International Workshop for Korean Literature Translation: The Translating Experience

  • onApril 20, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byMarion Gilbert

The Translating Experience


In Hwang Jung-eun’s short story, “Yang-ui Mirae,” the main character is a lower class young lady who faces great financial hardships. Through the use of a refined literary technique, the author conveys the loneliness that comes with hard work and the struggle for life imposed by the restriction of life choices due to poverty. For example, the emptiness felt by the main character is depicted through the silence of the stars at the end of several paragraphs. The poverty she has to endure takes away her liberty and denies her the vision of future prospects.

     Although many of Hwang’s novels include fantastic elements, this story takes a more realistic stand and reveals Korean society’s tendency to smother the poor and not offer any escape from their condition. The main character makes the conscious choice not to have a child for the only reason that she does not want another soul to experience a destitute life. But even her will to find a way out eventually disappears, which conveys the fact that she seems even more powerless. It appears that she is not the master of her life as the sentence “bright days as cloudy days were on the other side of the window” suggests. Throughout the story, her reactions unveil a very humane personality. Angry at her parents for being poor, and eaten up with remorse, she shows her humanity. This creates proximity with the reader who can easily identify with the protagonist, although the extent of her misery might be somewhat of a stretch.

     As a sociology student, opportunities to translate a novel from beginning to end are few. This was a great first experience. The workshop constantly put our work back into question; endless hours were added to the original translations until our work was fine grained. As it is impossible to reach one perfect translation, with a one-to-one correspondence between two languages, there were always uncertainties about what the author had in mind when writing such and such expression. Discussing different options helped us make smarter choices about our translations.

     We proceeded in such a way that each student would translate the story separately, and we would meet after that to talk and to see how we understood the text and what kind of method each one of us used. Some would choose to enhance the translation and erase language particulars of Korean that just could not be translated into French, while some would prefer to stick more to the Korean way of speaking, thereby requiring more of an effort by the reader. This is the reason why the eight translations are so different even though they come from the same Korean story. Then we would work separately again to revise our writings. The next step was meeting with the author, Hwang Jung-eun, where we learned even more about what we thought we had understood.

     Before meeting her, we all thought that the homonym yang (which is an important key word of the novel, present in the title) meant “sheep,” but she told us that it was a derogatory term referring to a young lady. It made us revise our translations once again. That’s how I learned that translation is a never-ending process and though it cannot be perfect, the translator’s work is to bring the ideas in the original work alive through coherent choices. As Michel Leiris said: “To translate is to be honest enough to limit ourselves to an allusive imperfection.”






by Marion Gilbert    

Student of Sociology/Korean Studies