Wisdom of Age Brought to Translation
Interview With Grand Prize Winner in Fiction: John Hak-sung Cha
By Sa Eun-young
The phrase ``born to be a writer" well befits Hak-sung John Cha, who won the grand prize in the fiction category of the 2007 Korean Literature Translation Awards.
The 62-year-old writer and translator's office is based in San Francisco, but he visits Seoul twice a year ― and to speak of impeccable timing, he walked through the airport doors just a day before The Korea Times contacted him to inform him of his award.
Born in YongJung in Manchuria, he went to the United States when he was 16, and although he had always wanted to write he studied engineering and worked as an engineer. He was 44 when he finally kicked off his writing career, and now he writes and sometimes translates.
It all started when he translated Chu Yo-sup's popular piece into English, which he titled ``Mother and Sarang Guest," for a literature translation contest hosted by The Korean Culture and Arts Foundation in 1989.
``That was a good experience for me, it was all my mother's fault," he said with a hearty laugh.
He had done some translations as a hobby, but his mother, herself a writer, always encouraged him to write and suggested he try entering the translation contest, even selecting the entry piece for him. In addition to his mother, the gift of writing certainly seems to run in the family, as Cha's uncle is children's literature writer, Kang So-chun. Moreover, his sister Theresa Hak-kyung Cha, who he refers to as the ``real writer in the family," was a conceptual artist as well as a talented writer, recognized for her novel ``Dichte." She died at the early age of 31 and the loss of his sister was a tremendous shock and also an important turning point in Cha's life in that he felt compelled to continue what she had been doing.
There is no doubt that winning the award got his new career rolling, writing short stories and biographies, as people contacted him after reading his work. One of the calls was from a voracious reader that insisted he meet Mun Hyung-ryul, the author of ``Bicycling Over the Ocean," saying that she felt that Mun and Cha had a similar writing style.
So Cha really did meet the author the next time he visited Korea, about 10 years ago, and Mun proposed that Cha translate his novel, saying ``it's my life and I would really like to have it in English," Cha recalled.
It was not an easy book but Cha felt himself attracted to the honest quality it held. He first talked about the piece with Mun 10 years ago, but the time spent on actually translating the piece took about two to three years.
``We met quite a bit, and we discussed and argued ― we fought a lot actually. I wish we had recorded it," he said with a laugh, revealing his close friendship with the author.
``The entire event takes place in one day but it has a lot of recollection. It's postmodern, sort of avant-garde, and I really liked the sentences. The structure was a Buddhist kind of meditative style, moving circular and the whole thing comes back around ― I was really impressed with that."
In Cha's opinion, a good translator needs to get into the writer's head, and be a good writer while not imposing a certain style of writing.
``You're recreating the writer's feelings because the writer is a product of his environment, whatever influence, there has to be a tremendous amount of understanding," he said.
``I try to get into that mindset (of the writer) and I'm very careful (not to impose my own writing style). So after a project, I have to refine my own style."