Translator Interview: Sora Kim-Russell

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sora kim-Russell is a poet and translator originally from California and now living in Seoul, South Korea. Her work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Azalea: A Journal of Korean Literature and Culture, Drunken Boat, Pebble Lake Review, The Diagram, and other publications. She teaches at Ewha Womans University. --Other Press
While studying abroad in South Korea, I had the most amazing opportunity to interview the translator of Kyung-sook Shin's I'll Be Right There, Sora Kim-Russell.  Her words were both insightful and inspiring. Continue Reading...

How did you get into the world of literary translation?
I kind of fell into it, as I always had an interest in literature. Starting in high school, I began writing poetry. I wrote all through college, got some work published, and when I moved to Korea, I was still actively writing.  My first job here was editing translations for a Korean studies journal, which sometimes involved retranslation. Through that, I found that I enjoyed the process of translation.  And it just happened that both a coworker and a friend mentioned a couple of opportunities related to literary translation: the Korea Times literature translation contest and the Korean Literature Translation Institute.  I won the Korea Times contest in 2005 for poetry translation, and KLTIs translation contest for new translators in 2007. From that point on, everything sort of came together.

Could you recommend a Korean book that you've enjoyed?
Park Min-gyu’s Legend of World Heroes. He was part of the reason I became interested in literary translationI read that novel in Korean and thought, This could be amazing in English. I think part of what happens when you become interested in translation is that you're reading literature that is not translated yet and you wonder why it isn't.  Another novel by Park Min-gyu came out last yearPavane for a Dead Princessso I think we will see more and more of his work being translated in the future.

What drew you to I'll Be Right There?
This project also sort of fell into my lap.  I'd read work by Kyung-sook Shin before but had not imagined that I would end up translating her. Chi-Young Kims translation of Please Look After Mom was such a grand slam that I figured she would continue as her translator.  So when I was offered the project, I was very surprised but of course you don't say no to an offer like that.  Shin has a very interesting style, so it seemed like it would be a really good challenge to take on.

In I'll Be Right There, what was your favorite scene to translate to English-- what spoke to you?  Why?
My favorite chapter to translate was A SINGLE SMALL BOAT with Dahn's letters.  There was something about his voice that really struck methe loneliness thats palpable in the way he describes the beach and the things around him.  And you never really get a full picture of what's happening with himI liked that incomplete glimpse into his life.  I also enjoyed Shins descriptive passages, such as when Jung visits Miru's apartment and is looking at the paintingthat passage really lingered with me when I read it the first time.

Tell us a little about the life of a translator.  What does a normal day look like when you are working on a project like I'll Be Right There?
I don't know if I'm a normal translator. I cant really speak for anyone else. I think we all have different schedules and different ways of working. For me, I like to be as immersed as possible so, ideally, I like to have a minimum of, let's say, three or four hours where I can just focus on translating.  I usually do that workeither translating or revising the translationbefore I move on to other things.  When deadlines are getting close, Ill even spend all day at it, like a regular 8-hour workday. Its doable but I dont necessarily recommend that, as it can be exhausting.  I also teach translation classes at Ewha Womans University and the Korean Literature Translation Institute, and I usually avoid working on a translation the same day I'm teaching.

What advice would you give to an up and coming translator?
My main advice is simply to read a lot and to read widely.  I also think it's important to be a writer in your own right, because you need to understand how prose works and how flexible English can be. I think what happens for people who are new to translation is that they don't have a wide range of expressions yetfor every word or phrase in Korean, they might have only one or two corresponding phrases in Englishwhereas if you do your own writing, youre more aware of how many different sentences are possible.

Did you come across any challenges when translating I'll Be Right There?  If so, what?
There were a lot of challenges, actually. It was probably the most challenging translation that I've done to date.  First, the writer's voice is very distinct. Shes different from other Korean writers, and her voice is consistent throughout all of her works. I didnt want to alter or diminish that voice. The other specific challenge was that the writer asked me not to alter the text. Of course, in translation, you dont want to rewrite the text, but you still have to assume a certain amount of flexibility in order to make it read well in English. Shin didnt want anything added, deleted or changed, so I had this extra challenge of trying to tread as lightly as possible while still taking Anglophone readers expectations into account.

What drew you to the Korean literature and language?
As far as the language, it was a personal connection for me: Im a biracial Korean-American, so the language has always been a part of my life. That said, I didnt start formally learning the language until college.  Once I did, I fell in love with the language, and the literature naturally followed.

During the process of translating I'll Be Right There, what was the nature of your relationship with Kyung-sook Shin, the author?  How much contact and collaboration went on?
There was a fair amount of contact and collaboration, especially compared to other translation projects Ive worked on, but it was mainly during the revision and editing stages.  I usually save my questions for the writer until Ive completed the rough draft, because I like the idea of being alone with the book and having my own understanding of it. It makes it easier to immerse yourself in the characters' lives.  But once that stage of translation was done, I began going back and forth with the writer, both to clarify parts of the text that were unclear or confusing and to discuss changes and alterations that were made in the translation. In some cases, that meant just a quick email to confirm a detail, and in other cases, we had face-to-face meetings to discuss the book.

Could you talk a little about the process of identifying and then translating the voice of Jung Yoon, the protagonist of I'll Be Right There?
It was definitely challenging at first.  When I first started translating the book, I didnt feel a strong personal identification with the character, so there was a process, for me, of understanding her and understanding what makes her tick, why she reacts to things the way she does, why she says the things she says.  But at some point it all clicked, and it became much easier to capture her voice. For example, one specific challenge was her tendency to hold backwhen other characters say things to her, she doesn't always answer immediately but instead echoes their words back to them. Her emotions are projected onto the world around her rather than being stated outright. I found this indirectness tricky to connect with emotionally, but once Id read and translated the entire book and saw how the pieces fit together, she suddenly made sense to me. I noticed how it wasnt just about the things she says directly but also the way she views the world, the details that she lingers overin other words, not just her direct dialogue and thoughts but all of the narrative sentences in between. That was where her personality revealed itself to me.

Are you currently working on any projects?  And if so, can you tell us about them?
I have two translations coming out next year: a novella called Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, from AmazonCrossings, and a novel called PrincessBari by Hwang Sok-yong, from Garnet Publishing in the UK.

The novella is set in 1988 and tells the story of a young woman whos working two jobs to support her dysfunctional familyher dad is in prison, her mom is an alcoholic, and her older brother is about to leave for Japan for a job as a manual laborer. Meanwhile, this old boyfriend named Cheolsu, whos from a very comfortable, middle-class family, comes back into her life. The novella is about the course of that relationship and what she learns about herself. But the writers style is experimental fiction, so its not told in a straightforward way. The story jumps back and forth in time and reflects the narrators psychological instability.

Princess Bari is about a North Korean girl who defects to China, where she finds work at a massage studio (legitimate massage, not prostitution) and makes her way to London in a container ship. There, she meets a Pakistani-British man who ends up wrongfully accused of being a terrorist. The novel is rooted in current eventsit begins with the North Korean famine that took place in the 1990s and continues up through the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York and the 7/7 suicide attacks in Londonand is framed around a Korean folktale called Princess Bari. In this tale, Bari is the seventh daughter of a king who wants a son. Shes abandoned as an infant, but later her parents become ill and the only cure is a special water that only Bari can retrieve. She journeys in search of the water and becomes a powerful shaman in the process. Bari is like the patron saint of Korean shamans, and is also the prototype for the title character of this novel.

Do you see the world of translation-- Korean literature, most specifically-- becoming more global?
Well, Korean literature is global in the sense that writers aren't just writing about Korea or setting their stories in Korea but are also writing stories set in other countries and writing characters of other races and nationalities. At the same time, there is a great deal of Korean literature being translated into many languagesnot just English. I think this trend will continue, partly because there is a lot of government support for translation, and also because there are a lot of different translators working hard to get books out onto the market. I think in the next few years we will see a great many Korean novels becoming available abroad.

Do you think America will pick up the titles as well because a lot of Korean literature in America is not widely popular...
I think there's potential but it will depend a lot on marketing.  The reality is that translated books are a small part of the overall book market. Plus, you have not only Korean literature in translation but also Korean-American literature, as well as non-Koreans who write about Korean. The question is, given these choices, what will drive American readers to choose to read a novel in translation?

What makes Korean literature Korean literature?
I suppose its the nationality of the writer that makes it Korean, or whether the novel is written in Korean. But I think what youre getting at with that question is whether Korean literature represents Korea. Personally, I think this idea of representing Koreaand I have to tread carefully hereis problematic. I doubt that most Korean writers are thinking about how to represent Koreathat is, what non-Korean readers will thinkwhen they are writing.  I think they write the stories they want to tell.  One thing that I've truly come to realize as a translator is that I'm not so much translating Korean literature as translating Kyung-sook Shins literature, and Hwang Sok-yongs literature, and Bae Suahs literature. They are all so distinct from each other. When I teach literary translation, as well, we address the same question: how is this writer different from other writers? Of course, that doesnt mean we dont also have to deal with cultural references or ask, What will the reader understand? But to be honest, in the end, sometimes the cultural details are the easiest to translate, while the hardest is, How do I make this English translation sound like it was written by this particular writer? How do I make it sound like this one, individual human being? So while I do understand the question of what makes Korean literature Korean, and I do think it's worth unpacking, the truth is that its not that important to the actual process of literary translation.

Thank you so much for the awesome answers, Ms. Sora Kim-Russell.  

Did you all enjoy the interview?  Want more from Sora Kim-Russell?  Follow her on Twitter and check out her website!

Have you read I'll Be Right There by Kyung-sook Shin yet?  Read my review HERE.

Happy reading!

You Might Also Like


  1. Sora Kim-Russell is a great literary Korean translator. Her way of translating Korean Novels are epic which captures emotions and feelings of the original writer.