I had the good luck to catch up on Skype with Paul Kim, who translated Tears of Blood, about which Bruce Cumings (who also helped with some aspects of the translation) said:
“In this excellent, clear and highly readable translation we learn the moving story of Young-Bok Yoo, whose life exemplifies the tragedies and divisions of Korea during and after the Korean War.”
The story is amazing, the translation is amazing, and even more amazing is that Mr. Kim did the bulk of the translation when he was only 15 years old.
You can hear the 30 minute interview here
Prior to that interview Mr. Kim and I corresponded by email, and here is the interview he did in that medium.
1) Please tell our readers and listeners a little bit about your personal story.
My name is Paul Taewan Kim. I’m a second generation Korean-American born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but brought up in California. Currently I am a senior (고삼) attending Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, and my favorite hobby is playing soccer, which I have done since I was 8. Though I have never lived in Korea I consider myself very Korean – my family speaks Korean at home and all my favorite foods are Korean foods. In my sophomore year (고일) of high school I learned about Mr. Yoo’s story when we had Mrs. Oak-Hi Lee, the daughter of a South Korean POW, over for lunch. At the time I was spending winter vacation in Korea with my family at my grandmother’s home. My father had been doing legal research for the Family Union of South Korean POWs, an NGO that Mrs. Lee heads. That day she told us the story of her own escape and also gave us a copy of the first edition of Mr. Yoo’s autobiography.
I read a Korean book (often with the help of my parents/grandma) every year in order to keep up my ability to read the language, and so I decided to read Mr. Yoo’s autobiography originally just to maintain my Korean – I did not have any notion of translating this book. But as I read it I was amazed by Mr. Yoo’s story – he is truly an amazing man – and it shocked me that outside of Korea their story is virtually unknown. I wanted to raise awareness, and so I went to the publisher and offered to translate the book into English and make it accessible to a wider audience. Luckily they had been looking for a translator and so they gave me the opportunity to do so. I am very grateful and honored that they were willing to let me do this when at the time I had just turned 15. So that’s how I got started.
2) In our correspondence you mentioned that you normally visit Seoul every Christmas. How long have you been visiting Seoul?
My family visits Korea at least once a year, either during summer vacation or winter break, and we’ve been doing this as long as I can remember. We usually stay for a two weeks at my grandmother’s place in Seoul.
3) What experiences do you find in Korea that you just can’t find in Mountain View, and vice-versa. Or another way of asking it: When you’re in the US what do you miss about Korea, and when you are in Korea, what do you miss about the US?
There are so many things that I love when I visit Korea. For one, Seoul is so vibrant, and it is so easy to get around. In Mountain View you need a car to get anywhere, so I love the freedom that Seoul offers since I can get pretty much anywhere by taking public transportation and walking. Also, Korean food and Korean restaurants are awesome. Eating 포장마차 오댕 and 떡복기, Chilsung Cider, and also my Grandma’s cooking, are often the highlights of the trip. Also, I have lots of family in Korea, so getting to see them is always a pleasure.
However, there are some things that I prefer about the US. I’ve been spoiled by the perfect weather in California, so Korea is always too hot or too cold. Also, during the summer there are so many mosquitos! And sometimes there isn’t enough room to play soccer – not enough parks and grass.
4) You mentioned that you are applying for colleges. What will you study?
To be honest I have no idea what I want to study in the future. When I was younger I always thought that I would follow in the footsteps of my grandfather and become an economist, but now I am not so sure. I’m probably going to take many different classes in college to figure out what I want to do. What I do know is that whatever I do it will involve some form of service – translating Mr. Yoo’s book has taught me how great it feels to help others.
5) You mention that Yoo is a plainspoken man and his book is the same. When I saw him speak in Seoul I was impressed by how simple and direct his language was, compared to some authors I have tried to listen to. Did your evolving translation style fit his writing style?
I certainly hope so! At first I thought that I would translate more or less word-for-word, sentence-by-sentence and then edit it later to make the sentences make sense, but because of the difference in sentence structure between English and Korean I quickly found that a much more effective way would be to go paragraph-by-paragraph and translate the meaning instead (I am told that this is how real translators do it). However I did my best to preserve Mr. Yoo’s plain and “to-the-point” style, which wasn’t too hard since it’s how I write too. I liked that about Mr. Yoo’s writing. It didn’t wax eloquent or try to be pretentious and high-minded. He tells the story how it happened, and the story is tragic and painful enough that it does not really need any extra frills and laces.
6) What was the biggest hurdle you faced in your translation, and can you explain a little bit about how you went about getting it published?
The hardest part was probably overcoming the gap in culture and language between myself and the book. In Mr. Yoo’s autobiography there are so many references to Korean history culture that were mysterious to me, and the nuances inherent in the Korean language are often very difficult to express in English. For example, there are so many different words for pain in Korean, and each word has a slightly different “hue” of pain, but in English there is just the one word.
7) Tell us how the translation process went, and a little bit about how you got the book published.
I first had to read the book cover to cover, which took a few months. Then I started translating, which took a long time. In between school, homework, and playing soccer I wouldn’t have many hours left to work on the book, so the first manuscript took about a year to complete. Then, I spent most of my summer working with my editor, David Alzofon, who is a journalist, musician, writer, and former co-worker of my father. He really did an amazing job. Also, over the summer David introduced us to Frankie Frey, who did the book design. It finally came together on September 1, when WonBooks, Korea, published the book and began printing copies.
8) As you translated Tears of Blood, whom did you go to for help on the history/culture/language?
I went to my parents for most of my culture questions. I had a really good electronic dictionary that I used for language, but it often couldn’t capture the little nuances that I mentioned earlier so I would often have to go to my parents for that too. History was learned with a combination of reading articles on wikipedia, talking with my parents and also reading the book Korea’s Place in the Sun by Bruce Cumings (interesting story about that by the way, will elaborate when we speak face to face).
9) You mention that you hope the footnotes help readers, and I think for readers who don’t know that much about Korean history they will be very helpful. Still, translators kind of go back and forth on explicitation – why did you finally decide to do this?
I realized that there were so many things that even I didn’t know, regarding culture and history, and since Mr. Yoo wrote his book with a Korean audience in mind these things are not explained in the text. From the first chapter there are things that needed to be explained with footnotes – otherwise a non-Korean reader would be very confused.
10) Are you planning to translate anything else?
Not really. Writing is not a strength of mine – I’m more of a math and sciences person.
11) Were there any cultural differences that were difficult to translate?
There were very many. Too many to list but I can definitely talk about them over Skype.
12) What do you see in your future? Will you continue to work between the two cultures?
I am really not so sure. Working between the two cultures, however, has been an idea of mine and within my family for quite some time (another pretty funny story to tell about this). I do hope to live in Korea for a little bit after college, since there are countless opportunities in Korea for native English speakers who also know Korean. At this point I want to keep my options open. I have some younger cousins who have lived in both the US and Korea and we are very close, and they are very smart so I often half-jokingly mention starting a business with them in Korea when we grow up.