Monthly Archive: April 2011

I Sometimes Wonder if “Face” in Asia is a Figment of People’s Imagination

Everybody’s heard that “saving face” is important in Asia. It turns out Koreans think the Japanese place particular importance on this. But on a recent discussion on Korea Business Central, a member familiar with Japan mentioned that Koreans take the concept of “saving face” to a whole new level, and later clarified that he thinks it’s the same in both countries but that each culture manifests it differently. I, on the other hand, have some suspicions about the whole thing. The following is what I posted in response:

I harbor a suspicion that the supposedly unique Asian characteristic called “face” is a figment of people’s imagination.

Perhaps some Westerner long ago traveled to the Orient and found it to be a mysterious place. One day, he learned that the Asians even have a word for one’s sense of personal dignity (“chaemyun” in Korean) and observed that we don’t have a word for it in the Western languages (well, we do, but it takes us several words to make the phrase.. it’s called, “sense of personal dignity”) and he and the Asians all got excited about this newly found trait that nobody’d noticed until then.

Before you knew it, the concept had taken on a life of its own and it was used to explain all kinds of odd behavior and it became generally accepted that Asians will do anything to “save face” and that this makes them special and hard to understand. I guess that means Westerners don’t really give a damn if we’re insulted, shamed or otherwise made to feel less than special.

I’m certainly open to other opinions (and very likely I’m wrong here), but I do suspect there’s not much to the chaemyun myth at all.

Click here to read the rest of the KBC Relay Interview with Greg Sheen, including insightful comments by other Korea Business Central members.

What Are the Real Benefits to Learning Korean in Korea?

A member on Korea Business Central seems to be losing enthusiasm for studying Korean and posted a discussion question this week asking what he's really going to get out of the effort if he just wants to work in Korea. Seeing as how Koreans in business generally want to learn English and often don't place value on the efforts of foreigners to learn Korean, it's not hard to understand this KBC member's doubts. I think it takes a deeper perspective to fully appreciate the situation; here's how I replied to him:

"This is a very interesting question because it seems like the answer should be obvious, but as you pointed out, it's not.

Nobody is going to hire you in Korea simply because you speak Korean well. Why would they? And having mediocre Korean in the workplace is no better than no Korean at all, in most situations. In general, I've found that Koreans trying to learn English are less than thrilled to meet Korean-speaking foreigners, unless the foreigner's Korean is significantly better than their own English. And I definitely agree that getting from intermediate to advanced is going to take a whole lot longer than it took to get from beginner to intermediate.

But I don't think this is the whole story. If you speak Korean, then you're not left getting only the information Koreans choose to share with you; you've got direct access to the "primary sources". This is extremely important in countless subtle ways. And as David Yeo shared above, you can build stronger bonds with those around you both through the language and through cultural understanding (though I don't necessarily agree that Korean is better suited to emotional expression than English; both languages seem equally robust in this regard).

I think you also earn respect from Koreans you work with if you prove your mettle through Korean skills, and this can be a huge asset in business. Don't underestimate the value here. Foreigners who've been in Korean for decades but haven't learned Korean properly are kidding themselves if they think the Koreans around them don't look down on them, at least in limited ways, and this is in spite of what Koreans will tell them. Ironically, I find that foreigners who've learned Korean tend to be more understanding of Korean shortcomings (especially lack of English skills) than those who haven't learned Korean.

If you've got language skills in a business setting, it means you're closer to functioning as an equal and not as someone who's there as an English chat buddy and/or who continuously needs to be explained to. If you see yourself staying and working in Korea over the long-term, I encourage you to redouble your language learning efforts and to never be satisfied with your current ability level."

Click here to read the rest of the discussion, including insightful comments by other Korea Business Central members.

On Charging for Additional Translation Reviews

It is often difficult for me to handle client feedback on my translation deliveries in a way that keeps everyone happy.

I'm certainly willing to review a client's or proofreader's work on something I delivered. However, as I see it, reviewing these changes is a third step in the project and is a billable added-value service because of the time it takes and because I'm responsible both for the quality and deadline of the additional review.

Clients sometimes perform this proofreading or other review of my work in-house and then send it back with questions and revisions. In such cases, these often include unnecessary changes to the translation or questions which reflect an ignorance of Korean. Of course, I don't expect clients to know about Korean; that's my job. And if they want to rephrase some stuff in the translation even if it wasn't wrong when I delivered and then ask me for my opinion on it, that's their right, too. Even if there are some improvements to be made, that's also natural, especially if they didn't pay to have the file proofread by another qualified professional. But while I try to be flexible, I don't necessary consider this additional hand-holding to be part of my standard delivery; I feel that clients requesting additional support should recognize it as an added-value, which is billable.

This is the case too when a Korean speaker (such as another translator) is hired by the client to review my work. Including a proofreading step by a competent proofreader is a best practice that I encourage clients to follow. And if the proofreader is fixing lots of my mistakes, then I would apologize and offer to return money, not try to charge for more. But it's been my policy for a long time that if I deliver a professional and high-quality job the first time, additional work to review yet another person's changes to my translation is an added-value service.

I agree that each new round of review contributes (or should contribute) to a better job, but in every writing business (such as the newspaper; see This Translation Isn't Perfect!), there are multiple levels of proofreading and editing, and the original writer doesn't have to to work for free on later steps just because the proofreaders and editors are good enough to improve the original work (or so bad that they make it worse and the original writer/translator has to put it back together).

The problem is that clients often expect this follow-up service to be included in the original project cost. But if I build a buffer into the rate to cover this, then clients who don't come back with additional requests overpay and ultimately, it reduces my competitiveness for the very clients who require the least additional support (i.e. the kind I want to attract).

Another issue that comes in to play is that there are good ways to ask for follow-up support and bad ways to do it. If the cost of the follow-up isn't borne by the client, then it gives them no motivation to aim for efficiency. For example, making revisions to a Word file translation using Tracked Changes means that when I go through to review, I can see exactly what's been changed and do the review quickly.

But when a client sends back a file that's been revised and asks me to do a final review without telling me what's been changed, I have to go through everything again and it takes much more time. Also, scribbling changes on a printout and faxing it back for implementation also requires that I decipher sometimes difficult-to-read text and re-enter the changes to the work file.

Furthermore, when a client sends back a re-edited document for review, they're really telling me to take responsibility for the new version. Such requests also come with deadlines that I'm expected to meet, and these required turnarounds have a funny way of being "overnight" or "right away".

Put this way, the added-value aspect makes even more sense.

Here's a reply I sent to a client recently who asked us to build the review cost into our original rate so that they could send us additional work without paying extra. 

"It wouldn't be fair to you if we build in the cost of review not knowing what it will take, since I would have to plan for a worst-case scenario. If your reviewer has a few objective questions that are clearly marked, then that's saves us time and I might not even charge. It's also fine if they want to revise and finish it out at their end without sending it back to us to then take ultimate responsibility for an updated version. 

But if they just go through and make lots of subjective changes (including introducing some new mistakes) and don't even mark anything and then send it to us for a blessing, then that forces a full text review and is a value-added service for sure."

Certificate of Translation Competence, Grade II

I've got to admit, it's pretty irritating that they put "Semi-professional Level" in English on the certificate. It doesn't say anything like this on the Korean side and it has no correspondence with anything mentioned on the Society website. It was merely the second of three levels offered for the test. They didn't even offer a level three test for Korean > English, nor do they allow Korean > English translators to choose the topic area. These options only exist for English > Korean linguists. Anyway, I hope to have a level one (that's the highest, apparently) certificate soon!

Sept. 19, 2011 Update – Click here for my Certificate of Translation Competence, Grade I.