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Translators bridge language, culture gap

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Hyo K. Oh and Republic of Korea Air Force 1st Lt. Lee, Suk-Hyung, 7th Air Force Air Component Command plans and coordination directorate senior interpreters, converse after a briefing during Exercise Key Resolve at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, March 20, 2013. Training exercises like Key Resolve are carried out in the spirit of the 1953 ROK-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. These exercises highlight the longstanding partnership and enduring friendship between the United Nations Command sending state nations, help ensure peace and security on the peninsula, and reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Hailey R. Davis)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Hyo K. Oh and Republic of Korea Air Force 1st Lt. Lee, Suk-Hyung, 7th Air Force Air Component Command plans and coordination directorate senior interpreters, converse after a briefing during Exercise Key Resolve at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, March 20, 2013. Training exercises like Key Resolve are carried out in the spirit of the 1953 ROK-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. These exercises highlight the longstanding partnership and enduring friendship between the United Nations Command sending state nations, help ensure peace and security on the peninsula, and reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Hailey R. Davis)

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- For the 7th Air Force Air Component Command plans and coordination directorate, communicating key messages between Republic of Korea and U.S. service members is important during daily operations at Osan Air Base.

In communicating those messages, ROK and U.S. translators bridge the gap between both language and culture.

"We are fighting together, so the most important thing is that we have to make the leaders see the same thing, listen to the same thing, and understand the ground (situation) the same way," said ROK Air Force Col. Park, Sang-Mork, ROKAF director of the 7th Air Force ACC plans and coordination directorate.

ROKAF 1st Lt. Lee, Suk-Hyung, senior interpreting officer, said it's the translator's job to make sure ROK and U.S. service members can talk to each other.

Lee said interpreters are also involved in meetings with senior leadership and prepare translation for meetings and after-action reports during operations.

Within the ACC, there are approximately eight ROKAF interpreters and one U.S. Air Force interpreter that are employed in briefing preparation and drafting reports.

"(Being a translator) is challenging because you have to speak both languages fluently," said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Hyo K. Oh, interpreter. "You have to be self-motivated in order to study the different terminologies. It challenged me to grow myself professionally and broaden my Air Force knowledge."

During exercises like Key Resolve, and during peace time in armistice, it's critical that the ROK and U.S. can communicate with each other, and the translators are at the core of that.

"I think it's really unique that these Airmen and young officers have the opportunity to sit and learn from colonels and general officers," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Chad Harding, director. "We take an Airman who's into his first or second tour out of his career field and put him into a translator position in front of a 3-star general. The ability to perform that day after day is pretty amazing."

Of almost 100 ROKAF interpreters throughout the Korean peninsula, more than 20 are assigned to Osan AB in commands such as the Air Force Operations Command and the 37th Air Intelligence Group.

Others are assigned to large commands such as the ROK Ministry of National Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Combined Forces Command.

Lee explained that the training ROKAF interpreters must go through at Osan is challenging in many ways.

"The training was psychologically demanding," Lee said. "On one hand, we have the added responsibility of being officers, but we also have to be able to follow the commanders and understand their intent."

Lee said that commanders may have an indirect message and interpreters must decipher the underlying intent before relaying the message to the audience.
For those here, there is a physical aspect to the training, as well.

"At the same time, it was physically demanding. If we got acronyms or terminology wrong in our training class, we would do push-ups or sit-ups," Lee said. "This would motivate us to make sure we got it right."

On the other hand, Korean translator training is nonexistent, said Harding.

"The U.S. Air Force doesn't have a training program, they don't have a selection process," Harding explained. "The opposite is true for the ROKAF, they are completely organized so it's critical they provide that service."

Harding added that having interpreters doesn't only break down the language barrier; it adds an understanding of culture as well.

"Translators provide a conduit to that culture piece, so I think what's more important is understanding their perspective," Harding said. "You can translate what someone said, but that may not convey the message, so understanding perspective and culture is really important in addition to the language."

Lee stressed the most challenging part of being an interpreter is making sure they correctly communicate their leadership's message.

"Even if it was an English-to-English order, a lot of effort was put in place to make sure the wording was right," Lee said. "We don't have the luxury of time because we have to do it on the spot, our (challenge) is to make sure that, on the spot, we understand the message before the staff understands (once it is interpreted)."

Communication is difficult, and adding culture and language creates new challenges to everyday operations.

"The hardest thing to do is communicate," Harding said. "We really depend on (translators), and we're really appreciative that the ROKAF have taken the responsibility seriously and provide that support to the coalition."