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5 Jan

At the crossroads of communication – I was translating an article yesterday that was due this morning when my cell phone rang. It was my professor, asking me if I could translate an abstract for a paper he had written. The paper was to be published in a journal at the end of the month, so the abstract would most likely have to be done “fairly quickly,” as he put it. Not too long after I received another call from our department office; as it turns out, “fairly quickly” means “today.”

“Language is my tool and meaning is my product. I communicate. I bridge the gap and I break down the walls.”

Now, you might be thinking that I’m writing this to complain about how tough I have it. On the contrary—as I sat there working out how I was going to schedule my time to make sure everything got done, I was thinking about how fortunate I was. That’s right, fortunate. Blessed, even. The truth is, I enjoy translating, and one way of being blessed is enjoying what you do for a living.

My wife and I were watching the documentaries on the Return of the King DVD the other night. We watched the actual movie in a day, but we’ve been taking our time with the documentaries. Anyway, it was a documentary on the Weta Workshop, that group of talented digital designers who helped make the Lord of the Rings films what they are. As we watched the documentary and heard about all they had to go through to get the job done, I found myself thinking, ‘Wow. I’ve got it easy compared to these guys. I should be grateful.’ When the documentary was over my wife turned to me and said, “See? And you thought you had it rough.” That’s when I realized that I spend far too much time complaining how tough my work is.

The seeds of my translating future were planted before I came to Korea. It all started with my first exposure to Korean literature. I do not remember the titles now, but I had gone into the library at SUNY Binghamton (Oh, pardon me, Binghamton University) to look for some Korean literature after I decided to come to Korea (the whole “coming to Korea” thing is covered in my background story). After all, I was a literature major, and I had studied Japanese literature and a bit of Chinese literature. I figured that reading the literature was a good way to get to know the culture.

Unlike our library’s collection of Japanese and Chinese literature in translation, though, the extent of its holdings in Korean literature in translation (at least from what I could see) was two anthologies of short stories. I picked up one of the anthologies and began reading, and I was utterly horrified at what I read. It was clunky, it was awkward, it was stilted—it was just embarrassing to read. I gingerly put the book back on the shelf and backed away. And what conclusion did I draw from this experience? It seems silly now, but I assumed that Korean literature must not have as much to offer the world as Japanese or Chinese literature.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t so silly. After all, you would think that if Korean literature actually had something to offer the world, skilled translators would recognize this and come to the rescue, right? After coming to Korea I discovered that Korean literature did indeed have much to offer the world, but the fact remained that translations of Korean literature paled in comparison to translations of Japanese or Chinese literature, in terms of both quantity and quality. This realization was the beginning of a desire to translate, and one of my goals in entering graduate school was to translate Korean literature. I was advised, however, not to mention this desire when I went for my interview with the department of Korean Language and Literature—I was told that if I said anything about wanting to translate, they would most likely tell me to go to the international graduate school (a separate college for foreign students, where classes are taught primarily in English).

I didn’t quite understand it at the time, but I did as I was told and was mute on the issue of translation. Thus it came as something of a surprise years later when my professors not only showed enthusiasm for my translation but even encouraged me to translate. Now, of course, I understand—it was important for me to study the material for its own sake first, to really get to know it before I thought about translating it.

Despite the fact that I am a literature major, I did not start with literary translation. I started with what is often referred to as “technical translation,” and this basically covers everything that is not literary translation. It’s a nice and neat way of classifying translation, but it’s also like classifying primates as “humans and non-humans.” I suppose it’s handy from a literary translator’s point of view, but my roots are elsewhere, so it’s too narrow for me.

In my eyes, there are four main types of translation: literary, periodical, academic, and technical or specialized. Both literary and academic translation are fairly self-explanatory. Periodical translation is the translation of articles found in periodicals such as magazines or newspapers. Technical or specialized translation (unlike the technical translation discussed above) is the translation of items that require a specialized and narrow field of knowledge, exempli gratia, contracts and other legal documents.

These types may seem to overlap in places, but factors such as intended audience and length come into play in addition to subject matter. For example, does an article in an academic journal fall under academic translation or periodical translation? The answer is academic, since academic translation is intended for an audience with expert knowledge of a subject, while periodical translation is intended for an audience with only general knowledge of a subject. The magazine article I was translating yesterday dealt with extracting stem cells from cloned human embryos, and one might think it was an academic translation judging by the subject. It was written in such an easy-to-approach manner, though (for example, removing the nuclei from ova was compared to squeezing seeds out of a grape), that even someone with no knowledge of the subject at all could grasp the article. Thus it was a periodical translation.

I’ve done all four types of translation, and each type demands a different way of thinking and poses different challenges. Personally, I find technical translation to be the hardest. Not only does most technical translation have a jargon that you need to be aware of in both the source and target languages, but the syntax and grammar are often integral to the meaning of the text itself. Take contracts or applications, for example—a slight switch in wording can have disastrous effects on meaning. Technical translation is the most literal of all translation, and I feel most like a machine when I do it. There are far fewer opportunities to be creative when doing technical translation. Your goal is not to produce a beautiful or clever work of art, it is to produce an accurate and functional piece of information. Not that this is a bad thing, and I have great respect for people who can do this well, but I personally find it both difficult and not as rewarding.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, of course, is literary translation. I’ve discussed literary translation before, so I won’t go into in depth here, but in literary translation, meaning trumps form, and artistry can trump meaning. In other words, literary translation sometimes requires you to stray from a literal conveyance of meaning in order to accomplish what the author is trying to achieve in artistic terms. Of course, this idea is often debated in the relevant circles, but suffice it to say that literary translation requires a completely different mindset from technical translation. This is the major reason I left a very secure job doing technical translation (it was actually periodical translation, but the emphasis was so much on “reproduction” that it was almost a mix of periodical and technical). I had decided that I wanted to finally get into literary translation, and I knew that the technical mindset was making it more difficult.

Somewhere in between on the translating spectrum are periodical and academic translation. In a way, these two types of translating can be seen as opposites. Academic translation generally requires in-depth knowledge of a single subject, while periodical translation requires cursory knowledge of a wide variety of subjects.

It’s kind of like the difference between a buffet and a banquet, I suppose. Both have their place, and both are enjoyable for different reasons. Sometimes I really enjoy jumping from one buffet table to the next while doing periodical translation. One week I may be translating an article on stone pagodas in Korea, the next week I may be translating an article on stem cell research (which is, in fact, what I did last week and this week). I learn a lot from periodical translation because I’m always dealing with a different subject. It’s a good thing I like research, because periodical translation requires a lot of research on a wide variety of subjects.

On the other hand, sometimes you just want to sit down and dig into a huge nine-course meal with less variety than the banquet but more depth to each dish. Academic translation digs much deeper into a particular subject than periodical translation ever could. That’s why I said above that academic translation requires in-depth knowledge of a single subject—it is, of course, possible to translate academic texts from a number of different fields, but often the amount of knowledge required is so great that it is difficult for someone to translate an article in a field that is not their own. Part of being a translator, of course, is pretending to be something that you’re not, but there is a limit to how much you can get away with. The better the translator, the more he or she can get away with, of course. I’ve seen amateur translators try to translate outside their field, and the results ain’t pretty.

Being a translator is something like being an actor in that you pretend to be someone you’re not. The analogy breaks down if you take it too far (most people draw distinctions between, for example, real doctors and television or movie doctors), but the basic idea is the same. If I’m translating an article about anthropology, I need to fool my readers into thinking that I am an anthropologist—that I am, in other words, one of them. This is true because translation is not just moving meaning from one language to another, it is absorbing meaning from the source and creating it in the target. In order to do that, you need to write like someone in that field would write. It would be impractical, of course, to get a Ph.D. every time you had to translate something in a new field, which is why the translator—like the actor—must learn just enough to perform the task at hand. That’s where the challenge lies in academic translation.

Anyway, I just wanted to write this entry today to remind myself that I do really love translating, and I’m fortunate to be able to do something I love. It’s challenging, stimulating, and creative. Language is my tool and meaning is my product. I communicate. I bridge the gap and I break down the walls. I take something, distill it down to its essence, and create something new.

Most people have heard of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. As the story goes, the people of the world began to build a tower to reach the heavens, but God confused their language and put a stop to the project. I’m not sure about the theological meaning of the story (although I think it might have something to do with hubris), but it is very interesting for what it says about language. When God saw what they were doing, He said: “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (NIV, Genesis 11:6). To paraphrase, if humanity can overcome the language barrier, we can do anything.

True, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but there is no denying that advances in technology are made when information is communicated, and learning stagnates when information is not communicated. At the crossroads of communication I stand, doing my part to make sure the language barrier does not hinder the flow of information and art. Perhaps that’s a bit grandiose, but I’m going to let it go for now. After all, it’s not often that I feel this good about myself and what I do. I figure I’ll bask in the glow while it lasts. Until next time, here’s hoping that you’re enjoying what you’re doing.

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