Interview with Janet Hong

by Samantha Kirby

In issue six of The Arkansas International, we feature your translations of works by Bae Suah, Ha Seong-nan, and the graphic artist Ancco; you have recently translated works by Han Yujoo as well. How do you juggle so many strong and unique voices? That is, how are you able to stay true to each author without too much of yourself – or the others – creeping in? And to add another dimension, how does your approach to translation change when tackling prose vs. graphic work?

Literary translation is a creative act, so it’s impossible to completely remove the translator’s voice and style from the equation, and unfair to expect it, but at the same time, I believe the translator should make every effort not to “brand” the text with her signature touch. In other words, my voice shouldn’t be readily recognizable; pieces I translate by different authors shouldn’t sound as if they were written by one author. The task seems almost hopeless, for a work demands your creativity in order to come to life in a different language, and yet it’s imperative that the very person responsible for facilitating this transfer stay invisible.

A work demands your creativity in order to come to life in a different language, and yet it’s imperative that the very person responsible for facilitating this transfer stay invisible.

As for tackling prose vs. graphic work, my approach is pretty much the same, except that there are certain constraints with comics. Tracy Hurren, my editor at Drawn & Quarterly, gave me the best advice when I first started translating comics. She said the English word count has to closely match the original language, since the space where the words fit is so limited. It just doesn’t look good to squeeze ten English words into a tiny speech balloon meant for three Korean words. Also, because comics are often dialogue heavy and more casual than some texts, it’s crucial that you capture the voice of the characters and the overall tone of the book than have it be extremely precise. Everything needs to flow seamlessly with the images and between the panels, which is so much harder than it looks!

Can I say something else about translating comics? I had such a difficult time with sound effects! Many Korean words are based on onomatopoeia. There are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that describe every possible sound, as well as textures and sensations. It was maddening, because I’d spend an hour trying to find the perfect word that described the way a character spat.

Translation is an act of loss and recovery, in that certain linguistic intricacies in an original text often must be sacrificed when rendered into a target language, and yet the target language also has the capacity to reclaim these nuances in new and sometimes surprising, fortuitous ways. There are many brilliant examples of this in your translation of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale, which relies heavily on wordplay to set the tone and build suspense. Could you talk a little bit about your process when faced with these sorts of technical, riddling passages?

Korean writing is so intellectually and aesthetically diverse that I couldn’t begin to characterize it.

Aww, thanks for the praise. I love what you say about translation being an act of loss and recovery. The Impossible Fairy Tale contains an unusual number of double entendres, word scrambles, and half-palindromes, which gave me quite a few white hairs when I was trying to reproduce them in English. There was no set formula I followed when I came up against these passages, but I did have to ask myself what absolutely needed to survive in English, what I couldn’t afford to lose. Sometimes I had no choice but to fill in the gaps with my own words. I was lucky that Han was so gracious; she allowed me freedom to explore different English expressions, which, on the surface, seem quite different from the original text, yet stay true to her main intentions – well, at least I believe they do.

I wrote a bit about my process for the Center for the Art of Translation and the Tilted Axis edition of the book, but here’s an example:

In the scene where the Child kills the cat, the word bangul, which means droplet or small bell, does triple duty: it must describe the blood splattered on her shoes, it must be countable, and it must also be a popular, playful name for cats (in Korea cats are commonly named Bangul). After racking my brain for days, I finally hit upon the word sprinkle.

“Her dirty running shoes are sprinkled with blood. One sprinkle, two sprinkles, three sprinkles. Hey Sprinkles, she calls out to the kitten.”

Sprinkle serves all three functions, just as bangul does. However, bangul (droplet/small bell), obviously, is a very different word from sprinkle.

In a short 2014 essay in Words Without Borders, when speaking of the linguistic elements lost and gained within a translation, you conclude that “the aim is to get closer and closer to the truth, and when you do, the sense of gratification is immense.” How would you define this truth, and how do you know when you’ve found it, when translating?

I’d define this truth as the exact translation of the target language text in meaning, nuance, and intent, which I think is an unattainable goal. I don’t ever know if I’ve gotten as close as possible to this truth, but I do know when I can’t take it any further. I might come up with a better solution down the road, but it’s beyond me at that point. Was it Leonardo da Vinci who said art is never finished, only abandoned? Writers often say they never know for certain when a book is truly done, and that they just have to decide it’s as good as they’re able or willing to make it. I’ve either had a deadline and needed to send in the manuscript, or I just knew I’d reached my limits for the time being.

The Impossible Fairy Tale, many of the stories in Flowers of Mold, and to a certain extent “The Dream of a Girl Before She was Set on Fire” all share an unreal, hyper-real quality, making the reader question the stability of the characters and yet sympathize with them as victims of a topsy-turvy world. Was this something that drew you to these works in particular?

I first need to sense a deep kinship with the work.

I never set out looking for this “unreal, hyper-real quality.” Maybe it’s just my personal taste in literature that makes me fall for these types of tales. All I know is that I first need to sense a deep kinship with the work and then I take a sober look at my skills to determine whether I’m able to pull off the translation.  

Korea has a long, rich literary history, and there has been a massive uptick in translated Korean literature in recent years. Why, in your opinion, are these works resonating with an international audience at this point in our history? How would you characterize contemporary Korean literature for the uninitiated Anglophone reader?

I don’t see myself as an expert on contemporary Korean literature, and Korean writing is so intellectually and aesthetically diverse that I couldn’t begin to characterize it. But I can attest to the very different reception that Korean literature received from both editors and readers even ten years ago. People just weren’t interested in books from Korea back then. Perhaps they viewed it as being too foreign, and thus too great a risk from a publisher’s perspective? The publication of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and its 2016 Booker win no doubt played a huge role in Korean literature gaining a global appeal, but I think many factors set the stage for this to happen. Hallyu, the Korean wave, had been building steadily for two decades, there was Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, published in the U.S. in 2011 and considered to be the first Korean breakthrough novel, and Korea was the Market Focus of the 2014 London Book Fair. The literary world was hungry for the next big thing, and Korea was keen to export its arts, culture, and entertainment, and had the funding to make it happen.

Finally, what are you working on now?

I’m going to sound crazy, because I have my hand in so many different projects right now. But I should add that I only try to take on things I absolutely love, which goes to show that there’s a wealth of brilliant Korean literature out there!

I just finished translating another incredible, sinister collection by Ha Seong-nan called Bluebeard’s First Wife. If you think Flowers of Mold is unsettling and surreal, Bluebeard’s First Wife kicks it up a notch. I’m in the middle of translating two extraordinary writers I came across only recently, though they’re very established in Korea and have quite a following: Kim Yi-seol and Kang Young-sook. Remember these names—you’ll be hearing about them from now on. I’m also working on a powerful, moving autobiographical comic by Yeon-sik Hong for Drawn & Quarterly, waiting for Han Yujoo to send me her new novel (which she expects to finish this April), and oh, did I mention I’m writing my own novel?

JANET HONG is a writer and translator based in Vancouver. Her translation of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale was a finalist for both the 2018 PEN Translation Prize and the 2018 National Translation Award. She has also translated Ancco’s Bad Friends, Seong-nan Ha’s Flowers of Mold, and Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s Grass.

SAMANTHA KIRBY is a third-year MFA candidate in literary translation at the University of Arkansas, where she serves as translation editor in fiction for the Arkansas International. She is the recipient of the 2018 Lily Peter Fellowship in Translation.