[Dyad] The Voice in My Ear — by Janet Hong
- onDecember 22, 2020
- Vol.50 Winter 2020
- byJanet Hong
Writing is often said to be solitary and lonely; the same can be said of translation. The actual translator-author relationship may be fraught, challenging, distant, or even non-existent. But in this case, translator Janet Hong and writer Ha Seong-nan formed a bond that bloomed into one of friendship, one that grew in affection and closeness over the years. The following exchange reveals the precious, serendipitous experience of words not only reaching across geography and culture, but also intertwining lives together. —Ed.
The first time I got in touch with Ha Seong-nan was in March of 2007. After obtaining her contact information from a professor in Korea, I worked up my courage for about a month, until I finally picked up the phone one day and called her, without any advance notice, from my home in Vancouver, Canada. Though I had the option of emailing her, I felt extremely insecure about writing in Korean with my poor spelling and grammar, and I somehow got it into my head that verbal flubs would be more forgivable.
I don’t know what I expected Ha to sound like, but I still recall my surprise at her soft, clear voice (which I can only describe as “musical”) when she picked up sounding excited, almost out of breath, as if she’d been laughing at a funny joke just seconds before. After I apologized for not having contacted her sooner, I blundered through my introduction—how I’d received the grand prize in the 2001 Korea Times Modern Korean Literature Translation Awards competition for my translation of her story “The Woman Next Door,” which was the first thing I’d ever translated, how I’d gotten an LTI Korea grant to translate the rest of The Woman Next Door collection a few years before, how much I loved her work, when Ha, all of a sudden, gave a great shout. Stunned, I stopped mid-sentence. She apologized immediately; the truth was, she was in the middle of watching a soccer match. When I offered to call at a better time, she assured me it was all right, and proceeded for the next twenty minutes to answer all my tedious questions (“How would you like to Romanize your name?,” “What other stories or collections do you recommend I work on next?,” and so on) with the patience befitting a saint.
I often think back on this conversation and smile at my bumbling earnestness, at Ha’s initial inattentiveness and immediate contrition. I also recall with vivid clarity the different aspects I was attempting to reconcile in those moments. For one, after poring over her stories for years, I was trying to contain my inner fangirl speaking to the actual author on the phone. Then there was my astonishment over the fact that this cheerful, soft-spoken woman was the creator of stories often described as “off-kilter,” “unsettling,” and “menacing.”
Shortly after this phone call, Ha and I started emailing, with Ha writing in Korean and I mostly in English. The emails generally concerned questions I had about the text, or written consents I needed signed by Ha in order to translate her works and submit them for publication. However, bits of personal information crept into these exchanges, as they inevitably will, and slowly a friendship started to form. It would be several more years before I would finally meet her in person, when we take part in a bilingual reading tour through various American cities, with another writer I translate whom I’ve also grown to adore—Han Yujoo—but that’s a story for another time.
I still remember racking my brain for days about an appropriate gift for Ha before our first meeting. I remember asking the front desk at her Seattle hotel to ring her room and my nervousness as I waited for her to come down to the lobby. The moment I clapped eyes on her petite frame, my plan to be poised and professional left my head, and without thinking, I strode toward her and threw my arms around her.
After the trip, Ha and I remained in close contact. I soon received a grant to translate Bluebeard’s First Wife, this time from the Daesan Foundation, and continued to publish translations of her short stories in journals. During this period, there was an opportunity for Ha to make her English-language debut with The Woman Next Door collection, but the terms offered by the publisher weren’t ideal and we didn’t go through with it—something I’m grateful for in retrospect.
Last year, eighteen years after I’d started translating Ha, twenty years after the book originally came out in Korea, The Woman Next Door was published by Open Letter Books as Flowers of Mold. It was followed by Bluebeard’s First Wife, which was released this June. Since both collections were published in Korea so many years ago, Ha worried that the stories would feel dated, but they have both received a warm reception from reviewers and readers. We’ve wondered since then: If she had made her English-language debut back in 2012, before all the current global interest in Korean arts and culture, would her books have garnered the same attention? This is something we will never know, but we still can’t help marveling at the timing, the arbitrariness and serendipitous nature of it all.
I never actually set out to become a translator. It didn’t even occur to me that one could do it as a profession. While studying English literature in university and dreaming of becoming a writer, I realized I knew next to nothing about the literature of my heritage, so I took a Korean language course from a brilliant professor, who taught Korean by getting his students to read a sampling of modern Korean short stories. As the end-of-term project, we each had to translate a never-before translated Korean story into English. The story the professor gave me to translate was insufferably tedious and difficult—I don’t recall the title or what it was about. At the time, my mother was reading a new collection of short stories by a Korean writer who had debuted a few years earlier. She praised one story in particular and recommended that I try translating it instead. This was Ha Seong-nan’s “The Woman Next Door.”
Ha and I sometimes joke that it was my mother who brought us together. What if my mother hadn’t been reading Ha Seong-nan at the time and had failed to recommend her story to me? What if I’d ended up grinding it out with the tedious story I’d been assigned? I would have no doubt produced a mediocre translation, since it would have lacked passion. Then would I still have ended up pursuing translation, let alone falling for Korean literature?
In late October, Ha Seong-nan’s Bluebeard’s First Wife was selected as one of Publishers Weekly’s Top Ten Books of 2020. Open Letter, Ha, and I were overjoyed, but when this made the news in Korea a few weeks later, I realized anew how special this recognition truly was.
It is always a cause for rejoicing when a translated book is included in such a list, but this was also only the second time a work from South Korea has made the list. What seemed simply miraculous, though, is that a book originally published in Korea in 2002 could be deemed not only relevant in 2020, but also “shocking,” “unapologetically feminist,” and “wonderfully weird.”
At the time, I was busy sifting through nearly twenty years of personal history regarding Ha: annotations of her stories, drafts of translations, as well as emails and handwritten messages she and I’ve exchanged. We had been asked to contribute to a special segment on the relationship between a translator and writer they translate for Korean Literature Now’s fiftieth issue. As I read through over 200 pages of emails, I was able to see the progression of our relationship. The years of decreasing formality, the liberal use of the heart emoji and exclamation marks in the later emails, culminating in Ha addressing me by my first name and we both signing off with “XOXO,” or “Love,” followed by our first names. I was reminded of other things, too. All the phone and Skype calls, the gifts exchanged, dinners we shared in Korea—everything from Buddhist cuisine to traditional Korean full-course meals to fried chicken with beer. And then probably one of my favorite memories of all when she and writer Kang Young-sook took me to a small unmarked bar tucked away in one of the alleys of Insadong, frequented by writers and artists, a bar you wouldn’t know was there unless you were looking for it. Ha has met my husband, my children, and even my mother once. But through all the sifting what struck me more than anything was Time and its passing—how slowly the last twenty years seemed to pass, yet how quickly, too. Perhaps turning forty this year has put me in a nostalgic mood.
For PW’s news to come while reflecting on the last twenty years of translating Ha seems especially serendipitous. And that’s the word I’m left with: serendipity. Ha is the first writer I translated and also the reason I fell in love with Korean literature. You can even say she’s the reason I started translating in the first place.
A new neighbor’s moved into number 507. It’s the strangest thing. Even after all these years, this first line of “The Woman Next Door” rings in my head like a bell, stirring up emotions, announcing the start of something new, something unexplored, like the famous first line of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.”
When I first read the opening line from “The Woman Next Door,” I had no idea it would take eighteen years before Ha’s book would come out in English translation. While translating Ha, I met and married the man who is now my husband, moved across Canada, got an MFA in creative writing, moved back to Vancouver, had children, finished my first book, published other works in translation, and went from “emerging” translator to “no longer emerging.” During that time, Ha, too, has gone through her share of successes and struggles. It’s astonishing to me that I’ve carried her stories with me for so much of my life, her lilting, keen, sly voice always in my ear. After all, not many people can say they’ve translated a writer for half of their lifetime.
It’s commonly said that the literary translator is the closest reader of the text. It’s also commonly said that writing is lonely work. Often when I’m working on my own novel, I feel as though I’m walking through a dark tunnel alone. I feel lost and I don’t know where I’m going; I don’t even know if the end is in sight. However, translating Ha’s work has been like walking through the same dark tunnel, but with a friend, holding hands. The tunnel may seem to go on endlessly, but the fact that you’re not alone is comfort enough. Because when all’s said and done, isn’t the journey what’s important?
More and more, I’m feeling it’s a rare thing to truly know another, to be known by another. Just as how I feel comforted by the presence of Ha’s words, it is my hope that Ha, too, will feel less alone as she puts words to paper, knowing there is someone by her side who is straining step by step, just as she is, toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
Janet Hong is a writer and translator based in Vancouver, Canada. She was shortlisted for the 2019 JWC Emerging Writers Award for her short fiction manuscript Painted Windows. She received the 2018 TA First Translation Prize and the 2018 LTI Korea Translation Award for her translation of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale, which was also a finalist for the 2018 PEN Translation Prize and the 2018 National Translation Award, and her translation of Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s Grass won the 2020 Harvey Award for Best International Book and the 2020 Krause Essay Prize. Her recent translations include Ha Seong-nan’s Bluebeard’s First Wife, Yeong-shin Ma’s Moms, and Ancco’s Nineteen.