Taina Ikola

Taina Ikola

Interpreter to the presidents

interpreter and interpreting

A high-level delegation from South Korea arrived in Finland in June to take part in the networking event Korea-Finland Startup Summit 2019. The delegation included South Korean officials, such as the president Moon Jae-in, start-ups, large companies and investors. Delingua had the pleasure of organising the interpreting for the event, and our Korean-English interpreter Eun-Kyeong Ko was present to interpret for both the South Korean and Finnish presidents. We interviewed Eun-Kyeong and we asked her what it was like to provide interpreting at such a high political level.


The road to becoming an interpreter

Eun-Kyeong Ko has been interpreting for a long time and has gained experience in interpreting both presidents and prime ministers. During her twenty-five-year career she has interpreted at top-level summits and state visits and, over the years, her duties have taken her around the world.

Eun-Kyeong ended up as an interpreter quite by accident. Originally, she studied English literature at university but at that time in South Korea it was difficult as a woman to build a career. Many women stopped working to get married or, at the latest, when they had children. “I thought that I would complete one more subject that would help me get a better job and stay in working life longer. I decided to get an interpreting degree, which many companies valued,” says Eun-Kyeong. “To begin with, I couldn’t imagine myself working as a freelancer, but once I started interpreting studies, I loved the field. Interpreting was so fascinating, and I liked the intellectual interpreting exercises.”

Simultaneous or same time interpreting, which is often used at political conferences, is real mental gymnastics. It requires from the interpreter a good memory and quick wits. At the Korea-Finland Startup Summit, Eun-Kyeong also got to interpret for presidents through consecutive interpreting.


Interpreting work challenges and rewards

According to Eun-Kyeong, interpreting politicians is one of the most challenging tasks in her work. High-level political events are attended by many different ministries and working conditions are sometimes very challenging. Also, the pressure is great, on both the organisers and the interpreters. The interpreter must handle the pressure and succeed in obtaining essential preparation material, such as the presidents’ speeches, in advance. Many times, however, it is difficult to get the preparation material. “Often, we get the text just a day before the event. On some occasions, we get the president’s speech on the day of the event, which causes a lot of stress,” says Eun-Kyeong. “Once I was interpreting at the last minute the prime minister of Holland and I didn’t have any material beforehand. When I arrived at the venue, the prime minister read his notes and, luckily, let me take a look at them. It really saved my day.”

The importance of preparation material is emphasised even more in the written speeches of politicians since the written language often differs significantly from spoken language. “Especially Korean spoken language differs a great deal from the written language, which is really formal. We don’t use the same expressions in spoken and written language, and the way in which we use expressions is really different,” explains Eun-Kyeong. “An example of this is one of my customers for whom I interpreted regularly for several years and who, after a while, would speak to me in a very friendly and informal way. Then, one time when we were in contact via e-mail, I was surprised by his formal e-mail.”

Although interpreting presidents and other notable people is challenging, for Eun-Kyeong it is also extremely fascinating. When interpreting, an interpreter produces a speech from one language to another and, at the same time, conveys the speaker’s emotions. Eun-Kyeong also compares interpreting to acting. During the interpreting the interpreter takes on the role of the speaker completely. If the speaker gets emotional during their speech and their voice breaks, the interpreter’s voice might also break. “The interpreter must also love being on stage. Usually the hall is full of people and there are two spotlights: one for the speaker and the other for the interpreter. When I’m in that kind of situation, I get a rush of adrenaline,” says Eun-Kyeong with excitement.


Great moments interpreting

Eun-Kyeong counts all her jobs interpreting presidents and prime ministers as her star moments as an interpreter, as they have always been to her unique experiences. “Interpreting situations such as those always stick in my mind and I’m always impressed by how well they are prepared. They are really capable with the subject of their speech and they also prepare small talk,” says Eun-Kyeong

As one of her most memorable interpreting experiences, Eun-Kyeong also mentions a conference that was organised by a pharmaceutical company at which patients dealing with multiple sclerosis spoke about their experiences. “The patients’ stories were heartbreaking. They were fighting the disease as well as fighting to secure their rights. The patients made a huge impression on me and I was moved by their speeches,” she says, remembering the experience. In Eun-Kyeong’s opinion, the best thing about the job of an interpreter is that you get to do meaningful and concrete work.