Charles on Translation

Charles at Liminality has some interesting things to say about translation. Personally, while I have to respect anyone who translates a whole book,  or even a whole short story, I’ve come across some in Korea that are just clinkers, and I’ve discovered at least one translator who is consistently poor, or at least, I haven’t liked any of the things I’d read that were translated by him.

Lime and I looked through the list in the back of one of my books, which is from a pretty ubiquitous line of translated Korean short stories — The Portable Library of Korean Literature is the name of the line. I have enjoyed a fair number of the ones I have read — though I was surprised to discover how many I hadn’t yet gotten to — but the thing that kills me is that I cannot find anything more by most of the authors, at least not in print form. For example, I’d love to read more of Kim Young-ha, or Yi Sang, but I haven’t managed to find anything more by either of them. (Wait, I do have a collection of poetry on order that contains some of Yi Sang’s work, but I have to say I’m more interested in the fiction.)

So of course, I’m sympathetic to Charles’ idea that it’s better to translate work in collections, rather than just as individual stories. At least, for me, this would be a big plus — I’d love to see more Korean short-story collections in English, at least by authors I like.

The problem with that, and what I imagine is one reason that novels would sell better, is that short-story collections have less of a market worldwide than novels. This is definitely true in SF and other speculative fiction genres, which is weird. Short story markets are fewer, they pay less, and not as many people subscribe to the magazines. As for short story collections, I’ve noted over the years how many collections are published by different publishers than the ones who put out novels by the same author: it’s a little disturbing, and the trend seems, to me, to have increased in the last few years. But it’s a reflection of the market. Lots of people say that they don’t like short stories. Heck, until not long ago, I thought the novel was where it was at, too — and novels are still what I read more of, though I’m coming to terms with how hard writing a really good short story actually is.

I wonder how that works in Korea. I know that sometimes when I recommend a book in English to Lime, she says she prefers novels to short stories, which to me is a shock since, reading it in her second language, I’d imagine she’d want a breather here and there.  It’s not like she’s never read any short fiction: we sat around going, “What about the one where the guy takes the bus to the beach to kill himself, no wait, to a funeral, and he hears voices singing pansori by the ocean, or something like that?” But it seems to me that a lot of people I know are like that: however much they enjoy poetry, or are familiar with the great short stories of the past, it’s the novel that grabs them, just as short film has really failed to take off as a form of any real commercial significance. (Well, a little less than that, but you get the picture.)

I suspect one reason people aren’t into short fiction is that most of the boring crap they’re forced to read in school is short fiction. (Followed by poetry from a context so alien they have no hope of getting it.) Reading a bad novel in high school didn’t put me off novels, and as soon as I read e.e. cummings I was all about the poetry, but Ray Bradbury and a few others turned me off short stories in a way that I didn’t get over until I began to study literature again in my mid-twenties… and even now, given a choice between short stories and a novel, I’m 60% of the time going for the novel, all things being equal.

So anyway, I do have to wonder how that bodes for the mass majority of Korean fiction in translation. My impression is that short stories are a more appropriate way of dipping into a foreign culture, in some ways — it’s digestible, even when it’s very compact — but on the other hand, novels are almost completely certain to sell better. Then again, the margin of difference between sales of a translated short story collection and a translated novel may not be so wide as I imagine. I have no idea. I guess I’ll wait and see what Charles has to say about it.

8 thoughts on “Charles on Translation

  1. I think if you were looking at the decline of short stories as an art form you’d have to look at the decline in circulation of most general interest publications. Short stories are written for magazines, and people just aren’t buying magazines like they used to.

    I’d also pin part of the blame on a decline in the male readership of fiction. If you look at the demographics for literature in general, it’s largely driven by a female audience.

    There has been an exodus of male readers from fiction to an almost exclusive diet non-fiction. Short fiction, which occupies a small part of the pond to begin with, is fishing from that small pool.

    Publishers are one of the few businesses that don’t do any market research about their customers and what they are looking for. Business practices in the field have largely gone unchanged since the 1950’s.

  2. I think it has to do with TV and DVDs, just like the decline in concert attendance occurred when people could listen to bands and orchestras in their own home. When you HAVE to go to a concert to hear music, it becomes an event to plan. When you can have music anytime, live music is just a little better. (And with smoke, and crowds, sometimes not.)

    But yeah, declining readership in general and male readership probably has something to do with it. That’s weird, since most of the people I know (male and female) read fiction more than nonfiction. But I think most of them also don’t use TVs the way that most people do.

    In a way, I’m thankful publishers haven’t adopted the kinds of practices we see in the film industry. I’d vomit regularly if authors were told, “Yeah, audiences aren’t so comfortable with the lesbian subplot, can you cut it?” or “Yeah, we need a little more violence in this, to sell it.” Bill Hicks’ critique of this practice still stands: it’s impossible to create art when a few dozen random yahoos are being injected into the process.

  3. Good to see that piece still getting some mileage (especially seeing as I haven’t written anything new since then).

    I have to admit that I don’t know very much about the market end of the translation biz. I translated one of Kim Young-ha’s novels last year, but just last month a native-speaker (English) reviewer said that the book probably wouldn’t float in the Western market. So I have no idea if it will ever get published (it wasn’t going to be published for a few years anyway to avoid flooding the market, but still). Quite depressing, actually.

    I like both short stories and full-length novels. Sometimes I’m in the mood for one, sometimes I’m in the mood for the other. A drop in interest in short stories abroad might indeed be bad news for Korean lit in translation, since the short story is really the heart and soul of Korean literature.

    Oh, and reading Yi Sang’s poetry in translation is an exercise in futility. Then again, some might say the same thing about his poetry in the original Korean. Obscure stuff. His fiction is a bit better. I wonder if “Wings” (날개) has been translated.

    Sorry for the fragmentary response. I’ll mull this over for a while and see what I can come up with. I’ll also be attending a brief conference tomorrow on “The FTA and strategies for introducing Korean books overseas – the task of translation and the training of translators.” Maybe I’ll find some inspiration there as well. I’m not sure how the FTA fits into all of this, but we’ll see.

    (On the off chance that you have time and are interested in attending, drop me a line and I’ll give you the info. I’m sure you have better things to do, but I figure it can’t hurt to offer.)

  4. Charles,

    Ugh, how depressing. (Though I have to confess I’d love to read that Kim Young-ha translation.) If it’s any consolation, I’ve written three novels so far, and only the last one could be even remotely publishable, if I work hard on cleaning it up. Hm, did the reviewer say anything about what books would float in the Western market? I mean, there’s books I’ve seen on the shelf I’d think wouldn’t float at all…

    Yeah, “The Wings” is in the first of those Portable Korean Library series. It’s a weird story but one of my favorites, and tho I can’t compare to the original, it seems like a good translation.

    No worries about the fragmentary response… I’l dizzy with all the stuff going on. I won’t be able to make it to the conference, but I’m curious what they’ll say. Maybe sometime this week, or next, we can meet up and talk about it?

    Anyway, welcome back… I get the impression you just got back from Taiwan, not long ago.

  5. Film is a collaborative medium. It takes a lot of people to make a film, even before you start talking about money. They are expensive, so since there is money on the line, I can understand why the people bankrolling the film might want more (or less) sex and violence.

    Book publishing does have a lot more leeway, but the publishers tend to make their money on the margins. Certain authors and areas end up carrying the company while the rest of the company is awash in a sea of red ink.

    With a bit more audience research publishers might not have to rely so much on breakout hits like Stephen King and focus more on servicing their smaller niche audiences better.

  6. Yes, but there’s also the fact that (worldwide) film projects are at least affected by, if not dominated by, concerns regarding the MPAA and their ratings system. This is one reason why so many films these days are dogshit. The people bankrolling films have only one concern, most of the time, which is why films are rarely made to challenge people. A movie franchise based on a ride at Disneyland is, well, what you get.

    While I agree that it’d be nice if book publishers had more idea of what’s likely to sell and not sell — and how much — because it would mean fewer writers whose careers get aborted when inflated advances come their way and their first novel undersells expectations, I also think it’d be dreadful for publishing to be 100% about money, and I am hopeful that revolutions in bookbinding technology will at least change the game a little. What worries me is the risk aversion that comes when market researchers are handed the reins and determine more than they should. Risk is fundamental to success; well-informed risk is better, but poorly-informed risk, if it’s industry-wide, is preferable to deep-rooted risk-aversion.

    Trust me, though, I know the value of market research. One of my ex-employers didn’t do it, and when I did a little, on the fly, and tried to convince the CEO that a project that was being started up was a bad idea, it was shrugged off as nothing. But the writing was on the wall for me by then: I knew the company was going to be in trouble soon as I saw serious research and sensible strategy suggestions based on it being shrugged off as nothing.

    Whatever. We’ll probably be downloading books for cash in PDF form and paying for their instantiation as a hard-copy artifact sooner or later. That’s gonna be a whole new game, methinks I’m a little scared, but it’ll be interesting, at least.

  7. Most films made in the USA recoup their money overseas. It’s the reason why films are made based on rides at Disneyland – with a lot of explosions and relatively straightforward dialogue anyway can watch and enjoy the films.

    I’m a Coen brothers fan, and the impressive thing about their some of their films is the domestic returns. Most of the $60 million made on that film was made in the North America. The complexity of the dialogue and plot in the average Coen brothers film can make it very appealing to domestic viewers tired of the same old same old.

  8. Gord,

    Yeah, we got back late Sunday night. No jet lag, though, so recovery was quick.

    I’m probably going to have to make the trek to school sometime next week, so maybe we can work something out (finally). I’ll drop you a line when I know more.

    As for “The Wings,” I haven’t read the translation, so I wouldn’t be able to make a comparison either. I know it sounds odd, seeing as I’m a translator and all, but I find it difficult to bring myself to read translations–a lot of them are just awful. But maybe I’ll pick up “The Wings” and give it a look.

    I should really do a translation for that series, too. I know the institute would love to see something like that from me. It’s just been so long since I’ve translated something that short. Hmm, maybe that can be a project for after I finish my dissertation.

    But I ramble. Sorry for clogging up the comments. I’ll see you in email.

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