Shin Kyung-sook's "Please Look After Mom"

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Shin Kyung-sook's "Please Look After Mom"

In just a few weeks since its American release, Shin Kyung-sook's "Please Look After Mom" has already made Korean literary history.

Knopf, the novel's U.S. publisher, has ordered a second printing of the book with plans for another after an initial 100,000 copies. The book most recently hit No. 14 on the New York Times best-seller list for hardcover fiction. And earlier this month, "Please Look After Mom" ranked 10th among literature books on Amazon.com.
"The American response to this book is unprecedented in Korean literature history," said Jang Eun-su, president of Korean publisher Mineumsa. "Since 2000, more and more Americans have become interested in Asian literature, so the intense interest in Shin's book is perhaps a result of current trends in the American publishing market."
Behind the book's success was Kim Chi-young, 30, the translator who worked to bring Shin's novel about a missing mother, which sold over 1.7 million copies in Korea, to English speakers around the world.
And the response has been positive. Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks wrote, "In spare, exquisite prose, Kyung-sook Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being." The New York Times' Mythili G. Rao said in his review, "Shin's prose, intimate and hauntingly spare in this translation by Chi-Young Kim, moves from first to second and third person, and powerfully conveys grief's bewildering immediacy."
A lawyer by training and a graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Kim now works as a fund-raising coordinator at a Los Angeles art gallery. Kim's talents run in the family. Her mother, Yu Yeong-ran, 57, translated Shin's "Where the Harmonium Once Stood" and also translated a novel by Park Wan-suh, who died on Jan. 23.
In an e-mail interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, Kim said her favorite compliment is when she hears that the novel seems to have been written by an English writer. And if possible, she said she would like to continue translating more novels.

Q. Lots of readers and critics say the book’s translation contributed to its success. What is your response to such positive feedback?

As a translator, I am happiest when I hear that the translated text reads as if it were written in English. This novel was the fifth Korean novel that I translated to be published in the U.S. I thought this novel could appeal to a wide range of diverse readers.

When you first read "Please Look After Mom," did you think it could appeal to Western readers?

I felt that "Please Look After Mom" could do well in the U.S., because it deals with a universal topic, and is a novel that tugs on the reader's heartstrings. When I told American friends about the book as I was translating it, I received quite a lot of positive feedback; they said they couldn't wait to read it.

As the translator of this book, why do you think this book has attracted so many American readers?

Of course, it helps that the publisher, Knopf, rolled out a large marketing campaign, and that we received great reviews from major publications such as The New York Times and O Magazine. But positive word of mouth is an important factor as well.

The fact that Shin's book ranked in the top 10 on Amazon.com’s best-seller list is apparently an event in Korean literature history.

There has been a surprising amount of attention and excitement surrounding this novel. For example, people are very interested in the translator of this book, which is something that rarely happens. A translator is usually behind the scenes, but with the surging interest in the book, I have even received a request for an interview with the BBC Radio. The fact that a Korean novel has entered the top 10 in the Amazon best-sellers rank among literary fiction is, in and of itself, noteworthy.

How long did it take to translate the entire text of the book?

In May 2009, the author's agent asked me to translate about 40 pages of the novel. I finished the sample in August, and in September, Knopf decided to publish the book. I finished the manuscript around February 2010. I edited the book in consultation with the author and the editor at Knopf. This timeline is very common in the American publishing world. The entire process actually took less time than usual, as the publisher wanted to have the book published before Mother's Day in May.

We heard Shin and Knopf had continuously communicated with each other to check the book’s translation before it was published. Were you involved in this process?

The author and editor communicated through me. I conveyed the editor's questions, suggestions and concerns, and translated and relayed the author's responses, as well as her own corrections. If there were additional questions after that, I went back to the author to make sure that everyone was satisfied with the edits. I have gone through this process with each of the authors for all of my translated novels. This process might be a bit foreign in Korea, but in my experience as both a translator and an editor at a New York publishing company, it's very important to facilitate conversations between the editor and the author, whether the work is written in English or translated.

Were you in contact with Shin while you were translating the book?

As I mentioned before, I helped the editor communicate with the author. However, even before the editing stage, if I had any questions I asked the author via e-mail. A direct translation can't be a good translation, at least in literature, because it won't be understood correctly by the target audience. There are numerous instances where an author will revise a text during the translation process. Translation is a part of the editing process, especially since the translated text is aimed toward an audience that may not know much about Korean culture.

In American publishing, we heard editors have a lot of power and can alter a book’s content or trim its original text. Did you also change some of the original text of "Please Look After Mom"?

The English edition isn't much different from the original. On a linguistic level, some extraneous words were taken out, but it didn't affect the original mood or tone.

Do you have your own principles for translating?

The most important factor in translation is that the translated text should evoke the same mood or feeling that one would experience when reading the original. There are times when an additional explanation has to be inserted in a natural way, and some phrases that read awkwardly or are repetitive in English must be edited out. If the target audience is the scholarly community, a word-for-word translation would work fine; the reader would realize that the phrasing is uniquely Korean. However, the general reading public doesn't read in that way. Unfortunately, dialects and honorifics are lost in translation. Translating a dialect from the Jeolla [region] would be awkward if, for example, it were rendered in an American Southern dialect. Translating these passages would depend on the specific situation.

Do you break sentences apart?

Because the way I translate isn't word for word, sometimes a sentence is cut in two and sometimes I merge several sentences into one. This is all to keep with the original's flow. A poetic description has to be read in a poetic way in English. Translating a literary text in a literal way would result in a stilted novel. If the original flows naturally, there's no reason to make the English become awkward simply because you want to keep the original's language structure. The English language has its own distinctive flow.

You use the term "Mom" in the title of the novel instead of "Mother.” Why?

In the U.K., the book will be published with the title "Please Look After Mother." The original title means "Mom," which is why we used "Mom" in English as well. Even adults call their mothers "mom" in the U.S., which is similar to Korea.

Which sentence was the most difficult to translate?

In the original, there was a reference to "Indio women." In Korea, this refers to indigenous people in South America, but the term "Indio" is not well known in English. The editor and I had several conversations about this. We didn't think Mom would use the term "indigenous people of South America" or "native people of South America." However, "Indian," for Americans, refers specifically to native peoples of North America, which wouldn't be the correct meaning. In the end, we agreed that Mom's character would more likely say "Indian," so we decided to go with that word.

What makes you happy when you translate a book?

I enjoy creating similar moods or evocations from two very different languages. I feel creatively satisfied when I translate terse Korean into terse English, masculine language into masculine language, and poetic sentences into poetic sentences.

Do you have any career plans for the future?

Translation is a parallel career to my day job, so I will continue to translate when I come across great novels. When I receive requests to translate, I will assess the work, and if I determine that I can translate it with passion, I will take it on. I currently have a few sample translations of novels that I have done at the request of agents. If the books sell and the publishers want to work with me, I will gladly finish translating the remainder.


By Shin Joon-bong, Yu I-na [heejin@joongang.co.kr]
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