[Draft I] Writer-Translators on Their Craft — Choe Yun

  • onDecember 22, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • byChoe Yun

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.


Choe Yun is an author, professor, critic, and translator. She received her MA from Sogang University and her PhD from the University of Provence Aix-Marseille. She debuted as a critic with the essay “Analysis of the Semantic Structure of Novels” before launching her career as a writer with the novella “There a Petal Silently Falls” in 1988. She has received several accolades, most recently the 2020 Lee Hyoseok Literary Award for “The Grammar of Possession.” She has translated works by renowned writers such as Yi Mun-yol, Yi Chong-jun, and Kim Seungok into French. Her most recent translation is Sous le ciel, la paix by Chae Man-sik (Actes Sud, 2003). 


What came first for you: writing or translation?


Though I read a lot of foreign literature translated into Korean during my middle and high school years, writing my own works was first. When I was fifteen, I published my first story in the school journal. Though my memory is a bit hazy, during winter break in my third year of middle school, I observed a group of aspiring painters at an atelier I was attending to learn drawing and wrote a piece titled “Ruptures” on their growing pains. Although this was when I was still young, before I officially debuted, I was overwhelmed with the happiness of completing a work as I finished the manuscript and sent it to the editors. That’s how I discovered the allure of writing. A few friends and I voluntarily created a literature club called “Pine and Bamboo” (a metaphor symbolizing our unchanging friendship), asking a visiting philosophy lecturer to be our faculty advisor, and I remember we held a kind of showcase for selected works. During high school, when things were financially difficult, I gave my friends short stories or plays that I’d written instead of presents for their birthdays.

  It was only later that I was awakened to translation. At the time, it seemed like the trend was to read foreign literature in their original languages. We learned English as our primary foreign language and French or German as the secondary one in high school. Somehow, I discovered some foreign-language books in the library and after reading them in their original language, I started to translate into Korean parts I was uncertain about in order to more fully understand them, or paragraphs that moved me. That’s likely how I discovered the joys of translation. In high school, I attempted to translate parts of James Joyce’s Dubliners and Albert Camus’ Betwixt and Between, and struggled a great deal. Looking back on it now, they were difficult-to-translate works and I’d tackled them without knowing their particular beauty. I remember being filled with pride that I’d partially translated a foreign work into Korean. Back then, I was slightly crazed about literature, so I’d charge full-force at anything related to language. After I entered college, I began reading the foreign texts listed on various course syllabi, and I think reading foreign literature and literary theory frequently demanded a kind of fundamental training in translation.


What do you consider to be the attraction or appeal of the source language that you translate from, and/or of the fiction written in that language?


French became my primary foreign language when I decided to study abroad in France, but my thoughts on French language and literature are also connected to why I chose France to study abroad in the first place. When I was in college, it was an extremely dark political time in Korean history. Throughout my four years there, the college would shut down for at least one semester without exception because of the student protests. After I graduated from the Korean Language and Literature Department and entered graduate school, I started thinking about studying abroad, and rather than the United States, which I was already more or less familiar with, I was interested in the ancient European civilizations. And so, there are two reasons as to why I chose France, and thus started translating Korean literature into French.

  First, to those that were college students in the 1970s in the midst of Korea’s bleak political circumstances, it felt like the disposition of literary research was somehow lacking, that it needed a scientific methodology. And then we found structuralism, something that wasn’t well-known to us in those days. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Anthropologie structurale and Tristes tropiques opened my eyes. Even though I didn’t entirely agree with structuralism’s views on literature, I felt as though it confronted the primitive fundamentals in a scientific manner. I also encountered Roland Barthes’s writings. I ended up writing my thesis on these topics, and these intellectual interests originated from the representative texts of structuralism which were of course written in French.

  Second, I remember how reading works by French writers resolved many of the deficiencies in Korean literature at the time, which felt stifling for the students who had an endless affection for Korean literature. For a young female literature student in those days, French literature, simultaneously sensuous yet rational, seemed to possess many things lacking in Korean literature, which had been deemed “hard-shelled literature” due to its Confucian and patriarchal nature, and it felt like being able to breathe again. Moreover, it seemed liberated in that it represented reality in experimental and diverse ways, and I naturally became deeply involved in French literature.

  While I didn’t know very many languages, the general assumption that French was superior in representing human interiority and the depths of the world also decisively influenced my choice in French as my second language. When I left to study abroad, I only packed two books: an unabridged Korean dictionary and a copy of an indirect translation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.


How do you select the authors or works you translate?


My primary criteria in choosing what to translate are the work’s literary merits and whether it demonstrates modern Korean reality in a sensitive and complex way. I tried to introduce a diverse array of authors and works that proved Korean literature was thriving to French readers who basically knew nothing about Korean literature back then. But before giving these reasons, I need to explain the context.

  In the 1980s, when I was living in France, the extent to which the average French person knew about Korea was the war and the ensuing division. Korean literature was virtually unknown to the general French reader. As I was repeatedly asked where Korea was, I made a promise to myself: If I became fluent in French, I would devote ten years of my life to introducing Korean literature to French readers. I kept that promise. I started the Korean Literature Series with Actes Sud, and over a period of ten years, I translated and published around twenty works of Korean literature. The support provided first by the Korea Arts & Culture Education Service, and then the Literature Translation Institute of Korea after its establishment, in translating and publishing was a crucial element in continuing the Korean Literature Series. Until then, Korean literature had only been published by university presses in France and even this was rare, so it failed to garner a readership. Having decided to devote ten years of my life, time that could not be easily overlooked, I believed that Korean literature had to go beyond university presses and encounter general readers to become properly known. In this manner, I found a publisher that was open to foreign literature. Professor Raymond Jean, who was my advisor at the time, connected me with Actes Sud, a publisher that had built their reputation through their publications of translations.

  Though I don’t know if things have greatly changed since then or if there is a diverse readership now, in the 1990s when the Korean Literature Series was first published, Asian literature was carefully selected and read by readers looking for something other than the Western literature they already knew. Within this context, I selected works according to author, theme, and literary tendencies after discussions with the publisher.


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?


Several years ago, when I was invited to speak at the American Literary Translators Association’s conference, I spoke about translation as “cultural representation”—about translation that revealed the borders between cultures, and translation as an activity that simultaneously erased borders as they revealed them. Literary translation and the problems it poses are all problems of language and culture. Thus, translation becomes a language problem, but because the solution to this problem ultimately becomes an issue of how to represent and make readers of the target language understand another culture, I believe that cultural understanding is absolutely necessary.

  Whichever way you look at it, the translator must fulfill the role of explaining their own culture to a foreign one, as in literary activities of all genres. With regard to the question, I would like to talk about the issues surrounding two kinds of translation that appear in literary translation.

  One is a translation that treats the source language’s culture as possibly strange and unsettling to the target language’s readers, and thus erases the unique cultural and linguistic characteristics of the source language—that is, the diverse boundaries between cultures—in order to make it as close as possible to the target language. As it undergoes the dramatic processes of conflicts, fusion, selective exclusion, and connections within the indigenous literary traditions of each country, translation has further developed by planting a foreign culture within a different one. Translation is inherently an activity that is based on cultural exchange and intimacy. And yet exchange and intimacy with a different culture must be distinguished from the problem of “annexion” (annexation) in which one language (culture) absorbs the particularities of another language (culture) through translation. The most representative example of translation that erases borders is what Antoine Berman deemed “annexion” (annexation). That is, a translation that strives to erase cultural boundaries created by the innate characteristics of a certain literature by aiming at “considerate accommodation,” and driven mainly by communication—with the purpose of helping new readers smoothly comprehend an unfamiliar and uneasy foreign culture. Within a translation process that is motivated primarily by facilitating understanding, a work can even be deliberately adapted or edited.

  The second stance believes the linguistic and cultural particularities of one culture should not be reflected literally but rather that translation should illuminate the complex identity of the source language’s literature by mobilizing all the techniques and insights of translation to reveal these unique characteristics in the target language. This kind of translation preserves the deep and profound relations between two cultures, and I believe it is necessary in forming true readers. While there are numerous schools of translation thought according to the translator, I’m personally on the side of preferring translations that honestly and sensitively convey cultural differences. After all, we have to know the differences between one another in order to someday be rid of them. In particular, Paul Ricoeur’s question on the universal and homogeneous environment of globalization continues to animate those interested in translation. Asking how to preserve ancient civilizations while simultaneously participating in a universal one, how to return to our fundamental origins while remaining modern, Ricoeur once interrogated the problem of differentiation between cultures in the era of globalization. In my opinion, this question provides an important perspective that presses us to remember that translation is a cultural activity, surpassing sheer linguistics.


Have you ever run up against a wall or felt a huge gap when trying to familiarize yourself with the target culture or its vernacular language? Or on the contrary, have you experienced an unexpected closeness or familiarity?


Truthfully, as someone who has only concentrated on translating Korean literature into French, any “walls” or “distance” that I experienced were related to French culture and as a result, didn’t seem like serious issues. This is because my experience studying abroad, my duties teaching French literature as a professor, are rooted in the position of observing France’s changing reality with a steadfast interest—just as I do with Korea’s own cultural changes. While it’s not an example entirely relevant to the question, this doesn’t mean that I never experienced any interesting “walls.” In fact, it was through translation that I fully realized that Korea’s literary customs are unique. For instance, even though France has quarterly literary magazines, they rarely serialize entire novels. Because South Korean authors collect their serializations in literary magazines and later publish them as novels, there are occasionally portions of the work that are repetitive explanations in order to remind the readers of the entire work’s contents during serialization, which the translator has to later rearrange after discussions with the author. Yet this rhetorical repetition is not considered a “stylistic weakness” or “flaw to be avoided” in Korean literature, as it would be in French literature. When translating Korean literature into French, a French editor could see such examples and underline them all in red. Here, one cannot accept all the revisions indicated in red. If repetition, or enumeration, can be considered one of Korean literature’s distinct characteristics, there are an infinite number of translation techniques and methods that will preserve the traces of these characteristics while still ensuring that it doesn’t become a stylistic or literary flaw.

  Interestingly enough, all the talented translators that I’ve met tend to believe that there is no translation problem that is impossible to solve. They believe (albeit with slight differences) that as long as one has time and love for the languages and cultures of the source and target languages, all translation problems can be resolved, and I’m inclined to agree with their opinion.


Translated by Rachel Min Park


Author's Profile

Choe Yun is an author, professor, critic, and translator. She received her MA from Sogang University and her PhD from the University of Provence Aix-Marseille. She debuted as a critic with the essay “Analysis of the Semantic Structure of Novels” before launching her career as a writer with the novella “There a Petal Silently Falls” in 1988. She has received several accolades, most recently the 2020 Lee Hyoseok Literary Award for “The Grammar of Possession.” She has translated works by renowned writers such as Yi Mun-yol, Yi Chong-jun, and Kim Seungok into French. Her most recent translation is Sous le ciel, la paix by Chae Man-sik (Actes Sud, 2003).