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12 Dec 2007

Thoughts on a recent conference – I know I haven’t posted much here lately—I think this has been the longest drought since September—but there’s a reason for that. I’ve been sick since the weekend, and at the end of last week I spent two days at a conference. Since I’m feeling better, and since illness is not a very exciting topic, I thought I’d recap a bit of what went on at the conference.

“What I had originally thought was going to be a half-day commitment turned out to be much more than that, and I’m glad it did.”

I had originally only planned on attending one day, and I was only going to stay for a half-day at that, but I decided to stick around a little longer. The reason I went to the conference in the first place was that I was the discussant for a presentation given during the morning session. It was a paper on Byeongangsoega (a pansori—basically a two-person form of oral narrative literature where one person alternates between singing and reciting the narrative while the other person plays a drum) written by a Korean guy studying in Canada. I had a week to read the paper, do my research, and write up a response.

When I first got the paper, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything interesting to say. Then, when I actually read the paper, I grew worried for an entirely different reason—I realized that I was going to have way too much to say. I disagreed completely with the basic premise of the paper and thought that he was way off base. So I wrote my response and tried to make it as polite as possible. As I was writing it I checked the schedule to see how long I would have to make my points and discuss them. I was surprised to see that they had only allotted thirty minutes total for each presentation and discussion. I cut my response down to under a page and hoped that there would be enough time.

Not surprisingly, the conference got off to a late start, yet the organizers still tried their best to stay on a schedule that we were already thirty minutes behind. As a result, when it came time for me to read my response, the emcee told me to summarize my points as briefly as possible. I stuck with my main point (i.e., why I disagreed with his premise), summarizing it as best as I could, and I skipped everything that wasn’t related to that. The presenter then responded to my remarks, and the emcee looked at me. Usually the discussant is given a chance to reply, but there was no way there would be enough time to say everything I wanted to say. I also realized that we disagreed fundamentally on certain points, and no amount of discussion was going to change that. So I just nodded my head and that was it.

Well, that was it for the official discussion, at least. The presenter left the room (it was a really tiny room, probably the tiniest I’ve ever seen at a conference) and I followed him, and we met again at the table with the coffee and tea. We decided to skip the next presentation and just hang out to have our own informal discussion, which I found much more rewarding than the five minutes we had been given in the presentation room. I think we both knew that there were some points that we just didn’t see eye to eye on, so we didn’t bother discussing them in any depth. But we were able to talk about some other things I had wanted to mention, and we also just chatted and got to know each other.

This conference was a bit severe, but I’ve never been too fond of the way discussions are handled at academic conferences. As I did for this conference, discussants usually prepare a written response in advance. I can see why this is done, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s a good idea to get your thoughts in order beforehand. But real “discussion” rarely occurs. I guess this might be unavoidable to a certain extent, because when time is short, discussion gets the short end of the stick. Maybe, though, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to just schedule more time for discussion at the outset. I don’t know. I just know that I was disappointed that all the effort I put into this got squeezed into a hurried two minutes.

Well, I suppose that’s not completely fair to say. After all, I did get to talk with the presenter, and we were able to discuss some of the points more deeply, even if it wasn’t an official discussion. I guess that’s what really counts, right? If I was able to raise some good points and help the presenter get a different perspective on the subject, then I think I can say I did my job well.

I had originally thought about leaving the conference after lunch, seeing that my obligation had been fulfilled. I decided to stay, though, mainly because I wanted a chance to talk to Dr. Bruce Fulton a little more. The name probably means nothing to most (if not all) of my readers, but he’s well-known in the field of Korean literary translation, and I’ve come into contact with his work on a number of occasions. I’m glad I stayed—Dr. Fulton is a very nice man, and he was pleased to see another Westerner here with an interest in Korean literature and translation. He was going to be running a translation workshop the following day, and he asked me if I could lend a hand. I told him I would try my best to attend, but in truth there was no question of me not going. (I guess that’s one of my idiosyncracies—I won’t say that I’ll definitely be somewhere or definitely finish a task at a certain time, but if I say that I’ll do my best to do something, it’s pretty much a lock.)

When I did show up the next day he was glad to see me. I was glad to be there, too, although I don’t think my body was. We had had a bit of snow the night before, and I got up while it was still dark to start shoveling our driveway and the road. We live on a hill, and no plows get anywhere even close to us (come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a snow plow in Korea), so if we don’t shovel off the road it is very difficult to drive down—and impossible to drive back up. Combine that with the cold weather from the night before, and you have all the makings of a lovely cold. My head felt like a rock (even more dense than usual) and my nose ran like the Energizer bunny.

In spite of the cold, though, I enjoyed myself. For one, I got to hang out with some people I hadn’t seen in a while and make some new acquaintances. It was also really nice that Dr. Fulton expressed his appreciation for me just showing up. And the workshop itself was fun as well. We split up into five groups ranging from seven (like our group) to around ten people and each group tackled the same text. It was an English text, and we were translating it into Korean, so I acted mainly as an advisor. With the exception of one girl who recently finished her dissertation and now teaches Korean studies in the States (one of the friends I hadn’t seen in a while), the rest of the group were first-year MA students (Korean) with no experience in translation. Although I was a bit apprehensive at first, it turned out to be fun and rewarding, and it gave me a taste of what it might be like to teach translation to grad students (something I wouldn’t mind doing in the future).

The text we were given was three pages long, and I think Dr. Fulton had originally planned on having us translate all of it. Had the workshop been comprised solely of translators, it might have been possible, but I think a lot of the people in attendance had no real experience with translation. After about a half hour, Dr. Fulton walked around to each of the groups and said that we should try to get at least three sentences done. It probably also didn’t help that the first sentence was a real zinger. I understood it, of course, and I had no problem explaining the meaning in Korean (actually, I relied on my teaching experience from days gone by to elicit understanding rather than spell everything out), but it was very tough to render the sentence in Korean. From the very beginning of the workshop I made it clear to the other members of our group that I wouldn’t be doing any actual translation, and that it was all up to them. I think being given such a difficult first sentence really set them back on their heels.

We did eventually get past it, though, and I think our group did a pretty good job with it. The sentences after that were much easier, and we managed to get four translated before time was up. Each group then read their efforts, and a publisher in attendance gave his thoughts on them and picked what he thought was the best translation. He didn’t pick our group, but that’s OK. I was very happy with what we were able to accomplish in such a short time. And it kind of felt good to be in a teaching position again. It really was rewarding, and it reminded me about the aspects of teaching I used to like.

When it was over, a few of us native-speakers (i.e., foreigners) gathered to discuss our experiences. A friend of mine who teaches at Yonsei said that the experience reminded him, once again, of why he doesn’t do English-Korean translation. We all readily agreed with him. Translating into your native language is one thing, but translating into a second language is something else entirely. There are some Koreans I know who translate into English even though they are not native-speakers, and I can’t help but admire them. The ones that do it well, I mean. There are plenty who do it poorly, and I have a really hard time admiring them. But some of them do it well, and I respect that.

So that’s how last week ended for me. What I had originally thought was going to be a half-day commitment turned out to be much more than that, and I’m glad it did, killer cold aside. I think I’ve just about recovered from the various afflictions that have been making my life miserable the past few days, and it’s about time. It was weird to not write for so long after keeping a pretty regular schedule for the last two months. Hopefully I’ll be able to slip back into stride now.

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