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23 Aug

Translation and writing – Well, I’m back. No, I haven’t gone anywhere, but I’ve been a tad busy lately. I won’t bore you with the details or attempt an excuse—suffice it to say that I now have a brief respite. Better yet, the men in the white coats say that if I run the maze faster next time I’ll get extra cheese. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

“Will translating adversely affect my abilities as a writer?”

I actually did have a brief respite a few days ago (or maybe it was last week, I can’t remember—time is just one big blur), and I started to write a new entry, but I got stuck at the swing point and never finished it. The “swing point” is my brand new term for something that I didn’t actually have a name for five minutes ago. It’s the point at which I get through the various excuses, small talk, and lame attempts at humor that make up the introduction and get into full swing. Sometimes it happens sooner, sometimes it happens later. Sometimes it’s a smooth and natural transition where it’s very difficult to tell where the actual swing point is, and other times it’s a rather jarring break where I suddenly decide to stop chatting and get down to business. In my last attempt, I got to the swing point and realized that I really wasn’t interested in writing about what I had planned on writing about.

That was then, though, and this is now. Now I am sitting here with my notebook, watching the Olympics and savoring the irony of a Nigerian sprinter named “Endurance.” We don’t get to see many events that don’t feature Korean athletes (which pretty much rules out track and field entirely), but that’s to be expected. There are a few events that Korea excels in, and we see a whole lot of those. During the Summer Olympics, archery is a big sport for Korea. I actually feel badly for the archers who run up against the Koreans in the early rounds. Then again, I think the Korean men were completely shut out of the individual competition, which surprised me. That would be like the U.S. basketball team losing to, uh, a commonwealth or something. Oh wait, scratch that. (To be perfectly honest, I would put the Korean women archers up against the U.S. men’s basketball team any day—the Koreans would fell the U.S. starting five with arrows through the heart before they got within twenty meters. Now that would be something to see.)

But there’s only so much you can say about the Olympics. Or, at least, there’s only so much I can say about the Olympics. Fortunately for me, there are other things happening this summer than the Olympics (this would be the swing point coming up here, and to be perfectly honest with you I had no idea how I was going to segue from the Olympics to today’s subject until I wrote that last sentence). Like every summer, the Korean Literature Translation Institute has been holding special programs for literary translators. One of these programs is the “Monthly Literature Lecture.” A different author comes to speak each month, and we prepare by reading one of the author’s works and writing our impressions and thoughts on it. The purpose is to give literary translators and prospective literary translators a chance to become more acquainted with modern Korean literature, not to mention modern Korean authors.

Interestingly enough, though, not once have I read one of these short stories and thought, “Wow, I’d really love to translate that.” I think one of two things: if the story is not to my liking, I think, “I could write better than that,” and if it is to my liking, I think, “I wish I could write like that.” Whichever the case, though, translation never crosses my mind—I’m always thinking about the writing aspect. Even when I’m sitting there during the lecture, listening to the author speak or engaging in discussion, I think about the writing aspect—it’s like being back in a creative writing seminar again.

I suppose the fact that I did major in English Lit. and Creative Writing does have something to do with this. And if I were told to choose between being a successful writer and a successful translator, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose being a successful writer. Much could be said about the fact that most “aspiring writers” spend more time aspiring than they do writing, yours truly included, but that’s not what I want to talk about today either. I think I did enough whining in my last entry to last me for at least a few more weeks.

What I’ve been pondering, actually, is the relationship between writing and translating, and what effect doing one might have on the ability to do the other. During lunch at a Translation Institute workshop earlier this summer, I was talking with a fellow attendant. In the course of our discussion he said something that stuck in my brain. We were talking about how speaking a second language affects the use of the first language, and he said, “Some writers consider it a sin to learn a second language.” (Note that a second language is not just any language after your first—a second language is one that you speak on a regular basis. That is the difference between a second language and a foreign language.)

I can understand why some writers would think this way, of course. I wouldn’t say that learning a second language impairs your ability in the first language per se, but it does certainly have an influence. At the very least, it means you cannot focus one hundred percent on your primary language, and language for a writer is like air for everyone else. But it goes beyond that. Learning a language is different from learning other types of skills—learning a language means learning a completely new way of thinking. Language is not just a means of communication, it is an expression of every aspect of the culture of the group that speaks it.

Of course, this is not necessarily related to the issue of translation and writing because you don’t necessarily have to speak a second language fluently to translate. I remember shortly after coming to Korea I was reading an English language magazine (Koreana), and there was a short article by a translator. I don’t remember much about the article, except that I was surprised to read that he did not speak Korean fluently—I had figured that at least basic fluency was a prerequisite for translation. There is something to be said, though, for not being too immersed in the source culture. Although I am American, I have become so Koreanized (and it pains me terribly to write that, I must confess) that the judges who read my early attempts at literary translation assumed I was Korean.

The problem is that I have become so used to thinking in Korean that it requires a conscious effort for me to phrase things in English sometimes. Even when I am speaking English to begin with (which happens very rarely), I sometimes have to stop and translate into English something that has popped into my head in Korean. Translating someone else’s thoughts from Korean is that much more difficult, and although I have become much better at it over the years, I still find myself wondering on occasion, “Do we say that in English?” I actually can’t tell if certain things are English or Konglish (Korean English). In severe cases, I will log onto ICQ and seek out an English-speaking friend in desperation.

How all this ties into translation is that, in order to translate, you do need to think in both the source language and the target language. I’m just wondering how much the skill sets involved in translating and writing overlap—and how much they are mutually exclusive, if at all. Translating and writing are both acts of creation, but the creation of translating is not the same as the creation of writing. I suppose the most obvious difference is that in writing you are creating something from your own thoughts, while in translating you are creating something from someone else’s thoughts. It goes beyond that, of course, when it comes to literary translation, since you are not just conveying the author’s thoughts but the style, flavor, atmosphere, and all the little subtleties that make up a work of art. Or, at least, that’s the idea. It’s a rather daunting task when you think about it.

When you write, you have a responsibility to yourself. As long as you are true to yourself, you’re OK. When you translate, though, you have a responsibility to the original author. You can’t just take a work and translate it however your fancy may strike—that’s not translating, that’s adapting. While writing is an act of creation, translating might more properly be called an act of re-creation.

On the other hand, creative writing and literary translation have much in common in terms of the final product—both strive to produce art or, more down to earth, just good writing. It is not enough to simply “transpose” the content, style, flavor, atmosphere, etc. of the source language text into the target language. A translation must also convey as much of the artistry as the original. In that respect, the end goal of translating and writing is the same, it’s just the material and process that are different. If a translation is done well, it will seem as if it was originally written in the target language. And now that I put it that way, I realize that translating and writing are not really two different disciplines, but two facets of the same art.

All my pondering, of course, really boils down to one thing. Theory and philosophy aside, there is one question that lingers in the back of my mind, like a creaking door that has been left open at night and swings back and forth in the breeze: will translating adversely affect my abilities as a writer? Now that it’s out here in the open, it looks like a rather silly question, and my inner critic is sitting in the corner with a smirk on his face and a ready reply: maybe, maybe not—but you can be sure it won’t have as negative an effect as not writing. Ouch. Thanks, inner critic.

It’s true, though. I don’t write as much as I want to, or as much as I should. Yes, I have Liminality, but this isn’t really creative writing. This is just rambling on at length in front of the world (OK, a very miniscule portion of the world). In fact, now that I think of it, this is pretty much the cyberspace equivalent of Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, except that I don’t talk nearly as much about penises.

Um, anyway, the point is that I really do very little creative writing. Black & White was my last real effort. I do have a few other stories in the works, but I haven’t touched any of them in quite some time. On the other hand, I do a heck of a lot of translating. In fact, most of my time is spent translating. And until someone pays me as much to write as I get for translating, it’s probably going to stay that way. In the end, I know it all comes down to just making the time for what’s important.

OK, so maybe I didn’t talk as much about translating and writing as I thought I was going to. I guess this was just more of a brain dump, but that’s nothing unusual. At any rate, the men in the white coats are telling me it’s time to hit the trenches again. Wish me luck—that cheese looks tasty.

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