He said, she said

2013-09-10 : 17:04

By Chi-young Kim 

In literary translation, working with dialogue can be especially tricky. For one, you want to convey the same tone and meaning as the original, but the majority of the time a literal translation will make that impossible.

Each language has slang and expressions that cannot be translated neatly word for word. You also have to consider the character's age, his or her relationship to the other person, their level of education, and their moods at the time they utter the sentence. The time period of the story matters too; you can’t have a modern expression coming out of the mouths of characters during World War II.

Particularly in Korean, one can show a lot in a simple line of dialogue, like who is speaking. This is why the original often does not include “he said" or “she said." Rendering that word for word means that there's often dialogue where two characters go back and forth several times without any indication of who’s speaking, leaving an English reader confused.

When I translate, I knock out a rough first draft before going back to rewrite and edit. When I get to chunks of dialogue, even I can get confused, although I'm the one who worked on it. That’s because the hierarchy and gender-specific exclamations embedded in Korean disappears in English.

In these cases, a translator has to insert clues to let the reader know who is speaking, usually by typing in “he said." Sometimes, the original will have dialogue and then in the next line, have: “So-and-so frowned." If it works, I might move that up somewhere to punctuate the dialogue and show who is speaking.

Often, the actual dialogue itself has to be completely rewritten. I take the idea of what the character is saying and write it in a way I think that character would speak. A literal translation can make it awkward and unclear, which is not what the character in the story would do. And it defeats the translator’s role of presenting the author’s world in the truest way possible.

There’s a good example of such dialogue in “Please Look After Mom.” As I mentioned in previous columns, the academics who discussed this novel in a paper “edited” my translation to correct what they considered “awkward,” and re-worked this particular line of dialogue. In this scene, the character of Mom is lying in bed next to her husband and ruminates on her brother-in-law's suicide. 

My translation is as follows:

“Do you think Kyun wouldn't have done it if we'd sent him to school?"

This is the kind of conversation you might have in the middle of the night, blurting out what's on your mind. There's no need to explain anything. The husband understands instantly what his wife is saying. The wife's mention of "it" is clear to both the husband and the reader. 

The academics’ version is as follows:

"Hey, about Kyun. Do you think he wouldn't have ended up that way if we'd sent him to school?"

This literal rendition is clunky at best. A casual conversation between spouses wouldn't begin with: “Hey, about Kyun.” Nobody actually speaks that way. You would just launch into what you want to talk about. And, in English, when you're talking about someone killing himself, you would talk about the person "doing it" instead of in a passive way.

Committing suicide rarely “ends up that way," which suggests that the person has no agency. Although technically accurate, this wordy, bumbling sentence detracts from the scene and the original work. This time, too, the academics' edits resulted in more awkwardness.

Again, it’s hard to understand what the academics were aiming to reveal by reverting the sentence to a more literal one. Their awkward rendition makes it harder to grasp the point they make, and it’s quite unnecessary. It also seems that whoever did that literal translation does not understand how people speak in English.

That's the thing about dialogue. It can be the most challenging and fun part of any translation, because you have to really understand the characters. Luckily, if you spend many months grappling with the text, you start to get a feel for the characters. Dialogue is something I tweak continuously, to the very end. I’m a firm believer than you can always make it better. Often, after a book is published, I'll see a line of conversation and think, “I wish I could change that." 

In fact, I wish I could rewrite the line of dialogue above. I think I can do better. But I take what I learned from each project and go on to the next, hoping I can apply the lesson to something else in the future. 

Chi-young Kim is a literary translator based in Los Angeles. She has translated works by Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha, and Jo Kyung-ran. Contact her at chiyoung@chiyoungkim.com or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.