An Interview with translator Chi-Young Kim (Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom” among others)

Chi-Young Kim

Chi-Young Kim

NOTE: This is an update of a previous post from last year it is interesting to note that elsewhere in this interview she expressed relative certainty about the eventual success of Please Take Care of Mother.

Last September I was lucky enough to catch up with Chi-Young Kim at the 4th International Translators’ Conference at the COEX in Seoul. She was coming off of the success of Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You, and waiting for the publication of Shin Kyung-sook’s (now) wildly successful Please Look After Mom.

Chi-Young was gracious enough to step onto a semi-deserted (thus the occasional background noise)  mezzanine and undergo an interview – You’ll notice my interviewing skills are not strong.^^


CM: You have a family history of translation is that why you’re in the business today?

CYK: I guess so, my mom has been translating my entire life so I grew up with stacks of paper all around and as I got older I kind of helped her with certain phrasings since she is not a native speaker of English and she did Korean to English, so I was involved at a pretty young age and I’ve always been interested in translation because I was an avid reader both in Korean when I was younger and living in Korea, and also in English. So, I read a lot of translations of other works into Korean when I was younger; French, and Russian and English. And so it was always kind of there and available but I, I didn’t really make a career choice out of it until I started to work at a publishing company after college in New York, and we focused only on translations into English. So we kind of focused on that. I got more interested in, in translation personally and so I started translating a couple of short stories right around then and that’s how I got into it.

CM: I was interested when I talked to Kim Young-ha, not interested, actually kind of appalled at how hard he worked at his craft.

CYK: Mmm-hum

CM:  That he works basically 7 hours a day, 7 days a week.

CYK: Right.

CM: What’s your translation process once you have a manuscript on your table, whether you … or laptop or whatever

CYK: These days. Well, I like I to get as much done in one sitting as possible, which obviously drags on to several weeks to several months depending on the text and how busy I am. And I’ve never actually just done translation. I’ve always had another job.  So, for me its kind of like a, an evening thing and a weekend thing and you know when I go on vacation, on planes I’m always, I’m always doing it. So, then I’ll do an initial draft and then I’ll go back and until that point I’m pretty close to the original. And then after like the second draft or so I just put the original away and read it as if it’s in English.

CM: So that’s the point at which you vernacularize it, more or less.

CYK: Right, make it more natural, smoother.

CM: It just occurred to me as we were sitting here that I read “A Toy City,” which I really liked far, far better than the Jimoondang version, partly because it was more complete.

CYK: Oh yeah, I read that one.

CM: That was a little bit .. stiff. It seems to me you were at the peak of your skills maybe when you were doing “Your Republic is Calling You” do you feel as though you’ve gotten better through this process?

CYK: I think so. I think so.

CM: Not to say that Toy City wasn’t great I loved it, I brought it and I’m going to have you autograph it. But..

CYK: No I think I’ve been getting better and better with each book. I know that there’s a lot more to learn. Especially because I feel like the more I do it the less I feel ready to do .. do it. It’s like the more you learn the more ….

CM: You realize what you don’t know

CYK: So there’s that. And I think it’s pretty controversial at least from, translating from Korean to English to make it really an interpretation of the original text. Because my intention is for the American or English speaking reader to read it and get the same feeling and kind of oomph out of it as I did when I read it in the original. And in order to do that you really have to kind of break down all the barriers that come with the ….  you know, if you do a literal translation that’s what.. you  know, there’s there’s going to be barriers. There’s different literary traditions. So that’s what I really work on, trying to make it as smooth and, you know, trying to trick people into thinking that it’s not a translation.

CM: I think you’ve been pretty successful. One of the things I’ve looked at just started looking at, Dongguk is looking at in general. Is to try to see why it doesn’t seem like goals are assessed in translation, in Korea particularly there are goals that institutes have and then they never look at what they have produced and see if it has accomplished that

CYK: Right

CM:  So we’ve been using a really clumsy  metric. We’ve been using Google (Editor’s Note: This should have been “Amazon” not “Google) rankings and we’re ecstatic to see that basically, right now, Kim Young-ha has the 2nd, highest rated Korean translation on all Google.  He bounces around. Now I was really amused to go back and discover that his Jimoondang book has popped into the top 400,000.

CYK: Oh Really?

CM: Yeah, it’s riding on the back of the book that you did. But people have seen that and they’ve gone out and they’ve bought Photoshop, Photo Shop Murder.

CYK: Yeah,

CM: You’re chosen for these translations right? Do publishers come to you or are you now allied with authors?

CYK: Not officially, and not with any particular author officially. But I’ve done two of Kim Young-ha’s. He hasn’t said anything about any future project. I think he’s .. and this is just a presumption on my part … but I think he’s waiting to see how “Your Republic is Calling You” is going to do in the States and then maybe decide what next to do.

CM: So was it the publisher who hooked you up with Kim Young-ha twice?

CYK: It was. So, well, for “Toy City” I found the publisher myself and that was the only book where it happened that way. And then for “I Have The Right to Destroy Myself,” Harcourt had purchased the book already. They saw the translation and the reason that they purchased the book was because the editor speaks French and she read the French version and fell in love with it.

CM: And it was a success. That makes it easier for a publisher.

CYK: Right

CM: It has sold

CYK: It’s safer. And the way I got involved is, in college I had done readers reports for Harcourt for French books. And so I knew one of the editors there and I had also worked with that editor because he’s also a translator from the German, when I was working at the publishing company in New York. So he knew that I also translated and so when they were looking for a Korean translator he said, “why not Chi-Young?” So then they had me do like kind of a test. So they had me do like, I can’t remember how many pages but, let’s say like a 30 page sample.  And then the editor compared the French version and the English version and said, “why did you choose this word?” Why….

CM:  That’s an interesting approach rather than the Korean.

CYK: Yeah

CM: You alluded to briefly something that I just thought was interesting. That, in some ways your translation style is …  contestable because there are some people who feel that that is not how you want to do it. I personally completely agree. I come to all of this from a marketing perspective. So to me it’s sneaking the culture into the target culture.

CYK: Right … Right

CM:  And you start doing that any way you can. Has there actually been any, have you had any professional repercussions because of your translation style, or….?

CYK: Yeah, I think it’s more of a general sentiment out there. Whenever I get into any sort of discussion with other translators. And, … there was this one time when I was asked to do a translation of a short story for an agency. They didn’t like how I did it. So what they did was, they changed every single word. So the entire manuscript was redlined. I mean “the,” “a,” everything! Everything was changed. So there was a little bit of a fight and they went with a different translator.

CM: Was that an English speaking agency?

CYK: It was in Korea, but the person who was in charge of it spoke English. They actually had an American editor correct it. So, it was like…

CM: Shot by both sides!






5 thoughts on “An Interview with translator Chi-Young Kim (Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom” among others)

  1. Great!

    I love it.

    Please do more of these with the translators — the unsung heroes of translated literature.

  2. A good idea, as always.. I’m working on another one with Kim, and have some other folks here in town..

  3. Another theme of fiction that one does not see in translation:

    Tales of former Korean War soldiers.

    As harrowing as the war was for non-Korean soldiers, it must have had a different tenor for Korean ex-soldiers.

    Are there stories that try to portray this perspective?

    And yet another theme:

    women’s fiction — fiction about women who have lived hard lives.

    The fact that Western authors invent these tales, but no such tales seem to be coming from Korea itself does strike one as odd, no?

  4. Hi , I am looking for Chi-Young Kim’s contact details regarding her work, which i want to translate into Indian languages. can any one help me on this ?

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