'English Is an Extremely Difficult Language to Master'

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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 They are the only award given for unpublished translations of Korean literature evaluated anonymously in this way.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.

In both cases, the English renderings of many key phrases were awkward rather than strikingly original. It seemed that both translators had been defeated by the poetry's allusiveness and the difficulty of transposing that into convincing English.

We were glad to find translations of the major woman poet Kang Un-Kyo. Her work is thoughtful, striking and unconventional. But here too, we found many points where the translations did not do justice to the original poems.

The translation of her poem "To a Certain Plastic Bag" was the work which most nearly satisfied our criteria, being a reasonably faithful translation and, equally if not more important, a potentially interesting poem in English. We have therefore chosen this entry for a Commendation Award.

As always, the best work was found in the translations of short fiction. Putting aside one or two works already published in English translation, and eliminating a few others that failed to satisfy us in various ways, we found ourselves faced with four texts that we could read with real pleasure, works by Oh Chong-hee, Ha Chang-su, Un Hui-kyong, and Park Sang-woo -- some very familiar names and some more unfamiliar names, but all very well translated.

This is where life becomes difficult for the judges in translation contests. What are the criteria that will allow us to set one entry above the others? Are a couple of errors of grammar in 40-50 pages sufficient reason for excluding an entry?

What weight, if any, should be given to the reputation of the author in Korea? What to the judges' feeling about the quality of the story as such? How are we to compare such disparate tales?

Oh Chong-hee's story ``The Old Well'' is a rich monologue in which a middle-aged woman moves between her present existence as wife and mother and memories from her early childhood, when the village children had to haul water from the ``old well'' of the title in which a magic, golden carp was said to dwell.

At the heart of her pain lies another set of memories, of her brief, unfulfilled encounter with a married man, whose sudden death she later learned from the newspaper.

Ha Chang-su's story ``Mountain Underfoot'' tells of a TV producer's fruitless attempt to meet the head of a Buddhist temple; while he is waiting in the temple, a woman arrives and he finally learns from her what has gone wrong. The story is slight, indirect, for in the end the main question is not why he cannot meet the monk, but how he has lost the woman he loved.

Un Hui-kyong's ``The Poor Wife'' is also a story told by the main character, this time a husband who, like many Korean men, feels obliged to spend every night drinking with colleagues and customers.

He discovers that his wife is writing a diary, that she does not hide from him; in it he reads about her solitude and unhappiness. He realizes that his attitude toward her is far from satisfactory but his attempts to change something in their relationship only show how hard it is to live human relationships in modern society.

Park Sang-woo's ``The Roof-pagoda-room of my Heart'' is, again, a story told by its protagonist. A young man retraces the course of his failed relationship with a young woman working in the same building. She lives in the roof-top room evoked in the title and does nothing to prevent him more or less moving in with her. Yet their relationship does not grow in closeness or depth of communication, rather the opposite.

After considerable thought, we decided that the First Prize should go to the translation of Oh Chong-hee's ``The Old Well.'' That short story presents a far wider variety of challenges to the translator than any of the others, and we felt that the challenges had mostly been very skillfully met.

This story is much more poetic in its evocations, more allusive too. The other stories move within a comparatively more restricted range of settings and emotions.

After reading each of the translated stories through from beginning to end, there was a very clear difference of impression where this one was concerned. It read well, with a fine sense of rhythm. It had real authority. It was a worthy translation of a major work of Korean literature that deserves to be known in the outside world. Very well done.

Normally, if one entry in any category receives the First Prize, that is an end to it. This year, however, is a special year. The Korea Times is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. We have therefore suggested that a special commendation award be created to mark the occasion, that would be divided among the translators of the other three excellent entries.

The money might not be much, but the translators would surely feel immense satisfaction and be encouraged to continue with the often ungrateful work of translating Korean literature into living English. We wish them well.