By Brother Anthony, professor Min Eun-kyung and professor Jung Ha-yun
The judges of The Korea Times’ Korean Literature Translation Awards always begin their screening of the entries full of anticipation. They hope that they will find at least a few entries of outstanding quality, both in terms of the work chosen and the skill of the translation. This is perhaps because they are so strongly aware of the obstacles facing the translator of a literary work, be it fiction or poetry. The requirement that a translation should be faithful to the original is particularly difficult when the two languages are as different as Korean and English are. The demand that a translation should be eminently readable often leads to wholesale rewriting that takes a translation very far from what the original author wrote. In addition, many would-be translators have not had sufficient practice in writing literary English prose or poetry. Thus, the result is sometimes quite faithful to the words of the original but a struggle to read.
The Awards are designed to encourage new translators, and that usually means young translators. Today, far more talented translators are emerging than in earlier years, with Korean studies a rapidly growing field across the world, and many more people growing up as virtually bilingual speakers of Korean and English. At the same time, literature is in a crisis across the world, with ever fewer people interested in publishing or reading ``serious fiction’’ or poetry, so that professional literary translators find it almost impossible to earn a living. Encouragement is what we would like to offer to those who are brave enough to want to undertake such a challenging and unrewarding task, especially to those whose work did not win an award.
There were many competent translations of Korean fiction this year. Many of them were eminently readable. And yet we felt that they often struck an odd tone as in a song being sung out of tune. These days there are many translators whose use of a highly colloquial, informal, and even slangy American English ends up distorting the mood, voice and tone of the original Korean text. The converse is also true: sometimes the entries sound too formal or expository when the original is more colloquial. We would like to remind the translators that fidelity to the original text should include fidelity to the voice. That said, we do realize that this is one of the most difficult aspects of translation.
So we were happy to find one translation that we unanimously agreed deserved the Grand Prize for Fiction, being satisfactory in the literary quality and style, and in the faithfulness of the translation and the negotiation by which the translator found English solutions for ``untranslatable’’ elements in the Korean. The particular challenge of this work was to find a way to translate the voice of an elderly Korean woman into English and we felt that the translator negotiated this difficulty with considerable skill and grace.
The commendation award goes to a translation of a work that recently has won acclaim as a novel for young readers. It features a very young narrator, whose youthful narrative voice is well-preserved in the translation. The weakness of this very faithful translation was that it lacked literary polish and sounded, at times, rather flat. Nonetheless, we were pleased to see that translators are reaching out to a wider variety of literary works and testing their skills in new areas of literary production. There was even a translation of a script for a musical in this year’s entries! We do want to emphasize that part of a translator’s job is to identify those works that deserve and warrant translation. So a just appreciation of the literary quality of the original is an essential part of the translation process.
There were only five entries in the poetry category this time, a disappointing number. We realized again how very difficult it is to choose Korean poems that are going to produce interesting English poems in translation, and then how hard it is to translate poetry as poetry. Even though there were commendable qualities in the two entries which we considered to be the best, neither seemed to us to deserve a Grand Prize, both because the Korean poems did not seem to us particularly interesting and also because we felt that the English versions were lacking in the essential poetic spark that we reckoned would be necessary. Therefore we have asked The Korea Times to give two commendation awards in Poetry, and no Grand Prize this year.
``Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new,’’ as Milton says. We look forward to next year’s fresh entries.
Brother Anthony (Emeritus Professor at Sogang University and Chair Professor at Dankook University)
Min Eun Kyung (Professor, Seoul National University)
Chung Ha-yun (Professor, Ewha Womans University)