[2018 LTI Korea Translation Awards] Failing in the Right Direction

  • onDecember 12, 2018
  • byJanet Hong

I first read Han Yujoo’s work when LTI Korea asked me to translate her short story “Black-and-White Photographer” for the 2008 Seoul International Writers’ Festival. Though I have to admit I didn’t understand the deeper meaning of the story until much later, I knew what I had before me was special. The chilling lyricism of her unadorned sentences, her use of repetition to hypnotic effect, the unusual way she moved the narrative forward, her exquisite interweave of the text with wordplay—I had never read anything like it before.

I had numerous questions, so we corresponded via email, with Han writing in Korean from Seoul and me writing in English from Vancouver, Canada. Being a translator herself, she expressed sympathy for what she was putting me through, and was incredibly generous with her praise for the solutions I settled on for all the wordplay and trickier parts of the text. And so began our friendship.

A few years later, I had the pleasure of finally meeting her in person when we traveled to various American cities on a reading tour. Cool, deadpan, and brooding, while gracious, elegant, and utterly unpretentious, she was everything I expected and so much more. Even after we returned to our respective homes, Han and I remained in close contact. From a certain point, she started calling me “Janet eonni” (she’s two years younger than me), and continued to send me her books as each one was released in South Korea, even baby clothes when I gave birth to my first child.

In the winter of 2013, just as I was rolling up my sleeves to translate The Impossible Fairy Tale, which Han’s agent, Kelly Falconer, had sold on a partial manuscript to Graywolf Press, I happened to see a Korean literary critic’s review of the novel. Although the review was positive, the critic noted that the story relied heavily on wordplay and, in the end, pronounced that such sections would unfortunately be lost in translation.

In blind faith I powered through, determined to bring this important, unique tale into English. I let my passion for the work carry me instead, telling myself that a poor reflection was still better than nothing. When Han played on words to advance the story, I asked myself what absolutely needed to be there, what I could not afford to lose. It’s simply impossible, especially when dealing with double entendres, word scrambles, and half-palindromes, to keep every meaning. In the end, in collaboration with Han, I emphasized what I felt were her main intentions, albeit sacrificing certain elements, and at times offering my own words to bridge the gaps that occurred when the text passed into English.

Just as John Ciardi called translation “the art of failure,” I am intimately aware of the shortcomings in my translation. So it has been enormously heartening and downright surreal to receive what seems an inordinate amount of validation for this translation: as a finalist for the PEN American Translation Prize earlier this year, as a current finalist for the National Translation Award, and now as the recipient of the 2018 LTI Korea Translation Award.

Han Yujoo has my deepest gratitude and admiration for creating this exquisite, mesmerizing tale and constantly pushing the boundaries of narrative. Thank you especially for your friendship and patience with my endless queries. I know not every author-translator relationship is like this, so I count myself outrageously lucky. Thank you, LTI Korea, for this generous award, providing support at virtually every step of my translation career, and bringing Han Yujoo’s work to my attention in the first place. I would not be here today if it weren’t for your help. I am indebted to the wonderful Graywolf Press, especially my editor Ethan Nosowky, whose wisdom and guidance saved me time and again; Kelly Falconer of Asia Literary Agency for her dedication and passionate support; my teachers and mentors over the years; my friends back home for their good cheer; and all the writers I have had the privilege of translating. Of course, none of this would be possible without the love and sacrifice of my family: my mother, who offers valuable native-speaker’s insight whenever I’m stuck; my in-laws for their constant care; my children, who teach me what really matters; and my husband, who keeps me grounded when I’m feeling overwhelmed, whose love and faith always point me to the right path.


by Janet Hong