Translation Prize, Nobel Prizes, and Eyes on the Prize

The Meat Grinder of Translation

Two interesting articles in the Korea Times having to do with the recent Korea Times Korean Literature Translation Awards.

The first is the judges report, which struck a remarkably diffident note about the translators:

There were many competent translations of Korean fiction this year. Many of them were eminently readable. And yet we felt that they often struck an odd tone as in a song being sung out of tune. These days there are many translators whose use of a highly colloquial, informal, and even slangy American English ends up distorting the mood, voice and tone of the original Korean text. The converse is also true: sometimes the entries sound too formal or expository when the original is more colloquial. We would like to remind the translators that fidelity to the original text should include fidelity to the voice. That said, we do realize that this is one of the most difficult aspects of translation.

The mention of colloquail, informal and slangy English struck me as a bit odd, since the work being translated was described in the second Times’ piece as:

“Spring Afternoon: Three Widows’’ is a story about three women in their eighties. Old and fragile they may be, but their hearts and friendships remain the same, quarreling over the same small incidents, hurting each other’s feelings and then realizing the importance of one another’s presence all over again.

Which really seems to NOT be calling for slang. At the same time one can imagine that these particular voices were, as suggested in the first quote above, colloquial in their own nature, as 80 year olds would certainly have vocabularies, dictions, and verbal habits of their own.

Perhaps more interesting to me, because of the “Created in Translation” graduate class that I am currently teaching, is the judges recognition that:

part of a translator’s job is to identify those works that deserve and warrant translation. So a just appreciation of the literary quality of the original is an essential part of the translation process.

This is a critically important thing, because as I will argue (supported with a bit of research) in the next few days that there have been some poor choices in  what “warrants” translation. I will not argue this on literary merits, rather on marketing ones, but that is a post for Monday.^^

Interestingly, there were only five submissions in the poetry category, and no overall award was given.

The second Times article, already quoted above, was specifically focused on the translator who won the contest. Kim Yoon-kyung, the winner, begins by saying that it is good to live in an English speaking country if you want to be a good translator, because by nature of geographical reality, this forces you to translate on a daily basis.

Kim, obviously, avoided the “slangy” problem noted by the judges and partially attributes this to the fact that, “The women are from the same generation as my mother, so I could empathize with them.’’

A final note – this is the first post after the “Ko Un Rejects the Western Yardstick” post. Kim, unlike Ko, is still after success with respect to that metric:

(Along with translated works,) cultural events in foreign countries to introduce prominent Korean authors are needed too. The more people know about Korea, the more chances we have to see a Korean author winning a Nobel Prize in literature!

It is something like amusing to me that this focus is so strong in Korea and I certainly hope the prize does someday come to a Korean author, if for no other reason than this topic of discussion will cease to be relevant.