I stayed for a week at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. I was there to attend the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School. This year, workshops were held for Korean, German, Russian, Swedish, and multilingual prose and multilingual poetry. I took part in the Korean to English workshop. All throughout, my role was like a visitor or an observer—at times happy, often surprised, sometimes lonely, and for the most part cautiously watching the translators at work. Eleven translators attended the Korean workshop, which usually consisted of two sessions daily of an hour and a half each. After the morning session ended, translators and workshop leaders from all languages would gather in the lobby and have sandwiches. Once the afternoon session was over, evenings as bright as a white night greeted us. I spent most of the time in my room at the Broad View Lodge, gazing at the sky from the square-shaped window, waiting for the sun to set.
Summers in Norwich are longer than summers in Korea, so the days would barely start to grow dark around ten. The campus had a general store where you could buy beer or beverages but it closed early in the evening. If you were lost in your thoughts, you ended up missing the chance to stock up on provisions for the night. In fact, I spent four days without any provisions, and with nothing to buy and nowhere to go, I ended up not spending much of the British pound I had with me. Jonathan Morley, whom I met at the Writer’s Centre Norwich on the last day, asked how I found my stay at the university. I told him I’d gone on a stroll with the translators from the Korean group the previous night and found it very memorable. He considered what I’d said and then asked what about it was so memorable. Specifically. I thought about it for a while and then answered: The rabbits. The university campus had lots of rabbits. Most mornings, I’d go jogging over a gentle hill that led to a river, and when I got back to Korea, I noticed bits of rabbit poop stuck to the soles of my shoes.
I had a clear motivation for writing the short story the translators worked on during the Summer School. I wrote it in the summer of 2014 and published it in fall the same year. Those days, I could feel something inside me steadily dying. The narrator of the story shuts themselves up in a room after their lover’s death, but I believed they’d come out one day, and when they did, they’d have some sort of a smile or laugh on their face. A cold smile, a guffaw, a grin, a reproachful smile, an affirming smile, a smile twisted in pain, a sneer, a warm smile . . . no matter what sort of smile it was, in Korean I could use the word un-neuna as a blanket term to cover them all, and so I titled the story as “un-neun nam-ja” (nam-ja means man in Korean).
Earlier in spring this year, I had to talk about the story in English at a certain occasion. I used the word “laugh” when I spoke about the title. Someone remarked that the English word “laugh” could also mean boisterous laughter and asked me if that was what I was referring to in the title. I was startled and said no. What I had in mind was more of an eerie sort of laugh. That day, I learned that English has a rich range of vocabulary to express laughter. According to the conversation I had that day, my story couldn’t be titled “The Laughing Man” in English. So when I heard that the story had been picked for the workshop I was curious. How would the translators translate the title? Which word would they use?
The first sentence of the story goes like this:
For a long time I’ve been thinking about that day.
The translators spent the first session on this sentence. They returned to the classroom after lunch for the afternoon session and began to work on the second sentence, but not long after they returned to the first sentence. The same thing happened in the next session. They took an hour and a half to translate the third sentence. I counted and found that seven sessions were left, so I figured by the time the summer school was over they’d manage to translate ten sentences. The next day, the translators worked in two groups so the pace picked up a bit, but the process was still quite slow.
The first class was the most memorable for me. This was how it went: Deborah, the leader of the Korean group, projected the text onto a big white screen. Eleven translators translated a line. Eleven translations appeared on the screen. Words were replaced, sentences were lengthened or shortened, deleted then restored. Eleven sentences to create one sentence. I felt like I was watching my nightmares and my life, my secrets and my private joys, or a window open on my computer with a manuscript I was working on. The pace and deliberation of the translation was the same as mine when I wrote my stories. Translation is the most intense act of reading and isn’t distinct from creative writing. This, I witnessed for myself at the workshop.
After each session, I’d ask the translators when they’d translate the title. They’d give me a tired, indulgent smile and say, Soon, before long, by and by. I believed them, but they didn’t give me the title even on the last day. On Friday, the closing day of the Summer School, the participants moved to Dragon Hall in Norwich for final presentations. Dragon Hall was built in the 14th century and a dragon still sits on one of its roof spandrels. It’s short-waisted compared to Asian dragons, but its tongue is as long and red. I felt the building got its name from the rafters that looked like the ribs of a behemoth. It was a bright, beautiful building. Translators from all the groups presented their final translations. Some groups did readings, while others gave uproarious performances.
The Korean group filed onto the stage and had a great time. I enjoyed listening to their reading. These people who were strangers on the first day were now trusty friends whom I’d want to see again. During the workshop, Anton surprised me with his delicate approach to the sentences and the narrator and with statements like, “The first line of a story is a book in itself;” Helen was bold and bright and dictated the mood of the group with her energy; Dong-shik ajeossi borrowed my t-shirt (please give me back my Pasadena t-shirt, ajeossi); Tim with his thin voice spoke at decisive moments; Agnel was better at Korean than me; Jack Jung or JUNG JACK finished off many a steak for other people; Roxanne told me “translating literature and eating good food are the biggest joys of my life;” Dan who had the aura of a master recited his lines like a scene from a play; Sun Kyoung handled wine bottles expertly as if they were bottles of soju; Kyungjin led the conversation with her experience, insight, and wit; and Sung Ryu lent me two sheets of A4 paper (we’ll meet again in London this October). I haven’t forgotten anything. So give me my title, people. I’m still waiting.
by Hwang Jungeun
Author of One Hundred Shadows