Hybridity and translation styles

Some notes I wrote up on multiple translations of Buckwheat Season – The quotes were translated by my supervisor and I wrote the notes up from the perspective of an English reader, so that she could use my input in a presentation.

As I looked over multiple translations, notably of Buckwheat Season (by Yi Hyo-Sok) and Kapitan Ri/The Constant Doctor (by Chon Kwangyong), I thought that I could see three broad strands of translation.

I have, somewhat arbitrarily, named these translation styles Traditional, Modern and Hybrid. As I looked at these two stories I also noted that they are different types of stories. Buckwheat Season is a traditional Korean tale, rooted in specifically Korean environments and rhythms. Kapitan Ri/The Constant Doctor, on the other hand, while set in a Korean environment, is in fact the very modern story of a “company” man who is intent on getting ahead at all costs. As I thought more about this, it became clear in my head that there is a relationship between what type of stories are being translated and how they should be translated.

First, let’s take a look at the three styles of translation. The following grid pulls some illustrative quotes from Buckwheat Season:

What does this chart reveal of the styles?

The Traditional style is the oldest and it owes some of its features to the fact that it was the pioneering step of translation. It features peculiar word choices and a written style that seems somewhat borrowed from English colonial literature. It is florid and very expressive (it has the highest number of adjectives and features more complex sentences with more clauses) It also has the widest internal stylistic variances. This is predictable as it is embryonic translation, and as Stephen J. Gould has demonstrated in “Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin” systems tend to have their widest variances at their outsets. In terms of Buckwheat Season the first translation style has the fussy vocabulary and structure that one might expect from an Englishman speaking in colonial days. A phrase like “dissolute fellow,” “good scolding. “fated from birth,” or “admonition serves as a remedy” sound like some late-Victorian letter from an upset father to a reprobate son. It is also sometimes too literal – a non idiomatic translation like “as nondescript as you are” or the “Whenever ….. Five Days” locution. These are tendencies I associate with early translation of Korean literature. It is much more formal as well, as evidenced by the continued use of full names far into the story.

The second style, the Modern one, is characterized by extreme brevity of sentence and paragraph, but still has some anachronistic vocabulary (greenhorn?) for that tone. It is substantially less colorful (as assessed by adjective usage). Also, it reads, and this might be completely coincidental, as though the author had read both previous translations, and defaulted to them in some cases. It also seems more active (sometimes merely by beginning a passage with spoken words and not refection) and sometimes seems to have some of the color leached out of it.

This leaching/simplification can come at a cost, as the following excerpts demonstrate

The “Modern” version, by simplifying the initial phrase to colloquial English actually eliminates the elements of class-standing that are implicit in the first two texts and completely representative of Korean thought in Buckwheat Season. In this case the modern style strips Buckwheat Season of that thing that makes it interesting – its essential Koreanness. The Hybrid translation re-instates this Korean cultural content, but frees us from difficult phrasing such as the odd (to modern eyes) phrasal structure of the concluding sentence of the Traditional translation, as well as its clumsy double-negative.

Jeong-Heyong Shin, in “The Trap of History” assesses Buckwheat Season as a bit boring:

What is the primary action of the story? We modern individuals who have lost our mythic memory cannot help but wonder, for it is difficult to find intense and dramatic events in the story. There are no violent fights or deaths, no initiations, no recognitions, and no difficulties to overcome. Furthermore, the story is replete with stock situations and characters. On the surface level, the plot of “The Buckwheat Season” is so weak that to some readers it may seem to lack sufficient motifs and conflicts

But, Shin goes on to argue:

Hue, an itinerant vendor traveling around traditional Korean marketplaces, represents several complex aspects of the Korean mythic self that live deep in the Korean collective unconscious. Hue’s life in the story compellingly tells of the moral and aesthetic values the Korean people have long created and of the ideals, wishes, and dreams the Korean people have long cherished. Hue is a Korean mythic hero who has created values and dreams in the Korean peninsula.

Basically, you have a story that is interesting to the extent that it can successfully communicate essential Korean meanings. Using the modern translation approach strips this out of the text in the service of, maybe, increased readability.

Consider another problem:

Again, here, the earlier translation
styles are more suited to the story. At the risk of Orientalization, the Traditional style uses a parental phrase (admonition/remedy) and Korean metaphor (unlicked cub). This reflects traditional power relationships in Korea as well as using the most colorful metaphor. The modern translation matches the even least dynamic remedy (remedy>dose>medicine) with its mismatched partner “greenhorn.” Finally, the hybrid style lessens this impact (dose of) and pairs this with “young people.”

Consider another instance:

The modern translation is entirely inner-directed. Cho “could not bring himself to,” while Ho feigns indifference. This translation substantially weakens the sense of the Tradional translation which possesses a certain fatalism – that these personal paths, like the paths between towns, are the paths that Cho and Ho must follow and, like the universe, must repeat and repeat, one yin to the other’s constant yang. The Hybrid translation, similar to the Traditional one, focuses on personal responsibility or duty (“he couldn’t very well tell Ho he was sick of the story”) while simplifying the vocabulary (“sick of” for “weariness” and “innocently started” for “feigning indifference.)

Finally, consider

Again, the traditional is dense and includes Korean content (festivals and a wine house). The Modern reduces the detail of the Traditional courtyard to “littered” (and in doing so makes the text seem as though it refers to garbage, not a cluttered geography) and uses the word “tavern,” a translation which is far more western (and therefore suggestive of “bar” – which is the wrong word) than “drinking house” or “wine house.”

This examination brings us to the hybrid style, which attempts to rein in some of the wider variances of the idiosyncratic style, but it still includes translations that attempt to hew close to cultural realities and avoid the cultural lobotomies characteristic of the modern style. The hybrid is often characterized by slightly shorter sentences, but it is just about as descriptive (as assessed by use of adjectives) as the Traditional style, and it is more expressive in containing and transmitting cultural content.

What does this all add up to? The Hybrid style, being a somewhat dialectical offspring of the Traditional and Modern styles, seems to be a safe middle of the road approach, which avoids, on one side the Scylla of over-ornamentation and possible incomprehensibility, and also avoids on the other side, the Charybdis of flat, boring, de-culturated text. Still, the fact that it is a hybrid suggests that translators be ignorant of the other styles at their own risks. Certainly, it seems likely that some stories will need to get off the dead-center of Hybrid translation, and thus a translator should have all three styles in his toolbox.

Further, this analysis implies that translators should approach the translation of a particular work only after understanding what kind of a work it is. Essentially, a “one-size-fits-all” approach to translation style will not fit. Perhaps an artistic metaphor might be useful. I may be a very skilled cubist painter, but if someone asks me to draw a sketch of Caravagio’s Ascension (or, translate it, in a visual way) I will not do a good job if I render Caravagio’s romantic and light-based art into black dots. Similarly, if a translator comes across a particularly Baroque piece of Korean literature, it is time for them to reach back to Traditional translation and describe every curlicue and instance of chiaroscuro.

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