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Note #50: In the thick of it (2009.12.10)

The semester is winding down now, and will be over next Tuesday with one last final exam, but I’m as busy as I’ve ever been. The focus of my efforts these days is a Korean novel from the Japanese colonial period. I agreed to translate this some time ago, and I’m supposed to have it finished by the end of the year. Needless to say, that’s only three weeks away now, so I’m feeling the crunch.

I can’t say that I regret taking on the project, because it’s definitely a worthwhile book, and I’m going to be very happy when it’s finally done, but considering my other obligations (like the dissertation I’m planning on submitting next semester), it’s been a bit of a strain (although I probably wouldn’t be feeling so strained if I had managed my time better). I suppose it doesn’t help that it’s not a contemporary novel—I could probably bang out a draft of a contemporary novel of similar length (approximately three hundred fifty pages) in a week if I really put my nose to the grindstone. But it’s not a contemporary novel, and the going is a lot slower.

I’ve translated literature from this period before, although my previous effort was a novella rather than a full novel. But it was also written by an author from Seoul, so even if the language was a little archaic, I was familiar with most of it. My current project is not only from the colonial period, it was also written by an author from Pyongyang. I can say, without hesitation or reservation, that it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever translated—not just literature, but anything I’ve ever translated, including some of the work I’ve done for UNESCO cultural heritage applications.

Hyunjin has been helping me out as a “research assistant” (the title was self-granted, and I’m more than willing to let her have it), looking up some of the more obscure terms and phrases and taking her best guess when no answers are forthcoming. In the beginning, I did all of this work myself, and it took me forever just to get a page translated. Now I can get through a page in around twenty minutes if it’s a bit thorny, and less if it’s a little smoother. That’s still probably twice as long as it would take me to translate a contemporary novel, though, and I feel much more drained by the effort.

You would think it would simply be a matter of calculating how long it takes me to translate a page, calculating how many pages I have left, and then just figuring out how many hours I need to translate. Well, I have done that, and it does help to have a goal, but the brain is a funny thing—or at least my brain is a funny thing. After translating 1920s Pyongyang dialect for a few hours, it starts to turn to mush (my brain that is, not the dialect—although I suppose there’s no way to tell the difference), and I have to contend with the law of diminishing returns. But there’s no way around it—this needs to get done, so I just have to buckle down and do it.

I am being deliberately vague about the title and contents of the book—I’m still in the very early stages, so I don’t want to say too much about it yet. Not that there’s any need for secrecy or anything, but I just don’t like to say too much about things before they’re done. I will say that it is a novel of manners, which will make it not just an interesting piece of literature but an excellent tool for learning about the Korean culture and society of that time (I can see it being used as a text in a university course, for example). At the same time, I think the fact that it is a novel of manners also makes it that much more difficult to translate, because there are some things for which I have absolutely no frame of reference. There are words that neither my wife nor I can even begin to comprehend. I could tell you what type of thing it is—there are a lot of items associated with weddings, for example—but I can’t tell you exactly what it is. Needless to say, this makes it difficult to translate, because you can’t just write “something that the bride’s family gives the groom’s family before the wedding”—you really need to know exactly what the object is.

Well, anyway, I don’t want to carry on too long. I guess I just wanted to write something today, and obviously this has been on my mind. Maybe stepping outside of the translation for a moment will give me a little perspective and a bit of a breather. It’s approaching ten o’clock now, so I doubt I’ll be doing any more work on it today, but I will be getting up early tomorrow to dive back into it. Let’s just hope I can swim with the tide and not go under.

(Interesting. In addition to my last entry being entry number two hundred, this note is note number fifty. So, hooray for me. Again.)

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