Alan Chong Lau interviews Bruce Fulton on his book, “Modern Korean Fiction.”
Pacific Reader Coordinator

Q: How did you initially get interested in Korea and, more importantly, become involved in translating Korean literature?

A: I got interested in Korea when I went there as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1978-79. I liked the food, I liked the people, and I liked the countryside, where I spent my first year, before being assigned to Seoul National University in 1979. That’s also where Chan and I met and were married (in 1979). I like to tell people I got into translating Korean literature because my birthday is on Korean Alphabet Day (Oct. 9, the day the new Korean script, hangul, was promulgated in 1446). The real reason is that in 1979 I met author Hwang Sun-won, whose novel “Namu tul pit’al e soda” was being translated into English by a colleague at SNU. After proofreading this man’s translation, which was titled “Trees On the Cliff,” I subsequently had occasion to read a collection of his stories translated by Edward Poitras. That got me even more interested in him, and when I returned to Korea in the summer of 1983 for language study at Yonsei U in Seoul, an opportunity arose for Chan and myself to translate Hwang’s novel “Umjiginun Song”; our translation was published in 1985 titled “The Moving Castle.”

Q: I notice from past translations that you always strive to do translations of more contemporary material and also include more women writers. Any reason for this?

A: Actually, I have no preference between contemporary fiction (in Korea “contemporary” means post-1945; stories written during the colonial period [1910-45] are generally termed “early-modern”) and early-modern fiction. If you’ve seen “A Ready-made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction” (University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), which I translated with the late Professor Kim Chong-un, you’ll see that all the stories date from the 1920s, 1930s, and in the case of one story, 1943. My main concern is how well the story is written and how it engages me.

As for writing by women, Hwang himself introduced us to two contemporary women writers, O Chong-hui and Kang Sok-kyong, and our translations of these writers’ works led to our 1989 “Words of Farewell” collection, which put contemporary Korean women fiction writers on the world map for the first time. When we find a writer we like we tend to continue with that writer, which explains why we’ve translated a dozen or so stories by O. Coincidentally, women fiction writers in Korea were making a breakthrough in terms of acceptance by the patriarchal Korean literature establishment, and Chan and I were encouraged by the success of “ Words of Farewell “ (which comprised three authors) to offer a greater sampling of women’s voices (eight, to be exact) in our 1997 “Wayfarer” collection. Beyond these factors, I am interested in how women in a patriarchal society express themselves in literature, and Korea is a good case.

Q: What challenges does translating from Korean to English involve? Are there any particular problems that are unique to the Korean language?

A: The primary challenges are lexical and what I would call subtextual. Korean is a very rich language (and is considered one of the most difficult languages for Westerners to learn) that is about half Chinese loan-words and half native vocabulary. So for me vocabulary building is a never-ending task. The subtextual challenges arise from the rich cultural tradition that informs Korean arts, including the literary arts, and also from the strong element of the Korean literature establishment that emphasizes the importance of authors’ engaging themselves in their works with issues of historical, political, social, or cultural relevance. This means that there is a great deal of cultural and other information that is often not made explicit in writing, because the author will assume that his or her readership is aware of it; much of this information must be mined during the translation process and sometimes made explicit in the translation in order for the narrative to make sense.

I wouldn’t say there are problems that are unique to Korean, but there are certainly challenges in terms of speech levels (several depending on status of speaker and counterpart), dialect, and the occasional unstated subject of a sentence or clause.

Q: Your most recent publication is “Modern Korean Fiction,” an anthology edited by yourself and Youngmin Kwon (Columbia University Press). It seems like this collection is one of the first to cover the length and breadth of the whole 20th century and also includes women writers, North Korean writers and Wolbuk writers (those who migrated to the north after 1945). Can you explain the significance of this and why you felt it was important?

A: There have been previous Korean literature anthologies that covered the modern period till the time they were published, but few if any remain in print and the ones that do often reveal problems of heavy-handed editing (in terms of dulling the distinction among the various authors’ voices) and slipshod translation. Some of the goals we had in mind in assembling this anthology are as follows:

1. Coverage from the 1920s into the 1990s (the idea for the book dates from the 1990s, which explains why we didn’t select a story from the new millennium — few if any such anthologies are now in print).

2. We wanted to match authors with translators who were already concentrating on those authors (other anthologies suffer from haphazard matches between author and translator, tending to produce indifferent translations that do not come alive in English)

3. We wanted to include North Korea (unavailable in almost every other English-language translation of modern Korean literature)

4. We wanted to offer what we considered definitive translations of canonical stories (inadequately translated previously)

5. We wanted to have representative coverage of women writers (because until recent decades they were not allowed equal access to the male-dominated Korean literature establishment)

Q: What is your favorite story in the collection and what story posed the most challenge to you personally in translating and why?

A: We’re partial to our own translations in the book (five of them); if I had to make a choice I would list “Knifeblade” by Cho Se-hui for the subtle brilliance of the narrative, and “Wayfarer” by O Chong-hui for the poignance of the protagonist’s situation (being abandoned by family and society for a supposed psychiatric problem). The most challenging of the five stories to translate was probably “Crows” by Yi T’ae-jun, because of the elegance of his style and some background involving Edgar Allan Poe and “The Raven” that we needed to research.

Q: To what degree to you think Korean literature reflects the reality of present day Korean society and culture?

A: Korean literature has always done a good job (in the long run, maybe too good) in reflecting the realities of modern Korea. Sometimes, though, this emphasis on relevance has resulted in an attenuation of imagination among writers, as well as a burden felt by writers who are more interested in storytelling and other aspects of literary art than they are in tackling big issues.

Q: Why is it important to translate Korean literature into English?

A: It is important to translate Korean literature into English because there are Korean authors and works that deserve an international audience; because Korea’s cultural products should be as well known overseas as its commercial products; because the world outside Korea has had a lot to do with Korean history and can see in much of Korean literature the results of that influence; and because readers need to know something about Korea besides kimchi and “Mash.”

Q: To what degree does the translator’s own cultural upbringing and personal life experience have a bearing on how you translate?

A: My cultural upbringing has a bearing in both the narrow sense that my literary interests were early on shaped by a liking for the old-fashioned well-made short story — and it is to that kind of story that I think I respond best as a translator — and in the broader sense that as someone who has lived primarily in an English-speaking environment and whose translations are marketed to that environment, I am concerned not so much about what Korean works and authors should be translated for “foreigners” (this is the expressed intention of at least one other translator) as I am with the necessity that our translations come alive in English. This latter tendency has in turn influenced our choice of the authors and works we translate: we like to think that those authors and works may come alive in English more successfully than other authors and works. As far as personal life experience is concerned, the four years or so I have lived in Korea have certainly shaped my approach to translation, in that I find myself more of a medium between the two cultures and languages than one whose viewpoint might otherwise tend to be locked on one side or the other of the Pacific. There is also the very practical benefit of being able to visualize or otherwise recall from my personal experience in Korea and with Koreans some of the people, places, and things that appear in the works we translate.


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