Translating Korean fiction into English: theory and practice


A talk given at an international conference ¡®Korean Language Education and Korean Literature across the World¡¯ organized by the Kookmin University Language Research Institute, Kookmin University, Seoul on November 19 2004


             There is a pun often heard in Korea that says ¡®translator is traitor¡¯ but I do not think we should accept it, unless it means what Frost rightly said, ¡®Poetry is what gets lost in translation,¡¯ where he means that any attempt to make a difficult poem comprehensible by paraphrasing it in other words (even in the same language) destroys the essential identity of the poem—other words make it into another work. ¡®Translation is transformation,¡¯ yes, and I assume that anyone who undertakes to translate Korean literature into English must feel some special apprehension at the challenges involved. We wish, obviously, to produce the ¡®best¡¯ translation possible but we know that, beside the problematic nature of the act of translating itself, in negociating the passage from one language to another we inevitably confront two objective limitations in our own competence. The first is the more or less limited familiarity we have with the language we have acquired as a ¡®foreign¡¯ language, be it Korean or English; on the whole we are made conscious of that every time we read or open our mouth to use that foreign language. That is why I am convinced that literary translation should always be made into one¡¯s native language. The second is more difficult to sense and deal with, being the limitations of our mastery of our first, ¡®native¡¯ language. It is not every ¡®native speaker¡¯ who has fully mastered the rules of grammar, or can even spell properly, let alone write a decently structured and rhythmed sentence, or recognize one when he sees it. It is not every ¡®native speaker¡¯ of Korean who can distinguish between a well-written phrase and a badly written one; it is certainly not every native speaker of English who can write as well as a great writer.

             Anyone sincere will, I assume, always try to ¡®do the best possible¡¯ in any situation. But once we have finished work on a translation, and feel able to claim to have done our best, there is still a need for someone else to tell us whether the result is a ¡®successful¡¯ translation or not. After all, the words ¡®You did the best you could,¡¯ in English is usually followed by ¡®but¡¦¡¯. At the same time, my simple, benevolent mind cannot really compehend the attitude of some Koreans who plough through page after page of wonderful translation in search of an error they can wave triumphantly, failing completely to pay hommage to the many pages that were faultless.

Likewise I am made unhappy by the attitude of certain would-be translators expressed by ¡®I am a professor, so obviously what I do is good, and no one can tell me otherwise. I do not need help from any native speaker.¡¯ This reveals people deprived of the essential human qualities of self-doubt, uncertainty, and insecurity that can, well used, give rise to a kind of proper, creative humility. We all need help on occasion. On the other hand, deep anxiety is common among good translators, and in extreme cases can drive a highly scrupulous person to a point where no translation ever gets published, because of a feeling that it is still so far from being ¡®perfect¡¯. Perfectionism is unwise. Never forget: there is no such thing as a perfect translation.

             Perhaps because I have published several translations from Korean, I now find myself being asked to serve as judge in translation contests, asked to discover among a pile of translations of different literary texts, done by people with a variety of linguistic origins and skills, those which are ¡®the best¡¯. I would like to try to reflect briefly on what criteria are to be used in judging such competitions, in identifying ¡®best¡¯ translations. More precisely, I can talk about my experience judging this year¡¯s Korea Times Translation Awards and another competition for New Translators. In both cases, interested people are invited to select a recently published Korean short story or novel (I will only talk about fiction) and submit a finished English translation of it. The translating may be done by a Korean or a non-native Korean working alone, or by a team of two (or more) with mixed origins. Each member of the panel of judges (usually two, one native speaker of each language) first reads and evaluates the entries separately, then the two combine their evaluations and hope to be able to agree on which entries get the prizes. Of course, the organizers have removed any indication of the identity of the translator(s) before sending them to be judged.

             In evaluating a translation from Korean into English, certain general rules can be set out although perhaps not everyone will agree with all of them:

1. Grammatically correct Korean is to be translated by grammatically correct English.

2. Plain Korean sentences should be represented by plain English sentences.

3. Complex Korean sentences are to be translated by complex English sentences.

4. Ordinary, everyday Korean vocabulary is to be translated by ordinary, everyday English vocabulary; abstruse or high-level abstract vocabulary by terms of a similar level.

5. Natural-feeling modern Korean prose should be translated into natural-feeling English prose. Excentricity of style should be indicated by excentricity of style. One Korean paragraph should usually be represented by one English paragraph.

6. A lively narrative style must be translated by a lively narrative style. A plodding style demands a plodding style.

7. Every word found in the original should be respected and be represented in some way in the translation, although the great difference between the languages means that there can be no such thing as a ¡®word-for-word¡¯ translation.

The translator¡¯s difficulties (and the judge¡¯s too) begin with a number of problem situations which have no easy solution:

1. Colloquial expressions or regional dialect employed in dialogue.

2. Vocabulary or activities that have no equivalent in English culture.

3. The use of different grammatical ¡®levels¡¯ to indicate social hierarchy or personal feelings.

These, especially the second, are the domain of what Walter Benjamin has called ¡®the foreignness of language¡¯, giving the simple example of ¡®Brot¡¯ in German which will obviously be translated by ¡®pain¡¯ in French and by ¡®bread¡¯ in English only the shape, taste, texture and use of ¡®bread¡¯ in the three countries is largely different. What, then, can be done with kimch¡¯i, makkŏlli, maru or ondol? The question is a fascinating one, but it is not a central one, since there are a variety of possible solutions and as judges our main concern is to see whether the one selected is an appropriate one.

             The first step in our search for ¡®good¡¯ translations is a pragmatic one; we need to reduce the size of the pile as quickly as possible. Almost always, a certain proportion of the submissions show at a glance that the translator is an unaided Korean, one who harbours deep illusions as to what constitutes correct English. A few examples from this year¡¯s submissions will suffice: ¡®That was his words of propose¡¯ (That was how he proposed). ¡®I turned on my window brush¡¯ (I turned on my windscreen wipers). ¡®How time have (has) passed!¡¯ Such submissions are eliminated in a moment, yet they deserve our attention. For they illustrate the extent to which English education in Korea has failed. The people submitting such texts, and sometimes they are complete novels, hundreds of pages long, have obviously no awareness at all that what they are writing is not acceptable English. We can even assume that many of them have graduated from English Departments of our universities; some may turn out to have lived for many years in the United States. These texts show that there are serious, educated people around with no idea of how badly they have been taught English, and seemingly unaware that what they write using English words is not English.

             In judging this year¡¯s Korea Times contest, we were confronted with quite another problem, a new one increasingly encountered in the last few years. Having eliminated that kind of dreadful entry from the 16 submissions, we still had 12 texts left! That is wonderful, of course, for it means that a considerable number of people are prepared to spend the many hours it takes to translate even a short story, and that the result is in an English sufficiently correct to make it impossible to eliminate any after just a rapid scan through. In the KLTI contest, the proportion was closer to what we used to find at the Korea Times, several years ago, with no less than 6 of the 13 entries being written in an English so unacceptable that one could only gasp at the wasted effort.

             The next step will be a more complex one; the seemingly good translations will have to be set alongside the original Korean text, to see if the rules set out above have been obeyed. Many Koreans, for example, when they translate into English, are strongly inclined to take shortcuts and omit completely all those little details by which the author has made the story come alive, if not whole paragraphs they judge unnecessary. Not totally at home with English, the broad sense they are able to express, but at the expense of the detailed nuances. Sometimes what appeared to be a splendid translation will be found to have skimmed over and eliminated a considerable part of what the author wrote for no cogent reason, while adding lots of little words and details that were not in the Korean, where a ¡®proof-reader¡¯ who knows no Korean has striven to make up for weaknesses in the original translation. In other cases, careful checking shows that while most of a text has been well translated, there are quite a number of passages where a translator has completely misunderstood something in the original; the translation is uneven in quality.

             After this, we are left with a group of translations that are all in virtually correct standard English, and which are reasonably faithful to what the author wrote. How now is the ¡®best¡¯ translation to be identified among them? It could very well be argued that this final choice ought to be made by a panel of readers living in the UK and the US, perhaps two in each, composed of people with much experience of reviewing modern fiction for the critical press. Because the question at this stage is not whether the tenses and the position of articles are correct; it is how we are to pass from a shortlist of very good translations to a single top prize-winner.

In both competitions, the selection of stories to translate is left to the translators, and in the last stage the evaluation of the translation cannot avoid being at the same time to some extent an evaluation of the original text. Here we encounter a serious question: what is the purpose of translating? From a Korean perspective, the reply will almost always be, ¡®To enable readers abroad to read works by writers who are admired in Korea.¡¯ In other words, the translation is made to provide data, information on the kind of fiction that receives prizes and sells well here; or else, more pragmatically, the work chosen is one that the translator likes and feels to be worth translating. But if the final decision as to literary quality were left to a panel of non-Korean literary critics, the Korean response to and reputation of the author would be ignored; instead, the aim would be to establish which of the translated works had qualities capable of appealing to a discerning, non-Korean readership. Korean values would not determine the choice, and might well be rudely challenged.

             In Korea, very few Koreans ever stop to think that perhaps readers in other parts of the planet might not find anything much to respond to in a novel or short story from Korea, even one by such reputed writers as Kim Dongni or Pak Wansŏ. The claim that ¡®the whole world is bound to admire it because Koreans admire it, and if they do not, it must be the translator¡¯s fault¡¯, is commonly found. This unwillingness to consider the limited appeal of much Korean fiction, and the lack of an ability to sense the pulse of the outside world is very obvious in the selection of works translated in both competitions. Time after time, I found myself wondering why on earth anyone would spend so much time translating the kind of stories I was reading. Some of them did not seem to me to be ¡®literature¡¯ at all and I could not understand why they had been written.

By the end, I had become convinced that there is something very seriously wrong with the state of today¡¯s Korean fiction. Many of the texts translated did not, to my mind, deserve the name ¡®literature¡¯ and should not have been written or published, let alone translated. They depict, often in a slowly moving narrative written in a leaden style, events that might very well have happened in reality, and that you would not really want to hear about in detail even if they happened to your best friend. This is reinforced by the great liking Korean writers show for first-person narrators, especially women. Some works were harrowing accounts of intensely boring lives full of failed relationships, of abortions, or in one case of a wife¡¯s death by cancer and in that story the husband of the dead woman twice gives a drop-by-drop account of having his bladder emptied by catheter, because he has a prostate problem. Too many people think that a succession of short sentences all ending in ¡®À̾ú´Ù¡¯ like the letters from housewives read on the radio every day is the best way of telling a story. As I have written in Munhaksasang (March 2004), too much modern Korean writing lacks completely any ¡®suspense, irony, wit, bite, or sophistication in the construction of plot lines, characterization or psychology, and narrative strategies. Very often, the Korean writer seems content to narrate a familiar slice of daily life, in the course of which the central, stereotyped character experiences painful emotions of alienation. Is such writing really worth reading or translating?¡¯

             It is a mystery to me that Korean readers seem unable to say clearly, ¡®This is junk, give me something better.¡¯ But of course, in many ways they are saying just that by no longer buying books at all, forcing dozens of bookstores to close in recent months and publishing houses to rush about looking for instant best-sellers on ¡®how to get rich in 2 days¡¯. Too much Korean fiction is parochial, badly written, and boring. Writers seem not to have heard of multiple narrators, ambiguous point of view, alternative subtexts. It is no doubt for this reason that so many non-Korean translators these days turn to the stories written by Kim Yongha. There is simply no one else like him who writes the kind of entertaining short story capable of giving pleasure to readers of many cultures. But the idea that literature should provide intellectual and aesthetic pleasure is seemingly not accepted by many Korean critics or writers. Perhaps that is the main problem.