중앙데일리

The man who makes foreign authors into Korean bestsellers

‘I’ve focused on translation since 1996. It’s more meaningful to do a good translation than write a bad novel.’

Feb 25,2007
The final volume of “Roman’s Story,” Nanami Shiono’s 15-part novel based on the Roman Empire was recently translated into Korean.
It has been 11 years and 5 months since the first and second volumes were translated and introduced to Korean readers, and less than two months since the release of the 15th volume in Japan, on Dec 15.
The latest episode is called “The End of the Roman World.”
Part of the novel’s success in Korea, where it has sold over 250,000 copies, is owed to its translator, Kim Seok-hee, who turned the entire series into beautiful Korean. The following is an interview with Mr. Kim.

Q.Did you feel, when you read this book for the first time, that it was going to be a huge success?
A.Honestly I didn’t know if it was going to sell this well. In 1992 when “Roman’s Story” was first published in Japan there were stories about the author, Siono Nanami. But there was a tendency here to look down on the author because she was Japanese, a woman and an amateur writer.
In spring 1995 Kim Eon-ho, the president of Hangilsa Publishing, brought the author’s earlier works from Japan and gave them to me, Jeong Do-young and Oh Jeong-hwa (the translators of Shiono’s previous books).
I was the youngest of the three and I decided to do it because the author promised that she would write one volume every year for 15 years.

Why do you think the book received such praise in our society?
When the first volume came out globalization was a keyword in Korea.
I think the ideas about the world economy, localization and tolerance portrayed in the book were received as a model of globalization’s benefits. The reaction to the book was most enthusiastic in economic circles. I think the desire to have a leader with a genius for creativity who makes people feel safe made people read it. We all have a certain admiration for the Roman Empire, even if we are committed to democracy.

How did the translation go?
The Japanese publisher (Shinchosha) never gives me a copy ahead of time. I received the final episode of the book a day after it was released in Japan.
Two days before the publication I went through the previous books to get used to the rhythm again. I translated everyday for 10 hours a day, for about 20 days.
There are cases where you need to preserve the writer’s style, depending on the author, but that’s not really the case with Shiono. Her phrases are unsophisticated. It’s almost rough sometimes, so there is room for translators to fill in gaps and create an easy read.

What do you think about the culture of book translation in Korea, especially after the scandal of “Don’t Eat the Marshmallows”
There are swindlers in every sector of society. You can’t expect the world of translation to be an exception.
The culture of translation in Korea has become embarrassing. Translation is not even considered a research achievement for Korean professors. The standard of translation from Korean to English is worse. We can’t hope for Korea to ever be awarded a Nobel Prize with the current standard of translation.

Your first and only novel won a literature award. Do you feel a creative desire while you translate?
My first translation, “Hwasando,” was published in 1988. Shortly after my novel was selected by the Hankuk Ilbo. I used to say that translation is like my wife, and writing novels is like my lover. It’s not easy doing both. Often I couldn’t meet the deadlines for translation if I was doing a novel.
Since 1996 I’ve focused on translation. Now I feel that it’s more meaningful to do a good translation than write a bad novel. That’s given me an excuse to abandon my childhood dream of writing a novel. But I still take notes when there are subjects or scenes I could make into a good novel.


Kim Seok-hee translates English, French and Japanese into Korean. He graduated from Seoul National University in 1976 with a degree in French Literature.
In 1988, he was awarded Hankook Ilbo’s literature prize for his short novel “Wings of Ambition.” He has translated over 200 books including “The Naked Ape,” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” and “Around the World in 80 Days.”
In 1997, he published “60 Epilogues for Bookworms,” a collection of his selected postscripts. As the first winner of the Korean Translation Award in 1997, he is now the most highly paid translator in Korea.


By Lee Ji-young JoongAng Ilbo [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]



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