Apologies for the long silence. I think we’ve all been swamped by our respective projects. But…! Exciting news! One of my own recent projects has just gone online: an English translation of Hye-young Pyun’s short story 토끼의 묘.
편혜영 / Hye-young Pyun
This has been in the works for some time, starting with my initial translation of the story for the Seoul Young Writers’ Festival in 2010, all the way up to the final version for Words Without Borders. If you click on both links, you’ll see that the versions are different, right down to the titles. This is because the SYWF version was an early draft done to KLTI specifications (accuracy, accuracy, accuracy), while the WWB version was done to online publishing specifications (5000 words maximum).
For those curious about the math, the original translation was roughly 7500 words long. That means I had to reduce the word count by over 25% for it be publishable. When I’ve told people this, they’ve generally responded with shock. How dare you touch a writer’s story? I wrestled with the question as well and did not enjoy breaking the news to the writer. But in the end, that’s the reality of publishing and the reality of how people read on computer screens. I thought about asking the writer to make cuts to the Korean and resend it to me, but instead I made the cuts myself and sent both versions of the story to WWB, so they could judge which one they wanted to use, and a highlighted version of the Korean to the writer so she could see what I took out.
The ironic thing for me is that I always include a word reduction assignment in my writing classes. This felt like the ultimate test of whether I could follow my own advice. My first step was to go through the story and tighten up every possible phrase and sentence and throw out every unnecessary word. Then I took a look at the overall flow of the story to see if there were places where the pace slowed. I took some big chunks out from the beginning of the story, parts that seemed more expository. Did I make the right choices? Who knows. But feel free to compare and leave a comment, if you feel so motivated.
The title was the biggest struggle for me, and I am still to this moment turning it over and over in my head. The first time I translated the story, I read the title the way most readers encounter it: I read “myo” (묘) as grave. Later, I found an interview with the writer online and consulted with her directly about it. She explained that the title is wordplay. 묘 can be read as both 墓 (grave, tomb) and 卯 (rabbit). The title is intentionally redundant, as it mirrors the way Sino-Korean is read out loud (e.g. “더할 加 가”) and is suggestive of the theme of multiplication within the story: rabbit as in “rabbit” / rabbit rabbit.
I abandoned “grave/tomb” fairly quickly because I felt that it flattened the title out too much, and because the writer herself suggested that she didn’t want it to seem too dark or death-related. I wanted the title to be more of a cypher and to lend itself to the same multiple readings as the Korean. Since I could not reproduce it directly, given the combination of pure and Sino Korean, I went with the equivalent for English, which would have to be Latin.
The first problem I encountered was the sheer number of breeds of rabbits. Was I supposed to stick with an indigenous rabbit? Would Oryctolagus cuniculus really be any friendlier than romanized Korean?
I thump! That's why they call me Oryctolagus cuniculus!
I circled through countless options — including Rabbit Rabbit; Rabbit, Rabbit; Rabbits; and Rabbit — but I kept returning to the Latin, mostly because of the suggestiveness of “cuni.”
I don’t remember now how I found this, but I came across a funny tidbit of Classical trivia. So, “cuniculus” is from the Latin for “burrow” or “underground passage.” Rabbits were given this name because of the burrows they dig. Cuniculus was also the name of the water channels used in ancient Italy. However, the Etruscans also used the word “cuniculus” to refer to the passages carved through stone that led into tombs — passages just big enough for a man to squeeze through.
Totally not suggestive.
Rabbits! Graves! Labyrinthine architectures! It covered all of the ground I wanted to cover with the title and pointed thematically and imagistically to Pyun’s novel, 재와 빨강, which prominently features narrow waterways, small furry creatures, and the twisted maze of urban life.
At the same time, it finally hit me that Oryctolagus cuniculus could be abbreviated to O. cuniculus. Not only did I not need to use such a tongue twister of a title, but it even lent itself to an apostrophic overlap (O, Rabbits!).
As excited as I was by all of this, though, I was still agonizing over how to finalize it. The author had stressed the theme of multiplicity, in that redundant reading of Rabbit Rabbit, so I added a plural onto the title: O. Coniculi. (I had also considered the possibility of “Coniculus Coniculi” in order to mimic how Latin words are memorized by language students, thus mirroring the way hanja is learned in Korea.) Did I make the right choice? Good grief, I have no idea. I just hope that the title minus the long-winded explanation is interesting enough without totally confusing readers.
In the end, what I really learned from all of this as a translator, more than how best to craft a title, is the importance of letting go. The job is done, the text is published, and now I have to take my hands from around its neck and let it breathe.
I’ve been learning that lesson in other ways, as well, namely with my first forays into translation for commercial publishing. Titles are a tricky business because at the same time that they are an intimate part of the overall work, they are also regarded as a form of advertising. Will this title induce a reader to pick up this book? Will it help them to make that purchase? Will it coax open their wallet?
A number of Korean books in translation have had title changes. My own recent project, Shin Kyung-sook’s book, was changed. The original Korean, literally translated, is “Somewhere A Telephone Rings For Me,” but the new title is “I’ll Be Right There.”
What is significant about this is that the decisions are not being made by writers or translators. They are being made by agents and publishers, based on what they think will grab readers’ attention. On the one hand, this makes me anxious. It means less creative control. On the other hand, I find it immensely freeing. You mean I don’t have to come up with a good title? And I won’t be to blame for it?? Fantastic.
So there are gains and losses. My question these days is whether putting a commercially appealing title on a book that may not be commercial fiction is a good strategy. Will it skew readers’ expectations and cause them to be disappointed with the book in a different way? Does it take too much control away from the writers themselves?
Needless to say, this is in no way unique to Korean literature in translation, but it is a significant question given the tendency in Korea to treat written texts as if they are inviolable.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story.