Slowly, As Slowly As Possible

  • onOctober 20, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byHan Kang

From July 26th to August 1st at the University of East Anglia (UK), the Literary Translation Institute of Korea’s Translation Academy collaborated with the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) and the Writers’ Centre Norwich to establish the very first Korean to English group at the International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School.


This past summer, I spent two months in the small, peaceful British city of Norwich. As it happened to coincide with my residency, I also participated as a writer in the translation workshop. That workshop was on a larger scale and more intensive than any other translation program I had previously heard about or experienced. Translation sessions, organized by language, included Dutch, German, Norwegian, Italian, and, this year for the first time, Korean. Workshops were also held under the name of “multi-language sessions,” translating literary works from a variety of languages into English, shared between poetry and prose classes.

     On Sunday July 26th, the evening before the workshop commenced, the participants gathered at the campus bar for the opening event. It was led by Deborah Smith (who has translated my novels The Vegetarian and Human Acts), with help from the translator and author Daniel Hahn, who frequently dropped in on our sessions. After the writer and translators shared brief introductory remarks, Daniel said with a smile, “My role in these sessions will be to obstruct the work of translation as much as I can in order for it to progress slowly, as slowly as possible.” I nodded, because I liked the sound of those words “as slowly as possible.” I thought it was lucky that this was not to be a workshop where everything was done “as quickly as possible.” Of course, at that point, I was unable to guess just how slowly our sessions were going to go.



The text we were to translate that week was my short story “Europa.” At Deborah’s suggestion, I first briefly explained my motivation for writing the story and what I had thought particularly important about it, and straight after that, the translation began. After each member had translated the first sentence, they took turns presenting their translations. Deborah examined each individual word in minute detail, even down to punctuation. She led the discussion tirelessly, neither agreeing completely with one person’s translation nor unilaterally dismissing another’s. In that first session, which took place from eleven in the morning to one in the afternoon, I was shocked to see that we didn’t even manage to fully translate one sentence. “The important thing is the process,” Deborah said.

     Daniel came in during the afternoon session and was entirely satisfied with the slow speed of our progress. He had the students read the sentence that was being translated out loud, and after also having me read the Korean, stressed the desirability for the sense of rhythm given by the length of the sentences in the two languages to be as similar as possible. Deborah said that as we continued with the translation, the sentences we thought were “done” could in fact be revised almost endlessly to make sure they matched with the corresponding passage. Instantly, I realized that this extremely delicate, elaborate process was giving me a very particular sense of déàvu. All of this was what I myself did every day. Changing the position of a word, rearranging the order of sentences, cutting out unnecessary words, reading out loud, reading out loud again from the first sentence after writing the final sentence, cutting more words, taking out punctuation, putting it in, cutting again, accepting dispassionately the fact that after writing the next day’s sentences, they might all have to be cut, forcing me to rewrite everything from the beginning.