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.


Tuesday and Wednesday

Various observers came in and watched our sessions, cautiously giving their opinions when we happened to be struggling with certain words or expressions. Their input almost always made our debates even richer, and there were times when it enabled us to suddenly get to the nub of the matter and make progress.

The interesting thing was the fact that, in direct contrast to the translated sentences given on Monday that were all rather similar, the more time went by, the more varied the translated expressions became. Rather than automatically transposing the original Korean sentence structure, the participants began to concentrate on the “feeling” of a sentence and inventively seek an English expression that would vividly convey that feeling. Deborah continually encouraged this by saying things like, “Isn’t this sentence a bit plain?” or “What might be an expression that isn’t flat?” or “This expression is awkward in English.”

The result was that on Tuesday we succeeded in translating five sentences and connecting them with the previous three. Following on from this, on Wednesday, we translated a section of dialogue. We put our heads together to reach an agreement as to how colloquial it should be and what were the idiomatic English expressions used in similar situations. Wanting to test if it was sufficiently natural-sounding, the participants even acted the conversation out, and burst out laughing in doing so.



In the early hours of the morning, I had a dream. Someone was lying in a white bed, and I was quietly watching them. Their face was covered with a white sheet, so I couldn’t tell whether they were male or female. Somehow, I was able to hear what they were saying. “I have to get up now… No, that’s too flat.” “I really will have to get up now… No, that’s too bland.” “I have to leave this bed… No, that’s awkward.”

When I awoke from the dream, I thought of the participants in our session, and thought of Deborah, who had translated two of my novels, and finally thought of myself. I thought about the lives of the struggling people beneath the white sheet that covered their faces, tenaciously asking questions and answering themselves, ceaselessly rewriting sentences.

In the session that morning, everyone enjoyed hearing about my dream. (I have come to realize that it is possible for someone’s nightmare to make many people happy). In the second session that day, we translated eight lines with surprising concentration, making it the day when our yield was greatest.



On Friday, the final day, after putting the finishing touches to our translation in the morning session, we shifted to the Writers’ Centre in Norwich city centre in the afternoon, and had a session set aside for presentations. The translation sessions for European languages had translated quite a lot of pages in a week, as might be expected for languages from the same family, whereas we had managed to produce only a little over a single page. During the fifteen minutes allotted in the presentation session, the participants for our session stood up on stage and read their translation as slowly as possible, taking turns to speak methodically about the minute difficulties of the translation process. Sitting in the audience, I was quite moved.

People who delight in the intricacies of language. People who take even the most minute difference to be something large, important, significant. People who, through that keen sensibility, give a single text a new birth in another language. People who move forwards, following that strange, beautiful rule that says that it is good to go as slowly as possible. People who ask questions and answer themselves, alone beneath the white sheet, ceaselessly rewriting sentences. I felt touched and grateful to everyone in our session, including Deborah—no, somehow, to every translator in the world.

Each of the other sessions’ presentations were also enjoyable. There was one group who, at the beginning and end of the passage, had the writer and translator read at the same time, producing an effect akin to music, and there was another group who, after two people had translated the same text, read a passage from the various versions, so that we could appreciate the differences. There was one group who amused the audience by humorously disclosing that, as their session leader had been unable to attend due to personal reasons, and the only participant during the week who was able to speak that language had arrived late, the other participants had spent the entire week engaged in a bitter struggle, relying only on a dictionary, at the end of which they had managed to produce a grand total of three sentences. I laughed along with the rest, of course, but I also thought it was a bit of a shame that there was a group who’d succeeded in going even slower than us… 


by Han Kang