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22 Nov

Planaria – Last Friday, on the 14th of November, I received the Grand Prize in The Korean Literature Translation Contest for New Translators, sponsored by the Korean Literature Translation Institute. The contest is for previously unpublished translators, and the first one was held last year. I entered the contest then as well, but missed the prize. I was one of the final two in consideration, but there’s only one prize, and I didn’t get it.

“I struggled with the translator’s eternal paradox: to stay as close as possible to the original, yet make sure that the target audience would be fully able to appreciate the work.”

I was rather depressed when I didn’t win the first time. I tried to tell myself that it was my first real attempt at literary translation, and that I would have another chance, but I’m an extremely competitive person, and I don’t take losing well. I tried to make excuses—that I hadn’t had enough time, that the judges just didn’t like my style of translating, etc. In the end, though, I realized I had two choices: to remain bitter about something that I couldn’t change, or to accept it and learn from it. I chose to learn.

In the intervening year I continued to work on a long-term translation project with the Translation Institute, and during the summer I attended a six-week translator training program. The training program in particular was very helpful—I had the opportunity to meet with writers and translators, and to learn from their experiences. Among the people I met was Dr. Jeon Sang-guk, a professor of Korean literature at Kyungwon University, curator of the Kim You Jeong House of Literature, and an award-winning writer. So, when the time came for me to select a short story to translate for the contest, Dr. Jeon came to mind.

The contest is limited to works published in the two years before the year of the contest, so I began to do a quick survey of the works published in that time period. Dr. Jeon’s “Planaria” was one of the works that received critical attention during that time, and I added it to my list of candidates. After I read the story, I stopped looking—I knew that I had found the story I would translate. Not only did it incorporate elements of Korean folklore into a modern setting, but it did so seamlessly and believably, creating a world that was very similar to our own on the surface, but was ruled by undercurrents of mysticism and fantasy. Since I’m a sucker for that sort of fare, the story grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Of course, the very thing that attracted me to the story was also that which worried me the most—would I be able to fully convey the atmosphere that makes it a truly exceptional story? I struggled with the translator’s eternal paradox: to stay as close as possible to the original, yet make sure that the target audience would be fully able to appreciate the work. The ideal that we aim for is, of course, impossible—the only way to fully appreciate a work is to read it in the original language. But a translation should be able to come close, and an ideal translation would have the best of both worlds: fluent, literary English and the sentiment and atmosphere of the original. Did I succeed? Being the perfectionist that I am, my honest answer would have to be “no,” but I did my best. And this time around, my best was good enough to win the prize.

I remember when I found out about the results of the contest. I was sitting right where I am now, in front of my computer in my study. The phone rang, and I picked it up to find Ms. Park from the Translation Institute on the other end. The phone call could have been related to my ongoing translation project with the Institute, or it could have been for something else, but the moment I heard her voice I knew it was about the contest. And despite the fact that I knew I wouldn’t get a phone call unless I won, I was still nervous.

She was very casual about it, I remember, saying something to the effect of “Oh, it seems that you’ve won the translation contest this time.” I was equally casual in reply. “Oh, that’s great. Thanks for letting me know.” And then we moved on to other business, with the long-term translation project.

To be perfectly honest, the first thing that went through my mind when I found out I had won was: “Thank God.” That’s right. Not “woohoo!” “yes!” “yippee!” or any other exclamation of delight, but “Thank God.” I was indeed happy, but the emotion that drowned out all others was relief.

The fact of the matter was that, although I had come to terms with my loss the previous year, and had learned a great deal from it, I was still embarrassed by it. Not embarrassed about not winning, but about overestimating my own abilities and underestimating the ability of the competition. To have lost a second time would have been devastating, most likely, since I would not have been able to chalk it up to inexperience. There was also the fact that the contest is for new translators, and I am hoping to be published by the time next year’s contest comes around. It was my last chance to make my debut by winning a prize. All things considered, I would much rather make my official entrance to the world of translation with an award.

After the initial wave of relief, though, I didn’t give the award much thought. A week or so later I was asked to send a list of people I wanted to invite to the award ceremony. The only people I could think of were my family, since I hadn’t told anyone else. Ironically enough, having finally won the prize, I didn’t want to make a big deal of it and was content to receive it in relative silence and obscurity. I suppose this is a good sign, since it shows that I was doing it more for myself than anyone else. On the other hand, maybe it shows that I was worried people would think I was showing off. I tell you, I could make a living analyzing myself if I could only figure out an effective payment plan.

In the end, although I told not a soul, everyone found out about the award anyway—a brief article appeared in a number of newspapers. I was surprised when people started congratulating me, and somewhat perplexed. I hadn’t given it much thought after receiving the phone call, but everyone around me seemed very impressed. I was embarrassed for not having invited anyone outside my family, and ended up handing out a dozen more invitations the week before the ceremony.

In addition to phone calls and e-mails of congratulations from friends and family, I received a couple of phone calls from other sources as well. One was from the university newspaper—apparently they wanted to do an interview with me. I agreed to the interview, and the article appeared in the university newspaper the next week. It was generally favorable, despite the few glaring errors. I learned long ago that newspaper reporters generally have their own idea of what the story should be, regardless of the facts, and apparently this holds true on the university level as well. I’m sure they meant well, though, and no harm was done.

I received another phone call related to the contest—well, sort of. It appears that someone at one of the broadcasting companies saw my picture in the newspaper and decided that I would be perfect for one of their upcoming shows. It was a game/quiz show, a genre that is quite popular here in Korea. At any rate, the girl who called me asked me if I wanted to be on the show, and I told her I wasn’t sure, since I didn’t really know what the show was about. I asked her to send me some more information and told her I would call her back.

I took a look at the information she sent and realized that it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. I have always said that if I were to appear on television, it would be because of my achievements or my knowledge, not just because I happen to be a white guy who spoke Korean. The game show people may have seen my picture thanks to the translation contest, but the show had nothing to do with the contest (or translation, for that matter). The fact of the matter is that if I had really wanted to be on television, I could have done so a long time ago. I know that may sound a bit conceited, but if you saw how easy it is for Korean-speaking foreigners to get on television here, you’d understand.

The way I see it, I am a scholar, not a TV star. My future is in the academic world, not the world of entertainment. From time to time university professors appear on these game shows, and I’ve seen what happens to them. They may be funny or amusing, but they’ve pretty much given up any hope of ever being taken seriously in their field. That’s pretty much what they were asking me to do—give up any hope of being taken seriously in the field of Korean literature. And for what? For a fleeting fifteen minutes of fame, or however long it might have lasted? I don’t think so.

So I called her back and told her that I wasn’t going to be able to do it, at which point she told me that my name was already on the list and if I backed out now they would have to cancel the show. I replied by telling her that, despite what she may have assumed, I never told her I would do it. After several more phone calls, and in spite of much pleading on her part, I stuck to my decision. She eventually gave up. Incidentally, the show aired as planned this past Sunday. It was exactly what I suspected it to be, and I’m glad I decided not to do it.

Interestingly enough, I recently received another phone call from a different broadcasting company. I was surprised to find out that it had nothing to do with my winning the translation contest (in fact, I don’t even think they knew about it, or at least they didn’t make the connection). Instead, it was because of some translation work I had done for the Cultural Properties Administration. On 8 November, the Korean traditional art form of Pansori was designated an “intangible world heritage treasure” by UNESCO, and I was the one who had translated all the materials for the application. According to the girl from the broadcasting company, the people I had worked with at the Cultural Properties Administration gave me a lot of credit for the success, and the broadcasting company got the idea to do a story on me.

Nothing has happened with this yet, of course—the phone call was just a preliminary check to see if I would be willing to do it. Unlike the game show, this would certainly be related to my field, and would at the very least not hurt my future, so I agreed. They said they were considering shooting around the end of November, so we’ll see how that goes.

I suppose that last bit is not really related to the translation contest, but it is kind of ironic that the call came around the same time. What with the award ceremony, all the phone calls, and end-of-the-semester presentations, things have been pretty hectic for me lately. It’s left me a bit frazzled, to be sure, but overall I’m pretty pleased with the way things are going. I’ve made my debut, the door is open, and now it’s time to walk on through.

Read my award-winning (I’ve always wanted to say that) translation of Dr. Jeon Sang-guk’s “Planaria”.

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