Editing Black Flower – Yesterday I got back from a conference in Michigan—but I’m not going to write about that quite yet because I have some time-sensitive content to take care of first. Today, the English translation of Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower is being published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I’ve written about this before, of course, but I wanted to write in more detail about the editorial process. This is something that I have wanted to do for a long time but am probably only doing now because I have a time limit of sorts.
The process began in September of last year, when I received the first edited draft from Jenna, the first editor I worked with. Before I got this draft, Kim Young-ha wrote me an email to tell me that he and Jenna had discussed the story and decided that some cutting would be in order. I think he told me this so I wouldn’t have a heart attack when I saw huge swaths of text struck out. In fact, there was only one part that could be called “huge swaths of text.” Most of the cuts were fairly minor, but this one part went on for several pages. Had I not gotten that warning email, I might have indeed had a heart attack. As it was, I remember looking at that section and thinking back to the effort I had put into translating it. But if the author himself agreed that it should go, who was I to argue?
With the exception of that significant cut, whose fate was predetermined, there were three ways I could approach the edits. I could accept an edit, I could reject an edit, or I could offer an explanation in hopes of working out a compromise. I was told before the process started that I had the final word on all edits, since neither of the editors were familiar with the Korean original. Only I would know if a particular edit took the translation in a different direction from the original. In the end, though, I tried to accept as many edits as possible. After all, I was working with professional editors from a large, respected publishing house, so it would be foolish not to listen to what they had to say. There were some edits that I did think were not in keeping with the original, but even in those cases I tried to reach some sort of compromise. My thinking was that Jenna made those edits for a reason—basically because she thought they would make the text better—so I could not just reject them out of hand. Even in those relatively rare cases where I did reject an edit in favor of what I had originally written, I tried to offer as detailed a reasoning as possible. Most of the time, though, I tried to incorporate the idea behind Jenna’s edit into a third alternative, something that would remain true to the original but also satisfy whatever concerns she might have had.
We went back and forth on the edits for a while until we finally came up with a clean manuscript in December. Then it was time for Larry, a senior editor at HMH, to do his thing. I received edits from him in February, and we continued to work on the manuscript through March (although proofreading finished up in May). Jenna had focused on the initial clean-up to ensure that the text was accessible, made sense, and was in relatively good condition; what Larry did was to go through the manuscript with the finest-toothed comb I have ever seen. There were times when he pointed out something and I could only shake my head, wondering how I had never seen it before. There is one passage, for example, where a number of expenses are listed and then totaled. I had never really given it much thought, having simply taken the numbers straight from the original. But then Larry pointed out that the figures didn’t add up to the total presented. In such obvious cases I of course humbly accepted the edit. In general, though, I followed the same logic that I had applied to Jenna’s edits: accept when at all possible, explain differences and seek a compromise where necessary, and make every effort to avoid outright rejection.
Of course, even though I tried to be as open as possible to the edits, I still felt a tremendous burden as mediator between the original and the translation. It was my responsibility to see that the edits made the translation better but did not take it any further away from the original. Both Jenna and Larry were always willing to discuss sticky points, though, and there was never a case where I was not satisfied with the solution we reached.
In June, after the entire process was complete and while we were visiting family in New York, I had dinner with Kim Young-ha on the Upper West Side. We talked about many things, but he said one thing in particular that seems pertinent here. He told me that he thought of the process of writing a novel as a collaborative process. First, he would write the novel. Then an editor would contribute. In the case of a translation, the translator and the translation editors would also contribute. He thought of himself as just part of the process. Of course, the author’s part is the greatest, but I appreciated what he was saying, and it justified the approach I had taken with Jenna and Larry. We were all working together to create something that I hope readers will appreciate.
It was a great joy to work with two people who have such a love for language and literature. I can even say that it was inspiring as well. There have been many times over the past few months, as I waited for this day to come, when doubt and uncertainty crept in. Every time that happened I remembered something that Larry wrote to me as we were nearing the end of my part in the editing process. I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting the sentences here. He said: “We will try to keep a single error from creeping in, but keep in mind that any product of the human hand and soul must never be perfect. But the pursuit is worth it.” I think if he had instead written “can never be perfect,” I might not have been so struck by the statement. But to say that human endeavor must never be perfect... I think that expresses something pretty profound. To put it rather banally, if we were to achieve perfection, where would we go next? It is better to chase perfection one’s whole life than to imagine that one has achieved it and end the pursuit.
So, as this long journey reaches yet another milestone—probably the most important milestone yet—I want to take the time to thank Jenna and Larry for their work on this novel. Without your skill and guidance, my translation would have been unspeakably inferior. Of course, I also want to thank Kim Young-ha for writing the book that inspired me to undertake the task in the first place. My only hope is that I was able to step out of the way and let the novel shine through.