Walking the Tightrope of Translation

  • onFebruary 17, 2015
  • byAlyssa Kim

There are two translation classes offered in the Intensive Course Program at the LTI Korea Translation Academy: Translation Practice of Literary Texts and Practice on Translation Styles. The class I have been teaching for the past four years is Practice on Translation Styles, which is offered in the program for all five languages in the Intensive Course. With an aim for students not only to improve their translation skills but also to discover their own voice and translation style, the curriculum for the class is designed as a translation practice class as well as a translation studies course in part. Unlike the class of Translation Practice of Literary Texts where students are required to translate short stories that have never been translated, students in the Translation Styles class are asked to translate literary texts that have been previously translated and compare their translation with the existing translations.

     The stories not only have important literary value in Korean literature from the 1930s to the 1970s but they are also important stories in understanding Korean society and culture during that time. Students are required to read the works in the original Korean first, then produce their own translation and compare it to the existing ones. In class students share their views and interpretations of the stories, the difficulties they had in translating them, and the differences they found in other translations compared to the published ones. Students are encouraged to try and experiment with different word choices and see the effects on characterization and the overall themes of the stories.

     In the spring semester, the emphasis is on recognizing the responsibilities of a translator and coming up with different translation strategies depending on the literary genre. For example, in translating a classical text, the important issues are how to translate Chinese characters as well as how to emulate the tone of 17th or 18th century Korean. By translating television dramas, students are asked to think about the question of readability and performability of their translations, the difficulty of translating dialects often used in dramas and films, and the possible substitutions for the loss of dialects in the translation, the slang and idiomatic expressions and jokes in Koreanmost of which are based on the phonetic usage of Korean words, and the difficulty in controlling the tone of profanities to match the tone in the original Korean.

     The challenges and difficulties in translating a Korean literary text can vary given whether one is an inbound translator, a translator who needs to improve his or her understanding of the source text, or an outbound translator, a translator who needs to improve his or her understanding of the target language. In the class, which usually has a good balance of inbound and outbound translators, they share their knowledge of Korean and English in order to find solutions to difficulties that students often encounter while translating Korean literary texts into English. Students may confront problems involving postpositions in Korean, the difficulty of translating onomatopoeic expressions from Korean to English without lowering the general tone of the text, the sudden switch of verb tense, which is prevalent in Korean literary works, and the ambiguity that is embedded in the Korean texts due to the unspoken subjects in sentences. By comparing their translations to published translations, students can learn from translators as well as from fellow students.

     Designed as a seminar class, students are also encouraged to share their understanding of words in order to discover and become more aware of their own idiolect of the English language and to become more sensitive to slight differences in the nuance of words in the original Korean as well as in the language of our translation, English. Because students in the class often come from different English speaking countries such as India, the UK, Canada, and the U.S., they find out how even simple words can have different connotations or usages depending on where the language is spoken.

     Although the class focuses on teaching, learning, and sharing of translation skills needed to transfer and rebuild a literary work from Korean into English, the underlying emphasis is to contemplate the unique problems involved in translating the literary quality of Korean short stories, novels, or dramas into English.

     Translating any literary text into a different language begins with the goal of wanting to share the work with more readers, which always demands translators to do the impossible task of walking on a tightrope by finding the balance between being faithful to the original text while rendering a perfectly readable translation. While finding one’s balance on that tightrope is a task for every translator, students in the Translation Academy are asked to ponder their contribution to the translations of Korean literary works not only as an expansion of Korean literature among international readers but also as a contribution of re-conceptualizing what constitutes a literary work and literary language. Edith Grossman states in her book, Why Translation Matters, that “the influence of translated literature has a revivifying and expansive effect on . . . the ‘target language,’ the language into which the text is translated.” Translations expand the boundary of literature not only in the source language but also in the target language, and breathe new life into the target language and its literature, for translations present readers with different evocative potential in their own language. Therefore, the act of writing and the act of translating is to contribute a line or, as Walt Whitman said, to “contribute a verse” to what we know as literature, and the Translation Academy of LTI of Korea has its door wide open for anyone who is willing to learn the joy of walking on the tightrope of literary translation so that they, too, may “contribute a verse.”



by Alyssa Kim




Fall Semester

Author Title Translator(s)
Hwang Sun-Won Cranes Peter H. Lee
Kevin O'Rourke
Kim Se-yong
Yi Sang Wings Walter K. Lew and Yongju Ryu
Peter H. Lee
Kim Seungok Journey to Mujin Kevin O'Rourke
Shing Dong-wook
Lee Hyoseok When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom Kim Chong-in and Bruce Fulton
Peter H. Lee
Hong Myong-hee
Kim Dongin Potato Kevin O'Rourke
Peter H. Lee
Yi Chong-Jun The Snowy Road Hyun-jae Yee Sallee
Julie Pickering
Park Wansuh Winter Outing

Hyun-jae Yee Sallee
Marshall R. Pihl


Spring Semester

Author  Title Translator(s)
Kim Young-ha I Have the Right to Destroy Myself Chi-young Kim
Shing Kyung-sook Please Look After Mom Chi-young Kim
Lady Hyegyong The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong JaHyun Kim Haboush
Lee Kiho At Least We Can Apologize Christopher Dykas
Hwang Sok-yong The Old Garden
The Guest
Jay Oh
Kyung-ja Chun and
Maya West
Park Geun-hyeong In Praise of Youth Lee Hye-kyoung
Cha Beom-seok Burning Mountain Janet Poole