[Writer's Notes] [Draft I] Writer-Translators on Their Craft — Bora Chung
by Bora Chung December 22, 2020
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.
Do you believe that the order in which you took up writing and translation has influenced you? If so, why might that be?
If having my name published officially as the author or translator of record is the basis by which I can determine which came first, I would say that writing came first. I first began writing in 1998, when I was still in college. I received the affirmation I needed to turn to creative writing as a career when I received an award from a writing contest that was hosted by my school. Translation came about two years later, in 2000. At the time, I co-translated together with a friend of mine from school. Our first translation was of a work originally published in English (Tolerance by Hendrik Willem Van Loon), but now I work more on Russian and Polish fiction, which I majored in.
But come to think of it, I’ve been translating since I was in junior high and high school. When I was in junior high, I used to practice translating to study English, and in high school, I turned to translating because I wanted to learn French better, which I was taking as a second foreign language. I practiced by translating my favorite foreign works into Korean. I still remember vividly how much fun I had translating the plays of Oscar Wilde. On the other hand, I don’t believe I had much fun translating French literature although I adored the language. I think this was a huge reason I decided to change majors in college.
I didn’t learn writing from anyone. Writing can bring me so much joy, but sometimes I still feel like I’m walking through a haze. Although, I suspect I would still feel like I’m walking in a haze even if I had studied writing in earnest. In any case, that was how I felt when I first started writing and that’s how I feel now. However, with translations, I feel much more comfortable with the fact that I’m working on existing works by authors of much renown and expertise—works that have been time-tested and guaranteed for their quality. Furthermore, the fact that I can look up the dictionary for the meanings of the words and expressions found in these works also gives me a sense of security. When you’re writing and you get stuck in a rut, you have to wait, sometimes for an improbably long time, for inspiration to strike again. With translation, if I run into a problem, I need only identify the source of the problem, do my research, and pick up where I left off. Translation seems to provide more certainty in that sense, compared to creative writing.
This is why I make a conscious effort to observe and accept the worldview, the expressive ways, and the thinking of the authors whom I translate. The worlds they lived in and the world that I live in are very different; this is why there’s a limit to simply copying or mimicking the elements or plots the authors have used. This means I won’t risk falling into the danger of plagiarism anytime soon which also brings me a measure of comfort. As I’m translating the ways the authors have introduced various characters into their stories, their linguistic characteristics, and their unique descriptions, I absorb all of these things, both consciously and unconsciously. When a work is especially difficult to translate, that means I have to think harder and dig deeper. In that sense, I’m influenced by the literature during the translating process. When deciding whom I want to translate, I tend to choose authors whom I admire, both in the sense of who they are as a person and in how they describe the world.
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, the text may inevitably have to be adjusted at times to fit linguistic norms and conventions in the target language. This is sometimes referred to as “the betrayal of translation.” Have you ever agonized over this?
This is something that has always been an issue for me. I believe I will wrestle with this dilemma for as long as I’m working as a translator. After translating the Hendrik Willem Van Loon work that I mentioned before, the second work that I translated was Sklepy cynamonowe (The Street of Crocodiles), 1934, and Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass), 1937, by the Polish author Bruno Schulz (1892–1942). Schulz lived a life of poverty and misfortune, and as he was Jewish, he was shot and killed by the Gestapo during the Second World War. Schulz was an amazingly gifted painter and novelist. In translating his work, I realized that he was not someone who constituted a narrative along traditional plotlines but that he was first and foremost a painter who used language as yet another medium to express his art. This made things rather challenging for me. I’m a person who understands the world through words and text; my way of seeing the world is completely different from someone like Schulz, who saw the world in colors, lines, sides, images, and even moving images. I attempted to translate Schulz’s sentences into Korean, but this resulted in sentences that were completely incomprehensible according to the norms and customs of the Korean language.
Schulz had the tendency of describing images and scenes using an endless stream of relative pronouns (with a typical sentence running on for five to eight lines; translating Schulz was such a painful exercise that I actually stopped to count how long the sentences were). Because of this, I couldn’t translate the sentences in their original order; rather, I had to translate the sentences in reverse order, from the back to the front, in order for all the connections to make sense. In some cases, I had to chop up the sentences and later reconstitute them. I loved reading Schulz and regularly became awestruck by his genius with each page of his that I translated, but at the same time, I wondered whether I had been too arrogant to think I could translate his works or worse, whether I could do his works justice. The Schulz anthology was first published in a set of two volumes in 2003; ten years later, in 2013, Eulyoo Publishing published the complete works again as a single volume. During that time, I had to edit the translations extensively to the point that it felt as if I were retranslating them all over again. Even now, though, I’m still haunted by the fear that I butchered his works. I’m truly, deeply sorry to Bruno Schulz.
Translating The Foundation Pit (1930) written by the Russian author Andrei Platonov (1899–1951), was also a demanding exercise. Platonov is another very eccentric author in a way that is different from Schulz. He uses more traditional sentences (both in terms of length and in their grammatical sense), but his sentences are difficult to understand.
For instance, take the sentence “they were all born without any skin.” I interpreted this sentence to describe the babies that were born to malnourished mothers during the famines of the Communist Revolution and the resulting civil war. These emaciated babies came out red and tiny, looking as if they had no epidermis but just a hypodermis or a deeper layer of skin underneath their wrinkly exterior. However, it was impossible to convey this meaning to the readers in an intuitive way without adding some sort of footnotes or additional explanations from my end.
Platonov would often employ these turns of phrase. He had a unique point of view that he reflected in his writings. The influence of the writers and philosophers who impacted him was very evident in his writings as well. However, the world Platonov experienced, from the Communist Revolution, civil war, the early social transformations during the Soviet era, all the way to the oppression under Stalin, was far removed from the lives experienced by the general readership in Korea. If the translator were to provide further explanations on the ideas of the different Russian philosophers who influenced Platonov, that would only serve to exhaust the reader. That’s why with Platonov, rather than worrying about the norms and customs of the language, I was more concerned with whether or not I had the ability to fully translate the ideas that the author wanted to get across.
I have many more of these episodes that have accumulated over the last twenty years of my translating career. As a translator, I believe these concerns are valid and a way to honor the translator. There is no such thing as a perfect translation and in the process of translation, some meanings and nuances are bound to get lost. This means that I will forever be tormented in my work. But I can’t stop doing what I do. The world is full of amazing works of literature that are too beautiful to ignore.
What do you consider to be the attraction or appeal of the source language that you translate from, and/or of the fiction written in that language?
The Russian language has a very difficult, complex grammar structure. And Polish happens to be seven times more complicated than Russian. They’re both Slavic languages, with the unique grammatical characteristics that Slavic languages have, along with the particular thinking and worldview that are embedded in their context. After I entered graduate school, I found myself having to study Russian, Polish, and Old Church Slavic at the same time. This was incredibly difficult, but the exercise also taught me to better understand the perspectives and systems through which the Slavs see the world. This understanding came as an awakening of sorts. In fact, it changed my life. Although I may not have been as fluent in Russian or Polish as a native speaker and ended up making mistakes, I had a good understanding of the fundamental systems behind the language. This meant that I could at least share in the Slavic perspectives and ways of comprehending the world. The syntax of the Slavic languages is admittedly complicated, but so is the world we live in. In some sense, the Slavic syntax can actually bring some sort of order to the world, a way of categorizing and explaining the complexities around us. This is precisely why I love Slavic languages. Since the Slavic peoples share fundamentally similar syntax and semantics, once you are well enough versed in Russian and Polish, then you can also have a basic understanding of an adjacent language such as Ukrainian, which is grammatically similar and spoken in a country that is geographically close to the other countries. It almost feels as if the Slavic-speaking regions are one community; if you know one Slavic language, it could be your gateway to their world.
With literature, it’s a little different. Russian literature can be categorized into pre- and post- revolution era literature (the 1905 Revolution and the Communist Revolution), in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I particularly enjoy twentieth-century Revolution-era works and the literature of early Soviet Russia. The writings are bold and confident, with an audacity that only people who are certain in their belief that they have changed the world with their bare hands can have. The Communist Revolution was the first and only massive social experiment of its kind done in human history. Only twentieth-century Soviet literature can provide such a reading experience. However, there was also the shock that came with the realization that the Revolution, which was believed to usher in a completely new era, ended in a bloodbath, as well as the fear and despair that became widespread with the start of Stalin’s violent oppressions and crackdowns. This experience is also something that can only be found in early Soviet-era literature. No other country or era has this literary tradition, one where soaring hopes for a new utopia and the despair of a coming dystopia are juxtaposed in the same timeframe.
Poland was also impacted by the Communist Revolution, because the 1918 Revolution brought down the Russian Empire, bringing an end to Russian colonialism and as a result, newfound independence to the state of Poland. In fact, after the First World War ended in 1919, Poland enjoyed the most liberated, dynamic period in its history. The twenty years leading up to the Second World War in 1939, is referred to as the “inter-war period” in Polish history. Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, and other such giants of Polish literature all hailed from this era. Inter-war Polish literature is very experimental, unique, and captivating. Since their language is more linguistically complicated than say, Russian, Polish writers seemed to write from a more heightened, interesting artistic frenzy; they unleashed their creative fury in their works. I love that distinctive sense of madness found in inter-war era Polish literature.
How do you select the authors or works you translate?
I tend to choose authors or works that are loved and appreciated in their home countries but have yet to be discovered by Korean readers. In terms of genre, I’m drawn to utopian/dystopian literature. Sometimes, I make suggestions to my publisher about certain works that I believe will have some commercial appeal. The Foundation Pit by Platonov was one such case, as well as Wyjście z cienia (Coming Out of the Shadow) by the Polish SF writer Janusz Zajdel (1938–1985).
Because Russia and Poland both experienced Communism in the twentieth century, Korea effectively had no exchange with these countries for a long time due to ideological differences. There are still many great authors who haven’t been discovered by Korean readers. Russia and Poland both produced many compelling writers and works in the early twentieth century, during a time when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule and therefore stripped of all diplomatic rights. Later, due to the Korean War, Korea cut off all ties with the Communist bloc. This blocked any and all cultural exchange between Korea and Eastern Europe including Poland. This year, Russia and Korea are celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties, which has led to many online commemorative events. However, it’s unfortunate that Korea doesn’t seem to have the same level of interest for Polish literature. Polish culture and the arts are very different from the Asian cultural tradition and also quite removed from the Western European or even the US and UK cultures which Koreans are relatively more familiar with. Therefore, Polish culture can come as a refreshing shock to many Koreans. I’m glad that more Polish literature has been introduced to Korean readers following the 2018 Nobel Prize win of Olga Tokarczuk. The SF writer Stanisław Lem (1921–2006) is also an amazing author who has penned many fabulous works, and yet he isn’t well known in Korea. The few works of his that have been translated have all gone out of print.
Meanwhile in Russia, when Stalin’s suppressions began in earnest, the regime confiscated the publications of dissident authors or banned them from publishing anything. Many of these works were buried somewhere deep in the KGB archives and forgotten long after Stalin and the authors died. Some of Platonov’s works were seized by the KGB as well and left buried for nearly fifty years until they were re-discovered in the 2000s. The SF writer Ivan Yefremov (1908–1972), was highly recognized by academia, the Soviet regime, and his readers for being a superb geologist and adherent of Communism, but after his death, the KGB broke into his home and confiscated all his writings. Since then, he was all but erased from the annals of Russian literature. No one knows why. Some other authors, such as the brothers Arkady (1925–1991) and Boris (1933–2012) Strugatsky, were both popular not just in Russia but globally, with many quality works under their belt. And yet, they haven’t been properly introduced to Korean readers. I suspect this could be because they only wrote genre fiction as science fiction writers, and therefore were relegated to a niche category. There are so many interesting Russian and Polish works that are fun and commercial with high artistic merit. If these are not published in Korea simply because they are works in genre fiction or popular fiction, that would be a huge loss for the Korean publishing industry and for our cultural community as well.
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 any differences between the “Me before writing,” the “writing Me,” the “Me before translating,” the “translating Me,” and the “Me writing and translating”?
I don’t remember much about myself in the days before I began writing or translating, as that was such a long time ago. There are times when I’m not engaged in creative writing, but I consider myself to be constantly in translating mode.
When I’m writing, I would say that the stories come to me, almost like they are little gifts, rather than that I write the stories myself. All I’m doing is simply transferring these gifts that I’ve received into text form. This is why I believe creative writing requires a very agile sensibility, physical strength, and, above all, time. When I’m feeling tired or pressed for time, I can’t find the energy to listen calmly to the story that is beckoning me, much less put it down in writing. The busier I am the harder writing becomes. Sometimes, when this busy period goes on for too long, I become fearful that I may never be able to write again. And yet, stories still find a way to reach me. I’m very grateful for that.
Sometimes, when I show my Korean editors my writing, they respond by saying, “This Korean doesn’t feel natural,” or “I don’t understand this sentence.” Because I’ve seen similar sentences in Russian or Polish, I sometimes find myself employing a similar construct in the Korean language. This doesn’t mean to say that I memorize certain sentences or expressions and repurpose them; rather, I reflect the Russian syntax or Polish syntax in the Korean sentences. When my editors see that, they find it interesting and sometimes bizarre. They suggest I change those expressions since they will seem foreign to Korean readers. But I ask them to leave the sentences as they are, because it was my intention to jolt the reader. As Viktor Shklovsky once said, art exists to stop or slow our automated processes of thinking and make it seem foreign once more. To reach that end, the language used in culture and the arts must be sufficiently “bent,” unlike the language used in our everyday lives. (I love Shklovsky by the way. Three cheers for Russian formalism.)
My identity as a translator and my identity as a writer are connected organically. I’m always translating. Even now, I should really be going through the edits of my translation, but I’m taking a break to answer this list of questions as it looked more interesting. My editor would no doubt be sorry to hear this.
Because I have been teaching Russian language, literature, and culture for over ten years, I tend to read a lot of papers and dissertations on Russian literature. In many cases, I find myself translating these papers into Korean to use as teaching material. When I was in graduate school in the US, I was trained to do my own translations of the original works, rather than use the translations of others when coming up with class materials or writing my own dissertation (for copyright issues). To attract the attention of my students of Russian language or culture, I read Russian newspapers to them or translate/summarize certain articles to be shared in class.
I also like to summarize and translate key current events stories coming out of Russia, such as news on Russia’s development of the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, news of other drugs in the pipeline, the pandemic situation in Russia, and the armed conflict or disputes in neighboring countries, and share the links of those news articles on my social media for the benefit of my friends. When the recent poisoning of the Russian democracy activist Alexei Navalny was reported in the Korean media, I shared links of those stories on my social media. On seeing those pictures of Navalny, my Russian friend inquired what the posts were about, so I translated those Korean news stories into Russian for her. I follow the pages of feminist groups in Poland to stay on top of Polish social events and the reactions from the feminist community in that country. When I see interesting Polish news articles, I share their links on my social media together with a brief translation of the news article. In Korea, the most recent feminist issues were the unconstitutionality ruling by the Constitutional Court on the abortion ban and the revisions to the Mother and Child Health Act. It was Polish women who organized the “Black Protest” to demand that the legalization of abortion and women’s rights be placed on the political agenda. I myself have participated in the Black Protests held in Korea as well as the protests calling for the lifting of the abortion ban. Whenever I see relevant news on the pages of the Polish feminist groups that I follow, I translate those findings to share with my friends, so that we can all see the conversations that progressive Polish citizens are having.
To me, translation is my foremost avenue of learning what people are going through and what they’re thinking in the countries and cultures that I love, and sharing those findings with the people around me. When authors who are smarter and more knowledgeable about the world than I am put down their thoughts in rich, thought-provoking language, then I can share that knowledge with others through the art of translation. Translating is a way of expanding my own world. That is why these perspectives are often clearly reflected in my own writing.
Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim
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AUTHORS Chung, Bora Bora Chung is a writer of science fiction and generally unrealistic stories. She has an MA in Russian and East European area studies from Yale University and a PhD in Slavic literatures from Indiana University. She teaches Russian language and literature and science fiction studies at Yonsei University and translates modern literary works from Russian and Polish into Korean. Her translations include The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Seven Churches by Miloš Urban, and The Marriage by Witold Gombrowicz. She has published three novels and three short story collections. Cursed Bunny, her first book to appear in English translation, is forthcoming from Honford Star in 2021.