Sung Kim displays pride in Korean ethnicity during U.S. Senate confirmation hearings



I’m not usually one to make noise about “sins of the father” or anything, but geez:

Kim’s father served as the Korean minister to Japan during the Yushin government of the 1970s. He was implicated in the kidnapping of then-opposition politician Kim Dae-jung in Japan and emigrated immediately afterwards to the United States with his family, including Sung Kim, who was a middle school student at the time.

Sung Kim displays pride in Korean ethnicity during U.S. Senate confirmation hearings : National : Home.

Translation Slam

Recently, Jae Won and I (Sora) were invited to participate in an online “translation slam” for PEN. The idea behind the “slam” is that two translators choose one poem and create “competing” translations.

We chose a poem called 끝에 선 나무들 by 정끝별. Then we each translated it and submitted our work without seeing what the other had done. The results have been posted online, and readers are welcome to compare and comment on the two translations.

It’s a fantastic idea, and the use of short poems makes it easy to see at a glance the different approaches translators take and the different choices that are made in the process of translation.

Please take a look for yourself and offer your own comments if you like:  Translation Slam: 끝에 선 나무들.

I also encourage you to check out more of the poet’s work in the original language if you can. She’s an intriguing writer with a unique vision and a knack for wordplay.

Sim Chong, fille vendue wins KLTI Translation Awards


I’m a little late on this considering SOV was at the awards ceremony, but French translation team Prof. Choi Mi-kyung and Jean Noel Juttet won the KLTI’s Korea Literature Translation Award in earlier this month.

This wasn’t quoted in the article, but in her acceptance speech, Prof. Choi very rightly and pointedly reminded the audience that English is not the only target language for Korean literature. Whether that is believed or not remains to be seen given the global hegemony of English, but the awards this year (Grand Prize for the French translation of Hwang Sok-yong’s <심청 연꽃의 길>, Sim Chong, fille vendue; and runners-up Yang Han-ju for the French translation of Kim Young-ha’s <검은 꽃>, Schwarze Blaume, and John Holstein for A Moment’s Grace, a collection of short stories in English) show points of resistance against an English-only focus in translation.



South Korea Brings in Foreign Professors by the Thousands­—at a Cost – Global – The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has an article about the trend of  hiring of “foreign” professors to teach in English at Korean Universities:

South Korea Brings in Foreign Professors by the Thousands —at a Cost – Global – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Just briefly, before the fam wakes up…

Korean universities are getting great deals on newly minted Ph.D’s from the best programs in the U.S. — a great economic deal on both sides, but as the article discusses, the university system here has started hiring without figuring out how to integrate the foreign profs into the university communities. People like the Sogang U prof Hijoo Son interviewed in the article who is bilingual (well, actually quadra- or cinquilingual… in any case, a deranged polyglot who speaks Korean and English fluently), can navigate the system, but not all these foreign hires have the skills, cultural fluency, and frankly, cojones she does to survive the system. I’ve long wondered about Koreans from the diaspora who end up working back in Korea and the pressures put on them to become “native” — specifically, how long before the clock runs out on their “foreignness”? I see a gender disparity in that timeframe, but that’s just from anecdotal evidence.

Back to the article… the issues it brings up speak to a general crisis in higher education where there are just not enough jobs for the countless Ph.D.s being produced; and there is a perceived, but questionable need around the world  for a “global” education *in English* that devalues the locally trained profs. This is not new territory, and others have written more persuasively about this, but both issues also involve the so-called professionalization of higher education where the students are treated like consumers purchasing a service from their educators. Call me idealistic, but this commercialization of higher learning is getting sick, with both students and educators losing out to fat cat top tier administrators. I know plenty of administrators who still believe in the ideals of a humanistic higher education, but they don’t bring in the bucks. Surplus in post-graduate education isn’t limited to Ph.D.s, though. Look how many lawyers there are now working as contractors for hourly wages.

More on this later, I’m sure.


On Translating Names and Allusions

While translating, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to handle Korean naming practices. I don’t just mean the extensive use of 호칭, or titles, in place of names for referring to people, or the emotionally laden terms, 언니/Older Sister and 오빠/Older Brother. There are also other considerations with names, specifically using a person’s full name vs. a personal name, and the use of similar-sounding names, particularly among siblings.

I’ll be able to go into more detail on this one in a few months, but basically I’m debating whether to keep all of those little nuances in place and treat it as a teaching moment, or to smooth out some of these cultural differences. Along with that, there’s the question of whether to flip the names around–first name first–in order to make it less confusing for readers. My instinct is to resist Westernizing the text, but when the names all sound that similar…

For instance, in one text that I’ve been working on, I’ve got two characters whose names differ by a single syllable and who both share the same single-syllable last name with a third character, who in turn shares a different syllable with a fourth unrelated character.

Also, in English, we only use a person’s full name in certain situations, such as when we’re identifying them (“Excuse me, are you John Doe?”) or when we’re scolding them (i.e. the classic angry parent). Some people call others by their last name, but that can have more of a jocular feel, and it’s usually idiosyncratic. In contrast, in Korean, it’s not uncommon to use a person’s full name, and not just because you don’t know them that well or you’re upset with them. Perhaps its the brevity of Korean names or the stickiness of the syllables, but full names seem to roll off the tongue more easily in Korean. The question that arises in translating them that way, though, is whether using the characters’ full names in dialogue will make the relationships between the characters appear too stilted and cold rather than conveying a more subtle shift in intimacy.

I suppose this is less tasking than translating texts where the characters have no names at all and go only by titles or “그는” (he). But it ties in with another larger issue I’ve been wrestling with, which is to what extent can I trust the reader to understand what is at stake emotionally for the characters and their relationships to each other? In some cases, the signals are subtle, but in other cases, the information gap is much wider.

Recently, I completed a rough draft of a story from Jeon Seongtae’s collection, Wolves, which I’ve been working on by way of a KLTI grant. The story is set in a North Korean restaurant in Mongolia and, in a nutshell, it depicts a moment of tension between the NK restaurant employees and its SK customers. I think the story has its own timely, and perhaps exotic, appeal, but the problem is that it is packed with cultural references that are specific to a South Korean audience.

For example, at one point, a character starts singing a protest song from the 1980s. The lyrics consist only of figurative language, so there’s really no way a foreign reader is going to decipher the political connotation of the song from the lyrics alone without the historical knowledge needed to interpret it. Plus, this was a song that also became popular in NK and has its own particular history there. On both sides of the border, the song served as a subversive anti-government anthem. But how do you convey that without riding roughshod over the original text? Does it even need to be conveyed, or can it be kept in as an easter egg, a treat for the reader who is willing to sleuth it out, or a moment of smug glee for the reader who gets it immediately?

There were other details like that in the story as well, and I’m undecided about what I’m going to do with them. My biggest concern is that, without context, the story will lose tension, and I do think that, ultimately, my goal should be to recreate that rising tension however necessary.

The story does offer a neat overlap of “tensions,” i.e. the real-world cross-border tension and the tensions among and within characters that serves the aim of fiction as an art. But without that cultural knowledge, without knowing what is at stake for the characters, will the reader be left with nothing more than a list of seemingly random chronological actions by a group of characters who appear unrelated and uninvested in each other?

Hopefully I’ll figure something out before the end of the year, when all my deadlines start hitting at once. :P