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When he’s defended U.S. servicemembers in South Korean courts, Jin Hyo-guen has encountered court-appointed translators whose English was so inadequate that he’s taken to showing up with his own.

“It is very difficult to find a perfect translator,” said the Seoul-based attorney, “so in that case I ask the investigative authority — the Korean National Police — that we might bring our translator, usually a KATUSA or any other U.S. military officials [who] are fluent in Korean and can help them for translation.” KATUSAs are South Korean soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army.

Last September Jin defended two U.S. soldiers in Uijeongbu District Court and the translation was so bad, he said, that it posed potential legal harm to his clients. The soldiers appeared before the same judge in separate, back-to-back sessions that used the same court-assigned translator.

The judge asked each soldier, separately, whether he “admitted” to certain elements in the case against them.

But that got translated for the soldiers as a question of whether they were merely “aware” of those elements. Both soldiers answered “yes” to nearly every question — potentially damning in a case where the charges are being denied.

Later that day, the 2nd Infantry Division legal office asked Jin to request new translators for the soldiers’ next hearings.

He did, and the change was made.

South Korean lawyers told Stars and Stripes they’ve seen the court system make gradual improvements over the years in the quality of its translators. But most of those interviewed also said further improvements were needed.

The solution, Jin said, is an overhaul of South Korea’s court translator system in which the government would take the following steps:

Set standards that translator applicants must meet before they can be considered for employment in the courts. These might include a university level diploma or other written certification, as well as proof that they’ve scored well on the TOEFL exam (Test of English as a Foreign Language).Set up and enforce uniform procedures for screening applicants to make sure they really have the needed skills.Stop using part-timers and make translators full-time court employees, and hire them in sufficient numbers.Give the translators a pay raise.South Korea’s current system lacks any uniform standard for what language qualifications a translator should have, Jin said. It also lacks a system for otherwise gauging whether they can handle the demands of court translation.

And it relies on freelance part-timers who show up claiming to speak English. Often, court officials who make the hiring decision lack enough English skill to detect whether the applicants’ English proficiency is good enough for the job, Jin said.

“They should have a procedure to designate a translator [for cases involving U.S. servicemembers],” he said. “Say a kind of examination … which could prove the ability for English.”

Pay is also a crucial factor, lawyers said.

“If the sufficient pay [is] given to the translator, the translators’ quality will be higher, it will go up,” said Chung Jin-seong, a lawyer with Law Firm Korea in Seoul.


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