An interview with Sora Kim-Russell, translator of Hwang Sok-yong’s Princess Bari

by Philip Gowman on 12 February, 2015

in General book news | Interviews and features | Korean literature in translation

Those of you who came along to the London Book Fair last year and were tantalised by seeing a translation of a passage from Hwang Sok-yong’s Princess Bari – at the time unpublished in English, and with no indication even that any more of the book had been translated – will be delighted by this news. Garnet Publishing is launching a new imprint, Periscope, which intends to present bold, distinctive voices in fiction and non-fiction from around the world. Their first tile, scheduled to be released at the end of March1, will be Hwang’s 2007 novel, in a translation by Sora Kim-Russell.

Sora Kim-Russell in a crowded subway

Sora Kim-Russell in a crowded subway

To whet your appetite for the new publication, LKL conducted an email interview with the translator, who has also brought us major titles such as Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll be right there and Gong-Ji-young’s Our Happy Time.

How do you feel about Princess Bari being published? 

Princess Bari coverI’m pretty ecstatic to have this published. The whole process was quite a whirlwind. Last January, I was introduced to Hwang Sok-yong by his French translator, Choi Mikyung, who teaches in the same department as me at Ewha University. We discussed which of his books (that were not yet published in English) would make the most sense for me to work on, and we settled on Princess Bari. I worked on the translation throughout the spring and summer, had a couple of “cross-checkers” go over my work, and then handed the manuscript off to the editor sometime in the autumn. The editing process turned out to be a lot of fun—I really enjoyed working with Mitch Albert, the editor over at Garnet, who’s heading up Periscope, their new literary imprint that is publishing Princess Bari. He asked great, insightful questions about the text, which helped to develop the translation further and untangle a few lingering issues. And the author, of course, was always ready with answers and explanations and funny comments. So altogether, it took about a year from start to finish. Since the book isn’t on the shelves yet, I can’t say it’s 100% “off my desk”, but it is nevertheless a tremendous relief to know it’s ready to launch. There’s this point in the revision and editing process where all of the loose pieces suddenly click into place and you know it’s done—it’s hard to beat that feeling.

What were the challenges in translating the text?

Well, the first challenge was the use of regional dialect. The first part of the novel is set in North Korea, and the characters’ speech reflects that. The decision was made early on to not attempt to recreate that dialect in English, but it was still an effort to decipher the dialect. There was one passage in particular (where a character is retelling part of the original Bari folktale) that seemed to stump everyone. I talked to the writer, of course, but asking the writer isn’t always an instant panacea. Even after you get their explanation, there is still the challenge of making the prose or dialogue work in English.

One of the other challenges was cultural references. There were the usual Korean references, such as food or parts of a house, but there were also broader religious and cosmological references, such as shamanism and the afterlife, and scenes set in China and England, as well as characters from other parts of the world. Circumscribing all of these cultural references is the fact that the novel is told from the point of view of Bari, who is relatively young and has had minimal schooling. I didn’t use any footnotes, so any explanations or supporting details had to be folded into her narrative. Bari is very precocious, but I still had to consider how much she would know and try to frame her explanations or descriptions of those references in her voice.

What also makes cultural references interesting to deal with in translation is when they have analogues in English. For example, Korean folklore contains references to a lord or creator who resides in the sky. There are similarities, of course, to the “God” of Western theology, but it’s also not at all the same. So do you translate the word as “God,” knowing it will be read in the monotheistic sense? Or do you look for other ways to convey the concept? This sort of question arose for all sorts of things, from what to call that divine being who lives somewhere overhead, to a particular type of “cake”, to “totem poles”, and so on. The tricky part is revealing the overlap enough to make it easier for the reader to picture, while still keeping that item culturally distinct.

Hwang Sok-yong

Hwang Sok-yong at the 2014 London Book Fair

How would you compare Princess Bari with other of Hwang Sok-yong’s works?

Princess Bari is very much in the same vein as his other works in that he takes on some huge social issues and explores them from the point of view of the mitbadak, i.e. the bottom of the system. That’s reflected in his use of language—his writing can be very lyrical but the vocabulary is never too highfalutin, and his characters tend to be “salt of the earth” types. It’s also similar to his other works in that he uses levity to balance the sorrow. I think it’s very easy to miss the earthy humor of Korean, so I hope it’s not lost in this translation. As far as differences, Princess Bari differs from his other works in English translation in that the story is told in the voice of a young woman.

What would you most like to see published in translation next?

I would love to see a comedic novel published in translation, and would personally enjoy taking on that challenge. Korean literature is known for its love of tragedy, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Humor is hard to translate, and it can sometimes get washed out in translation, or is overlooked in the first place. I love when translators are able to preserve humor, whether it’s slapstick or dark or what-have-you.

What’s the weirdest thing you had to research for this translation?

This translation required quite a bit of research, including regional varieties of Korean folklore, the metric structure of shamanic verse, and the progression of a traditional Pakistani wedding, but in the end, my favorite thing I had to look up was Misgurnus mizolepis, a.k.a. the “loach” or “mudfish,” which Hwang described to me as the “scallywag of the freshwater fish world”. That description alone made my day, but then I came across this website: http://www.loaches.com/, which offers this enticing welcome: “Are you interested in Loaches?  Do you like them?  Do you love them? Do you think you might be a Loachaholic? Then you just discovered the greatest community of like-minded people anywhere.” It’s hard not to love being a translator when you get to read things like that. We didn’t end up using the word “loach” in the translation, but it’s still fun to know that there’s such a thing as a “loach enthusiast.”

Many thanks to Sora Kim-Russell for her detailed answers to our questions. You can find more about the book on the Periscope website, or preorder it on Amazon.co.uk.

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  1. Amazon.co.uk has the availability date as 27 April 2015. []

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