'English Is an Extremely Difficult Language to Master'

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), October 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

'English Is an Extremely Difficult Language to Master'


This year, translations of two novels, of 13 short stories, and of poems by eight poets were submitted for our consideration.

As always, we had absolutely no information about the identity of the translator(s), whether they were Korean or native-speakers of English, single or a team, people known to us or unknown. This is a very important factor in our judging and needs perhaps to be stressed.

We consider it essential to be able to evaluate the texts submitted with no bias or prejudice caused by knowing who the persons are who did the translating.

It is only after our decision has been made and our report written that we meet the editorial staff of The Korea Times and learn the names of the translators. It is always a very interesting moment.

The Korea Times Translation Awards are a unique institution. They are the only award given for unpublished translations of Korean literature evaluated anonymously in this way.

At the same time, most of the entries are usually by (relatively) young people.

They will, if properly encouraged, go on to become the next generation of translators of Korean literature. So our responsibility is considerable.

As we set about reading the entries, we were conscious of the amount of work every entry represents, and of each translator's desire to translate well. At the same time, we naturally tried to pinpoint the entries which most nearly correspond to our ideal of a really good literary translation.

Today there are differing ideas about what constitutes good translation but on the whole it seems reasonable to demand that where the original is written in good Korean the translation should be in good English.

Well-written, elegant Korean should be translated as well-written, elegant English. Poetic Korean should be translated by poetic English. Idiosyncratic Korean should be represented by equally idiosyncratic English.

Alas, a number of entries, including the two novels, failed to satisfy us in this respect. We do not want to be discouraging, but English is an extremely difficult language to master; translators who do not have the required grammatical and stylistic skills need to recognize their limitation.

One of the novel entries was a book written for children. If the work is to appeal to English-speaking children (and why else translate it?), the translation would need to be in an English similar to that of the books those children normally read. The Harry Potter books might serve as a model. We cannot give a prize to awkward, unpolished English. The English of the other novel entry was breathtakingly bad.

We were also very disappointed by the quality of the poetry translations submitted this year. The smaller number of submissions suggests that the difficulties of poetry translation may have been better realized than before. Among the entries, we could find nothing that struck us as particularly powerful or interesting.

The poets translated are for the most part well-known contemporary writers, including Lee Si-young, Oh Sae-young, Shin Kyong-nim, and Hwang Ji-woo.

Part of the problem lies in the poems that most translators had chosen for translation; short, lyrical poems that find quite strong resonance in Korean hearts often fail to produce convincing English translations that work as poetry. It is not enough simply to find a string of English words that more or less suggest the literal sense of the Korean.

The best Korean poem chosen for translation was probably one by Shin Kyong-Nim but we felt that the translation failed to do it justice.

The rather obscure poetry of Hwang Ji-Woo frequently looks as though it should be interesting in translation. So far, though, it seems that no one has found an English style that allows his originality and genuine talent to shine through.

We looked carefully at the two entries translating his work but even when the translations were reasonably exact (there were weaknesses and mistranslations in both), they did not seem to come across as poetry.

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