My Keynote Address at the Seoul International Book Fair
As you know, I gave my keynote address yesterday, so I'm posting it today for the benefit of all you who couldn't make the live event - not that I'm now dead, mind you! Anyway, here it is:
And that's all, folks!True Translation?Ignōrō et Ignōrā́bō!Horace Jeffery HodgesThe 13th International WorkshopforTranslation and Publication of Korean LiteratureThe Role of Translators and Literary AgentsinGlobalizing Korean LiteratureIntroduction
When the LTI Korea asked me to give this keynote address at today's workshop on the role of translators and literary agents, I protested that I really don't know anything about literary agents. Nor particularly about their role in globalizing Korean literature. Nor, I admitted, am I truly a translator. My wife Hwang Sun-Ae is the translator. She is the one who translates Korean into English. I'm simply the "transformer." I transform her English translation into more idiomatic English. I suggested that my wife were better qualified to give this talk, but no, the LTI wanted me. I therefore infer that my ignorance performs some important service here today.
Not a Translator?
Perhaps I could legitimately call myself a "translator" after all, based on the fact that I am part of a translation team, somewhat like the Frenchman Jean Bellemin-Noël, who works with Choe Ae-young, as I learned from the Korea Herald reporter Claire Lee in her article "French-Korean duo shares art of co-translating." I found the article interesting because Ms. Lee presented a summary of the duo's working method, and I quote:
Together, [Bellemin-Noël and Choe] . . . have developed an original, effective process of co-translating. First, Choe translates the entire Korean text [in]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 [between] the two drafts."This description of their translating process interests me for its similarities and differences with the process that my wife and I work through in our own translation efforts. Moreover, according to Ms. 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 very 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 [that al]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. [As Choe also explained,] "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 . . . . 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. Perhaps you can now clearly comprehend why I generally don't call myself a translator. As already noted, I think of myself as a "transformer," for I take the English text given to me by Sun-Ae and transform it into a literary English text. But I notice that Ms. Choe calls Mr. Bellemin-Noël "my co-translator," and the author of the article, Ms. Lee, refers to Choe and Bellemin-Noël as "Korean-French translators." The point that comes home to me is that since Mr. Bellemin-Noël can be called a "translator" despite the fact, as just noted, that he "has almost no knowledge of the Korean language," then perhaps I could also pose as a translator. But I can't quite own the label, for I do not truly translate, and am thus too inexperienced and therefore too ignorant of translating to call myself a translator.
Checking the Dictionary
But I hate to remain entirely ignorant, so I've tried to learn a bit about translation for this talk. From delving into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, Vol. 2, 1971), I've learned that the word "translation" has two broad meanings. The first broad meaning given in the OED for translation dates to around 1350:
Transference; removal or conveyance from one person, place, or condition to another.Why – I realized – I could do that! Indeed, I can do it right now. There's a book. I will 'translate' it before your very eyes. From there . . . to here. I have now translated . . . let's see . . . ah, Yi Kwang-su's novel The Soil. And the cover states: "A novel translated by Hwang Sun-Ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges." Well, that was easy.
Less easy is another, variant use of the word "translation" – as we see by again checking in the ever useful OED:
Removal from earth to heaven, originally without death, as the translation of Enoch; but in later use also said figuratively of the death of the righteous.I'm pretty sure I'd never, ever qualify as that sort of translator! Nor would I even want to excel at this following kind of "translation":
Transference of a disease from one person or part of the body to another.Thankfully, that type of translation is – according to the OED – "[n]ow rare or obsolete." Great to hear that scientific medicine has made such wonderful advances!
Now, the examples given so far all fit the dictionary's first broad meaning – a meaning that I find congenial – but there's a second broad meaning of "translation" to consider:
The action or process of turning from one language into another; also, the product of this; a version in a different language.Ah, yes. This is what my wife does. This broad meaning dates to around 1340, so it's actually about a decade earlier than the first broad meaning already discussed. I cannot do this second sort of translating, a point that I already made clear at the outset of this talk, but let's talk about it anyway.
A Middle English Hermit on LiteralandSensible Translations
The writer cited as referring to the term "translation" in this second sense was Richard Rolle of Hampole, a wandering hermit who in 1340 translated the Psalter, a collection of Old Testament psalms, from Latin into English, more precisely, into Middle English:
In Þe translacioun i folow Þe lettere als mykyll as i may. And Þare i fynd na propire ynglis i folow Þe wit of Þe worde, swa Þat Þai Þat sall red it Þaim Þare noght dred errynge.There are two sentences here. Hampole in the first is saying this:
In Þe translacioun i folow Þe lettere als mykyll as i may.In other words, Hampole follows a literal translation, which I also have done here in following his words, as is easily seen if one recognizes the letter "thorn" ("Þ") as "th" and the odd word "mykyll" as "much." But Hampole in the second sentence acknowledges the limits of literal translation, as I will also demonstrate:
In the translation, I follow the letter as much as I may.
And Þare i fynd na propire ynglis i folow Þe wit of Þe worde, swa Þat Þai Þat sall red it Þaim Þare noght dred errynge.The literal rendering fails us here, so we ought to follow the "wit," i.e., the sense:
And there I find no proper English, I follow the wit of the word so that they that shall read it, them there not dread erring.
And Þare i fynd na propire ynglis i folow Þe wit of Þe worde, swa Þat Þai Þat sall red it Þaim Þare noght dred errynge.We thus see Hampole working with two implicit theories of translation: word-for-word (literal) and sense-for-sense (sensible, i.e., meaningful). The former would of course never work between such unrelated, widely divergent tongues as Korean and English, for the substance, or meaning, would be lost, so I don't doubt that literal translation from Korean to English finds very few advocates.
(And there I find no proper English, I follow the wit of the word so that they that shall read it, them there not dread erring.)
And where I find no proper English, I follow the sense of the word so that those who read it need not fear to err.
A Humorous Interlude
Literal translations also often fail even for related tongues. Consider the Czech Budweiser, an excellent lager beer that already sold well in nineteenth-century America. A nineteenth-century American brewer therefore 'translated' this fine Czech beer into American Budweiser, a weak, watery, yellow fizzy liquid hardly deserving comparison with the excellent Czech lager. In short, the substance of Budweiser was lost even though the name remained literally the same. As we see on this PowerPoint slide, the American Budweiser is thus a 'LITERally pour' translation of the original Czech Budweiser . . . and, yes, I'm joking. A poor pun. My apologies. Humor never translates well across cultures.
Translation is Treason?
But I do have a serious point. The substance, or meaning, is what the true translator seeks to express in the target language. Take for example the Korean literary use of six dots (. . . . . .) in dialogue to denote when a speaker expected to speak says nothing. Let’s look at a scene from Yi Kwang-su's novel The Soil, specifically, the scene in which the dissolute man Gap-jin speaks to the adulterous Jeong-seon, ridiculing the fact that her husband, the righteous Heo Sung, has forgiven them both for their affair and has even burned an incriminating letter that Gap-jin sent to Jeong-seon:
Gap-jin laughed at the thought and chattered on for a while. At one point, however, he suddenly appeared to recall something. "Oh, right, what did that fool say to you?" Gap-jin's face now showed some concern.You may disagree with me, but I don't think those dots work well in translation, and not solely because foreign readers won't know what they signify, for I do know what the dots mean and find them nevertheless unaesthetic. Let's fill in those excessive ellipses:
. . . . . .
"If he makes a fuss, just come to me."
. . . . . .
"I'm not sure he really burnt the letter. If he really did, great, but if he hasn't, we might face a problem." (pages 310-311)
Gap-jin laughed at the thought and chattered on for a while. At one point, however, he suddenly appeared to recall something. "Oh, right, what did that fool say to you?" Gap-jin's face now showed some concern.There. That looks better, at least to me, though I'm curious how true translators deal with this Korean literary convention.
Jeong-seon didn't answer.
"If he makes a fuss, just come to me."
She remained silent.
"I'm not sure he really burnt the letter. If he really did, great, but if he hasn't, we might face a problem." (pages 310-311)
Taking Liberties with the Text?
Some might argue that translators shouldn't take too many liberties with a text, and I agree – "too many" is always "too much," but where do we draw the line in changing a text? Consider the following passage in which the adulterous Jeong-seon asks her servant, Yu-wol, if "the master of Jaetgol" – the dissolute Gap-jin – had visited while she (Jeong-seon) was gone to her husband's village, Salyeoul:
"Did the master of Jaetgol come to visit often while I was gone to Salyeoul?" She was seeking clues from Yu-wol's response.The problem is that Jeong-seon had twice visited Salyeoul, the first time many months before for a duration of two months, but the second time very, very recently for only a couple of days. I initially thought Jeong-seon was referring to the second time, so I was baffled to read that Gap-jin had visited "day and night" in her brief absence! My wife was likewise baffled by this when I consulted her, but after discussing the matter at length, we finally realized that the first trip to Salyeoul was meant, and all the plotted pieces fell into place. To forestall readers' possible misunderstanding, I therefore tweaked the text a bit:
"Oh, yes, he came day and night," she answered . . .
"Did the master of Jaetgol come to visit often while I was gone to Salyeoul for those two months?" She was seeking clues from Yu-wol's response.I trust that this added bit of clarification wouldn't be considered as taking "too many" liberties with the text.
"Oh, yes, he came day and night," she answered . . . (page 328)
But I have taken greater liberties with texts. Korean readers seem to be far more comfortable with ambiguity than are English-speaking readers. Or is this just me? Either or, I've sometimes even reversed the order of two paragraphs to eliminate ambiguity, and I am certain that I've done so in Yi Kwang-su's novel The Soil, but I can no longer recall specifically where, so I have no example to offer, but if any of you happen to read The Soil and notice such a reversal, then please let me know, that I might provide an example the next time I am asked to give a talk like this one. At any rate, my aim is ever to ensure that the telling of the story flows well in English even as it preserves the meaning of the Korean original.
Zeno's Literary Paradox
On this point about ensuring that the telling of the story flows well in English, let me offer an insight, and I apologize in advance for what might be a tedious recounting, but that very tedium will serve to drive my point home. Striving for the perfect translation, like proofreading to eliminate every error, is a never-ending process reminiscent of Zeno's Paradoxes: one gets closer and closer to the aimed-for translation, yet never arrives. Here is my tedious example. Sometime prior to the copyediting stage, I had worked out what I considered a final version of the following passage in Yi Kwang-su's novel The Soil:
The train was running on the steel bridge of Salyeoul Village. "Salyeoul! How lovely is that name!" Sung looked down at the water flowing under the bridge. Dark water still wore the summer night. As his eyes followed its course upstream, the milky-white fog of the valley, more typical of early autumn, grew visible. Over the moisture-soaked ground and over the softly murmuring water, the white fog was spreading, one of the most evocative beauties of nature. (page 10)That sounded pretty good, I thought, but sometime between the crafting of that passage and the time for copyediting, I had second thoughts. For instance, take this part: "Salyeoul! How lovely is that name!" I'd now be tempted to remove "is": "Salyeoul! How lovely that name!" Or rewrite these words: "Dark water still wore the summer night." I might now try: "The dark water was still clothed in summer night." I could do much the same with every line. From: "As his eyes followed its course upstream, the milky-white fog of the valley, more typical of early autumn, grew visible." To: "As his eyes followed the watercourse upstream, the milky-white fog of the valley, more typical of early autumn, grew visible." And from: "Over the moisture-soaked ground and over the softly murmuring water, the white fog was spreading, one of the most evocative beauties of nature." To: "Over the moisture-soaked ground and over the softly murmuring water, the white fog was spreading, a most evocative beauty of nature." Combining these, along with still other alterations, including small changes in already altered phrases, I arrived at this:
The train was crossing the steel bridge near Salyeoul Village. "Salyeoul! How lovely that name!" Sung looked down at the water flowing under the bridge. The dark depths were still clothed in summer night. As his eyes followed the watercourse upstream, the milky-white fog of the valley, more typical of early autumn, grew visible. Over the moisture-soaked ground and over the softly murmuring water, the white fog was spreading, a most evocative beauty of nature.Unfortunately, by the time I turned in this revision, the deadline for editing had passed. I kicked myself mentally for being so tardy! But I have since grown more philosophical about the changes, for you will see how my experience begins to recall Zeno's – and what could be more philosophical than that? – as I find myself wanting to keep reworking the passage, e.g., "Salyeoul! How lovely the name!" And this: "As his eyes followed the watercourse upstream, the valley's milky-white fog, more typical of early autumn, grew visible." And maybe this: "Over moisture-soaked soil and softly murmuring water, the white fog was spreading, a most evocative beauty of nature." These changes provide us with another, slightly revised passage:
The train was crossing the steel bridge near Salyeoul Village. "Salyeoul! How lovely the name!" Sung looked down at the water flowing under the bridge. The dark depths were still clothed in summer night. As his eyes followed the watercourse upstream, the valley's milky-white fog, more typical of early autumn, grew visible. Over moisture-soaked soil and softly murmuring water, the white fog was spreading, a most evocative beauty of nature.Is that better or worse? At a certain, albeit uncertain point in such revisions, distinguishing aesthetically among them becomes difficult, if not impossible, so try to keep in mind that the translation need not be perfect. Important is that the story flow well enough in English (or other target language) even as it preserves the meaning of the Korean original, and that dual objective should perhaps be the aim of translators in their role as 'globalizers' of Korean literature.
But as necessary as both flow and meaning together are, neither of them is sufficient in getting readers' attention. There's a large element of chance at work. My own interest in Korean literature illustrates this truth. I have previously told this story of my encounter with it, but the story may be worth recalling here anyway:
My first encounter with Korean literature came through a roundabout process that started in 1992. I was sitting on a train in Germany discussing literature with a Korean woman whom I had just happened to meet, having by chance sat down beside her. Specifically, we were talking about The Man without Qualities, the famous novel by the Austrian writer Robert Musil, and our discussion was so fascinating, we decided to get married and continue the conversation. Of course, I didn't tell her about 'our' decision for another year and a half.That, however, is getting ahead of my story. Sun-Ae and I married in 1995, and we were settled for good in Korea by 1999 as I gradually left the field of religious studies due to bad luck in the job market and began teaching English in Korea. But I only slowly turned to Korean literature when I happened by chance to be recommended by a friend to evaluate English translations of Korean literature for the Daesan Foundation, and I discovered what Korean literature had to offer. I was particularly impressed with Park Wan-suh's autobiographical novel, Who Ate Up All the Shinga, translated by Yu Youngnan and Stephen Epstein, and I also helped select the Daesan Foundation's 2009 Translation Prize awarded to Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton for their translation of Ch'oe Yun's story selection There a Petal Silently Falls: Three Stories by Ch'oe Yun. About that same time, my wife and I ourselves were already – after a chance private request – also getting deeply into translation work, some of it sponsored by the LTI Korea, not only Yi Gwang-su's novel The Soil, but also Jang Jung-il's selection of stories When Adam Opens His Eyes. You can now perhaps see what a large role chance has played in my encounter with – but also in my growing fascination for – Korean literature.
She lived in Munich and I in Tübingen, but we took turns visiting nearly every weekend, and for three years in Germany, our conversation continued, as it had begun, in German, a second language for us both. However, I determined to become acquainted with Korean literature in English translation, so I asked her for a book to read. She managed to obtain a copy of Ch'oe In-hun's early novel, A Grey Man, which I read slowly in an attempt to gain as much insight as possible into Korean culture. Ironically, the protagonist was a man 'without qualities' wavering in the 1950s between Christianity and Communism, which I took to mean the choice between right or left, South or North, and I suppose I was correct. I attributed that political issue to the temporal setting of Korea in the fifties. Little did I realize that South Koreans would still be stuck on this dilemma [even today]. ("Encountering Korean Literature: A Personal Journey," _list: Books from Korea, Vol. 20, Summer 2013)
"Le hasard ne favorise que les esprits prepares"
I therefore suppose that one way to globalize Korean literature is to increase the chances of people taking notice of it. Not everyone will meet a Korean on a train and fall in love, nor will every Korean author be as lucky as Shin Kyung-sook was in having her book Please Look After Mom recommended by Oprah Winfrey for her popular and very influential book club. But the Korea Wave has also gotten people interested in Korea, and some are likely to notice Korean literature and give it a chance if it's brought closely enough to their attention. I believe that the LTI Korea has had the right idea in bringing out translations in series combining classics of modern literature with lesser known contemporary works, for such a combination garners more interest and extra publicity. From my own interest in following the reviews of The Soil, I have seen that the series has brought attention to Yi Kwang-su's novel from some who had never before heard of him, and also that Yi Kwang-su's high literary status has brought attention to the series by those who have heard of him. That status likely played a role in World Literature Today's recognition of The Soil as one of the 75 notable translations for 2013, as well as catching the eye of the Times Literary Supplement in a recent review of the series. Moreover, the LTI Korea has made an excellent choice in selecting Dalkey Archive Press as publisher for the series, for they have also done a wonderful job toward the goal of globalizing Korean literature.
A Short but Sweet Conclusion
All in all, I believe we're at the opening of a grand golden age for Korean literature. But don't take my word for it – go ask a true translator!