Literary Translation: Creating World Literature


Brother Anthony of Taizé

A paper read at a meeting of the Korean Translation and Interpretation Association at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies on September 15, 2018.


How can a “really good translation” be identified? That is a question that seems unlikely ever to be finally settled to universal satisfaction. Still, the judges in the most prestigious award for literature in English translation ought to have at least something to say about the topic. The longlist of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, awarded for fiction translated from another language and published in English, listed 13 novels, 4 of them translated from Spanish, 2 from French, 2 from German, one from Korean, one from Hungarian, one from Iraqi, one from Polish, and one from Chinese. In the end, it was the Polish title Flights which won the prize. The chair of the judging panel reported: “Judging this Man Booker International Prize has been an exhilarating adventure. We have travelled across countries, cultures, imaginations, somehow to arrive at what could have been an even longer longlist. It’s one which introduces a wealth of talent, a variety of forms and some writers little known in English before. It has great writing and translating energy.” As the quotation makes clear, the panel’s evaluation was entirely based on the qualities of the work as published in English. Points were not awarded or deducted for ‘faithfulness’ or ‘inaccuracies’ in the act of translation. After all, such factors do not really matter to the readers of translated novels.

             The enjoyment of any novel, we may argue, depends on its ‘readability.’ Awkward, unconvincing style in a work of literature, translated or not, is always going to condemn it to remain unread and unadmired. It should be clear that a translation which takes considerable freedom with regard to the original and privileges a creative approach, diverging from, changing or omitting portions of the original, in order to provide the reader with as powerful a literary experience as possible, having been found highly readable, may well win prizes and will perhaps sell well. No normal reader is going to stop and worry whether or not a translation deviates from the original text. Why should they? What is required of a novel is that it should provide “a good read,” yielding entertainment, delight, pleasure, instruction, whatever the reader’s satisfaction requires.

             Therein lies the crux of all debates about translations of literature. After all, the publication of poetry, fiction, drama or essay is, normally, a commercial enterprise of some kind. If a writer writes to be published and read because s/he feels s/he has something to say, s/he also normally writes in the hope of earning some money. Writing takes up a lot of time and energy, and bills have to be paid. A publishing company can by definition only continue to exist if the books it produces can be sold and make a profit. The passage of books from printer to warehouse to bookstore (whether physical or virtual) to buyer and reader involves a series of financial transactions. Nothing is more important to all the people engaged in these operations than sales.

Why will anyone buy a book? Either they have heard that it is worth reading or at least they feel that it should be, because of the reputation of the writer if not simply the design of the cover. When it comes to fiction, which is by far the most popular literary genre today, the readers of the English-speaking world have a variety of sources of information about new publications. Probably the most powerful and direct influence is “word of mouth,” by which a close friend, a colleague or relative whose tastes one shares and whose advice one trusts, recommends something they have read and enjoyed. But that will always be a “hit or miss” method since we mostly have few such friends and they are all so busy that they cannot read everything that is being published. What strikes about the titles in the Man Booker International shortlist is that they are all published by small or even very small publishers, who cannot afford to purchase advertising space or prominent display positions in major bookstores. Famous international publishing companies are today very often under intense pressure to generate maximum profit from every title they publish. Publishing is a risky business and risks cost money. Major commercial publishers prefer caution to risk-taking.

We all know that James Joyce’s Ulysses was repeatedly rejected before finally being published in a tiny edition in Paris in 1922. T. S. Eliot, as an editor at Faber and Faber, turned down George Orwell’s Animal Farm as “unconvincing.” The most famous recent case is the first of the Harry Potter books; J. K. Rowling’s agent sent the manuscript to 12 different publishers before it was accepted by Bloomsbury. And the vital decision was made by the 8-year-old daughter of the company’s director. Her father gave her the manuscript to read in bed and within an hour she came down to tell him how wonderful it was.

Even supposing that a publisher is found, and a challenging work by an unknown author, whose name may in addition seem impossible to pronounce correctly is published, what next? In Britain, at least, the discovery of the exciting new writing being published by very small presses is mainly the task of professional readers known as “literary critics” or “book reviewers.” They are often themselves writers or translators, or the editors of literary magazines. For Korean writers, whether it be Han Kang or Kim Hyesoon, Hwang Sun-mi or Jeong You-Jeong, Bae Su-ah or Shin Kyung-Sook, an international reputation has only been possible because first a literary agent identified their work as being of potential interest, then a published agreed, after publication, the literary critics have agreed with the agent and publisher, writing positive, enthusiastic reviews. Once a new writer has been launched, it is this same network of serious, professional, full-time readers who will help arrange for them to be invited to literary festivals to give talks, readings, or interviews, with book signings. The same treatment is not always given to the translator, although we know that without the work of the translator there would have been nothing to publish.

This is reflected in the comments of the chairman of the Man Booker International panel on announcing this year’s prize: “Okarczuk is a writer of wonderful wit, imagination and literary panache. In Flights, brilliantly translated by Jennifer Croft, by a series of startling juxtapositions she flies us through a galaxy of departures and arrivals, stories and digressions, all the while exploring matters close to the contemporary and human predicament – where only plastic escapes mortality.” As was the case with Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian,” the translation is qualified as “brilliant,” not because the jury have compared it word-by-word with the original but because the English text has proved to be dynamic and convincing to a number of discerning readers, just as any well-written English novel would. A good translation does not keep saying “I am a translation” but rather “this is good writing.” The story, the construction, the imaginative work, the invention all belong uniquely to the author. The translator does not add to them, s/he only communicates them in different words, and with outstanding stylistic skill. Readability is indeed all-important.

The creation of public opinion regarding newly published works of world literature is therefore the result of communication and collaboration between agents, translators, publishers and the critics who write reviews and also form the juries for literary awards as well as serving as the leading program-builders and speakers at literary festivals. The important role of the Man Booker International Award is that it focuses uniquely on works from outside the domestic or English-writing world, highlighting work by often little-known writers from often little-known literary cultures. The award given to Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” provoked an overall rise in sales of Korean fiction in translation. At the same time, small publishers benefit because they alone had the courage to publish translations that major publishers had not been interested in.

So what might be said to be the main characteristic of a translated work likely to be pinpointed by these makers of opinion? I would simply say that they are looking for writing that they can qualify as “new,” “interesting,” “worth reading,” indeed “exciting.” Their influence is strong because they have each established a reputation as a discerning, sensitive and credible reader / critic whose expressed opinions can be trusted. They may differ among themselves, of course, but the community of literary critics / professional readers in Britain (and no doubt also the US or Australia etc.) is proud of its independence and intent on identifying new developments in what we tend to call “world literature” published in English translation. They play an essential role as “interface” between the works as they are published and the readers who will buy them. Their standards expressed in print, on TV or by the spoken voice play a major role in shaping the wider public’s approach to recent developments in fiction and poetry worldwide.

The concept of “world literature” is still unfamiliar in Korea. “World Literature Today” is a well-known North American literary journal, “Words Without Borders,” “Asymptote” “Modern Poetry in Translation” (among others) are familiar platforms for English translations of literature from many languages. One small publisher in Britain (Arc Publications) has published translations from over 40 languages: Arabic Armenian Basque Bulgarian Burmese Catalan Czech Danish Dutch Estonian Finnish French Galician Georgian German Greek Hebrew Hindi Hungarian Icelandic Indonesian Irish Italian Japanese Latvian Lithuanian Macedonian Middle High German Old High German Old Norse Persian Polish Portuguese Punjabi Romanian Russian Serbian Slovak Slovene Spanish Tamil Turkish. The world is producing a lot of literature and a small quantity of it is being translated and read in English. But how many Korean publishers can boast of a similar list of translated languages? And why not?

At the same time, nobody in the West is likely to buy a translation simply “because” it is from Korea, for no other reason beside the fact that it was originally written and published in Korea, unless the text is required reading for a course of study in Korean literature. Moreover, the reputation that a writer or work has gained in Korea has almost nothing to do with the way it will be received elsewhere, in part because the criteria of literary excellence adopted in Korea are not necessarily those promoted by critics elsewhere, in part because readers in Glasgow have no way of knowing what readers in Busan are enjoying. More important still, Korean writers have relatively little chance to produce works inspired by exciting new work published in other languages because so little of that is translated into Korean. Korean publishers are like those elsewhere, they fear the unfamiliar and prefer the “recognized” conventional works, that they hope will sell well. Most important, nobody in the outside world will be much concerned whether Korean critics have praised a work or not. The main question is not whether Koreans have liked a work and praised it but whether it has the potential to be liked and praised outside of Korea once it has been translated. Then too, nobody in the western publishing world gives a damn whether Koreans approve of a translation that they have decided to publish. As already noted, the ‘accuracy’ of a translation is not even a question, compared to its readability, its entertainment-value. Some well-known British literary translators were recently asked to say what they considered a “good translation” to be. Here are a few quotations from their replies:

“The voice of a good translation is as distinctive in English as the author’s voice in the original language, also when compared to other authors translated by the same translator. A good translation accepts the gifts English offers and is not an endless procession of compromise and loss.” –David Colmer (translates from Dutch to English)

“Where the author’s writing is choppy, mine should also be. Where it’s harsh or stilted or opaque, or lyrical and flowing, or unambiguous, my writing should be too. When the author conforms to convention, so should I; when they bend or break it, I need to do the same.”  –Alex Zucker (translates from Czech to English)

“A good translation is bold and creative, a good translation sings.”  –Ros Schwartz (translates from French to English)

“A good translation doesn’t simply reproduce the correct meaning of the original text. . . . It is sensitive to the meaning, effects and intentions of the original, but also to the best ways to render them in the target language. In some instances, achieving that aim can mean moving away from the literal meaning of the original.” –Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translates from Polish to English)

Another way of putting these issues in perspective is to recall that the English translation of Prabda Yoon’s collection of short stories, “The Sad Part,” published in London by Tilted Axis Press in 2017, was the very first work of modern Thai fiction ever published in Britain. Given the hundreds of Korean works published in multiple languages over the decades, this is a shocking fact that needs to be remembered. Thailand is not devoid of literary talent, I think, any more than Korea, but clearly there is no well-funded “Literature Translation Institute” in Thailand and perhaps less of a complex desire to be admired.


There is, however, another, specifically Korean side to the topic which should be mentioned although is not much appreciated by the European / American professional literary milieu. It is a fact that many Koreans simply want all of their country’s literature (poetry, fiction, drama, essays) to be translated (into English especially) and published so that it can be read and admired by non-Koreans across the world, simply because they are proud of it. They have no interest in how the international book-selling market works, or in non-Koreans’ tastes in reading. Such an project is entirely “documentary,” its sole purpose is to make Korean works available in translation, whether anyone might be interested in reading them or not. The deciding factor in choosing works for translation in this perspective is simply their reputation within Korea, with no concern for their interest or commercial viability in an overseas market. Besides, most Koreans simply cannot begin to imagine that literary works which they enjoy and admire might not appeal to non-Korean readers. They constantly blame what they see as the outside world’s lack of enthusiasm for Korean literature in general on “poor translations.” At the same time, for them, the main quality of a translation seems always to be extreme “accuracy.” They think the translation must look and sound “just like” the Korean.

That presumably explains why a Korean recently wrote, “Any assessment of a translation is bogus unless it has gone through a rigorous comparison of the source and the translated texts.” The idea that a “rigorous comparison” with the original is the only proper way of identifying a “good translation” clearly derives mainly from classroom pedagogy, where points are deducted from student’s exercises for each “mistake” and none are given for imaginative recreations which diverge from strict word-for-word “accuracy.” Western literary translators who read that phrase were outraged by what they considered its ignorant narrowness, its failure to recognize the transformative, creative aspects of a literary translator’s task. In addition, the article in which it appeared was solely concerned with denouncing (once again) the “errors” in Deborah Smith’s “The Vegetarian” and proposing “correct” translations which, by their awkwardness, only served to show the author’s lack of stylistic skills in English. In English we call such a waste of time and energy “flogging a dead horse.”

Considerable efforts are being made in Korea to promote the translation and publication of Korean literature. There are several graduate schools of interpretation and translation where literary translation is taught, while the Literature Translation Institute of Korea runs an intensive, full-time “Translation Academy” to train young translators over several years. Considerable efforts are made there to help young non-Koreans gain understanding of and familiarity with the details of Korean culture and history, past and present, as well as improve their Korean language skills. However, I do not think that any time is spent in these programs on helping these future literary translators acquire mastery of literary style in their target language, so that they can produce polished and enjoyable translations for overseas readers. The only concern is that they get the meaning of the Korean right! It is as though the finished translation’s style is expected to follow exactly the style of the Korean original, from which to diverge would be a crime against Koreanness. It could be argued that the translator of poetry into a language should have the sensitivity and mastery of style found in that languages poets’ own works.


To finish I would like to stress in yet other ways, with examples I have previously used elsewhere, that the art of literary translation is essentially oriented toward and conditioned by the standards and expectations of the new readership a work gains on being translated. Edward Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubaiyat by Omar Kayyam is probably the most famous example of free translation. His 1859 translation of a selection of quatrains (rubāʿiyāt) attributed to Omar Khayyam (1048–1131), is one of the most enduring translations of poetry ever published, with some 20 editions currently in print, after 120 years. Fitzgerald himself expressed his view on our problem very well in letters written to a friend: “My translation will interest you from its form, and also in many respects in its detail: very un-literal as it is. Many quatrains are mashed together: and something lost, I doubt, of Omar’s simplicity, which is so much a virtue in him” (letter to E. B. Cowell, 9/3/58). And, “I suppose very few People have ever taken such Pains in Translation as I have: though certainly not to be literal. But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle” (letter to E. B. Cowell, 4/27/59). Fitzgerald employed the word “transmogrification” to express the process of translation as he performed it, in order to stress the radical differences existing between his originals and his versions. A more elegant but perhaps less striking word with a similar meaning would be “transfiguration.”

A more refined statement comes from Paul Ricoeur (in his essays: On Translation). He urges us to “give up the ideal of the ‘perfect translation.’” He explains that the dream of a perfect translation is fact equivalent to dreaming of a single, perfect, universal language that would be capable of expressing “a rationality fully released from cultural constraints and community restrictions.” This dream is equivalent to “the wish that translation would gain, gain without losing. It is this gain without loss that we must mourn until we reach an acceptance of the impassable difference of the peculiar and the foreign.” Ricoeur ends by proposing a new harmony: “it is this mourning for the absolute translation that produces the happiness associated with translating.”

The translator must always mourn what is “lost in translation,” but we can in the end be happy because by being at least adequately (though never perfectly) translated, literary works can be transfigured and so made new in other lands, far from home, across the globe, and become truly part of “world literature.”