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3 Jun

The other side of the fence – It’s been a while since I’ve gone this long in between entries, but things have been very hectic lately. I’ve got a bit of breathing room now, so I thought I’d take a few moments to share some recent thoughts.

“...there is an incalculable difference between ... being cognizant of an idea and feeling it in your blood and bones.”

One of the things I did last week was to look over a translation for a friend who is applying for a translation grant. It was a work I was not familiar with, and so I could not evaluate it as a translation. Normally, I would check for the accuracy of the translation, but with nothing to compare it to, I could only evaluate the work solely on its own merits. I briefly considered getting my hands on the original, but then decided to ignore the fact that it was a translation and read it as I would any other work.

So that was how I read it—as an original English work—and I was shocked by what I discovered. There, before my eyes, were all my artifices laid bare. As I noted each problem in the text, words flashed before my eyes—passages where I had made the very same mistakes in my own translations. ‘So this is what it’s like to read a translation without having read the original,’ I thought. Let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty.

Lest I be misunderstood, I’d like to clarify that it wasn’t that my friend’s translation was horrible. What shook me was that, at some point or another, I had made every single mistake she had made, and I never even realized it. Now, though, I was standing on the other side of the fence, and everything was so obvious. I was absolutely mortified.

I started out in translation with academic texts—mainly thesis abstracts that had to be written in English, but that no one ever really read. I was not chosen for my skill (when I first started, translation was painfully slow, taking an hour a page or more), but because I was the only native English speaker available to these people. This was back when teaching English was still my bread and butter, but even then I hoped desperately that I would be able to quit teaching and live off of my translation.

Somehow or other, word slowly got around, and the trickle of requests grew to a slightly larger trickle. Then I was asked to participate in a few projects, and things rapidly developed from there. I wish I could say that it was my incredible talent and skill that made people beat a path to my door, but the truth is that there just aren’t that many (native) Korean-to-English translators around. Ultimately, I benefit from the law of supply and demand. I would like to think that my skills have improved, of course, but I will not deny that I am in a niche industry.

Anyway, most of the translation projects I took on were for the Korean government, involving either tourism materials or government documents (like UNESCO World Heritage applications, etc.). Then I got a job with a very demanding client where accuracy was of primary importance. Fluency was obviously an admirable goal, but accuracy had to be at one hundred percent. I don’t know how many people applied for the position, but I think we went through three rounds of testing before I was chosen. All through the testing, and after I officially started as well, they pounded one thing into my brain, over and over again: accuracy.

I learned to sacrifice everything for accuracy. I would do my best to produce fluid and aesthetically pleasing translations, but it was important that I convey as much of the nuances present in the original text as possible. In other words, I was not producing an English text, but an English rendering of a Korean text. If you’ve never translated before you may not understand the difference, but there is one—trust me.

I worked at this job for two years before I became overwhelmed and had to make a choice. If I had so desired, I could have had a very promising future at that job, and if I had done well, who knows how far I could have gone. However, I decided that was not the path I wanted to take. At heart, I was a scholar and a philosopher, and my path lay elsewhere.

I immediately dove into literary translation, only to discover that two years of conditioning were not easily overcome. I will not deny that the skills I learned have helped me greatly—even now, I insist on understanding the source text perfectly, since that is the only possible way to produce a 100% accurate text. But there were aspects of that mindset that hurt me, namely the slavish worship of accuracy before all other gods.

Literature, though, is not about accuracy. I knew this, of course, but like I said, you can’t just snap your fingers and pretend two years of mental conditioning never happened. And so the first literary translation I ever did was an absolute disaster. I don’t think I realized how disastrous it was at the time, but when I failed to get the grant for which I had submitted it I was crushed.

Yet I was not defeated, and I kept at it. After a false start, I finally won the New Translator’s Prize at the Korean Literature Translation Institute. I also got a grant from the Institute to translate Mansejeon, a modern Korean novel from the 1920s. I knew I still had much to learn, but I had finally been recognized. I had finally taken my first step in the world of literary translation.

Perhaps that’s why it came as such a shock to me to realize that my philosophy was all wrong. Every translator has a philosophy and, although they may not articulate it, that philosophy determines how they deal with every single translation they undertake. I had thought my philosophy was something of a compromise—a moderate stance, if you will. I believed that the target text (in my case, the translated English text) was the most important, and that accuracy could and should be sacrificed for fluency in the target text.

Or at least that’s what I told myself I believed. While I may have paid homage to one philosophy on the surface, deep down inside I followed another. In reality, I was still worshipping the idol of accuracy. Many times I would sacrifice fluency just to get what I thought was an accurate rendition. Those times that I did opt for a more fluent translation, my internal censor would invariably start screaming, “But that’s not what the original says!”

While reading my friend’s translation, though, I was struck by one thought: from the audience’s point of view, accuracy in literary translation is irrelevant. To a reader who only reads English, it is not going to be much comfort to know that a horribly stilted translation is “faithful to the original.” Put simply: if it was literature in the source language, it must be literature in the target language. That is the key. Without that, everything else falls apart, and it’s not going to matter how accurate it is because no one is going to read it.

This is not to say that I am suddenly going to abandon all attempts at accuracy in my translations—far from it. It does mean, however, that I am going to make a more concerted effort to achieve literariness. This is much easier said than done, and it is much easier to do on someone else’s translations. I wish I could say that this great epiphany of mine is going to allow me to suddenly start churning out perfect translations. That’s not going to happen, but hopefully I will keep improving.

Above, I mentioned my ongoing translation of Mansejeon. I’ve been working on this for so long, and have been so close to finishing it for so long, that I feel like Achilles trying to catch up to Zeno’s tortoise. Finally, though, I have finished my second draft, and all it needs is a look-over before I send it off to the Institute. I had been under the impression that this would be the final draft, but, thanks to this blasted epiphany, it looks like I’m going to have to give it another run through at some point. I like to think of it as combing out the tangles.

I suppose I should be thankful, though. No matter how much I may dread the idea of diving back into the fray, it will all be worth it in the end if I can produce a better translation.

Today’s entry may not have been a stunning revelation, but there is an incalculable difference between merely knowing something and really knowing something—the difference between being cognizant of an idea and feeling it in your blood and bones. Hopefully it will be just another step in my ongoing growth as a translator.

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