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[Kim Seong-kon] For world peace, we should all be like 'The Interpreter'

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 20, 2023 - 05:26

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The 2005 American political thriller, “The Interpreter,” directed by Sydney Pollack, illustrates how a good politician who was once a rebel leader fighting tyranny can easily turn into a dictator himself when he possesses political power. They say that you become a monster when you fight a monster. Of course, after slaying the monster, the idea is that you should return to being a normal human. Unfortunately, however, many monster fighters remain monsters and become dictators themselves.

In a fictional Southern African country called Matobo, President Edmund Zuwanie was a former rebel leader who fought against tyranny. Initially a liberator, Zuwanie was a hope for his people. But he then becomes a corrupt tyrant himself who is responsible for an ethnic cleansing massacre.

Among Zuwanie’s victims were the entire family of the protagonist Silvia Broome. Naturally, she wants revenge. Born in Africa to a British mother and a white Matoban father, Sylvia was raised in Africa, educated in Europe, and is based in the US. Her diverse international background makes her practically “the United Nations in the flesh.” She speaks, among others, English, French and Ku, the Matoban language, fluently. Appropriately, Silvia works as an interpreter at the United Nations in New York City.

Sylvia finds that Zuwanie is coming to the UN to defend himself in an address to the General Assembly. In her interpretation booth, Sylvia accidentally overhears an assassination plot against Zuwanie. Later, it turns out that it is a staged assassination attempt masterminded by Zuwanie himself to slander his opponents as terrorists.

When Zuwanie arrives at the UN, Silvia sneaks into a safe room where security personnel will send Zuwanie during the fake assassination attempt. There, she forces him at gunpoint to read from the book that he wrote before he became a corrupt dictator. Reluctantly, Zuwanie reads the “Dedication” page of his book: “The gunfire around us makes it hard to hear. But the human voice is different from other sounds. It can be heard over noises that bury everything else even when it is not shouting. Even if it is a whisper. Even the lowest whisper can be heard over armies when it is telling the truth.”

It is a shame that a man who once valiantly fought for freedom against a dictator has become a ruthless dictator himself. The man who once emphasized the importance of the people’s voice has come to ignore the people’s voice and butchers them in cold blood. Instead of killing him, however, Sylvia chooses to send him to the International Crime Court in The Hague. Sylvia says, “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.”

With her cosmopolitan background and her generosity in not taking revenge, Sylvia is a true interpreter and an embodiment of the UN herself. She once fell in love with a Black African man, but the social prejudices around their different skin colors created obstacles to their love. At the end of the movie, she returns to Africa where she is alone without a family. There, Sylvia continues to play the role of an interpreter between different races, cultures and languages.

While watching this mesmerizing movie, I could not but help looking back upon the Moon Jae-in administration. Initially, this government represented a hope for the people because Moon and many in his administration had fought against military dictatorship during the 1980s. However, in my view, it turned out that in the process of fighting monsters they became monsters themselves. Moreover, they were self-righteous and when they possessed political power, I believe they wielded it unscrupulously in the name of justice.

I believe the Moon administration took revenge for their past grievances by indicting and sending dozens of officials who worked for the Park administration to prison. In the eyes of Moon and his men, the members of the Park administration were the descendants of the military dictators who had persecuted them in the past. Therefore, for them, these officials were an “accumulated vice” that needed to be cleansed.

Of course, Moon and his men were different from and much better than Zuwanie and his men, who massacred their people. Nevertheless, the Moon administration was responsible for the victims of what I view as political vengeance, whom they sent to prison. They were also responsible for the anti-humanitarian act of sending back North Korean defectors to the North in order not to offend North Korean politicians.

“The Interpreter” is a sad but powerful reminder that even a good politician can turn into a tyrant when he comes into power. The movie also tells us that we should have the strength to be forgiving and refrain from personal or political vengeance. Then, the movie advises us to become an interpreter for world peace by connecting and mediating different countries, languages and political ideologies, just like Sylvia Broome.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.