If South Korean literature has recently gained popularity in the English speaking world it is thanks to the work of committed literary translators whose effort didn’t only consist into translating a Korean text into English but also into bringing to the attention of a larger audience authors and works of literature that otherwise will be unknown to the general public. It is the case of the collective known as “Smoking Tigers” of which Anton Hur, our guest for today, is a member.
Hur was born in Stockholm and raised in Hong Kong, Ethiopia, Thailand and South Korea. He attended both international and Korean schools and he speaks English and Korean fluently from an early age. His ability to inhabit both languages (and the cultural world that they shape) gave him an exceptional sensitivity for words, an impeccable literary taste and, in a certain way, marked his professional career.
Hur finds and selects himself the books he would like to translate and then he pitches them to English publishers. Thanks to him we have the chance to read authors like Sang Young Park (“Love in the Big City” – Grove Atlantic and Tilted Axis) and Bora Chung (“Cursed Bunny” – Honford Star) who are among the most interesting and innovative voices of South Korean contemporary literature.
When I read your bio I thought “Amazing, the life I’ve always dreamt to have”. The truth is I don’t know what it meant to you.
I mean, bios are always a little ideal, a little fancy, if you know what I mean. I’ve never outright lied in a bio, but when I’m writing them, which I have to do fairly frequently now, it’s pretty funny because the lived experience of my life feels very lazy, and very unproductive. I don’t think I’m particularly more accomplished than other people in my profession of my age group. Jennifer Croft is as old as I am, and she’s done much more than I have! I’ve been fortunate and privileged more than accomplished, to be honest. When I look back on my twenties, all I remember is watching a lot of late-night cable television.
There is no conventional path for translators. To me what all they have in common is an extraordinary sensitivity to words, to cultures and in creating bridges between them. You studied psychology and law at university, when and how did you realize you’d fit in this role?
I’m glad you mentioned how there is no conventional path and the importance of a translator’s sensitivity, because I absolutely agree with you and I’m always telling young translators that there’s a limit to emulating the people who came before you. You have to build your own practice and develop your own praxis. I know it seems daunting, but it’s actually quite fun and an amazing adventure. Part of my studying law and psychology in my twenties was out of intellectual greed more than a desire to do anything with either education. I still don’t know how it informs my worldview. Maybe it helps me organize my thoughts a bit better? I did use my “legal mind” to stop a wrongful eviction once. I still don’t know if I fit into this role, I am constantly rethinking how I do things and what this role should entail. I think everyone should, with any job.
Until few decades ago translators did their job quietly waiting for books to come. Nowadays their role is much more complex than before, and it includes some scouting and marketing tasks. Most of the times, translators find authors whom they propose to publishers. Being an active part of the whole process means responsibilities but also the choice to pick up authors.
This does seem to be the case, although we’re seeing more and more literary agents and scouts enter translation space, which is very helpful in many ways.
I read how you discovered Bora’s book – in a bookstall at a fair book –, how do you usually choose the authors you’d like to translate?
I think mostly through Korean literary magazines, to be honest. There’s also a great quarterly mini-anthology published by Moonji books, and a yearly poetry anthology is apparently in the works. Bora was an extraordinary case. Genre fiction doesn’t occupy these literary spaces, which is why I had to go looking for an SFF author.
You’re active on social media, a useful tool through which you can raise your voice as translator. In Italy translators are still struggling to get more attention. What about Korea?
It’s generally the same here, but I can’t really speak for the Korean translators who translate into Korean. I’m grateful to Twitter for the access to networks and a platform to engage in discourse and disseminate ideas, it’s just so hard and isolating to be a translator in this industry. Social media has horrible effects on your psyche, however, effects that are well-documented, but there are so few platforms for translators and translators of color.
When you work on a new translation what is your routine if you have one?
I have to find a way to translate each author. It’s intellectual to be sure, but also very intuitive. I find myself discovering a momentum as I go, and my daily page count increases the later I get in a book. It’s a bit frustrating when I have an author I’ve never translated before and I find myself up against a deadline and I can’t go as fast as I would like to. So I try to relax and listen very carefully to my inner voice, to free my subconscious so it’s not so stressed. Once I get into that relaxed state, I can hear what my brain is saying and start writing it down. It’s the same process as when I write.
I guess you change your approach to authors every time, how would you define the relationship between author and translator?
Almost like a woodcutter and a carpenter. The woodcutter provides the wood and the carpenter makes the furniture. I don’t actually know how it works in the carpentry world, but I’m assuming the carpenter doesn’t really consult the woodcutter (that much) when they’re making furniture. That’s how I tend to approach this relationship. I even have an author I’ve never spoken to. As for the authors I do speak to, we don’t really talk about translation. We talk about submissions and other people’s work and so on, or just hang out. Deborah Smith taught me to call the source text the “source,” not the original. Original means the translation is fake. Source means the translation used the source as a source to create a new thing of its own. All of the writers I have translated understand this process.
Translating literature is a process, a tough one, what does it mean to you? Does it involve a form of art?
It is a lot of problem-solving, and not just on the page. Translators are involved in almost every step of the bookmaking process, and it’s this generalist-in-specialist sense that I believe is the essence of being a literary translator. It is definitely an art. To me, an artist is someone who is sensitive to the world, to their materials, and to themselves enough to perceive a thing that others normally overlook, someone who can perceive this and have the skills to bring it to the attention of others. A translator has to have an extremely sensitive reading to their source text, to understand it at a profound level that’s normally unavailable, consciously at least, to the casual reader. This way, being an artist is not a professional category, it is a state of mind, a combination of instinct and skill and open-mindedness. Anyone in any profession can be an artist. Obviously this is hardly a new or original idea, and I think it applies extremely well to translators. We have to be sensitive to the language inside of us.
As reader I try to buy books in their original language, I’ve always had the feeling something can be lost or added during translation and when I find a good translator I stick to him/her. Who are the translators you esteem?
I’m kind of the opposite, I actually prefer reading things in translation a lot of the time. I like that extra filter of someone else’s reading. As a dyed-in-the-wool translator, I believe that if the source is good and the translator is good, the artistry of the source will shine through the flaws of the translator and indeed, the flaws of the source author. When I read translations by Arunava Sinha or Soje or Jeremy Tiang, I’m not thinking about what is lost or added, I’m looking at the translation in front of me and marveling at how I can sense the author’s intentions and aesthetics, of a work I haven’t read or can’t read, through a translation. I honestly don’t mind losing or adding things in translations. The translation is never going to sound like the source, it’s in a completely different language! There’s a line in AS Byatt’s POSSESSION where a character realizes that the ways in which something can be said is more interesting than the ways in which it couldn’t be. That’s how I feel about translation, and poetry, and literature itself.
I know you’ve been into English and Korean literature since you were a young man. Can you suggest us a few books?
Whenever someone asks me to recommend a Korean book, my go-to is Kyung-Sook Shin’s THE GIRL WHO WROTE LONELINESS because it’s the most important Korean novel written in the postwar era. If that’s not quite one’s vibe, I think readers will also appreciate Sang Young Park’s LOVE IN THE BIG CITY because of its urban themes of heady romanticism and loneliness. There are several translations of the former, and several translations are coming up for the latter. For English, AS Byatt is my all-time favorite writer, and POSSESSION is actually a good entry point into her extraordinary works. My favorite short story in the entire world is “Racine and the Tablecloth.” It’s about a translator.
In the last few years Korean Literature has gained huge popularity outside of South Korea itself. What is in your opinion the reason for such success?
I kind of want to say capitalism? What you’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg of truly vast amounts of money being invested into the development of music, film, and cultural production in Korea. Sure we have a tradition of respecting the arts, especially the literary arts, but what culture doesn’t? I also find it highly ironic that some of our most commercially successful works critique capitalism and yet sort of perpetuate it at the same time, like PARASITE or SQUID GAME. These works simply prove that the styles of capitalism they critique are now so robust, criticism of them actually enhances them. This is currently a huge part of Korean cultural discourse, one I hope people from around the world will partake in.
What are you currently working on?
I’m actually in the middle of a sample frenzy at the moment where I come up with samples for various books. These samples are then sent to Anglophone publishers, either by me or agents if the authors have agents—normally, it’s by me—to begin the very, very long acquisition process so I will have things to translate further down the line. I wish I could be more specific about what they are but it’s always vague as to what I’m allowed to reveal in public and what I’m not, so I tend to err on the side of caution. I think I can say, though, that I just finished translating a book on dysthymia, which is a form of low-grade, persistent depression, a condition I suspect many people have but don’t know it. The author, Baek Se Hee, wrote the book hoping it would help those who feel the same way as her, and I was very moved by her courage and honesty and generosity. And her sentence are lovely, too! The book is titled, I WANT TO DIE BUT I ALSO WANT TO EAT TTEOKPOKKI. Bloomsbury UK and US will publish it in the Anglosphere next year.
All images courtesy of Anton Hur
A big thank to Elisabetta Cesaroni, who wrote the intro