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Note #33: Some sentiments on translation (2009.1.21)

OK, so this isn’t the entry I promised previously—that one’s still in the works and will be coming along soon—but a friend of mine sent me an article the other day and I just had to make a quick comment on it. The article is fairly short, so spare me a few minutes and go give it a read.

One thing struck me immediately upon reading the article, and that was this: in the second paragraph, the article says that “the (Korean) language remains alien to him,” yet in the very next paragraph Professor Merrill claims, “We have translations from native speakers in the country, but they often don't manage to convey the original sentiment of the language.” I am curious—if the language is still alien to him, how does he know that translations by native speakers here don’t manage to convey the original sentiment of the language? I’m also not sure what “native speakers” refers to—native speakers of Korean, or native speakers of English. The context seems to point in one direction, but my initial impression was that he was referring to native English speakers (I’ll get to the reason for that in a moment).

Before I go any further, though, I would like to say that I harbor no ill will toward Professor Merrill. I think his goals are admirable, and I am grateful for the work he has done in the field. I’m just confused by his statements as they are presented in the article. And I suppose I should also say that I am fully aware he may have been misrepresented. I have had a number of experiences with the press (on a smaller scale, mainly local and university newspapers), and each time I ended up being rather annoyed with how I was (mis)represented in the final article. I learned at a very early age that many reporters already have their story before they do their research, and they will manipulate even direct quotes to support that predetermined story. So I don’t want to be too harsh with Professor Merrill without knowing all the facts.

The point raised here, though, is still worth examining, and Professor Merrill is by no means the first person to raise it—it is a common theme here in Korea. That being the case, I will now focus on the claim made in the article: that translators have often failed to convey the original sentiment of the language. First of all, what does “the original sentiment of the language” even mean? There are three elements to this phrase: original, sentiment, and language. “Original” modifies “sentiment,” and the phrase apparently refers to the the literary content of a work. It is not a message, per se, because not all literature has a message. I believe “original sentiment” here refers to that amorphous quality that we may recognize but struggle to define—the quality that determines whether or not something is literature. “Language” here, I think, is not referring to the Korean language in general, but the specific language of a literary work—that is, the medium used to convey the literary content.

Thus, I interpret “failing to convey the original sentiment of the language” as “failing to produce a work of literature in translation.” The result may be a translation, but it’s not literary. I have seen plenty of such translations myself, so I know that it is not only possible to fail in this regard, it is quite easy to do so. But there is more than one way to fail to produce a work of literature. We can either fail to preserve the literary content of the original due to a lack of understanding of the original, or we can fail to present that literary content in a way that is also literary in the target language (or both). This dichotomy is a bit of a simplification, but it is the dichotomy that divides many translators in Korea along language lines. Native Korean-speaker translators are often accused by their English-speaking counterparts of failing to produce literary English, while native English-speaking translators are often accused by their Korean-speaking counterparts of not fully understanding the Korean original.

This is why, when I first read the article, I automatically assumed that the “native speakers” mentioned were native English speakers, because the charge is one that has been leveled against native English-speaker translators for years. It is, of course, also possible that it is referring to native Korean speakers, and the failure is not one of understanding the original but of producing literary English. Whichever the case, though, it seems to me to be overly negative. There is no doubt that we need more competent translators of Korean literature, but can’t we make this point without disparaging the translators who are already devoting themselves to the task and producing some fine work? (And no, just in case you were wondering, I do not consider myself to be part of this group, seeing as I haven’t published a literary translation yet.) There are few enough translators as it is.

One question remains, but I’m not going to get to it today, as it would require many more words and a lot more thought. I will put it out there, though, and maybe I will come back to it in the future: to what extent is it even possible to convey the original sentiment of the language? I am tempted to venture a quick answer, but I will resist that temptation—this pot is going on the back burner, where it will simmer for a while.

(Update: Kevin Kim has wasted no time in offering his answer to the above question. It is definitely worth a read.)

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