We’re already almost two weeks into 2016 now but I’m only just getting round to really processing everything that happened last year. It was one hell of a year, and I’m left wondering if there will ever be a year to top it, but life goes on and I’ll certainly do my best.
Last January I left my job as a (technical) translator at a research institute and in February I went hiking in Nepal for a month.
Then in March I started studying at Ewha Womans University with a fellowship from the International Communication Foundation. My first semester went by in a blur, but looking back I think that I did learn a lot, and my Korean writing skills have definitely improved.
In May I took my first ever trip to the United States to take part in the 3rd International Conference of NextGen Korean Studies Scholars (NEKST) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.It was a brilliant event to be part of as a graduate student because there was a friendly and supportive atmosphere and there were just the right number of participants to make it feel cosy while still being an active forum for debate. I gave a presentation entitled ‘Castle or Chicken Coop? Apartments as Experienced by Housewives in Korean Fiction.’ To my horror I managed to make a spelling mistake and so some people may have been disappointed that my paper didn’t talk about a military coup by chickens, but rather the way in which apartment spaces are represented in literature by female Korean writers.
As this was my first visit to America I actually felt an odd sense of culture shock, as a British person and coming from Korea. First of all everything seemed huge, from houses and cars to coffee cups and breakfast plates. I also felt that the academic atmosphere was very different – there is little chance that as a masters student I would ever be allowed to present a work in progress at such an event in Korea. I was really fortunate to be able to share my work and get feedback on my paper, as it is now slowly evolving into my MA thesis. It was also great to see what other scholars were studying and how they were going about it, and I was really inspired by some of the people that I met.
In July I traveled to the UK to spend time with friends and family and also ended up doing my first ever interpreting job. I don’t really think I was any good at it, but given the circumstances the clients were grateful that I made it to their meeting and enabled them all to communicate.
Then at the end of the month I was able to take part in the International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School run by the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. It was quite a week! Thanks to the LTI Korea, for the first time the summer school included a Korean language section and so along with four other budding translators of Korean into English and Professor Kim Chung-hee, I got to spend five days with star literary translator, and now also publisher, Deborah Smith, and Han Kang, one of the most highly regarded writers in contemporary Korea. Together we translated a few sentences from the short story Europa (which you can read here). Han Kang wrote an article about our activities which pretty much sums it all up: we translated as slowly as possible, mulling over every word, every combination and every comma until the translated words became a kind of hypnotic chant.
Another great thing about the summer school was that I got to meet translators working with other languages, and hear about their experiences with publishing translations in the UK. It was also wonderful to see how captivated people in the UK were by Han Kang and her work in translation and this gave me great hope about the future of Korean literature in English translation.
When September came around it was time to get back to studying and begin my second semester at Ewha. The three courses I took spanned from Korean mythology as told by shamans during rituals, to drama theory, and Korean literary criticism of the 1960s. I ended up looking closely at the Princess Bari myth, interpretation in the process of ‘modernizing’ theater productions of Shakespeare plays (namely Othello), and the scholarly reception of Lee Ho Chul’s 1966 novel Seoul is Heaving.
November ended up being a pretty crazy month. On November 1st I found out that I had been awarded the Korea Times Translation Award for poetry, and then a week later I was off the America again, this time to give a presentation at the Korean Literature Association Conference held at Duke University. This time around I presented on a rather odd paper that I wrote for one of my classes in my first semester at Ewha and has found a special place in my heart. Entitled ‘British-Korean Encounters: Late-Chosŏn Diplomacy and 1930’s Medievalism’ the paper brought together Yi Jong-ung, who traveled to Britain in 1902 and wrote an epic poem about his travels, and Joan Grigsby who lived in Seoul from 1929 to 1930 and wrote poetry while she was here. Although it isn’t the most coherent structure for an academic paper, I love the idea of bringing these two travelers together and I was lucky to get some helpful feedback at the conference as to how to proceed with this work.
In December while I was finishing up my second semester I began two new things, writing columns for Korea.net and occasionally featuring in TheBookend, a radio show in Seoul TBS eFm. I have written three articles for Korea.net so far, one about 3rd Line Butterfly – my favorite Korean band, one about Han Kang in translation and one about the Korean word oppa. The ‘oppa’ article is perhaps a bit brash and maybe controversial, indeed I’m not sure I agree with it anymore, but it certainly got people talking, and hopefully thinking too.
As for TheBookend, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in two ’roundtable’ discussions with Anton Hur and Jamie Park, one where I got to talk about my translations of Jin Eun-young and one where we explored the Princess Bari myth and subsequent uses of the story in contemporary culture.
Another really important part of 2015 for me was taking the LTI Korea Translation Atelier Course. From March to December with a long break in the summer we met every fortnight for what was basically like a creative writing workshop. With four students and the acclaimed translator Sora Kim Russell (Bae Suah – Nowhere to be Found; Hwang Sok Yong – Princess Bari +++) as our teacher, guide and moderator, each session two of us presented our translation work to the group and got comments, corrections and feedback. Having such a small group meant that our class was really cosy and we were free to discuss and go through each work thoroughly. Literary translation can be a pretty lonely activity, but thanks to the translation atelier I’ve made some real translation buddies and we’ve already begun to collaborate on certain works. Also it’s been so valuable to get advice and be able to ask questions of someone who has already been through the process of translating a novel and having it published multiple times. One of the most memorable moments for me was when I was told something like: now is the time to use the F-word, that what it says in the Korean, just use it. It was a very exciting moment as you will imagine 😉
If 2015 was a year of action, I feel like 2016 is going to be a year of eating garlic in a cave. Like the bear in the Dangun myth who goes into a cave and doesn’t see the sunlight for a month in order to become human, there are things I need to chip away at and get done from the confinement of my desk and the school library in order to progress on to new things. This year I will be writing my MA dissertation, going back to the different papers that I began last year and trying to bring them to fruition, and of course translating. Translating and translating and hoping that someone will want to read the results.