Journey to translated fiction
My career as a translator kicked off when I translated a short story ― Jung Mi-kyung’s “Memories of Lily-Colored Photographs” ― and submitted it to The Korea Times to be considered for an award.
At the time I was a recent college graduate, working in New York City at a nonprofit press dedicated to English translations of world literature. I spent my days immersed in the details of book publishing: speaking with translators, copyediting and proofing manuscripts, and planning book readings, among other tasks.
In all honesty, I turned to translation to make an extra buck. Publishing, especially the independent nonprofit kind, is notorious for its low salaries. I astutely chose to supplement my income by diving into a field that is even less lucrative. My strengths never did lie in math.
I was already familiar with this translation award, as my mother, a veteran translator, had won two of these awards when I was young. I asked my mother in Seoul to send me a few volumes of award-winning short stories, and I picked the one I liked most. “Memories of Lily-Colored Photographs” drew me in with its vivid characters.
I appreciated the exploration of a piece of the underbelly of Korean society, centered on gangs and their fascinating hierarchies. I sat down one weekend to bang out a preliminary draft, and went through a number of edits over the course of a few months. I also enlisted several people to edit it for me.
Editing is a crucial, though seldom discussed, part of translation. This I knew both from my publishing job and observations of my mother’s work. For someone like me, who is something of a perfectionist and likes to dwell on the nuances of words and phrases, editing is a joy. I love every aspect of the editorial process; from considering other people’s suggestions to rewriting dialogue to mulling over word choices. In fact, my favorite part of the translation process is the editing portion. Luckily for me, that’s the majority of the work.
I was a persnickety child, and in grade school I would get in the elevator of my apartment building in Seoul and notice typos on notices, usually informing residents about where to put recycling and the schedule for elevator maintenance. With much eye-rolling, I would take a pen and correct the mistakes. My career as a vandal was cut short upon my discovery that I could channel that energy into editing.
In my eighth grade English class in Canada, we were assigned to write a short story. To a chorus of groans, our teacher instructed us to attach every draft of the story to the final version. My classmates turned in perhaps a draft or two; my submission included six. I still have those drafts.
The story itself is reminiscent of a soap opera, but what fascinates me now are the vivid footprints of what I grappled with: I flirted with first-person then third-person narration; changed the sex of the main character; moved major plot points; opened the story at various junctures in the plot. It was my favorite assignment of all time. In college, I got to revel in my editing fetish.
I churned out perhaps hundreds of drafts for the frequent papers I was assigned and for my senior honors thesis. As though that wasn’t enough, most of my coursework was in history, literature, and art history, fields of study with a significant writing component. Exacting professors taught me how to edit drafts and mold thoughts and arguments into a final product.
With my first translation project, however, my editorial process was much shorter than it is now. I probably edited the piece half as many times as I do now before submitting it to The Korea Times and receiving a commendation award. While the award and accompanying prize money were welcome, what I really got out of that experience was the discovery that I truly enjoyed translating fiction.
Because I grew up with a translator mother, I vowed to never follow in her footsteps. However, translating the story dropped me into a world in which a nuanced English phrase could convey the uniquely Korean sentiments that coursed through the story. It was a thrilling challenge.
I enjoyed mulling over how to translate not only the words on the page but also culturally specific scenarios, like a landlady displaying neighborliness by asking her renter whether he was eating well; how, in Korean, the very mention of a tattoo suggested a particular sinister character in a way that’s mostly gone in English. I was hooked.
Now, I’m embarrassed to read my translation of the story. I find parts I would do differently, and I end up rewriting sentences and whole paragraphs in my head. I always think I could do better. That’s the problem with enjoying the editorial process: you never feel completely done. Once I read this published column, I’ll edit that too.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.