[Web Exclusive] In Conversation — Ha Seong-nan & Janet Hong

  • onDecember 24, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • byKorean Literature Now



Ha Seong-nan(Ha): Hello, Janet.

Janet Hong(Hong): Hello!

Ha: We’ve met each other several times before, in Korea and the US. I’ve got quite a few questions for you today—things I’ve been curious about but never had a chance to ask before today!

Hong: I’ve got some questions for you, too.

Ha: Our friendship goes back some twenty years. You surprised me the other day when you recalled our very first phone conversation. You said I’d told you about the World Cup fever sweeping through Korea at that time. The two novels you began translating twenty years ago were published in the US last year and this year respectively. I’m not fully aware of what’s going on overseas, but you must’ve been over the moon as a translator. How has it been for you?

Hong: Looking back on our relationship over the past twenty years… We’ve had some great news lately. A few weeks ago, I told you about being selected as one of the Publishers Weekly Top Ten Books of 2020. At first, you didn’t really get the concept of the PW and just accepted the news. Do you feel different now that it’s been reported by the Korean media?

Ha: The next day, I was bombarded with congratulatory calls and messages, which disrupted my daily routine a little. It turned into a rather long day. It was amazing in the first place to see my old novels published anew in the US. I realized all over again the importance of translation. I hope to see more translations of Korean fiction and poetry compete in the global market. It’s encouraging to think that these small opportunities will lead to further support for literary translation.

Your translation of the graphic novel Grass by Keum Suk Gendry Kim was awarded Best International Book at the Harvey Awards. I couldn’t be happier for you. I hear it’s the first translated graphic novel to win that award.

Hong: To be honest, since I’m not particularly well-versed in comics, I didn’t quite grasp at first what a great honor it was. It means a lot to me that the book became the first Korean graphic novel to win a Harvey Award.

Ha: You’ve translated works by several authors, including Keum Suk Gendry Kim’s Grass and Ancco’s Bad Friends. Based on the graphic novels you’ve translated, it seems you have a distinct preference as a translator. How do you go about choosing which graphic novels to translate?

Hong: I can’t exactly say I chose them myself. But one of them was definitely my recommendation. I introduced Yeong-shin Ma’s Moms to the English-speaking market. Ancco’s Bad Friends was the first graphic novel I translated. When I read it I instantly fell in love with it. That’s how I started translating graphic novels. 

Ha: Did you learn something new while translating Keum Suk Gendry Kim’s Grass?

Hong: Yes, I did. I had known about Korea’s “comfort women” before, albeit not in detail. I learned a lot about that tragic piece of history from reading Grass. It’s an important piece of history that everyone must be made aware of. That’s why I jumped at the chance to translate that book.

Ha: Your translations of my works highlight the power of translation. A few years ago, while on a book tour in the US with author Han Yujoo, I recognized that you were an exceptional translator. One of Han’s short stories contains some long sentences with overlapping words in Korean. I compared your translation with the original and saw that you used completely different words but still managed to retain the tone of Han’s short story. I wonder how that’s possible!

Your translation style has been highly praised in Korea for accurately conveying the tone of the original. What is your top priority when translating a literary work?

Hong: Others may disagree with me, but I give a lot of weight to the author’s intention. It’s impossible to transfer everything from one language into another, and so I tend to focus on the author’s intention when I translate.

Let me ask you a question. Both of us—you as a writer and me as a writer and translator—seem to be drawn to sorrow and darkness, social irregularities and accidents or disasters taking place in Korea. Why do you deal with such thematic concerns?

Ha: It’s always been my belief that novel writing must start with carefully observing what others overlook or avoid. I’ve consciously written about pain, injustice and the invisible, ghostlike existence of temporary workers, which still receive relatively little attention. These days, I reflect on how far my novels sympathize with those issues and try to get closer to people’s sufferings or thoughts. Although I write about dark, bleak and desolate places, I very much hope sunlight reaches them.

Hong: I’ve always wondered about that. I found myself drawn to such issues, but couldn’t quite explain why. So, I wanted to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Ha: Many writers explore such issues with diligence. It’s just that I’ve chosen a darker style of writing. There are writers who maintain a bright tone in addressing them, and I find their works equally fascinating.

That brings me to my next question. Janet, you’re a novelist before you’re a translator. Not long ago, you spent some time on Udo Island in order to write a story about haenyeo (female divers in Jeju). What prompted you to write about haenyeo? After all, you live so far away from Korea.

Hong: A British photographer came across my translations while researching into Korean society in preparation for his project on haenyeo. He’d already decided on the subject matter and scenario before asking me to come on board. My task was to conduct research and then write passages to accompany his photographs. I soon became fascinated by haenyeo. One day, I found out about a young girl from Udo, a tiny island situated off the eastern coast of Jeju Island. Being a haenyeo is a tough job, but it’s one that gets passed down from one generation of women to the next. In these changing times, haenyeo are losing ground and it’s become difficult to carry on the tough work. Yet, there’s something about it that makes women dive into the sea. I came to appreciate the whole culture through my research.

Ha: You told me the plot of the story last time we met. I’m looking forward to its completion. Good luck with the book!

You have yet to finish your haenyeo story, but you must have an idea for your next novel. I’ve not read your haenyeo story yet, but feel like I’m pretty familiar with it since I know its plot. What are you going to write about next?

Hong: Like you, I pay attention to inconspicuous or marginalized people. I’ve always been inclined to do so. For my next project, I’d like to write YA fiction. I have a rough idea. I’ll share it with you later in private.

Do you have a favorite among your own works?

Ha: I’ve thought about how best to answer that question. I should like to say that my magnum opus is yet to come. But I feel less confident about the novels that I’ll go on to write in the future. Out of all my works, the one I most enjoyed writing is the full-length novel A. I must admit it’s not my finest work though. Written some ten years ago, it presents a vision for a community and shows how that community fails. I enjoyed pondering about community life that was not so prevalent back then and envisioning the future.

Your work as a translator must’ve had a huge impact on your fiction writing. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact you chose to translate graphic novels like Grass and Bad Friends. It must be difficult to tell apart the translator and novelist in you. Even so, your attitude must change depending on which hat you wear. I’ve always been curious about that.

Hong: You’re right. Between creative writing and translation, I started the former first. But I’ve spent far more time and energy on the latter. While I’m confident about my work as a translator, confidence is something I lack as a writer. Although I majored in Creative Writing, I’ve achieved a lot more as a translator over the years. Inevitably, I take on different attitudes to these two tasks that I perform. I can’t help but compare my own writing to the brilliant works that I translate. Sometimes I feel as if I were the author of the book and gain confidence. At the same time, it can be a humbling experience. That tension makes it an ambiguous role to play.

Ha: Above all, you must be pressed for time. You have to juggle between parenting, translating and writing. I do hope you find some spare time, but it looks like you’ll only get busier as a translator. Do you have such pleasant worries?

Hong: Still, translation work certainly helps improve my own writing. I even think of it as an exercise in creative writing. As long as I can strike a balance between translation and creative writing, I should be fine.

Ha: Is there a difference between the novels you prefer as a translator and as a novelist?

Hong:  I don’t really draw a distinction between the two. If someone says my translation does not read like a translation, I’ll be displeased. But as a reader, I prefer translations that do not read like they’ve been translated. Knowing that a successful translation conveys the author’s voice clearly, I usually go for that kind of text.

You’ve mentioned your short story “Joy to the World.” There’s one thing I’ve always been curious about. In that story, a woman ends up pregnant after spending a drunken night with her fiancé and three of his friends. We never find out who the father of the baby is. I’m not sure if you can disclose it here. But when you wrote the story, who did you imagine the father of the baby to be?

Ha: I hoped she was pregnant with her fiancé’s baby. All the men chicken out and deny being the baby’s father. In that situation, I felt none of them should be the father of the baby. That’s why in the end the woman decides to have the baby on her own. I had a chance to discuss the story with a group of Spanish students at University of Malaga. One girl got very upset and asked why the woman didn’t go to the police for help. I simply answered, “Because this is a story.” In fiction, the protagonist’s determination is no less important than the revelation of the culprit. The last part of the story may be misleading, but I don’t think I’ll be able to come up with any other ending. Who is your pick then, Janet?

Hong: I don’t think there’s an ideal choice. It’s a situation where none of them should be chosen. But I’ve been curious about that anyway. Although it’s not revealed in the story, I thought you might have had one of them in mind.

Ha: Flowers of Mold and Bluebeard's First Wife first came out in Korea eighteen and twenty years ago respectively. And they’ve been published overseas back to back since last year. I was a little worried. Thankfully, nobody has found them “outdated” or “old-fashioned” so far. I feel you’ve translated them into the lively language of today.

Hong: First of all, I don’t think I’ve modified or updated the language in any way. I believe my translations are true to the original. I did think the beepers and the roller blades in “The Woman Next Door” might seem a little anachronistic, but the rest didn’t feel old or outdated in any way.

Do you write straight onto the computer or do you write by hand? Do you write in the morning or at night? Do you write a lot at once or in small chunks? I’m curious about the details of your writing routine.

Ha: Back in my student days, I used to cram for my exams. Now I have the same habit as a writer. I usually end up writing in the eleventh hour, in a rush to meet the deadline. I try time and again to get into a more regular routine but to no avail. It’s difficult to change the way I am. Since I’d long been an aspiring writer, there was a time when I was used to writing on squared manuscript paper. By the time I was 20, I began submitting handwritten manuscripts to newspapers. At university, I learned to use a word processor instead of a typewriter. Then I moved onto a laptop, which is what I use to this day. I can just about type at the speed of thought. Some writers print out their manuscripts and edit them by hand. I’m thinking of trying that out for myself. As a mother, I’m always short on time. We’ve talked about Alice Munro before. Her short stories are such powerful depictions of life. But I think the reason why she didn’t write any full-length novel was because she was too busy looking after her children. I’m slightly disheartened about that. When I was younger, I frequently stayed up all night writing, but now I find it too physically demanding. 

Hong: When Alice Munro was a mother of a toddler, she would often have to push away her child with one hand and write with the other. This anecdote is a testament to the young writer’s desperate passion and desire for writing. Once her children got older and so didn’t need her as much, her situation changed as she didn’t have to care for them all the time.

Ha: I, too, struggled with the juggling act. In one essay I wrote a few years ago, I quoted a line from Jang Sa-ik’s song “Samshik” to describe my situation. The mother in the song must redo her skirt strap, grab hold of the water jar and carry her baby on her back all at the same time. I felt that her predicament mirrored mine. I haven’t shared every facet of my life with you, but there were moments when I became so overwhelmed that I cried alone.

Hong: I have another question. Whenever I get stuck, I watch Korean dramas. K-dramas are my guilty pleasure. Do you have a guilty pleasure? What is your guilty pleasure?

Ha: That’s why I did a lot of baking last year. I must’ve baked and shared over ten kilograms of bread. I have a tendency to obsess over practical and tangible results. For example, the hours you put into completing a piece of embroidery always pay off. That’s how I get recharged, so I can go back to writing novels. But then you asked me to stop baking bread and start writing more novels. So, I’ve kept away from the oven for some time now. Thank you for everything, Janet. We’ve interacted in a whole new setting today. It’s given me a chance to learn more about you. I look forward to seeing you again soon.

Hong: I’ve had a great time. It’s always a pleasure to see you.

Ha: Thank you.


English Subtitles Translated by Helen Cho


Ha Seong-nan has published five short story collections, four novels, and two essay collections. Her short story collection The Woman Next Door was published in English as Flowers of Mold (Open Letter, 2019) and was a finalist for the 2020 Firecracker Award in Fiction and longlisted for the 2020 PEN Translation Prize. Bluebeard’s First Wife (Open Letter, 2020) was her second book to be published in English translation and was one of Publishers Weekly’s Top Ten Books of 2020. She has won the Dongin Literary Award, the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, the Isu Literary Award, the Hyundae Literary Award, and the Hwang Sun-won Literary Award.

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.


Janet Hong