[Draft I] Writer-Translators on Their Craft — Bae Suah

  • onDecember 22, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • byBae Suah

This section features five respected writer-translators who reminisce, reflect, and ruminate on their experiences of writing and translating. Their opinions correspond, but also refract from each other to varying degrees given their unique, personal backgrounds. The section features their abridged answers.—Ed.


Bae Suah made her literary debut in 1993 in the quarterly Fiction and Philosophy with “The Dark Room of Nineteen Eighty-Eight.” She is the author of the short story collection Highway with Green Apples, the novella Nowhere to Be Found, and the novels Sunday Sukiyaki Restaurant, A Greater Music, North Living Room, Recitation, and Untold Night and Day. She translates from German into Korean. Her translations include Demian by Hermann Hesse, The Lesson of Mount Sainte-Victoire by Peter Handke, and The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector among several others.


How did you first get into translation and was there a specific opportunity that motivated you to get into it?


I remember very clearly what led me to translation: my study of German. I was in Berlin at the time. I went to Germany with no ostensible purpose, as I hadn’t gone there to study, work, or learn the language; instead I yearned to spend a year doing absolutely nothing, to be in a place where no one knew me, to not work, and to not speak. I’d gone in search of a world without language, and in Berlin I found it. I had brought a big box full of Korean books to read, which took all of two months to go through. Then a vast emptiness set in. Only two languages existed for me in the world then, as they do now: everyday language that’s as vital to us as water or air, and literary language, which can only be accessed if one desires it. As time passed, I increasingly thirsted for the latter. I tired of walking past bookshops and only ever catching glimpses of German titles in their windows. That’s when something I hadn’t anticipated or expected even after arriving in the country first occurred to me: the thought that I might learn German simply in order to read. To learn it as a high school student might learn Esperanto—that was precisely the idea. This notion took me by surprise. I had never, in all my life, done anything with the focused intensity that people call diligence or dedication, nor held a fervent life goal in my heart. Everything that occurred to me, from my birth to my becoming a writer, had been happenstance, and I reveled in such chance encounters. Of course, when this thought came to me that early November afternoon, as I stood outside a bookshop in a Berlin street already grown dim with the encroaching German winter, it was as a spontaneous impulse and not some avid goal or persistent desire; even so, having nothing else to do in that moment, I decided to act on the impulse. From the start, my idea was that I would enter this language solely through books—through literature. So despite my rudimentary understanding of the most basic grammar, I ran into the bookshop, giddy with excitement, and picked out a book I believed—erroneously—I would immediately set to reading. The book was Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig. I chose it as the title and author were familiar to me in spite of my general ignorance of German literature, and because I had read it before in Korean; and though this had been years ago, I hoped my rereading of the book in German would be made more manageable by that fact. This hope was soon dashed. As I read I had to look up nearly every word except perhaps the articles in a dictionary, and still there wasn’t a single sentence in the book that failed to shock and astound me. I read every sentence and understood nothing, and in this way I was able to understand what wasn’t being said by the sentences without having read a single sentence. That book was a door. The very first door I encountered in a world of vernacular silence, which I’d entered through the erasure of my natural language; a door that led me back inside language, albeit language not as a means of conversation and communication but as a door in and of itself. I believed I had come upon my own method of reading certain types of books. Casting reading with the dictionary aside, I was attempting to read as translation. That was my first act of translation. And translation itself has since become another way of reading for me, in the way recitation has. These days I continue to translate writing I prefer or have an affinity for just so I can read it (differently), and I also translate the occasional poem. This is translation for myself, effectively.


When we speak of “style,” we often think of it as the representative element of a text that displays the writer’s signature personality, but in the case of translation, the text may inevitably have to be adjusted at times to fit linguistic norms and conventions in the target language. This is sometimes referred to as “the betrayal of translation.” Have you ever agonized over this issue?


It’s not exactly a problem of style, but there is something I’ve had to think through. The majority of my translations are of fiction, and in novels how the characters address one another, especially when honorifics are involved, can sway the overall impression of a work. Watching a French film on a flight recently, I found myself gagging at the Korean subtitles and had to stop watching. In the scene a woman is smoking and talking to a man roughly the same age as her, but the subtitles have the woman addressing the man as doryeonnim, a term of address that is used specifically by women when speaking to or of their husband’s younger, unmarried brother, and in which the woman is explicitly “lowering” herself out of deference to a male family member. In the actual conversation, the characters of course address each other by name.

  Korean speech levels and honorifics are so complicated it’s difficult to set clear rules about their use, and unless you are an expert in the matter, being a linguist or an editor, for instance, they can be quite unfathomable. While in Switzerland, I met a Swiss linguist who remarked that Korean has one of the trickiest system of polite speech in the world, and said this was why (though he spoke no Korean) he had chosen to specialize in it. Then there’s the fact that this system very often reflects values that are regressive, so that actual use of and opinions about continued usage of honorifics vary from person to person. Not to mention how this habitual deferring and being deferred to by various means of polite speech tends to decide hierarchies between people, if only on the level of language. (An example would be how, previously, Korean translations of conversations between spouses would have the wife naturally speaking up to the husband and the husband speaking down to the wife.) But of course in the German source text there is no such language hierarchy, meaning the translator has to write this into the translation. Korean translators have to determine for themselves whether and when to employ polite forms of speech and honorifics in dialogues and sentences, which would fall under the category of translating the unspoken.

  I had to find solutions to this myself while translating Hermann Hesse’s Narziß und Goldmund (Narcissus and Goldmund). Certain elements of the novel make it tricky to apply Korean forms of address, and the amount of dialogue between the two central characters was significant. The novel is set in what seems medieval times, though the exact period is unspecified. Narziß and Goldmund meet as (assistant) teacher and student at a Catholic cloister school, and become intimate friends. So I wasn’t sure what degree of politeness I should use in rendering their dialogue. Another issue was how to translate the dialogue between Goldmund and the various women (of different statuses and circumstances) he meets. For instance, when the student Goldmund leaves the school and has a chance physical encounter with the wandering Lise, should these two converse in polite form or informal form? If at first meeting they were to use the polite form, should they continue to do so even after having slept together? When Goldmund falls in love with the daughter of a knight, which polite form should these two people of different social rank use when speaking to each other? Should that form be historically accurate or should it reflect modern usage? Or should the emphasis perhaps be on what readers today would find most natural and easy to read? These were some of the questions I had to answer. But of course the choices I made regarding forms of speech only reflect one of many possible ways to translate this novel.

  The use of honorifics in translation tends to reflect the general values or conventions of the target culture, in this case Korean culture, but I would like to address a somewhat different aspect. In translation there are several areas where the translator’s individual ethics and beliefs can play a significant role, and the use of polite forms of speech and how one chooses to translate a certain word are, I would say, determined by the individuality of the translator. It goes without saying that translation is an act that can be open to active intervention by the translator. I want to highlight this because translated language, and in particular the translated language of literary works (which encompasses not just diction, but voice, tone, manner of speech, and attitude), is necessarily influenced by the language of Korean literature, and will itself in time suffuse the language of Korean literature.


How do you select the authors or works you translate?


As I see it, choosing what to translate is the moment a translation begins. So for me, asking how is the translation? is fundamentally the same as asking what is it a translation of?

  Having said that, when I first started, I had no specific criteria for selecting what to translate. I knew nothing about German writers and literature then, and lacked the knowledge to even select a work. Not only that, I was not at all—and am still not—someone who translates because they are proficient in a language. I dived into translation headfirst, and so in the beginning I failed to choose the right translation projects. As with writing, translation was a slow, roundabout process for me. It took a long time for me to reach a point where I could decide what to translate, and be satisfied with that decision.

  Though I still have a strong desire to translate work I’ve discovered myself, I’ve also been fortunate in having editors who have recommended wonderful and captivating authors to me, authors whose work I then went on to translate. These include Fernando Pessoa’s Livro do Desassossego (The Book of Disquiet), W. G. Sebald’s Schwindel. Gefühle (Vertigo), Robert Walser’s Der Spaziergang (The Walk), and Peter Handke’s Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire). Pessoa, Sebald, and Walser are all writers I came to know in Germany and then subsequently, almost as if by fate, was asked to translate by Korean publishers. The work I encounter through editors’ recommendations tend to be of world-famous writers, and here I have an advantage in that I can ride on the coattails of these by all accounts excellent and famous authors; still, the translations I’m fondest of and prefer are of relatively unknown writers and works (at least in Korea) that I somehow came across, and went on to introduce to editors and eventually to translate and publish. The Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat’s Boof-e koor (The Blind Owl), the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s A paixão segundo G.H. (The Passion According to G.H.), for instance, and most recently the Swiss writer of Romanian origin I’m set to translate, Aglaja Veteranyi.

  The most important element for me in selecting what to translate is whether or not the language of the original chimes with my translated language. Because I seek out literature that is unfamiliar, new, minor, I try to avoid work that has strong popular appeal or is fashionable or has a universal style. I prioritize my own pleasure in the writing as its potential translator. Writing that makes the translator’s heart beat faster to the extent she has to pause in her translation, unable to progress any further from fevered excitement, having become entirely, unseeingly enthralled (quite literally)—this is the kind of work I like to translate. I am the antithesis of the translator as researcher, who analyses the text with measured composure, and of whom there seem to be a fair number among the truly excellent translators).

  The sentences I prefer in the original tend to be uncomplicated yet difficult to render distinctly in Korean, simultaneously simple and ambiguous, avant-garde and beautiful. These are sentences that will always be translated differently from one person to the next according to their idiosyncratic language, and this for me is a joy, a challenge, and a pleasure. That there is pleasure in translation is, after all, why I translate. Another criterion is that the work must be something I would want to read in Korean. This is another important reason I translate. If I read a work in German first and it makes me shiver, that frisson arises from an intense desire to read the work in Korean.


Do you think your creative writing impacts your translation or vice versa? If so, in what ways does one influence the other? (In terms of word choice, expressions, sentence structure, narrative structure, way of thinking, and so on.)


As someone who writes and translates, I think they are both one and separate in that one influences the other. I find with time that I experience the divide between the two a lot less acutely. So it’s difficult to say what precedes the other in exerting influence. When I started translating, the Korean publishing world viewed translation a little differently than it does now. I remember an editor telling me that a good translator shouldn’t have style, i.e., their own, and must act as a clear panel of glass that allows the original work to pass through. I didn’t have a single published translation yet, but I did have hopes of doing so, and found the editor’s words disconcerting and disappointing. As I understood it, the editor, realizing my wish to translate, seemed to be hinting that a writer like myself wasn’t suited to translation. What I think now is this: No translator can be without style. It’s only that their style is lesser known (than that of a writer). Style is one’s preferred language, and translation after all is the act of preferring (favoring, choosing) within the bounds permitted by the source text.

  Since I started translating I have come to understand writing as a process of translation, of transporting what is nonverbal into the verbal, into words. This understanding has freed up my writing. And through mistranslations which are bound to occur now and then, creativity can forge a new, unexpected path, in the way mutations can present radical change.

  Anyone who writes yearns to experience freedom through and from language, while yearning to be free of it. Which is why they destroy, expand, transplant, embrace, and experiment. They take their writing far into the distance, they bring it back, they observe how the language shifts and changes as though it had substance, then they plant this in their own soil. This is one of the ways in which they translate.


To translate literature from another language, it must be necessary to fully understand not just the literary language but also the vernacular language and cultural context. Could you share your own efforts in this regard?


There’s actually not a lot I can do in that regard. I began translating not long after I first started learning German, and I had almost no points of contact with Germany or its culture in my personal life. When I returned to Korea, there was zero opportunity to speak or to hear German. So I did the only thing I could do by myself, which was to read as much literature as possible in German. I wanted to know the German of writers rather than nonwriters, and written rather than spoken German.

  Because I learned German not through speech but through writing, this language remains a primarily textual language for me. When I was in Germany, I enjoyed listening to radio dramas at bedtime more than I did conversing with other people. I didn’t understand everything, but what I enjoyed, I think, was listening to the cadences of dialogue, enunciation, voice, and the different ways the actors controlled their emotion as they spoke. I still prefer audio plays to the easily accessible audiobooks. Even when I can’t follow the plot or what is being said, I find the recitation and enunciation of the actors combined with auditory presentation itself stimulating.

  It’s become something of a routine for me to travel to Germany when I write. I intend to escape speech and seclude myself in writing, but an unintended consequence is that it’s prompted me to gain some perspective on the local culture. When I am in Germany, I stay at a cottage near Berlin, hardly venturing out and spending most of my time writing or, occasionally, gardening; even so, swapping locations does alter the language environment. The rare times I visit a cafe, I listen to people place their orders. Even the simplest order of half a loaf of rye bread, a cheese sandwich, or a cup of coffee can be so particular to the speaker, I find it thrilling.

  More recently, I had the opportunity to recite a German literary text and realized that there was a way to familiarize oneself with a language through recitation. The recitation was for a German art film, and came about because the role required someone who spoke German with a foreign accent. (I don’t think the German audience would have understood every word of what I recited in the film). This experience prompted my more recent forays into recitations and reading performances in Korea.

  An Italian friend I know in Germany, who happens to be a theater actor, told me that memorizing dialogue and reciting lines on stage helped her in becoming better acquainted with the language.


Translated by Emily Yae Won


Author's Profile

Bae Suah made her literary debut in 1993 in the quarterly Fiction and Philosophy with “The Dark Room of Nineteen Eighty-Eight.” She is the author of the short story collection Green Apples Along the Highway (2002), and the novella Nowhere to Be Found (1998), and the novels Sunday Sukiyaki Restaurant (2003), North Living Room (2009), and Untold Nights and a Day (2013).