[Draft I] Writer-Translators on Their Craft — Lee Juhye

  • onDecember 22, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • byLee Juhye

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.


Lee Juhye made her literary debut when she won the Changbi Newcomer’s Award in 2016. She published her debut novel, Jadu (Plum), in 2020. She translates from English into Korean, and her recent translations include An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P. D. James and Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry by Adrienne Rich.


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


Unexpectedly, this question took me back to a time in my early childhood before I began school. My father and I were walking one day, just the two of us, down a country road. A field so green as to dazzle the eye stretched all around, and in the middle stood a white sign covered in large Chinese characters. I hadn’t yet mastered the Korean alphabet, which we learn first, but a familiar Chinese character on the sign caught my eye for some reason. I gestured to the sign and announced, “That’s the character for jade!” My father raised his voice an octave and sang my praises. His eyes glowed with love and admiration. At that moment, the rice leaves all around glittered with dewdrops. The air seemed to vibrate with laughter. Perhaps I was experiencing the thrill of decoding for the first time, like the child who has learned to read street signs for whom familiar streets are no longer the same. Things that rest outside conscious perception because we’re ignorant of them flood into our awareness when we gain knowledge, and this is how humans grow. Language is the starting point for this process. So, confronted with this single character in an unexpected time and space, I experienced the thrill of decoding and became fascinated by the world of decoding and meaning. 

  To go back and answer your question, I first became interested in English to Korean translation while teaching English at a high school in my mid-twenties. One of my students said he wanted to go weekend sightseeing in Seoul and asked for tips on places to see and how to ride the subway. Isn’t that cute? I encouraged him, going so far as to draw diagrams in his notebook. When I met him a week later, he’d visited a large bookstore in Gwanghwamun and picked up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five as a present for me. He must have thought I’d like an English book since I was an English teacher, but he was wrong. I did read it, though, and was transfixed by it. I was drawn to the famous sentence “So it goes,” which appears as many as 169 times in the story. Without being conscious of it, I wondered how best to translate this sentence and stay true to its meaning. I even looked into how other translators had rendered it. Before long, I was translating the whole book into Korean in my spare time. Even though no one had solicited this work and I was its only reader, I found the work of refining the text and fine-tuning the sentences, changing them this way and that, quite fascinating. This amounted to my first full-fledged translation.


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, at times the text may inevitably have to be adjusted to fit linguistic norms and conventions in the target language. This sometimes referred to as “the betrayal of translation.” Have you ever agonized over this issue?



To give my own spin on the famous phrase “translation is treason,” I think translation is the act of jumping into an existing relationship and turning it into a three-way, risking censure. Limits inherent to the author-reader-translator relationship inevitably lead to difficulty. The translator is commonly compared to a bridge or a scale, but considering that a fair and just translation can never exist, then the translator is but a shaky scale or suspension bridge. A perfectly horizontal scale does not exist, and a scale that tips sharply in the direction of the author or reader is of no use. Since I’m human and not an impartial scale, I tip towards the reader if I come across an unforthcoming sentence. I want to provide a helpful interpretation. The translated version then becomes long and strained, or worse, unnecessary annotations are furnished, and the bell starts tolling for me, warning of failure. Then days of work must be deleted before it’s too late.

  The more creative the writer, the more glaring the failure of the translator. If the writer exercises his or her intellect by using neologisms or wordplay, the translator cries tears of despair. If you ask me to translate in a neat ordered way something that has meaning simply by its destruction of order, then despite myself, I cry, “You must be kidding!” How many times has an aesthetics of destruction in the source language ended up a sorry mess in the target language? Not long ago, I translated a part of Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Comedian as the Letter C.” The word “nincompated” was not in the dictionary. This seemingly plausible word is actually a neologism combining the words “nincompoop” and “pate.” When put together, these childish-sounding words seem quite camouflaged within the longer, elegant term. In these cases, is it possible to translate the original meaning and the writer’s intent? I confess that I failed and was only clumsily able to patch something together.



Could you, as a translator, compare the works of authors you enjoy translating and the tendencies of your own creative work?


Somehow I ended up translating a few books in succession by P. D. James, the so-called queen of British crime fiction—two of her Cordelia Gray books along with her only work of science fiction. Born Phyllis Dorothy James, she took her pen name to avoid being looked down on as a female author in the society of the time, and although she was late starting her career, she wrote steadily into her nineties. For these reasons, I both identified with her and admired her immensely. About An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, she said, “I wanted to have a young heroine of courage and intelligence who faces the problems of life with a determination to be successful in a job which everyone else thinks she won’t be able to do.” It touched my heart to discover that a middle-aged writer successful in her career not only intended to write a book as a gift to young women, but she actually did it. Also, her sole work of science fiction, The Children of Men, takes place in a dystopian world where people have lost the ability to reproduce, but the writer does not lose hope for humanity even in this atmosphere of gloom and despair. She draws the world dark as if sunken in a deep pit, but does not deny the possibility of light shining in at some point, and her hope is grounded in her belief in the power of human goodness. The struggle for positivity is apparent in her writing, and I want to write with this orientation, too. I don’t want to depict a “this is why” world but an “even so, but nevertheless” world. In addition, that James wrote An Unsuitable Job for a Woman at the age of fifty-two and The Children of Men at seventy-two gives me great comfort and encouragement because I started writing novels at a later age as well. Whenever I panic that the time has passed for me to be writing, I think of her and regain control over my thoughts. I tell myself to do the things that I can do in the here and now—read, write, translate, do the things I like steadily each day, every day. Nothing is stronger than the simple force of doing something every day.


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.)


Perhaps at an unconscious level my writing and translation influence each other, but consciously, I try to keep them apart. Ultimately, both kinds of work involve command of Korean, don’t they? This means that I’m more careful not to leave my personal mark on a work when translating than when writing. Once I was laboring to translate a favorite author’s favorite work. I fell in love with it at a glance. But an acquaintance of mine who has read much of my writing saw the translation and said it read like one of my novels. Hearing this, I felt as if I’d been struck. I’d been too greedy. I thought I’d put all my love into the work, but I ended up sullying it with my fingerprints. Since then, I’ve been careful to maintain distance from a work I’m translating. But of course, even so, I always strive to use pure Korean rather than Sino-Korean language, and find equivalents for adjectives and adverbs rather than omit them. These are habits based on my personal preference. I also think it’s important to adjust the flow so that a Korean speaker will have a sense of the original rhythm when reading the translated sentences. One gauge of readability is that the sentences join together naturally when read aloud.

  As for the influence of translation on writing fiction, at times I doubt whether I can really write sentences of my own after living a life of translating other writers. I write fiction today, and I can’t afford to miss out on the spirit of the times, or lose my sense of belonging to this generation or my grasp of contemporary writing style, but when translating the text of other writers, especially those deceased, I’m sometimes anxious as to whether I’m letting go of these things. Of course, the universality of literature transcends time, but my identity as a person writing Korean fiction in Korean society is something that I must not forgo when I write. For this reason, I fear that my identity as a novelist will be compromised if I’m immersed in a translation for a long time.


Writers are translators and translators are writers. They write about the world and translate the world for readers. It takes agility to cross over many worlds; doing so likely fosters a unique identity all its own. In your opinion, are there are any differences between the “Me before writing,” the “writing Me,” the “Me before translating,” the “translating Me,” and the “Me writing and translating”?


As mentioned above, I consciously try to keep my identities as a translator and a writer distinct. I even think of my identities as a homemaker and a parent as separate. I hope this doesn’t come across sounding like pseudoscience, but I also feel that extended periods of translating and of fiction writing activate different areas of the brain. This means that I find the moment of switching from one to the other very difficult. At these times, I make quite a fuss rearranging my desk, changing my brand of tea, and trying out different workspaces. This is somewhat peripheral to the question, however. The processes of the two kinds of work and the attitudes that accompany them are quite different. Should I compare the different kinds of writer’s block as an example? In translation, I get writer’s block when I absolutely cannot understand a sentence. It’s the feeling of coming up against a cliff or a rocky crag amidst the overall consistency of the work. At times like this, I take a deep breath, pause the ticking clock, and take time to grapple with the sentence, one on one. This fight may fade to nothing in a few hours, or it may take days. The important thing is that the fight be resolved at some point. And then, after a moment, when I’m breathing evenly, I can pass on to the next sentence that awaits. The sublime proverb “As you sow, so shall you reap” applies to translation, even if a fear of translating something incorrectly always lurks somewhere in the background. I’m deeply reassured to know that a path will reopen once I have overcome my writer’s block, and that I’ll come to a definite end point. In this sense, translation is not solitary work. I have text to guide me more accurately than any map, and I’m always aware of the readers, my companions. Also, translation can be classified as traditional labor in that it requires steady effort and physical exertion as well as a fixed amount of time. Indeed, it is for these simple and honest qualities that I like it.

  On the other hand, creative writing is a very lonely endeavor. It’s like walking along a trail without a map, or rather, making the trail as I walk. I must push through on my own power if I’m blocked, and after I’ve come through a difficult passage, the next sentence is not automatically there waiting. A trail forms wherever I go. It is lonely and dreary. In fact, I need not push through a blocked section at all. I can leave the trail and take a detour, or abandon the journey altogether. Who knows? That’s how easy it is to deceive oneself in this job. Just as it is easy to go back and give up, it is also easy to soldier on to one’s ruin. It is a very cruel land, and there’s no solid rear guard to back one up like there is in translation. Simple and honest hard work is not always the solution to problems in this field. In conclusion, I like myself as a translator, but pity myself as a writer.


Translated by Kari Schenk


Author's Profile

Lee Juhye made her literary debut when she won the Changbi Newcomer’s Award in 2016. She published her debut novel, Jadu (Plum), in 2020. She translates from English into Korean, and her recent translations include An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P. D. James and Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry by Adrienne Rich.