Translation Teams: Korean Literature
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.
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."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.
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."
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 . . .