An Interpreter’s Tale

I have been collecting notes for a study of the treason of interpreters. This may not make it into my dissertation, but I find the topic fascinating. In the history of collaboration, interpreters often figure prominently. They speak for the occupier, they ask questions for him, they feed him the information he needs to establish and maintain power. They usually come to their position by virtue of their language abilities, but very often such abilities are the product of a long and deep intimacy with the culture and people of the occupier, either through prolonged residence or study in the occupier’s country, personal relationships, or a hybrid identity.

I'm Just the Interpreter

A Classic Image of the Treasonous Interpreter

(From the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing)

These treasonous interpreters are often portrayed as the quintessential running dogs of the enemy, groveling selfish figures standing just behind their master who sell out their nation for whatever benefits might come their way. It is not surprising, then, to find them a major target of attack by insurgents. Interpreters for the Israelis in Gaza, for the Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, for the Japanese in China and Korea, indeed everywhere, including hated German-Norwegians who interpreted for the German occupation in my own hometown in Stavanger, are often tried as traitors in the aftermath of a conflict, but are also frequently the victims of brutal assassinations and torture by forces of the resistance.

Of course, the language skills of these interpreters are not necessarily indicative of their sympathy for the enemy. Like any other collaborator who freely chooses or are, to various degrees, coerced into working for the occupation, these interpreters often merely see themselves as continuing their trade, or making use of suddenly useful skill. I think this observation can cut both ways: their constant visual proximity and ability to speak for the invader has led to a demonization of interpreters that is well out of proportion to their crime, when seen as a kind of trade of services for the enemy (as opposed to helping them run puppet regimes, for example, or carry out acts of violence on their behalf). On the other hand, as with everyone else whose continued provision of the services of labor and goods to an occupier or other enemy in wartime enable it to maintain its power, the consequences have moral implications.1 Now let us look at one case that offers what I think is a rather typical case of the most common twists and turns in the career of a treasonous interpreter.

Kim Yong Hyun

The recent anniversary of the opening of the most violent stage of the Korean civil war on June 25, 1950, when North Korea launched a full invasion of the south, found me in the National Library in Taiwan. Organizing some of my notes on North Korea there, I got distracted reading the memoir of a Korean interpreter Kim Yong Hyun.2

Kim, who spoke good English, served the US forces for a time as an interpreter for the 2nd infantry division. Then, captured by Chinese forces he eventually found himself face to face with an aggressive North Korean soldier in an interaction that could have gone much worse for him than it did.

In his answers to the queries of the North Korean, we learn that Kim had attended middle school in Japan, leaving Hiroshima only a year before the city was destroyed. His association with Japan is not something a suspect person would want to carry about given the risk of being called a pro-Japanese traitor, but as we will see, even North Korean officers could have a Japanese higher education in their past. Kim trained to become a teacher, which is a career that always risks putting him among the class of the intellectual bourgeoisie. Finally, he fled North Korea, moving to the south in February 1946. This, the North Korean informed him, made him a “traitor” and a “running dog.”

This is true, in legal terms, as North Korean law made fleeing to South Korea a treasonous crime until 1999, when a distinction was made between migrants and treasonous defectors.3 While technically, Kim could have been shot for this treason, at least at this early stage, North Korea seems to have been going relatively easy on those who “illegally crossed the border” (불법월경) or “guiding someone across the border (월경안내). In trial records found in captured North Korean documents in the National Archives in Washington DC, it seems the going rate for such a crime was 1-3 years.4 Add to this the fact that Kim had worked for the Americans, and he found himself to be a real “American running dog.” Fortunately for Kim, he claims the Chinese military refused to hand him over to his North Korean accuser.5

Despite his anti-communist tone, Kim has glowing praise for the Chinese soldiers who kept him in captivity. This is consistent with much I have seen out there on the unusually benevolent Communist Chinese policy towards prisoners (though there are important exceptions and they often lacked supplies to fully feed them. Read more in these two postings.), whether they were Japanese or Americans. They, “never gave us any harsh lectures on ideological issues. They didn’t bother our prisoners in any way.”6 That same night Kim found himself in a position that I think is the key dilemma for talented multi-linguals in a wartime or occupation situation. Called over by a Chinese officer, Kim would be offered a proposition he would have been either extremely courageous or foolish to turn down:

“Comrade,” the [Korean-Chinese] interpreter began, “Would you be kind enough to interpret in English for us.

I nodded. They ushered in an American prisoner. I recognized him instantly because he was from my own outfit – a full sergeant who was one of our platoon leaders. We nodded in mutual agreement.”7

After this first job for the Chinese, he was asked to become a regular interpreter for the Chinese, translating Americans who were being interrogated by their Chinese captors. He accepted,

Well, what can I say? The offer was too good to refuse. My instinct to survive dominated my mind at that moment. “I would be happy to oblige.”

Kim would receive good food and treatment for his work but he was at once placed in a new position as a “running dog” for the Chinese. Later he served North Koreans more directly, a camp commandant, again translating during an interrogation of an American soldier and, moreover, asked to pretend he was a North Korean officer despite continuing to wear an American uniform while in captivity.8

In an amazingly frank exchange, if true, between this prisoner and the North Korean commandant, the latter said he was a college student in Japan during the war, when he was conscripted into the Japanese military. He was eventually captured by American forces in the Philippines who, despite the Japanese propaganda suggesting otherwise, he found to be “very civilized.”9 After returning to Korea he was a professor for a time but moved north to see the workings of Communism himself. Here was a Japanese trained North Korean camp commandant in charge of the imprisonment and interrogation of American forces, which he had once himself been a prisoner of.

The story that follows traces the escape of Kim from North Korea, or rather, his return to Seoul as a “Liberated UN soldier” and his escape thereafter across the lines. He returns to work as an interpreter for the Americans, serving as a G-2 officer and interpreter under a colonel in the 73rd Heavy Tank Battalion.10

As with all memoirs, especially those which contain whole dialogues between the author and people that are based on conversations many decades earlier, the source must be treated with great care. A very familiar, at least to me, picture emerges, however: Kim memoir is a world in which characters are divided roughly between those who are “hard-core” communists, thus blinded by ideology, and the more mixed up humane characters who are just trying to get by. It is a world where collaborators survive and live on, where the Viktor Komarovskies (from Dr. Zhivago) are not the villains.11 You can almost hear that great quote by Komarovsky in the film:

There are two kinds of men, and only two, and that young man is one kind. He is high-minded. He is pure. He is the kind of man that the world pretends to look up to and in fact despises. … There’s another kind. Not high-minded, not pure, but alive.12

Update: Charles Montgomery over at Korean Modern Literature in Translation was kind enough to mention this post here and says it reminds him of a passage in a work by Kim Yong-Ik. The quote is so apt for the discussion here:

“Eating greedily he looked curiously at my concise English-Korean dictionary on the shelf. ‘The language of an occupying army is a meal ticket, you know.’ He smiled faintly” (Kim, Home Again (1945) 27).

  1. I don’t think I have ever gone into much detail on my own views of this, but to sum up my position when it comes to the “treasonous” nature of such acts: I don’t have a problem with calling things treason when they are, but for me, treason is never, by itself, morally objectionable. This should be kept in mind whenever I raise related issues here at Frog in a Well.  

  2. Yong Hyun Kim, Susanne Kim Nelson ed. Into the Vortex of War: A Korean Interpreter’s Close Encounter with the Enemy. (AuthorHouse, 2008)  

  3. As of the major 1975 revision, it was covered in the section for “counter-revolutionary crimes” in articles 52 or 53 of the criminal law, which apparently states that fleeing to a foreign country is punishable by death and confiscation of all property. Institute of North Korean Studies. North Korea’s Criminal Law (1991). In Sup Han has a discussion of the recent changes to this law over time, In Sup Han “The 2004 Revision of Criminal Law in North Korea: — a take-off?” Santa Clara Journal of International Law 1 (2006), 130.  

  4. See RG242 SA 2005 6/43. By contrast, a case of “Reactionary attempted rape” (反動 強姦未遂) I saw there got 1 year and 6 months.  

  5. Yong Hyun Kim Into the Vortex of War: A Korean Interpreter’s Close Encounter with the Enemy (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2008), 46-48.  

  6. Ibid., 48.  

  7. Ibid., 48.  

  8. Ibid., 56.  

  9. Ibid., 60.  

  10. Ibid., 82  

  11. Of course, those familiar with Korean literature need not look to Viktor Komarovsky or the Good Soldier Švejk. Reading Kim’s memoir I was reminded of the fantastic character of Kapitan Ri (꺼삐딴 리) in the short story of that name by Chŏn Kwangyong, who managed to survive under Japanese, Soviet, and US regimes.  

  12. Is it in the written version as well? It has to be one of my absolute favorite lines.  


  1. Thanks for dropping by Susanne and for bringing your father’s memoir to the world. I see you have set up a page for your father’s life and the book here. Perhaps other people interested in learning more about his story can read more about it there.

  2. Interesting to read this discussion about the more concrete version of “traduttore, traditore”! Thanks for the post. Coming to Korea anytime soon?

  3. Graham, that is wonderful. I am a bit embarrassed to admit I have never heard the term “traduttore, traditore” and it seems perfect as the title of any article I write on the treason of interpreter!

  4. Hi! I’ve found your post by accident and I really loved it. It has made me feel very happy because I’ve been working on the subject of interpreters and interpreting history for three years by now. I went to Seoul last year (Hankuk University of Foreign Studies) and I had the privilege to present a paper about the role of interpreting in the Peacemaking Process at the Korean Armistice negotiations. It is a modest contribution but if you are interested in reading it, you will find it in Journal of Interpreting and Translation Studies 13(2), 2010, Hankuk University.

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