Several months ago, it was suggested to me that I get my blog translated into Korean. The main reason being that perhaps my words might help Koreans in Korea normalize and understand the complications of international adoption from a personal perspective from someone who is “older”. No offense taken, it was a compliment to me that this adoptee felt I could be of any help to others beyond the English speaking/reading community.
Finding a good translator was the challenge. The art of taking someone’s words and putting them into decipherable terms in another language is hard. Taking those same words and making sure that the sender’s meaning, intent, emotion is understood as well…well, that’s a gift. Even for those who are truly bilingual, there is always a default language – the one they count money with, tell time with and curse!
I have written about Kay in other posts. Kay and I traveled to Korea together on a motherland trip with a group of adoptive families. She was also training another translator/tour guide too, so I got to see her wearing multiple hats. But it was one quiet “free afternoon” when the families went out to Itaewon to shop that I got to really see her mastery. She agreed to meet with my Umma and me. I had not used a translator for our reunion. I had been living in Korea for 9 months already and my Korean was babyish but workable. Actually, other than the basic of information, there was no need for a translator. We just wanted to be in each other’s company. She just wanted to hold my hand and sit very very close to me.
This motherland trip was the first of several I have been on, but the first since I met my birthmother. Kay agreed to translate for me so that I could be more free to ask questions and have a real conversation. At this point, I had learned alot about Kay and her family circumstances. She emotionally connected to Umma as a fellow mother who lost her children through divorce and was separated from them for a long stretch of time. She is Catholic as is my Umma. The two women connected. Kay gave us the freedom to be honest and weepy. She was more than a translator, she was a friend who had only the purest of intentions – to get our words right. She never told me that I could not, should not say something. She didn’t sugarcoat or leave anything out for misunderstanding. What more, her translating was so fluid it was as if we were all speaking the same language. I have always been grateful for that day. It allowed me to see my Umma as a person and as a mother. I attribute that afternoon as one reason I chose to stay connected to Umma. She became a real entity in my life, not just a reunion, not just an event.
I have been asked time and again who is writing the Korean by the native Korean speakers in my life. All have been impressed and in awe of what they are reading. I wanted to write this post in English first so that no one would mistaken me for the writing. And I wanted to explain what an adoptee has to go through to get her words just right. When it came time to find said blog translator, Kay was the first person I thought of, but she doesn’t live close to me. After going around my local area to seek friends who might be willing, I realized Kay was really the only one. Thank goodness for technology. Kay happily said yes. And thus, all the Korean on this blog is the genius of Kay and the computer.
I have been in the room for several meetings where adoptees are either meeting birthfamily members for the first time or reviewing their adoption files. Bearing witness to such events is mindblowing and heartwrenching. Watching bad translations happening is infuriating! I never perport to speaking Korean well, but I know a good snowjob. In any language it is demoralizing. I understand why adoptees are so furious with agency social workers. Adoptee after adoptee has shared the moment they sit there waiting on every word that is said and frantically looking at the face of the social worker to find all the words that are not said. Those moments are never the right moments to put forth manners, decorum, culture as barriers to the selective translating process. I have seen adoptees confused at what they hear because certain aspects of the story were not translated. Is my birthmother dead, alive, mentally ill, committed suicide, doesn’t want to see me, forgot about me, denying I exist? Is my birthdate accurate, estimated, made up, based on the Lunar Calendar? For many of us, we are simultaneously grappling with the discovery of misinformation, inaccurate information AND birth family all at the same time. There is no other comparable situation in my world that comes close to this level of overwhelm. In one sitting, I was told my birthmother was not dead, alive, just got out of the hospital, may be dying and searching for me for 21 years, AND my name was changed as was my birthdate. Just say that sentence outloud, it is just too much.
We seek transparency, perhaps we might start with translating transparency first.
Fast forward to present day. I have a dear friend who is in reunion with her birthmother and family. Her birthmother was supposed to come for a visit, but it is not happening. The circumstances around this change in plans is not the issue so much as the dark abyss my friend has had to navigate trying to get any morsel of information about her birthmother. The translations caused panic and worry and more questions. My friend was even willing to go to local markets to find a Korean person. Imagine having to go to a total stranger and asking them to help you during such an intimate exchange? I don’t offer up my translating abilities to anyone, but in this situation, I tried. After one phone call to her birthsister, panic dissipated enough for rational thought to enter and plans have now been made. Being a part of this process for my friend was the greatest gift to both of us. I never felt so wonderful as to be able to relay with accuracy my friends concern and then in turn call my friend to let her know how things were really going on over there. The Korean was not beautiful, not at all what Kay would have done, but it was enough to be more accurate than all the other translations.
One thing that international adoptees lament over is the loss of language and the ability to speak their birth language. For some, it is near impossible to learn so heavy the emotional barriers to accessing that part of their linguistic brain. While being able to speak Korean is not always the blessing I hoped it would be, I try my damndest to keep up with it. Even so, I have limits and I am grateful to have someone like Kay in my life who I trust to make my English words make sense.