KTLIT Contributing Writer Allie Park recently interviewed noted translator Brother Anthony, who among many other accomplishments, is the translator of poet Ko Un‘s Maninbo and is a nationalised citizen of Korea.
1. What prompted you to start translating Korean poetry in 1988?
A: I’ve always had a penchant for translating and nobody seemed to be translating Korean poetry. Also, I was teaching English poetry at that time and I wanted to be able to understand Korean poetry in the same way, if possible. You could say that translating is my way of reading Korean poetry.
2. Why are most of your translated works focused on Ko Un’s poems?
A: The most obvious reason is that Ko Un has published a lot—more than 150 volumes—so that provides a plethora of content to translate. What’s remarkable about Ko Un though, is that he reinvents himself and his poetry time after time. Every time he writes there’s a new beginning that evokes stories of people’s lives. He’s what I call a world poet. To clarify, what he writes is not specifically limited to Korean experience and language.
3. You say that all translators are “parodies” of the original—does this mean that it’s impossible for translations to equal the quality of the original piece?
A: Well, the original piece is always invented from nothing by the author, poet, or whomever. This isn’t the same when translating; instead of inventing you’re reinventing. The activity itself is totally different from writing in that the translator is constrained—there are things that the translator can and cannot do. Translators struggle all the time between ‘faithfulness’ and ‘readability’. They want it to be convincing but then again it all boils down to why something’s being translated. Sometimes adapters are incorrectly labeled as ‘translators’ for editing the piece of a famous poet conservatively. That is, they do a conservative translation of a literary work written in a foreign language and acknowledge only the original poet on the front cover; the translator is invisible. In this case, everything’s mostly focused on commerce and business, not translating.
But then again, like I’ve said before, it all depends on the purpose of translating. Ultimately, you want the poem to become alive. Like Edward FitzGerald said, “better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle”. The translation should be alive to a certain extent and be convincing and interesting—yeah, alive. At the same time the translator’s task is to re-represent this ‘other’ original in a new guise. An ordinary translator who is not a famous poet, in my opinion, does not have the right to radically reword an original piece and say: “this is a translation”. Of course, everybody has the right to do anything they want but then, not everything is translation.
4. You have argued before that translators of Korean literature should be aware of the literary style present in other countries, since every country has a distinct cultural and literary taste. Do you think Korean translations produced today take into consideration such differences?
A: Back in the 1980s most of the people translating Korean literature were Koreans; unsurprisingly, professors of English at Korean universities. Now probably most of the Korean translators are Korean-Americans or Gyopos. So the situation is totally different because Gyopos are much more in between cultures. The only problem with the younger generation though is that not many gyopos are interested in translating.
5. In your essay “Translating and the Translated: Putting Korean Literature on the World Scene” (2008) you remark that translations are never high in demand in English speaking countries because they are already overloaded with original English texts. Do you think there is any hope that Korean literature will gain popularity overseas?
A: Honestly, no. The US, UK, Australia, and Canada are English speaking countries that are none too friendly towards foreign literature for various reasons. America, for example, is too big and is already overwhelmed by books on geography, world history, world literature, etc. And again, there are so many people speaking and writing in English that they don’t need more. Also, the fact that readers of each country have differing literary tastes is also a problem. It’s like how Korean readers can’t understand British novels and their nuances. You can never forget the fact that translation and publication are interconnected. Publication is business. Publishers want books that can sell.
As of now, Koreans don’t write detective stories. What I’m trying to get here is that Korean fiction doesn’t appeal to foreign audiences. In contrast to other countries, most of Korean literature is dominated by poetry—about 2,000 texts have been translated and nearly half of that is poetry. Korea, along with Japan, has a relatively short fiction history because most works were written after the Korean War (1950-53). Another interesting thing to note is how Koreans almost blindly expect a respected Korean author to be appreciated in a foreign country with the same reverence. Unfortunately, things don’t work that way because of cultural and historical differences.
6. Which do you consider to be more important—the faithfulness or readability of a translated text?
A: Both are equally important. However, if you are a publisher in America or England and decide to publish a translated Korean text, you will be pushed to ensure that foreign readers appreciate it. Books get sold by word of mouth. The most important thing in preparing to publish a book then is making sure that people enjoy reading it. You have to make sure that the way in which a book is written in English corresponds to what the foreign reader expects and feels happy about. For example, Please Look After Mom is a sentimental story that is mainly aimed at middle-class women. The original novel was not written in the way it was in English because Koreans do not need cultural explanations. On the other hand, other cultures need to have things explained. So the English version was rewritten or edited to accommodate that difference. There are two steps in this process: translation and editing for publication. Each should be done by different people. Please Look After Mom was an exception in that the editor, the translator, and the author worked as a team to insert details that explained Korean culture.