Wednesday 29 May 2019

Exciting writing from Korean: in this post, Nicky Harman talks to noted translator from Korean, Sora Kim-Russell (김소라)

Sora, how did you get started in literary translation?

I started out translating short stories, but my big break was with Shin Kyung-sook’s novel, I’ll Be Right There. It was a big project, too. A long, sprawling novel by a major author whose previous translation, Please Look After Mom, had made the bestseller lists. But it wasn’t actually the first novel I’d translated.

The first was City of Ash and Red, by Pyun Hye-young, which finally got published this year. It was a long wait, but in a lot of ways I’m grateful for that. It was a tricky novel to translate, and the long path towards publication gave me plenty of time to go back, rethink my approach, and revise.

Can you tell me a bit about contemporary Korean literature? What's the most exciting trend that you can see?

I think the most exciting trend is the increase in self-avowed queer writers. That is, we’ve seen queer-themed poetry and prose in Korean literature, dating back to its very origins, but not many publicly queer-identified writers. That has been changing.

The other thing I would add is that while Korea is typically seen as having a homogeneous, conformist culture, its modern literature—at least, the parts of it that I’ve read—has always been diverse, outward-looking, and grappling with questions of identity and selfhood. For instance, it’d be easy to assume that Korean literature from the 1950s wouldn’t have much to say about race, or that there’s no way a novel published back in 1909 would feature a queer relationship, and yet there they are.

Which publishers who have been particularly good at publishing translations from Korean?

Everyone that I’ve personally worked with has been really great. Hollym, Other Press, Short Books, AmazonCrossing, Periscope, White Pine, Scribe, Arcade, Text, Doubleday, 4th Estate, Kaya Press… I think that’s all of them! I learned so much from working with each of the editors, and hopefully didn’t drive them too crazy with my fretful queries and obsessive revisions.

But to answer your question more directly, it seems that the smaller, indie presses have published the greatest number of translations from Korean—at least, recently—and have made bold choices with those books. Open Letter, Two Lines, Transit, Graywolf, Portobello, Honford Star… I know I’m leaving off a ton of names that deserve to be on here. Major publishers, like Penguin Classics, and academic presses have also done a lot to raise the profile of Korean literature.

What's the most challenging and most interesting book you've translated? And the one you'd most like to translate but haven't yet been offered?

I’ve said this elsewhere, but each book that I work on becomes the most challenging and interesting in the moment, because each one has something new to teach me about how to translate. As for something I’d like to translate, I think it’d be fun to tackle a book that also represents me, like a book by or about a mixed-race Korean, or a bisexual woman. Or both!

Do you find that as a translator you do a lot of extra-curricular work to pitch work to publishers and promote your translations after they've come out? If the latter, do you enjoy it and why do you think you end up doing this kind of promotion?

I’ve only had to try pitching work to publishers once or twice, which is probably a good thing because I’m terrible at it. Promotional activities have been mostly limited to interviews and essays on translation. I would enjoy doing more. I taught at the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference last year, during which I gave a reading from my translations of The Hole by Pyun Hye-young and The Plotters by Kim Un-su. Reading from The Hole was especially satisfying—it opens like a ghost story, and just as I began my reading, night had fallen and a storm was rolling in. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect.

Back when I wrote poetry (many, many years ago), I did readings as often as I could, so it was fun to re-experience the adrenaline rush of reading to a live audience, even if for just one night. But I live in Seoul now, and there aren’t many opportunities for readings or promotional work, other than what can be done at a distance.

As for why we end up doing it, I think the simplest reason is that not all of our authors can do it for themselves. Nowadays it seems that writers are increasingly expected to self-promote, so for non-English-speaking writers who can’t, it’s important for translators to step up. 

And finally, what's your current book, can you tell us about it?

I just finished contributing to a collection of short stories by a female science fiction writer, Kim Boyoung, which is being published by Kaya Press. Two of the stories have already appeared in publication: “An Evolution Myth,” translated by Gord Sellar and Jihyun Park, and “Between 0 and 1,” translated by Eunhae Jo and Melissa Mei-Lin Chan. The rest were co-translated by me and Joungmin Lee Comfort. Kim Boyoung is a fantastic writer with an expansive vision—I look forward to seeing how this collection will be read alongside other SF works.  

I’m also working on another co-translation by me and Anton Hur, of Hwang Sok-yong’s autobiography, The Prisoner (Verso Press). It reads like a history of social change in Korea with lots of great anecdotes thrown in.

And my upcoming project is another novel by Pyun Hye-young, to be published by Arcade. It’s a crime novel in the same way that The Hole was a horror novel. Pyun likes to take on different genres only to twist and subvert reader expectations. The title of that novel will be announced soon.