Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Translation Teams: Korean Literature

Jean Bellemin-Noël and Choe Ae-young
Korean-French translators
Seoul Plaza Hotel, Seoul
Photo by Claire Lee
(Image from The Korea Herald)

Although I was invited to the 18th Daesan Literary Award ceremony last Friday because of my occasional work for the Daesan Foundation in judging the literary quality of Korean literature translated into English, I didn't attend because I was too busy with the student essays that come up around this time of the semester and the various recurrent editing duties that I've taken on over the years, so I didn't have the opportunity of meeting Jean Bellemin-Noël and Choe Ae-young, the translating team who received this year's Daesan Literary Award for their translation of Yi In-seong's novel Wanting to Go Insane, Yet Unable (미쳐버리고 싶은, 미쳐지지 않는) from Korean into French: Interdit de Folie.

My loss.

But I read with interest Claire Lee's article for the Korea Herald, "French-Korean duo shares art of co-translating," because she interviewed the two translators and presented a summary of their working method:
Together, the two have developed an original, effective process of co-translating. First, Choe translates the entire Korean text to French, with a long list of footnotes that contain explanations of cultural context, synonyms of major words, and alternative ways of interpreting the text. Bellemin-Noël then revises the first draft and rewrites the text into more refined French, taking Choe's footnotes into consideration. Then the "talk" begins. "From this stage we wouldn't use my first translated draft at all," Choe said. "We'd discuss extensively comparing the original Korean text and the second translated version which has been revised by Dr. Bellemin-Noël, for the final copy that would compromise the two drafts."

Bellemin-Noël said though the two discuss their work in a "cheerful mood" 90 percent of the time, the mood can get very tense for the remaining 10 percent. "I try to keep the original context of the Korean text as much as possible while Dr. Bellemin-Noël brings the perspective of French readers," Choe explained. "This process requires a lot of compromising and tough decisions."
This description of their process interests me for its similarities and differences with the process that my wife Sun-Ae and I work through in our own translation efforts. Moreover, according to Claire Lee, "Bellemin-Noël has almost no knowledge of the Korean language," which I find quite heartening, personally, since I'm in the same position of ignorance. Anyway, our process is somewhat different. Sun-Ae has a doctorate in German literature but translates into serviceable English that gets better with each passing year. I rework her translation, trying to reword it with an ear to literary quality in English. Sun-Ae then reads my reworked version, checking for mistakes of understanding on my part, which she and I then discuss. Afterwards, I re-read the text carefully, listening for awkward expressions, which I rework. Sun-Ae re-reads after that, checking again that the translation remain true to the original Korean, and we discuss any difficulties.

What strikes me as a significant difference between our method and theirs is the degree of informality to ours. I think that ours is less formal because we're a married couple and work five feet apart at desks facing one another, an arrangement that allows us to query each other any time either of us encounters a translation problem.

But we might have something to learn from the process that Choe and Bellemin-Noël pursue . . .

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At 5:48 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Oh. VERY interesting, Distinguished Colleagues.

A couple of questions:
1. Do you also contact the author via email, in case, asking him/her for some explanations?

2. When you finally send the translation to the publisher, do you list the major translation criterions, if there was something specific? In order to let him/her better understand your choices etc. (and perhaps avoid undue, catastrophic editings...)

At 6:18 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Meanwhile, a further hint. Please excuse me if you maybe had already dealt with this/these subject/s, for I unfortunately cannot retrace all of your archive.

In 2001 the French Catholic publisher Bayard published a Bible (see
which was translated in cooperation between scholars and writers. The former would provide the meaning/s of the text, the latter would render it in current French, each one according to his (/her?) own style. Afterwards, the scholar could point out mistakes etc., but the writers would have the last word.

As fas as I know, however, that Bible was not much appreciated. That kind of 'team work' was too 'dangerous' to be applied to the Holy Scripture, especially because the writers were unable to read Hebrew (and Greek?).

At 7:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, my wife sometimes contacts the author of a piece, but not in the case of our current translation, for Lee Gwang-su is entirely beyond reach.

As for publishers, we don't deal with them since we translate for a foundation.

As for the French Bible translation, I'd not heard of that, but there are many, many English translations of the Bible, including one very popular "Living Translation" that was modernized from an already existing English translation.

Jeffery Hodges

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