The Movement of the Hands Connecting Minds
The Movement of the Hands Connecting Minds
  • Lee Park Jeongeun ,Jung Kim Minju
  • 승인 2024.06.03 09:59
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People constantly communicate with the world by expressing their opinions verbally and hearing others' stories. One way that makes this process possible is language. Sign language is the main language of the deaf and there is someone who steadily uses it with the love for those deaf friends. This SMT reporter met Koh Koung-hee, who wants to communicate with the deaf by interpreting sign language and helping them live independently in the world.


Please introduce yourself before the interview begins.

Hello. My name is Koh Koung-hee and I'm a sign language interpreter. I'm currently the president of the Korea Association of Sign Language Interpreters (KASLI), and vice-president of the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI). I've been a sign language interpreter for 25 years now.



What prompted you to learn sign language and to pursue this career?

While working as a nutritionist for 10 years, I happened to see a newspaper article about the opening of a basic sign language class so I went there right away. While taking the sign language class, I tried to communicate using only gestures and the sign language I had learned as much as possible, without speaking. That was my own way of approaching language. Even though I had just started sign language as a hobby, I enjoyed spending time with the deaf using it so much that I decided to be a sign language interpreter. So, I'm currently working happily with a lot of my deaf friends.


You have participated in many broadcast interpretations, such as being in charge of tvN's sign language broadcasts or working as a public sign language interpreter for government briefings. We are wondering about what you went through before appearing on the screen.

Simply obtaining a sign language interpreter certificate does not mean you can start interpreting broadcasts right away. In the past, I worked in a district (Gu) office by interpreting for the deaf when they visited there. Then, a request for broadcast interpreting came along, so I have done that since then. During COVID-19, a sign language interpreter appeared on the screen the same size next to the government briefer for the first time. Thus, the government wanted an experienced sign language interpreter and I was hired for a briefing through an interview. After doing this for three and a half years, I quit with the end of COVID-19. Currently, I am working as a sign language interpreter at the National Assembly Communication Center.



In addition to broadcasting, you also interpreted several plays such as <Saint Joan> and <Faust>. What are the differences between play interpretation and broadcast interpretation?

In broadcast interpretation, rather than interpreting in real time on site, a recorded tape is played on the screen and interpretation is performed accordingly. In this case, I cannot receive real-time feedback from the deaf, but I interpret with the mindset that all the deaf are watching. Play interpretation, unlike broadcast, requires interpretation in real-time, so it takes months of practice for just a one-hour performance. Interpreting for plays is fun because the deaf attend the performance in person, allowing me to make eye contact with them in real time during interpretation. Due to this charm, I like interpreting for plays, which gives me energy and allows me to communicate actively with them.


In 2022, you served as an international sign language interpreter at the Caxias do Sul des Olympic Games in Brazil. Since you are working on such an international scale, please explain how international signs are different from each country's sign language.

Sign language varies from country to country, and even within Korea, the sign language of Jeju Island and Seoul are different. Among the different sign languages in each country, those that overlap are mainly used as International Sign (IS). It is not defined specifically by someone. If a particular sign language is used in a certain country or anyone can understand its meaning, that sign language can be used as IS. Thus, it is suitable for communication when there are events or issues around the world.


How do you treat the lives and environments of the deaf in learning sign language and interpreting?

I think the deaf come before sign language. If you don't know about their community, I think it's useless no matter how well you know their language. I don't think of the deaf as disabled. I think that they are ethnic minorities having their own language and culture. So, they should come before sign language.


Do you have the moments when you felt the greatest reward while working as an interpreter?

There was a time when a deaf friend urgently called me late at night. My friend's mother didn't know how to speak sign language, so I was called in to interpret their conversation. My friend wondered the cause of being deaf, which had not been resolved for over 40 years. The mother said "You had a fever when you were young, but there was no hospital in the countryside so we couldn't take you to the hospital in time. For that reason, you became deaf." Until 2 a.m, I interpreted everything that had been going on between them for 40 years, and they hugged and cried. That friend's mother passed away a month later, and I felt greatly rewarded for being able to help their sincere communication for the first and last time.


Is there an experience where you could have done better with the help of a deaf person while interpreting sign language?

Of course, I'm receiving a lot of help from the deaf. Just as Koreans are different from native English speakers no matter how good they are at it, sign language is the language of the deaf, so I always ask my deaf friends how to express it in order to make the deaf understand it clearly. I take a video of myself using sign language and send it to them to ask if they understand it well. I have even experienced sending dozens of videos for just interpreting one word accurately.


There are also deaf interpreters who work actively in the field. What is their role and how do they influence sign language interpretation?

There are many difficulties for hearing interpreters to communicate with the deaf who have never learned sign language. Deaf interpreters use gestures and facial expressions to communicate things that hearing interpreters cannot. Even at international conferences, deaf interpreters appear on stage. This is called co-interpreting. When the hearing interpreter listens to the speaker and uses sign language, the deaf interpreter sees this and conveys it to the deaf audience with richer expressions and facial expressions, allowing the deaf to understand better. When COVID-19 started, deaf interpreters played a big role through this method.


We are curious about the process of whether new sign language is created as new words are created, and how new signs are learned.

Sign language interpreters cannot make new words in sign language. We have to wait until new words become popular in the deaf community and then express them in sign language. As the deaf do not intentionally create new sign language, their exact origin is unknown. In the past, KakaoTalk was first expressed using finger spelling, a method of indicating each Korean consonant, alphabet, and number with one's fingers, until the expression was determined, but now all the deaf know the sign language for KakaoTalk, Instagram, etc. In addition, the word COVID-19 began to be used in sign language after seeing the sign expressing the protruding shape of the virus with the hand.


It seems that the small size of the sign language screen during news broadcasts could be uncomfortable to watch. In your opinion, what are the current problems with sign language interpretation, and in what direction do you think these can be improved?

I think the 'voucher system,' which allows the deaf to use interpretation for a certain amount of time for a month, is very necessary in Korea. Currently, the deaf can request interpreters directly at the sign language interpretation center, but since there are only four people available in the center, if the reservation is already full, they cannot call an interpreter. I understand that in some foreign countries, vouchers exist and the government covers the interpretation costs incurred at this time. However, in the case of Korea, the deaf personally request interpreters and even buy food as an apology, even though being deaf is not their choice. In a country where a law was enacted in 2016 that sign language is a language with equal status to the national language, I wonder why they have to spend money to bring in an interpreter. In the case of interpreting for the deaf-blind, I have conducted research on tact signals, and I think an interpretation system and support for them is needed. For the deaf-blind, interpretation must be done one-on-one, so the number of interpreters is significantly insufficient.


What do you think it means to be a good sign language interpreter?

The standard for being good at something varies from person to person, but I believe a good sign language interpreter is one who can make any deaf person understand. Another important thing is doing one's best to interpret although it may not be 100 percent perfect. Recently, Mr. Ahn, a senior sign language interpreter with 35 years of experience, told me, "Interpret it like freshly cooked rice." In other words, rather than having rice prepared in advance and served immediately when the customer orders, rice that starts cooking as soon as the order is placed is truly delicious. Likewise, I think sign language interpreters need to be able to encompass countless expressions and express them appropriately rather than just interpreting refined expressions. Just as the word 'father' can be expressed in various ways, such as 'mother's husband' or 'the man who has children.'


What activities related to sign language interpretation would you like to focus more on in the future?

I have two main things in mind. The first is co-interpreting, in which a hearing and deaf interpreter work together. I would like to take on a role in the middle where the deaf can better express themselves in their own language. The second is the training of deaf-blind instructors. You can never know about the lives of the deaf-blind and the inconveniences they experience unless you are directly involved. I have already been training deaf-blind instructors for five to six years, and my goal is to continue training them so that they can talk about their lives.


Please give some advice to those considering sign language interpreting as their career path.

I don't think anything you're doing right now is in vain. In my case, my past experience working as a nutritionist was helpful in providing relevant information to deaf people by uploading a video of myself cooking with sign language on YouTube. Any field will be connected to sign language and create a synergistic effect. I think someone who tries to become an interpreter in the hopes of becoming famous by simply seeing the interpreter on TV without even meeting a deaf person is not a true interpreter. Before learning sign language and dreaming of becoming an interpreter, you must first meet the deaf in person, experience and realize their life firsthand.


Finally, if there is anything you would like to convey to Sookmyungians, please share it.

Rather than approaching sign language just because it looks interesting, I think it is important to first understand the deaf who use that sign language. The deaf are 'people who can see well' and 'an ethnic minority with a unique culture and language.' I really hope Sookmyungians remember these things.


- Chongshin Univ., (Ph.D.) Department of Christian Social Welfare (2023)
- Chairman of the Sign Language Interpretation Cooperative Association (2017~)
- Representative of SOLAFIDE (Christian sign language interpreter community) (2010~)
- President of Korean Association of Sign Language Interpreters (2023~)
- Vice President of World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (2023~)
- Instructor, College of Liberal Arts, Chongshin University (2023~)


Lee Park Jeongeun / Culture Section Editor
Jung Kim Minju / Cub Reporter

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