An Interview with Ju-Chan and Bruce Fulton
Congratulations for having your translation of Kim Tae-yong’s “Pig on Grass” selected for publication in the Massachusetts Review and then for winning the 4th Annual Chametzky Prize for Translation! How did you celebrate?
We were beside ourselves with joy and had a glass or two of wine, then forwarded the news to the author and our family and friends. Last December in Seoul we celebrated with Mr. Kim over a bottle of Chilean malbec and gave him half the prize money.
When and how did you start translating literature?
Around the time we were married in Seoul, Korea (in the fall of 1979; Bruce was in Korea then as a Peace Corps volunteer), we had occasion to meet the late Hwang Sun-wŏn, modern Korea’s finest short-story writer, which led in turn to a meeting in Seoul with the publisher of a modest series of English translations of Korean literature. This man, Sŏng Ki-jo, took note of our “bilingual marriage” and convinced us we were an ideal translating team, and he asked us to translate one of the books in his series, which happened to be a collection of his own stories. But the work that really got us started in our translation career was Hwang Sun-wŏn’s novel Umjiginŭn song, our translation of which (The Moving Castle) was published in 1985.
Tell us about "Pig on Grass." How did you decide to translate it? What does it have that you thought would be appealing to English-language readers? In general, how do you choose the texts you translate? Are there any special principles or preferences that you have in selecting what you translate?
The story was recommended to us by Kim Hye-sun, the most imaginative poet in Korea today, and by the former head of the Literature Translation Institute, Korea, Kim Joo-Yeon. Ju-Chan loved it; it’s one of the best stories she’s read in a long time. It was well written and clever, playful and witty, yet serious and sad all at the same time. In particular, we thought the author’s light touch with weighty subject matter—dementia—would appeal to English-language readers, who often comment to us that modern Korean fiction is too gloomy.
We try to find works of fiction that speak to us and possess a distinctive voice and style. If the author happens to have labored for decades but is unknown outside Korea, so much the better. We are also partial to the works of a handful of authors to whom we have committed ourselves over the years: Hwang Sun-wŏn , O Chŏng-hŭi, Ch’oe Yun, Ch’ae Man-shik, and Cho Chŏng-nae.
What happens when Korean moves into English? What are the special challenges when it comes to translating short stories from Korean to English? Can you give some examples from "Pig on Grass" that will give us a better idea of what the Korean version is like?
When Korean is translated literally into English, it tends to come across as loose, vague, and, with certain authors, redundant. To bring it alive and make it whole in English requires us to translate the subtext and to re-create whatever flow we feel in the original Korean. Ironically, some of the best work in the short story genre—which back in the day was widely regarded as a Western import—was produced during the 1930s, when Korea was a colony of Japan. Korean short stories in the new millennium do not necessarily compare favorably with these earlier classics; the great majority are first-person narratives, and we find relatively few of them compelling. Moreover, the traditional lack of editing by publishers of Korean literary fiction remains in evidence. On the plus side, stories from the last two decades or so tend to be more cosmopolitan in their settings and a few authors have the knack of sharp dialogue.
“Pig on Grass” is a first-person narrative and we found it compelling because the author invites us inside the mind of a man suffering from dementia whose dead wife continues to be a living presence in his life. The story presents some of the standard challenges that confront translators. The first sentence of the Korean original, literally translated, would be “She kicked the pig’s testicles.” Literary Korean tends to be more formal than literary English in its description of sex and genitalia, and so our translation is the less formal and more idiomatic “She kicked the pig in the balls….” Another recurring challenge involves taking something implicit in the Korean and making it explicit in English, or vice versa. The narrator’s first reaction to the preface from his son’s philosophy treatise is, literally, “Just think, he uses the term existential lump.” We elected to make explicit what we understand the narrator to be thinking about his son’s use of that term, and thus in our translation, “Existential lump, my ass.” We could have added an exclamation point, which is also implied in the Korean original, but demurred for fear of overkill.
Is there a moment in "Pig on Grass" which you built your translation of the short story around? Is there a guiding sentence, word, image, or moment from which the rest of the energy of the translation emerged?
The story-within-a-story about the winter night long ago when the narrator and his wife were playing with their son, who was five years old at the time, was quite clever and funny, confirming for us the wry, self-deprecating but cantankerous voice we had been shaping for the narrator. In this section and elsewhere in the story Kim introduces folk remedies such as rubbing a bump on one’s head with a boiled egg and wrapping a scalded ankle in a cloth diaper bearing a concoction of grated potato, cucumber, and watermelon peels. The quote from the son’s philosophy treatise was instructive as well, in that Bruce was a philosophy major as an undergraduate, and Ju-Chan thought Bruce could work in the requisite philosophy jargon. In this story the combination of Korean tradition—the folk customs, the omnipresent alcoholic beverage known as soju, and the reference to the entertaining women known as kisaeng (compared sometimes to Japanese geisha)--and western existential philosophy is the kind of cultural blend we like to offer in our broader mission of giving voice to modern Korean fiction.
Onomatopoeia is one of the difficult parts to translate. In "Pig on Grass," the sound of the pig in the original text was unique. What did you do with that onomatopoeia while translating?
Rarely have we translated a story with such extensive onomatopoeia. We decided first, as we usually do, to render the Korean onomatopoeia in an English idiom, and thus k’wel in Korean becomes oink in English. Our next task was to decide how much of the onomatopoeia to translate, and here we like to read aloud the Korean to get a feel for the rhythm, especially because the passage in question was a conversation between the narrator and the pig. We liked the rhythm we heard and thus decided to render the onomatopoeia in its entirety.
What kind of research did you do while translating "Pig on Grass"? Has research for the making of a translation ever taken you down a completely unexpected and surprising path?
Our research for this translation, if you can call it that, consisted primarily of pantomiming for each other various actions, such as the unnatural posture of the narrator’s great-great grandfather when he was apparently mimicking a young female hostess, and the game with the quilt that the narrator and his wife played with their young son. In many other works we likewise find that our research prompts us take on the role of architect, performer, denizen, and medium.
When we translated the late Ch’oe In-ho’s 1982 Yi Sang Literature Prize-winning story “Deep Blue Night,” a spiritual journey that takes the form of a road trip in California, we found ourselves following on a California state road map the progress of the narrator and his companion. And our more recent translation (2012) of Cho Chŏng-nae’s short novel How in Heaven’s Name brought to our attention a story that defies belief—that among the prisoners captured by Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944 were several wearing German Wehrmacht uniforms but bearing Asian features and speaking a language no one understood. It turns out they were Korean. This novel also brought us face to face with another little-known but cataclysmic event in the history of the Korean diaspora—the uprooting and forced relocation, in the winter of 1937-38, of as many as 200,000 Soviet Koreans from eastern Siberia to Central Asia.
Please tell us about your collaborative process. How do you deal with any disagreements you may have?
Ju-Chan usually reads the chosen work three or four times and makes a short sample translation and a synopsis, and we then talk about what appeals to us in the work—the subject matter, the style, the voice. We also attempt to gauge the importance of the work, which often involves assessing whatever combination of universality and Korean particularity we see in the work. Always keeping in mind the general readers who are, ideally, our audience (in reality our primary market is the university classroom).
Ju-Chan often makes a first draft, after which we work side by side with both the draft translation and the original text in front of us. Other times, Ju-Chan annotates the Korean version and we begin the first draft together, going over the original text line by line. Which routine we adopt depends primarily on time constraints and the difficulty of the work.
We used to have more disagreements in translation and interpretation, in that Ju-Chan’s inbound Korean is more based on feelings and visuals, and Bruce’s inbound English is more detail-oriented and description-based (Bruce worked for 20 years as a free-lance copy-editor of college textbook manuscripts). These days we don’t have much disagreement—whether this is an instinctive survival strategy or the outcome of our increasing facility in each other’s first language is difficult to say. With serious disagreements Ju-Chan gets pugnacious and Bruce backs off. But we always make sure to return to the site of the disagreement for a second look. Of course, we routinely make inquiries of the author about lexical items and subtext and are grateful if the author is supportive. A few authors seem to find such queries annoying.
Other disagreements arise from the chemical imbalance between speedy-energetic Ju-Chan and slow-and-steady Bruce and the issue of our relationship with the author. Bruce believes in a long-term personal relationship as well as a creative investment in his or her works. Ju-Chan believes the work and the relationship must remain separate. Earlier in our career, we enjoyed long-term relationships, based on mutual trust and respect, with an older generation of writers. Such relationships, sad to say, are difficult to sustain with a younger generation of writers, some of whom strike us as self-centered, greedy, and interest-oriented and who have allowed themselves to be manipulated by unethical and unprofessional literary agents. We are becoming averse to building relationships with new authors, which is unfortunate.
Please tell us a bit about the process of revision. How do you know when the translation is done or ready for publication?
Revision involves Bruce reading aloud to Chan a draft of the translation; Bruce reading the draft silently to himself; and Bruce reading it aloud to himself. During the revision stage we also take account of answers to the queries we invariably address the author after completing the draft translation. Revision is endless! We tend to follow the law of diminishing returns in deciding when the translation is ready for publication—that is, when the additional effort no longer seems to justify the returns, it’s time to let go.
Have you ever wanted to retranslate a work that you previously published?
Yes. We recently had the good fortune to be able to re-translate the novel by Hwang Sun-wŏn that we translated in 1985 as The Moving Castle. The new version, retitled The Moving Fortress, is perhaps 20 percent shorter and is scheduled for publication by MerwinAsia in the spring of 2015. In general we welcome the opportunity to revisit any translation of ours that happens to be republished, as is the case with several of the stories in our 1997 anthology Wayfarer, to appear in a revised and expanded edition from Zephyr Press, retitled The Future of Silence: Writing by Korean Women.
Please describe the sound and look of your workspace. Does it change according to the text you're translating?
In our basement office, which is full of natural light, Bruce sits in front of his desk and desktop computer with the original text, facing a 5x7 window where you can see palm-size deep pink camellias blooming; Ju-Chan sits on the floor nearby with her laptop and a second copy of the original text. We work to the humming of our furnace and the ticking of our Seth Thomas mantle clock.
Do you have any translation routines and rituals?
From Friday through Monday, the days Bruce is home from Vancouver, Canada, where he teaches at the University of British Columbia, we’re up bright and early to read the Seattle Times with a couple of cups of strong coffee. Then we translate for a couple of hours before our daily exercise (walking for Chan, jogging for Bruce). We return to translation in the afternoon and evening, as time allows. We swear not to work on Sundays, a promise observed more in the breach than the observance, as Shakespeare would say. Now that Ju-Chan is retired she can concentrate on drafting or editing on the days Bruce is at UBC. She used to work full time in addition to translating, raising two boys, and handling domestic chores.
Please tell us about your translation and literature classes. What are the teaching guidelines or criteria for selecting the texts you teach? What do you want students to know about translation?
In my literature courses I want my students to read as wide a variety of style and hear as diverse an array of voices as possible. That’s also one of my primary aims in the several anthologies I’ve edited or co-edited/co-translated. Not surprisingly, these are the texts I assign for my modern literature courses. For my classical Korean literature survey course I use anthologies compiled by Kevin O’Rourke, our finest all-around translator of Korean literature past and present, prose and poetry, and himself a poet.
As for teaching guidelines, most important for me is that students engage, actively and personally, with the assigned works. This may seem obvious, but to the majority of the students in my two survey courses (classical and modern Korean literature), who are ethnically Korean and either recent immigrants to North America or international students, it is an approach with which they have little if any experience. The reason being that in the South Korean educational system, literature, like most subjects, is a commodity to be memorized and then regurgitated on final exams and the all-important university entrance exams. For many of my students (some of whom have already been to university in Korea) the transition from a passive approach to an active approach to literature is a shock to the system, exacerbated by the realization that this transition involves their own literature but is being demanded of them by a foreign instructor in a foreign setting.
Increasingly important in recent years, with the worldwide interest in Korean popular culture, is the necessity of linking this cultural tradition with the conservative and patriarchal tradition of Korean recorded literature. I therefore emphasize the intertextuality of the Korean literary tradition (of which oral literature is a crucial element) and especially the links I see between performance-based elements of Korean popular culture and the Korean oral tradition dating back millennia.
In my translation courses students learn to read literary Korean short fiction in a multimedia course developed by my UBC colleague Ross King, a historical linguist. Included in the requirements of this entry-level course is the translation of an as yet untranslated Korean short story. Select students from this course than advance to the translation workshop I also offer. In the entry-level course I emphasize accuracy through a close study of vocabulary and grammar, and gradually build on that foundation by asking the students to bring their initial, more literal translations alive in English. Probably most important among my translation guidelines for students are the following: (1) translation is a process of constant decisions, and the more options available for those decisions the better; and, (2) translation is a creative process, so be creative and take risks--it’s easier to tone down and over-the-top translation than to pump life into a desultory translation. And in the process I want my students to have fun.
Through your translations, what do you try to tell Anglophone readers about Korean language and literature?
They are gateways to a rich and venerable culture that the world is finally opening its eyes to. They are not museum artifacts (the impression a reader could have from certain translations that pretend to be “faithful” but are dead on the vine) but rather constitute a living tradition that demands that our translations come alive and remain viable in English. At the same time, it’s important for readers and reviewers (as well as our Korean authors) to understand that our translations, while based on a Korean author’s work, are our works, separate and distinct from the original Korean work.
What can you tell us about your current or future translation projects? And any recommendations for further reading?
A revised and expanded edition of our 1997 Korean women’s short fiction collection, Wayfarer, retitled The Future of Silence: Writing by Korean Women, will be published by the end of 2015 (we hope) by Zephyr Press. Another project (for which we received an NEA Translation Fellowship, only the third awarded to a Korean project since these fellowships were instituted in 1981) is Public Offender: A Chae Manshik Reader, which will include writing in a variety of genres by one of the great stylists of modern Korean literature. And The Human Jungle, our translation of Cho Chŏng-nae’s 2013 best-selling (it displaced the latest Korean translation of a Murakami Haruki novel ) three-volume novel, will be published early in 2016 by a local Seattle publisher, Chin Music Press.
Bruce is co-editing an anthology of modern Korean literature under consideration by Columbia University Press.
Among translations of Korean literature we could recommend, in addition to the works already cited, (1) any translation by Kevin O’Rourke; (2) virtually any translation of a Hwang Sun-wŏn story (several volumes of selected stories are available); (3) Ddon Mee Choi’s translations of poetry by Kim Hye-sun; (4) the stories of trauma appearing in our There a Petal Silently Falls: Three Stories by Ch’oe Yun (2008) and The Red Room (2009) volumes; (5) our translation of Cho Se-hŭi’s The Dwarf, in our estimation the finest one-volume novel published since Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945; and (6) Waxen Wings (2011), edited by Bruce and critiqued by one reviewer as “a breakthrough in the translation and publication of Korean short stories into English…the first collection of modern Korean short stories whose criteria for choosing works seem to have included a simple analysis of whether the works would be enjoyable and comprehensible to Western readers who have little innate understanding of Korea or her culture.”
Thank you for giving English-language readers "Pig on Grass" and thank you for this interview!