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6 Oct 2009

New Writing from Korea – To those of you who celebrated it, I hope you had a happy (if short) Chuseok holiday weekend. I spent most of the weekend at Hyunjin’s parents’ house, but I’m now back and into the regular swing of things again, and maybe that will mean more regular posting here as well. One can always hope.

“I’ve been doing literary translation for at least eight years now, but I’ve never actually had a literary translation published.”

Before I tackle a few longer entries that I’ve been meaning to write, I thought I’d mention something relatively minor that occurred recently but, in the greater scheme of things, is maybe not so minor after all. This occurrence would be the publication of the second volume of New Writing from Korea by the Korea Literature Translation Institute (also known as LTI Korea). It’s funny, because I’ve been doing literary translation in one form or another (although admittedly not continuously) for at least eight years now—the file for the first literary translation I ever did is still on my computer, and it bears a last modified date of September 28, 2001—but I’ve never actually had a literary translation published. I translated a long novella/short novel by Yeom Sangseop as part of a translator’s training program at LTI Korea, and so far nothing has become of it (although I do have plans to pursue publication when I finish my dissertation). I won a prize for my translation of Jeon Sang-guk’s short story “Planaria,” but that was never published (although you can read it right here at Liminality). And I also spent quite a bit of time translating an excellent novel by the popular author Kim Youngha, but I have heard nothing on that in three years or so and have no idea if it will ever have even a chance of getting published. My current project, a novel of manners by Kim Namcheon, was begun with the goal of being published, but who knows how that will go or when it will happen.

The latest issue of New Writing from Korea, however, contains a story by Kwon Yeo-sun entitled “To Believe in Love,” and at the end, in small print, I am listed as translator. Yes, I have finally gotten a literary translation published. It feels a bit odd, like I should be more excited about this than I am, but the entire process was so arduous that what I mostly feel is relief that it’s over.

I was going to write that if you wanted to know more about the New Writing from Korea series itself, you should head over to LTI Korea’s website and look at their page dedicated to it. But then I went to the page and realized that it doesn’t really explain what the series is about. Here is the description in bold face at the top of the page:

New Writing from Korea is a periodical published annually in English by LTI Korea in order to introduce the news concerning the contemporary literary world in Korea.

The more detailed description below reads as follows:

New Writing from Korea is distributed to more than 1,000 institutes including the department of Korean studies at overseas universities, Korean cultural centers and overseas publishers. It is also introduced at the international book fairs. It introduces Korean books that were published within two years, and provides articles on the topic of recent, controversial issues in the Korean literary scene.

This is, in fact, not at all what NWK is. The first description makes it sounds as if it is a magazine about contemporary Korean literature, and the second description removes any doubt about the matter. I am particularly baffled by the claim that it “provides articles on the topic of recent, controversial issues in the Korean literary scene.” It does nothing of the kind. Plain and simple, NWK is a collection of translations of both fiction and poetry that attempts to provide a cross-section of what is being written and published in Korea now. I get the feeling that the above descriptions may be what LTI Korea intended NWK to be, but somewhere along the way the plan changed and the web page was never updated. I’ll have to mention this to LTI Korea (along with the fact that “introduces Korean books” is far too vague and misleading when compared to, say, “presents translations of Korean fiction and poetry”).

But that’s not really important here. All you need to know is that NWK is a yearly anthology of contemporary Korean literature in translation—and of course that I have a translation in it this year. I mentioned above that I felt relief, rather than excitement, that the whole thing is now over, so I suppose I should relate in brief the tale of how this translation made its way into print.

The tale begins last summer, with a class I taught at the LTI Korea for something called the “Translation Academy.” I can’t seem to find a page for it on the website at the moment (although I thought I saw one at some point in the past), but basically it is a program that offers a number of different translation classes for literary translations that mix actual translation and translation/cultural theory. I had four students who ended up becoming a very close-knit group that was a pleasure to teach (two of those students are now taking another academy class I am teaching this year). At any rate, the work we translated was one suggested by LTI Korea: “To Believe in Love,” by Kwon Yeo-sun.

I did my own translation, of course, as the class went on, and my students kept asking me if I would share my complete translation with them at the end of class. I told them that it needed some cleaning up, and that I might one day get to it, at which point I would send it to them. Honestly, though, I didn’t see myself having time for what would essentially be a leisure (that is, not critical) project with all of the other things I had on my plate.

Then I got a phone call from LTI Korea at some point over the winter break, asking if I thought my translation would be suitable for publication. I told them that it would need a little fine tuning, but yes, I thought it could be published. That’s when the publication process officially started, I suppose. I went over my translation with what I thought was a fine-toothed comb and then sent it in. The next step was “cross-reading”—I read and comment on another translator’s work, and that translator reads and comments on my work. That went reasonably well—I thought I had some good comments for my counterpart, and my counterpart had some good comments for me.

After incorporating the comments and suggestions I got from the cross-reading, the translation went to the editorial board. I must admit that I naively thought this part of the process wouldn’t be all that painful, but I was wrong. Forget fine-toothed combs—my translation was submitted to a comb with gaps between the teeth measured in microns. And it wasn’t simply a matter of getting editorial suggestions, fixing things up, and being done with it. I don’t remember how many times the manuscript went back and forth, but by the end the file was so littered with comments that I could barely follow the progression anymore (for some reason, all comment timestamps were changed to the current time every time the file was saved, thus rendering the timestamps completely useless). Some issues were solved relatively quickly, while other issues required several rounds of discussion before we could reach a conclusion.

Despite the pain experienced during the process, I don’t regret it. In fact, I was heartened to see that this was not some fly-by-night publication but a collection of translations that were handled with great care and attention. Had there been less editorial attention, I don’t think I would feel as good about having a translation in it. That being said, it wasn’t something that I particularly enjoyed and, as I said above, I am glad it is over now. I don’t think I ever expected this translation to be my publication debut, but I do feel good about it. And now, for your reading pleasure, here is a brief excerpt from the story (this paragraph appears near the beginning of the story):

There are times when losing love feels as hopeless as losing everything. Not all human beings experience this. There will be those who get over it easily and those who grow old without ever knowing that there even was such a thing. On rare occasions—though I dread to even imagine such a thing—there will be those who experience nothing but this until the day they die. It’s impossible to say which life is better. What is possible to say, though, is merely that I had such an experience three years ago. At the age of thirty-five, it is nothing to be proud of, or anything to keep secret. I once believed in love, and I suffered as much as I believed. When I think back on it now, it feels absurd to admit that I once believed in love.

Interestingly enough, this paragraph remained relatively unscathed by the editorial pen, with only a few corrections. And now, here’s a glimpse of the cover, since there’s nothing online about this issue yet. I think it looks pretty nice, and is a definite change of direction from the cover of the first issue (which you can see online). I would have to say it is more colorful and imaginative.

According to the quotes from the website above, NWK is distributed to publishers, libraries, and Korean Studies departments both in Korea and abroad. You can get a copy of it if you visit LTI Korea or have some connection to them (for example, by being a student or instructor there), but I don’t think it is distributed to the general public. However, I’m pretty sure I can get my hands on a number of copies. If you would like a copy of the 2009 issue of New Writing from Korea, I can probably send you one. If you send me your address, I’ll put a copy in the mail for you.

Now, I have no idea how many people are going to ask for a copy. If the number is reasonable, I’ll just mail them all out myself. If, for some unknown reason, though, I get a boatload of requests, I may see if I can pass some of them off to LTI Korea. I don’t know yet if they will mail out copies to random individuals, but I’m not really expecting too many requests and thus expecting it not to be a problem. Although I must admit it would be a rather pleasant problem to have.

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