(508) Interpreting Riches
By Andrei Lankov
No conduct of diplomacy is possible without the assistance of professional interpreters. The foreign dealings of Korea under the Joseon Kingdom, until the late 19th century, were very limited in scale: regular exchanges were conducted only with China and, on a smaller scale, with Japan.
Still, the country needed interpreters and they were trained in a special school of foreign languages. Most of the graduates from that school specialized in Chinese, since China was by far the most important partner of Korea in those years.
The interpreters mostly came from a social group known as ``jungin.'' This group was positioned relatively high in the convoluted pecking order of Joseon-era society, which included a multitude of hereditary and semi-hereditary groups.
Nonetheless, jungin were below the true gentry status of the yangban, who enjoyed a near monopoly on the medium- and high-level official positions, and who also formed a majority of landowners (not all yangbans were rich, however).
Most of the jungin were employed in positions which now would be described as ``professional'': accountants, legal advisers, translators etc. Nowadays such people are seen as affluent by definition, but in general in Old Korea they enjoyed but a moderate income. Interpreters, however, were an exception: they were rich.
The reason for their affluence was that professional interpreters was the group best positioned to engage in private international trade. The nature of their job meant that they could go to China regularly, once every few years, staying there for months at a time.
Other members of a Korean mission usually made only one or two trips to China in their lifetime, since in Old Korea there were no professional diplomats in the modern sense, so more or less any official could be appointed to a mission.
In those days, Korea was a closed society which strongly discouraged any interaction with the outside world, private overseas trips were strictly forbidden and foreigners were not allowed to reside in Korea permanently (the only exception were Japanese traders, but those were confined to their settlement in present-day Busan).
As a rule, international trade was also viewed with great suspicion. Anyone who has lived in an economically closed society can testify that access to foreign goods easily brings large profits, since rare goods can command astronomical prices.
The Soviet Union, where the present author spent his youth, in economic terms was a more open society than Old Korea. Still, few Soviet citizens would come back home without some merchandise for resale, and the same is applicable to inhabitants of nearly all countries of classical state socialism.
Much earlier, Korean interpreters made the most of their own unique position. It did not hurt that from the 1600s onwards the interpreters were not too overwhelmed with their professional tasks.
The actual translation and interpretation was largely done by the Korean-speaking interpreters provided by the Chinese, so Koreans were merely present there to control and assist.
It also helped that all Korean and Chinese officials were well versed in classical Chinese, which remained the major official language in both countries.
Due to many things for which we have no time here, one could not speak classical Chinese, but could easily write it, so there was no need to translate the official Chinese documents: Koreans could read these texts without any difficulty.
Thus, in the 18th and 19th centuries interpreters were more commonly known as ``merchant-interpreters'' and this name, while somewhat derogatory, reflected their actual role pretty well.
The Korean government understood the situation, so interpreters were not paid for their missions. It was assumed that they would make money through private commerce. At the same time, the government tried to regulate the trade, limiting the amount of goods an interpreter was allowed to take to China.
By far the most popular export item was ginseng, grown or found in Korea. It commanded good prices in Chinese markets, especially in the south where rich landlords and businessmen were ready to pay as much as necessary to get their hands on this reputed miraculous medicine.
From the late 17th century every member of a Korean mission to China was allowed to take 80 ginseng roots. It was assumed that this amount would pay for his expenses, and also would bring him some profit. The rule was applicable to everybody, but interpreters with their Chinese connections were best positioned to make money out of the entire affair.
In many cases, interpreters were allowed to borrow silver ingots from government offices as well as from private persons. On return, they repaid the loan with interest and still made a good profit by reselling the merchandise they obtained in China using this silver.
The imports largely consisted of various luxury items, which were much prized by the Korean elite. Book imports played a major role, too. The then bestsellers of the Chinese book market were much sought after by Korean intellectuals who frequently approached the interpreters and asked them to find some books in China for them.
Eventually, the intellectual curiosity of some educated Koreans was attracted to books, which outlined some exotic religious teaching from the distant West.
It was the interpreters who in the late 1700s first delivered Chinese translations of Christian texts to Korea, triggering a major religious transformation that is still continuing to this day.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He has recently published ``The Dawn of Modern Korea,'' which is now on sale at Kyobo Book Center and other major bookstores. The book is based on columns published in The Korea Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org