Translating the untranslatable
I’m working on quite a few translation projects right now. Usually my process is to bang out a rough draft then revisit the work to smooth out the prose and find the correct word to express a certain feeling or idea. Simultaneously, I research to find the right language for the various subcultures depicted in a given novel. Afterward, I take some time to distance myself from the text; I find that it’s hard to catch oddities when I’m too close to my work. I don’t often have these many projects going on at the same time, so it’s a little odd for me to switch back and forth between such disparate tones and styles. To top it all off, I’m at different stages with all of these projects: I’m still at the first-draft phase with one and nearly finished with another, while two others lie in-between.
One aspect of translation is almost always present, no matter what kind of novel I’m working on: the need to translate some untranslatable word or phrase. Take, for example, the Korean phrase “sugohada.” Literally, its meaning is along the lines of “taking the effort to do something difficult,” but its connotation depends on the context. People will say “sugohaseyo” as a way of thanking a cab driver once they exit, or after buying a cut of meat from a butcher. When I returned to Seoul with my toddler, an uncle told me, “sugohaetda.” He wasn’t thanking me; he was acknowledging the effort in giving birth to my daughter and, I guess, raising her. When I was in high school, my grandfather would shake my hand after a final exam and say, “sugohaetda.” So I suppose it’s a way to acknowledge hard work as well as to show thanks or sympathy.
As it’s taken me an entire paragraph to explain the various meanings conveyed by this simple phrase, my challenge is obvious: how to convey all of this in a single phrase. In one of my works-in-progress, a prison guard comes back from making the rounds and is miffed at his partner’s cold reticence, describing his partner as someone who doesn’t even say “sugohaetda” when they relieve each other. To really explain what this phrase means, I would need to spell it out like I did here. I don’t like footnotes in novels unless they are consciously written into the novel, like in ``The Known World’’ (where footnotes convey the sense that the novel’s fictitious facts were based on historical records) or ``The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’’ (where they created a stream-of-consciousness postmodern effect).
At first, I considered going with “Thank you.” But that didn’t make sense; why would a guard going on duty thank his partner? I also considered going the more literal route, with something like, “Good job.” But that sounded a bit condescending, like something a parent or a boss would say. That wasn’t the tone I thought the author meant to convey. Also, I thought it would be jarring: if you bumped into a colleague as you went off duty, there would be no reason for him to tell you that you did a good job. I thought long and hard about what one would say to a colleague when you traded off like that. I wanted something that conveyed sympathy and understanding that making the rounds in the middle of the night was difficult, which is what I thought the character meant.
For now, I settled on “Get some sleep.” It’s not literal at all, and it doesn’t contain any of the words that come to mind when one thinks of the phrase “sugohaetda.” There’s no mention of work or thanks or understanding of hardship or difficulty or effort. But this seems to be the most natural thing someone would say to a colleague in this situation; it shows sympathy about the difficulty of being on the night shift doing the rounds, and it acknowledges that his shift is over and that he’s completed it successfully. And it sounds like something this tough character would say. I could imagine two prison guards exchanging those words.
I might come up with a different, better phrase down the road. Or I might choose to stay with this one. I’m still at the early stages with this novel. Although accuracy is crucial, sometimes when you translate literature, literal accuracy can mean imbuing the author’s words with an inauthentic meaning or tone. It’s a fine balance, and one that every translator navigates in his or her own way. There is no right or wrong answer, and someone else might come up with a better solution. Perhaps I will change my mind after discussing it with my editors. Perhaps ten years into the future I will look back on this choice and think of a new wonderful phrase, and kick myself for not coming up with it at the time. But this is what makes translation fun: the challenge of attempting to convey the untranslatable as accurately as possible.
Kim Chi-young 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.