Building connection one heart at a time
Building connection one heart at a time

Korea: Oriental Wisdom and Ambition

Ekaterina Pokholkova on intercultural collaboration
04.27.2022
Korea: Oriental Wisdom and Ambition

The Korean language is beautiful, symbolic, and interesting. Korea’s culture is characterized by its wisdom, practicality, and constructive ambition. Ekaterina Pokholkova, translator, Korean scholar, and lecturer, sees great potential in international cooperation with Korea. In her interview with the Global Women Media news agency, the Dean of the Faculty of Translation of the Moscow State Linguistic University talked about her passion for Korea. She shared tips on learning foreign languages and her vision of the value of intercultural communication.

Екатерина-Похолкова_0T.jpg Ekaterina Pokholkova
PhD in Philology, translator, Korean scholar, Dean of the Faculty of Translation of the Moscow State Linguistic University, Associate Professor

Ekaterina Pokholkova is not only a translator and Korean scholar but also an expert in international collaboration and intercultural communication. She has extensive experience in both translation and interpreting. Her works include translations of fiction books and films, scientific projects, dictionaries, and original teaching aids. At the same time, each such project is always based on an in-depth study of culture, a sincere love of Korea, and an interest in people.

Today, Ekaterina Pokholkova is the Dean of the Faculty of Translation of the Moscow State Linguistic University. According to the expert, she strives to contribute to developing the best human qualities in the younger generation of translators through her teaching activities. That is the very thing needed to build communication bridges among people.

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– Your education is quite multifaceted. Why did you choose the linguistic field as your focus?

– My parents graduated from the Bauman Moscow State Technical University. I was going to follow in their footsteps and even studied at a school specializing in physics and mathematics. Everything changed after I won a linguistic contest and went to an internship in America for a year. Upon returning home, I passed by the Moscow State Linguistic University and suddenly realised that I wanted to enter that particular university. That's the way it happened.

I got education in the training area called Linguistics and Intercultural Communication. It may seem that I got Korean by accident. However, I tend to think that it was my destiny. When recalling my childhood today, I understand that many things led me to my current profession and area of interest.

For example, we’ve always had many books on Japanese painting at home. I was interested in Oriental art and was very fond of redrawing pictures from the pages of various publications. I was particularly impressed by Japanese characters, which were the most difficult to write.

Another funny story is about how I found a sheet of paper with Korean alphabet in the street in my childhood. I was amazed by its beauty. I even pasted it into my notebook. I recalled that story many years later, only after my graduation.

Today, when communicating with applicants choosing their future path, I advise them to consider their interests more deeply. Many of our sincere passions originate in childhood.

I believe that one can only become a translator when being guided by one’s heart. No matter what language one chooses, that speciality requires lifelong learning.

As for me, I have never regretted my choice. The Faculty of Translation has given me an inexhaustible charge of energy. It still helps me find new areas for my development, pursue new knowledge, and keep doing what I like. For example, many years after my graduation, I have discovered an interesting activity: translation of fiction books. I delved deeper into its specificities and nuances. In recent years, nine books translated by me have been published.

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– Korea is a country of the south and the north. At the same time, it has a unique holistic culture. What do you find most interesting about it?

– As Korean scholars often say, “Korea is a country that is far and close at the same time”. Despite the fact that Russia has a border with Korea, the average Russian knows little about Korean culture.

The Koreans themselves have called Korea a hermit country for centuries. South Korea is located on a peninsula, which is actually an island separated from the rest of the world by North Korean territory. For a long time, the country’s fate has been closely tied to such powerful countries as China and Japan. They ‘overshadowed’ their neighbouring states.

I believe, that is partially why today’s Korea is developing fast and is trying to make itself known to the world, to become visible. In my opinion, Korea is doing well.

I would even say that this desire to make themselves known has become a national trait of Koreans. Some people call it hard work. However, I call it ‘constructive ambition’.

Interestingly, Korea has few natural resources. That’s why people and events are considered the main value there. Koreans have built their policy and strategy of state development on intangible assets. They even have a special state register of intangible heritage, in which they record the names of outstanding personalities, events, and traditions, which are significant for the country’s history and national identity.

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– What prospects can other countries have in cooperation with Korea?

– Under the previous leader, South Koreans focused on developing a creative economy. They came up with a creative approach rather than copying. They learned everything that is popular and demanded in other cultures and transformed it into completely new products that appeal to different groups of people.

Many countries strive to create national brands today. I think Korea is a country can teach others a lot.

The Koreans have managed to make a brand out of modern national culture. For example, the K-pop (or Korean pop) genre, which absorbed elements of Western electropop, hip-hop, dance music, and modern rhythm and blues. That genre has gained recognition not only in the country but also abroad. Moreover, the world is increasingly interested in other areas of Korean culture: K-culture, K-drama, K-literature, and many other aspect. The notion ‘K-pandemic’ has also recently appeared. It presupposes all Korea's innovations and ways of interacting with the population during the pandemic. For example, the country has created special branded food kits to help people.

Today, Korea is famous for its media products, medicine, and cosmetics. The automobile industry deserves special attention. Korea attracted the best experts from all world for its development in due time. That is also a manifestation of the features of its national character. Koreans are used to study a lot, accumulate huge volumes of knowledge, and only then create a product. This approach, in my opinion, has led them to great success in many areas.

Korea has invested much effort in getting ahead in various areas. Today, soft power is a relevant topic in the global community. However, Koreans have set a course towards the so-called ‘smart power’.

Korea can offer many interesting. The country possesses unique know-hows in a variety of areas. That opens up limitless prospects for cooperation.

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– You are not only a teacher and a translator but also the author of the Korean language aids. What are the peculiarities and unique features of these materials?

– I don’t have many manuals yet but I like the role of the author. That’s why I’m trying to develop in that area.

My first significant textbook on the Korean language for schoolchildren was published in 2007. I also had plans for a series of books for students of different ages. However, the project wasn’t fulfilled at that time. Today, together with the Prosveshchenie publishing house, we have finally developed a full line of textbooks starting with 7th school grade. We worked hard a lot jointly with colleagues from the Institute of Asian and African Studies of the Moscow State University and Korea.

Today, the Korean language as a field of study is actively developing in universities. I want to believe that our work will contribute to the promotion of that training area at schools and colleges as well.

We have developed four translation manuals. That turned out to be not so easy although my colleagues and I had extensive experience in the profession. When writing manuals, it is difficult for authors to choose the most typical situations and to understand which ones would be most useful to the majority of the audience. When creating that book, we set ourselves the task of collecting information that would not become outdated and would be representative.

Transcreation is important in writing linguistic aids, translation, and pedagogy. That term refers to the creation of the same impressions and the same reactions in a speaker of one language through the expressive means of another language and culture.

Meaning is formed not only through words and text. Any information must be adapted to the needs of the audience. Of course, each of our aids is unique in that regard.

I believe that video lectures are no less important than textbooks. Together with the Korean Cultural Centre, we have recorded digital lessons on the Korean language. The videos have had several million views. That demonstrates the demand for systemic knowledge among people.

The methods of Russia’s teaching are certainly different from those of South Korea. That is why it was very important to combine the efforts of experts from both countries to create high-quality teaching materials. We strived to get first-hand information from native speakers and adapt the educational process specifically for the Russian-speaking audience.

I also consider the translation of children’s books by the famous Korean writer Baek Heena as my significant project. These are so-called quiet books, in which it is not so much the plot and pictures that are important but rather the communication established between the child and the parents after reading them.

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– You said about the importance to work with schoolchildren and instil an interest in the Korean language in them. What do you think about younger children?

– I believe that schools have an important mission and some enthusiastic teachers do very well. I’m talking about the task of maintaining a child’s passion and love of learning.

As a Dean, I believe that the hardest thing is dealing with applicants who are already tired of the educational process. It can be very challenging to work with such students. I firmly believe that knowledge cannot be given: it can only be taken. That requires a sincere desire to learn.

I very much like the experience of Korea, a Confucian country where knowledge is the highest value. In Korea, a teacher is the second most important profession after the president. We can see a similar approach in Finland.

I once talked to the Ambassador of Finland. He told me how serious Finns are about school academic staff. That is caused by the fact that the population of Finland is rather small. Therefore, Finns strive to do everything possible to make sure that the younger generation would fulfil its talents from an early age.

The Korean language can be learned at any age. If the child shows enthusiasm and wants to learn it, we should maintain and nurture thar interest.

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– As you mentioned, the Korean alphabet is very beautiful and interesting. Can you tell us more about it?

– It is one of the most recent alphabets in the world. Korea’s alphabet is very well-elaborated and symbolic. The vowel letters in the Korean language are used to give the view of people, the earth, and the sky depending on whether they are horizontal or vertical. They are also divided into light and dark, which is related to the concepts of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’. Consonant letters schematically represent the position of the organs of articulation.

If approaching the Korean alphabet consciously, one can learn it in just 2-3 hours. For a Russian person, the process is particularly interesting. I have noticed that the desire not to memorize words and rules but to understand the logic and the idea of the characters is common for most of Russians. In this respect, the Korean alphabet is fascinating.

In addition to the alphabet, the Korean language has hieroglyphics, which is studied in the country from a very early age. It is essential for a deeper understanding of the language and culture. Although, if you are learning Korean as a foreign language, about 40 letters of the alphabet are enough to understand and read textual information. Nevertheless, hieroglyphics is also very interesting.

– Every country can share many valuable and interesting wise ideas. Which of them do you like best in Korea’s culture?

– Certainly, like any culture, Koreans have a lot of wise ideas that can be discussed endlessly. I would like to share a few things that I have noticed.

For example, I was greatly impressed by one simple word that Koreans mention many times a day. Translated into Russian, it means ‘diligence’. If we picture it in characters, the first character stands for ‘heat’ and the second means ‘heart’. We can see many similar parallels in the Russian languages.

When Koreans talk about the need to study hard or help their parents and use that very word, they mean involvement, belonging, and care.

I am also very fond of one simple Korean proverb that can be translated as ‘No one will ever spit in a smiling face’. When I tell my students about it, they laugh. However, that funny phrase contains great truth: we need to take life with lightness and joy.

Finally, there’s a lot of symbolism in Oriental art. In Korea, bamboo is often depicted in paintings and scrolls. It is a winter plant, which is very resistant and at the same time flexible. Despite being not to strong at first glance, it can withstand any frost, snowfall, and wind. I think this is a trait common for Koreans. Many people can learn that from them.

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– What tips would you share with people planning to learn Korean?

– Our team includes the well-known polyglot Dmitry Petrov. He always says that one should learn foreign languages with a wet finger. Then the process will speed up considerably. Many people, especially adults, believe that one should first understand absolutely all the rules and nuances and only then try to put them into practice. Knowing the theory is indeed important but one can and should start communicating already upon mastering at least a few elementary words.

There is no room for fear of making a mistake in learning foreign languages. The desire to communicate is far more important.

When I became the Dean and started working more with students, I realized that mindfulness plays a special role in mastering languages. A lot of knowledge and skills are based on it. In the process of learning, people quite often reach a psychological or cognitive deadlock when they do not succeed and do not know how to move forward. Mindfulness gives necessary motivation and helps us overcome difficulties. It is important to remember that difficulties in the learning process are normal. Even the most successful and talented people face them.

We have a project called ‘Translation Environment’, in which we invite experienced experts to talk with students. They share their professional knowledge and their personal stories with the younger generation. Sometimes that contributes greatly to motivation and mindfulness of the students.

Love is the most important part of learning in different field including translation. Good translations of books or films and the strongest intercultural communication originate from great love.

Love is important on the part of both the student and the teacher. The teacher has an especially great responsibility: he or she broadcasts his or her attitude to all students. When the teacher tells something with genuine interest, the students will surely show their interest.

– How would you formulate your social mission?

– For some time, my career was exclusively about Korean culture. That was a short but qualitatively important period of my life. Today, my work is closely related to the 30 languages we have at our Faculty of Translation. Anyway, my social mission has always been about building communication and interacting with people.

As a translator, I have met many distinguished personalities: famous Korean writers, artists, and experts from various fields. I am happy to have had such a unique and valuable experience. Now I work more with a different audience including students and teachers. It’s a different but no less enjoyable kind of communication.

The phrase ‘the student surpasses the teacher’ comes from Korea. That phrase accurately sums up my mission today. It is important and valuable to me when my students become more successful than I am.

Today, being a Dean is my focus but I would not limit myself to that field. I once saw an illustration in an old Soviet student newspaper that showed a translator with ten hands. This seems to be true: even a person with one profession has many competencies, functions, and areas of responsibility.

This year, I was awarded for my contribution to the promotion of linguistic science as a result of our university contest. I see my social mission in that too. However, I do not consider myself a scientist in the literal sense of the word. I enjoy sharing my knowledge, reflecting on linguistics, and being useful to those devoting their lives to international communication.

– What meanings do you put into the concept of international collaboration? What principles should strong communication be based on?

– Recently, I was looking through my colleague’s CV. I liked the fact that he called himself a ‘people's diplomat’. It seems to me that any high-quality international collaboration is built on people-to-people diplomacy, on the communication between individuals.

The strongest communication, including business communication, emerges when we see people in one another.

Most of our international projects appeared thanks to personal acquaintance. Soon we will be holding a major conference on Romance philology. I am very happy that many foreign speakers will join us as experts despite the acute geopolitical situation. That proves once again the fact that partnerships built on human values are indestructible.

Students are also a powerful bridge among cultures. Today’s generation is very open, sincere, and friendly. We currently have more than 100 students on internships in different countries. This is very valuable because such projects contribute to life-lasting intercultural ties.

Young people are our future. That is why it is especially important to make sure that the younger generation is able and willing to build intercultural communication.

I also believe that women can make a valuable contribution to the development of intercultural collaboration. They are naturally endowed with a high level of emotional intelligence. That ability must be used in building communication, teaching, and bringing up the younger generation.

Marina Volynkina, Viktoria Gusakova, Global Women Media news agency

Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov


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