Thursday, April 14, 2011

Kim Chi-young: Words on Translation

Kim Chi-young
(Image from JoongAng Daily)

Shin Kyung-sook's recently translated novel, Please Look After Mom, is doing well on Amazon's bestseller list, ranking 10th among works of literature as of April 10th this year, according to Shin Joon-bong and Yu I-na of the JoongAng Daily in their "Interview" (April 13, 2011) with the novel's translator, Kim Chi-young. This unexpected popularity has generated quite a stir on the Korean literary scene, and a lot is being written on the possibility that now might be Korean literature's breakthrough moment, the cusp of time when foreign readers become aware of how good Korean literature is:
"The American response to this book is unprecedented in Korean literature history." said Jang Eun-su, president of Korean publisher Mineumsa. "Since 2000, more and more Americans have become interested in Asian literature, so the intense interest in Shin's book is perhaps a result of current trends in the American publishing market."
Well, I hope so, since my wife and I form a translating team, and any greater market in the English-speaking world can only be to our benefit, but I think that I ought to point out that the crucial reason for the breakthrough of Please Look After Mom is that Oprah Winfrey has promoted it.

This isn't to say that the novel doesn't deserve its success. Shin Kyung-sook is a good writer, and my wife says that the Korean original is excellent. I also know from serving as a literary judge for the Daesan Foundation that Kim Chi-young is an excellent translator. I haven't read Please Look After Mom, but I'm sure that this translation is also excellent and deserves its success.

But Oprah's the key.

I'm not here today to talk about that, however. Rather, I merely want to focus on a few points that Kim Chi-young makes about translating:
Do you have your own principles for translating?

My principle is that translated books should give readers almost the same feelings as the original ones. Readers are not scholars. They are not patient [enough to read through awkward expressions]. I cut out dialects and polite expressions from original texts. If I translate South Jeolla dialect into an American Southern accent, readers would find the translation awkward.

Do you break sentences apart?

Of course I do. I don't translate sentences word for word. In order to maintain American-style English, I often split Korean sentences into several English ones or combine several sentences to make one English sentence.

If a Korean sentence feels poetic, the translated one should feel poetic as well. If I did a word-for-word translation, my translation would be considered stilted.
My wife and I had to learn some of these lessons on the job. I remember working on Jeong Ji A's short story "Light of Spring" and trying to catch the dialect by using a rural American accent, but that didn't work at all, as I've previously noted. It was, as Kim Chi-young says, "awkward."

As for conveying the same feeling in the translation as in the original text, that's something that only a truly bilingual translator can judge for certain. My wife and I strive for the same sense as the original Korean, but expressed in English in a natural way, hopefully also of literary quality.

So of course, we also split sentences. Or combine sentences. Or even paragraphs, splitting and combining. We sometimes go so far as to rearrange a sequence of sentences for a more natural progression in English. Or add necessary information. And we certainly excise those maddening Korean ellipses, where a speaker 'says' something by saying nothing:
". . . ."
That just doesn't work in English as a stand-alone 'remark' in dialogue. It has to be rendered as something like:
She said nothing.
Or simply deleted, with the other speaker continuing to talk . . . or the like.

One of the most difficult decisions is how to handle an inconsistency. The difficulty depends on how much would need to be altered in the text to rectify the problem. Sometimes, it's easy, just a typo -- say, a slip-up, one character's name typed slipshod when a different character was undoubtedly meant. But sometimes, there's more to be done. Recently, in our work translating Yi Gwang-su's novel The Soil, one chapter was so wrong in its reference to previous events that my wife and I have advised cutting it entirely from the translation if the Korea Literature Translation Institute (KLTI) happens to find a publisher (assuming that the KLTI even accepts our translation).

Anyway, I'm pleased that Kim Chi-young is getting all this attention and that she's spoken out on the necessity of translating 'freely,' for some Korean literary referees still remain highly conservative and object to translations that are not word-for-word translations.

Kim Chi-young, by the way, is the daughter of Yu Young-nan, another excellent translator of Korean literature, and a person whom I've met . . .

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At 6:28 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

I completely agree with all of you, of course, about splitting, combining, recreating the same kind of atmosphere etc.

As for inconsistencies, again, the same as you:
the improve-or-delete method.

On some occasion, when translating a book by a living writer, I contact the author and we find an agreement about a change in the text. So, the final Italian version happens to be 'better' than the original book. Or, if it is about an essay, it often winds up more updated.

The real challenge, anyway, lies in passing from a sci-fi novel to a historical essay, from an article on economy to a theology handbook... and quick!

At 7:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, it is hard to get the dead to reply to emails. On the other hand, they never complain . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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