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21 Jul

Through a glass darkly – Last Friday, I attended the Korea Literature Translation Institute’s 3rd International Workshop for the Translation and Publication of Korean Literature. Like last year, it was an informative and thought-provoking day. I was especially interested in hearing the presentations this year, though, as the theme was “What is faithful translation in literary translation?”

“What good is it to remain completely faithful to the original if no one can (or will) read your translation?”

It is a question, of course, that has been asked for millennia, and will continue to be asked as long as humans continue to produce literature. I did not, therefore, expect to find the answer, but I was hoping to hear some various points of view on the subject. The two morning presentations turned out to be the most interesting because they offered just that.

The two morning presentations were “Qu’est-ce qu’une bonne traduction?” (“What is a good translation?”) by Serge Safran (literary director of Zulma, a French publishing company) and “Beonyeogeun boiji anneun yuri” (“Translation is invisible glass”), by An Jeonghyo, a Korean novelist and translator. The first presentation was valuable and interesting because it gave me an idea of what publishers are looking for in a translation. I was in particular looking forward to the second presentation, though. I had heard the presenter speak before, and had enjoyed much of what he had to say, but the title of his presentation rubbed me the wrong way. To be honest, I was looking for something to disagree with.

Before getting into his presentation, bear with me for a brief digression. There are a number of binary oppositions that have been applied to translation. I have heard translation described as a choice between literal translation (jigyeok in Korean; lit. “direct translation”) and liberal translation (uiyeok; lit. “meaning translation”). I have also heard it described in terms of the author-translator relationship: the translator is either on a par with the author or subordinate to the author. Then there is the binary opposition I always try to consider: whether you are placing the source author or work before the target readers or vice versa.

Of course, even while discussing translation in terms of these binary oppositions, it is recognized that they stand for theoretical poles, and that in reality translation exists in the spectrum between these two poles. A one hundred percent literal translation would look like something BabelFish spit out, whereas a one hundred percent liberal translation might be the creative output of an active imagination. It would be difficult to call either type good translation. In reality, translation is usually a choice between or combination of these two techniques. The key, as with most things in life, is striking the proper balance.

The text of Mr. An’s presentation was very short—so short that if I were to translate it, it would probably be shorter than a typical entry here at Liminality. In that short space, though, and in the discussion period that followed, he managed to say a number of important things.

His main argument can be found in the third paragraph of the text, which I will translate here: “A translator is the same (as a reporter). He must not be seen. However, those who misunderstand the phrase ‘translation is a second creation,’ at worst saying that they are producing ‘a translation more excellent than the original work,’ damage the original work by standardizing the different styles of various works into their own style so that they might boast of their own writing ability, rather than convey the entity of the work itself.”

In other words, style is the lifeblood of literature. But how does one go about preserving the original style? How does one stay invisible as a translator? Part of this is by fully understanding the cultural implications of the words one is translating, and avoiding anything that will stick out or change the meaning of the text. One interesting example that he gave was the cultural implications of swallowing. More specifically, how the act of swallowing while looking at someone has different meanings in Korea and the United States. If a man in Korea were to look at his neighbor’s wife and swallow, he would be coveting her. In the West, however, to look at someone and swallow hard would indicate fear or nervousness. This is an example where a careless translation could change the meaning of the text.

He provides a more direct answer toward the end of the text: “There are those who ask how to translate ‘style,’ but if you are faithful to the original work you will naturally achieve translation of the style.” In addition to his advice about word choice and cultural differences, though, he also places great emphasis on some of the more technical and formal aspects of the text: “Sentence length, the translation of commas and other punctuation marks, and the translation of white space are essential to revive style.”

That last part is the part I have a bit of a problem with. I understand where he’s coming from. As a writer myself, I understand how important sentence length and punctuation is to the flow of fiction. Take the following example, describing a young man’s experience on a roller coaster: “The Termite car passes through a pitch-black tunnel. A brilliantly lit gash appears at the end of the tunnel. The gash expands and a windy gust washes over Thomas. He struggles to keep his eyes open to watch the ascent. It reminds Thomas of trying to look up while standing under a waterfall. The car passes through the open gash into daylight at the top of the Termite mound. The car begins to dip as it passes the top. Sweat pours from Thomas’s palms and warm fear bubbles in his hollow stomach.” (This paragraph is from “The Fire Breathing Termite,” written by a friend who will probably never speak to me again after this.)

In this example, the short sentences reflect the tense pace of the situation, mirroring the rapid-fire thoughts—impulses, really—that are shooting through Thomas’s brain. Now consider what the effect would have been like had it been written using a single, long sentence: “The Termite car passes through a pitch-black tunnel, rocketing toward a brilliantly lit gash at the end, and a windy gust washes over Thomas as the gash expands and he struggles to keep his eyes open to watch the ascent—much like trying to look up while standing under a waterfall—then the car finally passes through the open gash into daylight at the top of the Termite mound and, as it begins to dip as it passes the top, sweat pours from Thomas’s palms and warm fear bubbles in his hollow stomach.”

Not the best rewrite, and there is admittedly some cheating going on there to make that one sentence, but it should at least demonstrate the different effects sentence length can have on a work. Mr. An has no argument from me on that matter. I have noticed, though, that when people choose to illustrate this principle in translation, they take extreme examples: like an experimental literary work that has page-long sentences, or a work that rattles off brief sentences or fragments like machine gun fire. Mr. An also mentioned a work that he translated with sentences that ran to several pages, and he proudly exclaimed that he translated every one of those sentences as written. He said, partly in jest, that he risks his life to translate each sentence precisely as it is written in the original work.

The problem I have with the multiple-page sentence example is that it is obvious that the author is flouting literary conventions, and it would indeed be a crime to break those sentences up for easier reading. The sentence length itself becomes a critical part of the very meaning of the text. The same goes for staccato jumbles of sentence fragments. The bottom line is that these are not ordinary sentences, and thus they should be treated with extraordinary care in translation.

Things get difficult, though, when you move away from the extremes toward the area where most sentences reside—that vast expanse in the middle. In this middle area, sentence length may be less of a conscious choice on the part of the author and more of a product of his own literary training and culture. This is not to say that his style no longer informs his sentence length—it most certainly does. But at this point, sentence length as an aspect of style may have less influence on the meaning or effect of the text.

The brutal truth is that the concepts of the sentence in English and Korean are two very different things. In fact, in traditional Korean, there were no sentences per se. There were no punctuation marks whatsoever, and sentences would sometimes go on and on with no end in sight. This was not done intentionally to produce a certain effect, it was just the way it was done at the time. Today, Korean sentences use punctuation, but the concept of the sentence is still very flexible. Many Koreans sentences, if translated literally into English, would be considered run-on sentences, or at least poorly formed sentences. There’s just no getting around the fact that Korean and English writing conventions are quite different.

Take the following example from a book I am translating (Mansejeon—ironically enough, I’m on the third draft of the translation and I still haven’t decided what I’m going to do about the title): “Several days earlier my older brother had gone up to Seoul and sent a letter, and when I read the detailed contents saying that he had received urgent notice from home and so had gone up yesterday with a noted doctor from his village, but things were still the same as usual so he would wait for a few days to see how things turned out and send a telegram if the situation grew serious I had thought what good will it do to send a telegram? but now that I had actually received the telegram I thought has she died after all? and without even putting down my satchel of books I opened it in a fluster.”

Note that this is a more direct (i.e., literal) translation from the original work, and not the one that appears in the third draft of my translation. In this version, I tried to follow Mr. An’s advice about punctuation and sentence length. The commas are more or less in the same place (barring differences in English and Korean word order), and the single sentence in the original has been translated into a single sentence here. The two question marks appear in the middle of the original sentence, and are not intended to break up the sentence—thus the lower-case words after them.

I don’t know about you, but I think this sentence is very hard to read. It’s not alone, either—there are many sentences in the work of considerable length that translate into run-on sentences in English. This particular example, of course, is designed to gather the narrator’s complex group of thoughts together into a single (if not cohesive) unit, and so in that regard the sentence length here definitely has a function. The odd punctuation, however, is an artifact of Korean writing conventions, especially at the time (the 1920s). I think it would be proper in English to enclose the thoughts in single quotes (as I did in my actual translation).

I could argue the point back and forth forever without reaching a conclusion. When I began writing this entry, my goal was to say that I agreed with much of what Mr. An said, but could not concede on the issue of sentence length and punctuation. I still do not think I can concede on that issue, but I find myself hard pressed to argue against it on its own grounds. In other words, in and of itself, the argument is quite sensible and convincing.

The problem is that it takes a single side of one of the binary oppositions I mentioned above: the source author/target reader opposition. Mr. An’s position is wholly on the side of the original author. This is, of course, to be expected—after all, he is an author himself. It puts consideration of the target language readers, though, a distant second. In the words I have always used to argue against this point of view: what good is it to remain completely faithful to the original if no one can (or will) read your translation?

I may spend most of my time sitting at this very desk, either translating, writing, or studying, but I live in the real world. And in the real world, a translation that doesn’t get published means very little. I can do completely “faithful” translations of as many literary works as I like, but if they are unreadable to most English-speakers then no publisher in his right mind will accept them. These translations will remain on my shelf, gathering dust while I slowly starve to death. Does that mean I have to cater solely to the market, prettying up or dumbing down my translations to meet the lowest common denominator? No—that would be swinging to the other extreme. Like I said above, it’s all about striking the right balance.

There is a danger here that I may be misinterpreted, so I feel clarification is necessary: Mr. An does not advocate unreadable texts for the sake of being faithful to the original. Most of what he advocates, in fact, contributes to producing very readable and enjoyable texts. I believe his stance on the sentence length issue puts him firmly in the source author camp, though. It may seem that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but when you consider that the basic unit of composition is the sentence, it should be clear that it’s a pretty big molehill to begin with.

In addition to being in the source author camp, Mr. An also sides with those who feel the translator is subordinate to the original author. I’m not sure how I feel on this point, to be honest. My ego would want me to say that the translator and original author stand on equal footing, but I don’t know if I can put myself there yet. It’s all tied together, though, so if I place the target reader before the source author, I am in essence putting myself on a level at least near that of the original author.

But back to the source author/target reader argument. By themselves, each side presents a very convincing argument, and it is hard to refute their claims on their own grounds. Yet they are basically diametrically opposed, so it is impossible to argue the claims of one side on the grounds of the other. This creates a dilemma that can never be solved with certainty for one side or the other, leaving us with no choice but to either be extremist or to compromise.

At this stage in the game, I’m pretty sure compromise is the way to go, but the truth of the matter is that extremism is far easier. The lines are drawn very clearly when you are an extremist, but they are often very hard to see when you’re trying to compromise. The sample translation from Mansejeon has done a good job of convincing me that I do not want to go the sentence for sentence route, but a comparison with my actual translation (in which I break the above into four sentences) has made me realize that the “readable” translation does indeed lack something of the helter-skelter feeling of the original. When I first translated the work, that helter-skelter feeling annoyed me incredibly, but now I realize that it is an inseparable part of the work.

It would appear that I must place either the source text or the target reader first, and that there is little room for compromise here. Perhaps there is room, though. Perhaps it is possible to preserve the feel and intent of the original while at the same time producing a readable text. I don’t know for sure, but at the very least I know that I can do better than what I have done in either of my attempts so far.

So there you have it. No answers, as usual, just more questions. These are the questions I must ask myself, though, as I grow as a translator and formulate my own philosophy of translation. I am yet a novice translator in comparison to seasoned veterans like Mr. An—a fact I am painfully reminded of today, as it has proven far harder to resist and overthrow his arguments than I had at first expected. But I have also realized that it’s not really about overthrowing arguments, but finding my own way, my own voice in the chorus of humanity. I can honestly say that I hope I never stop asking, seeking, and doubting. It is these things that make me who I am, and who I will become.

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