Stories to tell about cultural heritage

How differently can cultural heritage be interpreted

Published on 11 May 2012

Author(s): Korean Times/Kim Ji-myung

Type:  Feature

Several years ago, while traveling in the United Kingdom, I had the opportunity to test a long-held question of mine. Depending on the interpreter, how differently can cultural heritage be interpreted? While at a castle in Cardiff, Wales, I decided to find out by following the same one-hour tour led by two different guides.

Indeed, it was like two different stories. I assume they used the same basic guidebook with identical facts about the castle’s architecture, history, people and events, but while one offered a lecture, the other guide presented a compelling drama.

At another ancient place, the interpreter was very creative and fun. He assigned the participants to play historic characters at the site of a tragedy. One member of our group played the city mayor, who had a beautiful daughter. Another man played her courtier. Ultimately, everyone’s character died in a (simulated) scene of terrible bloodshed. From my vantage point, it was impressive but hard to take seriously.

``Heritage interpretation” refers to conveying information about, or explaining, the nature, significance and purpose of historical, natural or cultural resources, objects, sites and phenomena using personal or non-personal methods.

The revered ``Father of Heritage Interpretation,” Freeman Tilden, defined interpretation as "any communication process designed to reveal meanings and relationships of cultural and natural heritage to the public, through first-hand involvement with an object, artifact, landscape or site."

Koreans, however, rarely understand the English term. Almost invariably, the term reminds people of a verbal translator. And yet, the Korean translation is now widely used and has evolved to include terms like ``cultural interpreter,” ``tourism interpreter,” ``forest interpreter,” ``village interpreter” and even ``herb interpreter.”

I founded the Korea Heritage Education Institute with some colleagues in 2010. Among our goals are the digitization of cultural heritage content and the popularization and globalization of interpretation. By popularization, we want to bring alive the stories of ordinary people’s lives found in history textbooks. Through globalization, we hope to make the entire presentation mutually respectful and easier to understand.

Translating Korean heritage interpretation into English is a difficult and sometimes impossible process. Imagine the challenge of turning a dry history textbook into an entertaining, easy-to-understand story for an ordinary (sometimes uninterested) foreign audience.

What's more, English language interpretation in Korea runs into many issues. Chief among them is Romanization. Is the main palace of the Joseon Kingdom, ``Gyeongbokgung” or ``Gyeongbok Palace?” Is Seoul Fortress’s main southern entrance Romanized as ``Great South Gate,” ``Sungnyemun” or ``Sungnye Gate?”

Of course, there are also differences in values, ways of presentation and a myriad of language issues. For example, how much significance does a former king have in defining Korea’s cultural heritage? Today, a place where he stopped briefly while fleeing from a 16th century Japanese invasion is typically considered a ``sacred” place. Is it really so meaningful? Would it also be significant if he picked up two beautiful girls as his concubines during his short sojourn? Once upon a time, the king’s every act was deemed holy, but no more.

``Atrocity interpretation” is another tricky issue. How should historic antagonisms be conveyed to visitors? How do we describe the brutal murder of Empress Myeongseong in 1895 by the Japanese? How do we explain the tragic story of Princess Deoghye, daughter of Emperor Gojong (r. 1863-1897), who was coerced to live in Japan and marry a grandson of the ruler of Tsushima, a small island that lies just 49 kilometers from Busan? Ultimately, we risk instilling antagonism onto our next generation. In the case of Dokdo, I imagine Japanese youngsters on the other side of the East Sea, who may think that Korea is occupying their land, despite never having fought a war to occupy the rocky islets.

Even if these questions are answered, new ones will inevitably arise. For example, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the U.S. analyzed some of the problems of Korean-made educational videos. Specifically, he selected episodes of the popular, KBS-produced series, Y?ksa s?p’esy?l (“History Special”), for the Korea Foundation, which included English subtitles.

He writes, ``Effective presentation of such content to an English-language viewership depends heavily on the quality of English subtitles. The episode offers generally good English-language access to its verbal content though some translations clearly reveal that the production team had not consulted someone familiar with standard translated Korean studies terminology.”

He continued, ``The solution may be in finding greater balance, objectivity, and context so that English-language viewers would find the content more appealing and interpretations more persuasive. This could entail, among others, interviewing more non-Korean scholars, consulting English-speaking experts during the production, and even using non-Korean directors and producers.”

The professor’s remarks suggest something important about heritage interpretation. Namely, that accurate and technically proficient content alone is insufficient. For example, he says that foreign experts may be necessary to convey an international consensus on Korean history for foreign viewers. Perhaps, but it makes me wonder. Would he also recommend using Korean scholars to provide context and objectivity about American and European history for Korean viewers?

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