to Seoul last week, armed with a rudimentary knowledge of the Korean language.

Even though both of us had signed up for a tour group, I have a certain phobia of not being able to communicate with people. I suspect this stems from having people stare suspiciously at me when I speak to them in accented Hokkien. So when I knew that we were heading to Korea instead of Japan as originally planned, I scoured around the web for Korean language learning resources to ensure that at least one of us would be able to communicate in basic Korean.

As luck would have it, I came down with a sore throat on the fourth day of the trip. Since there were two theme park trips spread over the remainder of the trip (Lots of screaming to do, you see. Apparently, suppressed screaming is injurious to your health.), a trip to the pharmacy for some lozenges seemed a wise choice.

I hurled some garbled Korean at the startled ahjussi1 about my sore throat, which he, understandably, could not comprehend. I then reverted to the most basic language of all: the language of hand gestures. Pointing at my throat, I said: “Yogi appa yo (It hurts here.)” It worked like a charm and the ahjussi nodded in understanding. Yet, much to my surprise, instead of simply passing me some lozenges and saving himself a lot of trouble, he proceeded to place the backs of his hands on his forehead to ask if I was having a fever. After I answered in the negative, he then took out two types of medicine and with the same patience, went on to show me how they were to be consumed.

A smack of the lips meant that the box he was pointing to contained lozenges. An exaggerated throw of a phantom pill into his mouth and a gulp indicated that the other box contained pills. I indicated my choice and paid for it, thanking the ahjussi profusely for his kindness and patience.

On the way back to the hotel, I realised that contrary to my worries, I had not needed that much Korean to communicate what I wanted. Rather, it was the ahjussi’s willingness to understand what I had needed that had facilitated the buying process. Imagine if he had been an impatient man and simply wanted to sell me some medicine and be done with the whole deal! I might have purchased the wrong kind of medicine which would in turn, have done nothing to alleviate my symptoms. Thanks to his patience, I ended my trip on a happy note (I screamed like a banshee on the Everland roller coaster ride), with a very special lesson learnt.

Perhaps, despite the whole gamut of languages that the world plays host to, all of us are interconnected by one language after all – the universal language of understanding. Language is, to use a cliched phrase, no barrier if one can have the patience to try to understand what the other party wants. And that is something that is sorely needed by everyone all around; that is, to try to understand that your premium steak might be someone’s idea of cyanide. We can’t expect everyone to have the same mentality and needs. This is why behavourial economics exists. But we can try to understand, and agree to disagree instead of blindly dismissing what the other party is saying. Doing the latter can only make for a very prejudiced and shuttered world indeed.

1. Korean for Uncle.

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