Thursday, June 3, 2010

Panmunjom at First Hand

This is an unexpected appendix to the post of May 24, which should be read first.

Through the good offices of Mariela Fernández (see May 24 post), I’ve been put in touch with Richard Underwood, one of the United States Army interpreters at the Panmunjom negotiations that ended the fighting in Korea in 1953. He’s now in his eighties. His brother Horace, who also interpreted there and was older, died some time ago. In the photograph, Lt. Underwood is in the middle, fourth from left. To his right is CWO Kenneth Wu, his interpreter colleague for Chinese.

This contact is an extraordinary piece of luck. He confirms that most of the Panmunjom interpreters on both sides had not been trained to professional standards, if indeed they were trained at all beforehand. They were therefore Native Translators. He’s given me permission to quote from his very interesting email, so here’s the part that’s most relevant. The emphasis is mine.
I have never been a professional translator. Rather I was a bilingual officer in the US Army and was assigned to interpret for the initial liaison team of UNC [United Nations Command] officers who flew into Kaesong [a town 10 km west of Panmunjom] to set up the particulars for the Truce talks that followed. I always felt inadequate for this task in view of my total lack of training in the Korean language. I had just learned it naturally growing up and playing with Korean children, and surrounded by Korean adults who were literate and sophisticated in their language. My extreme weakness in reading and writing were a terrible handicap, costing me untold hours of sleep as I struggled with translations, aided by a Korean who patiently explained obscure words and phrases.

Soon I was joined by my brother U.S. Navy Lt. Horace G. Underwood. He was 10 years my senior, had studied Korean and the Chinese Characters and was miles ahead of me in all aspects except for fluency and pronunciation, where I was a little better.

The situation improved markedly when Admiral Joy [U.S. Navy, UNC Senior Delegate] invited us to sit in on their nightly staff meetings so that we would have advance knowledge of the gist of speeches to be made.
Richard also elucidates the kind of mistake that apparently cost one untrained Chinese interpreter his life (see previous post).
He continually tried to ‘gild the lily’ of [Chinese] Liaison Officer (Col. Chang)'s remarks. For example: Col. Chang said quite calmly on one inspection trip ‘Here are three of the Chinese People's Volunteers [i.e. Chinese soldiers] killed by your soldiers,’ but Sul [the interpreter] said words to the effect, ‘Here you see, in pools of their own blood these brave volunteers who left home and family to come to this foreign land in sacrifice for the noble cause of our side in this war.’

After he did this several times I turned to Col. Chang (against all protocol, for interpreters exist only to speak for their masters) and asked him if he indeed meant what Sul said, or what he himself had said. Chang glanced at a third officer (who had shown no evidence of speaking English) who gave him a quick nod, meaning I was telling the truth. At that Col. Chang blew up at Sul and ordered him to go – get out of my sight. My analysis of the situation is that Sul, who had been a ‘mole’ HS [high school] teacher in Seoul before the war, was simply trying to be super patriotic to ‘prove’ his loyalty to the North.

Photo: Walter G. Hermes. Truce Tent and the Fighting Front: The Last Two Years. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1990. Fascinating details and richly illustrated. It's online at