Meet the translator behind two of the nominations for this year's International Booker Prize
The translations of two Korean books have made it onto the longlist for the 2022 International Booker Prize — a compilation of sci-fi/horror novellas titled “Cursed Bunny” (2017) by Bora Chung and queer fiction “Love in the Big City” (2019) by Park Sang-young.
The books are in the running for the British literary prize along with 11 other works such as “The Books of Jacob” (2014) by Nobel laureate Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and “More Than I Love My Life” (2019) by Israeli author and 2017 winner of the International Booker Prize David Grossman.
Listed among such literary heavyweights are not just Chung and Park but also their translator Anton Hur.
After translating both “Cursed Bunny” and “Love in the City” last year, the 41-year-old veteran translator based in Seoul has earned twin nominations for this year's International Booker Prize, arguably the most prestigious award that a literary translator can receive.
“The nominations mean the world,” Hur told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an online interview on March 18. “To have both of the books appear on the longlist is an incredible honor and something that I haven’t yet been able to fully process because it is so overwhelming.”
It wasn’t a coincidence that Hur was chosen to translate the two books. In fact, he approached the two authors and proposed that he translate their books to English.
Hur first encountered “Cursed Bunny” at a local book fair called Wowbook Festival in western Seoul, where he immediately asked author Chung and the book’s publishing house Arzak if he could translate it.
“Before ‘Cursed Bunny,’ I had never heard of Bora or had come across her writing,” said Hur. “But the first sentence of the book was so beautiful and the rest of that short story was so fun, funny, horrific, feminist — it was everything that I want a story to be.”
As for “Love in the Big City,” Hur was already familiar with the author because he had been translating Park’s works since 2017, a year after Park’s debut as a writer.
Though he felt very passionate about Park’s writing, which is mostly queer fiction, Hur was initially reluctant to translate his work.
“His short story ’The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta’ [the first of Park's works that Hur read] was very long,” said Hur. “I knew it was going to be hard to find someone to publish a short story that was some 18,000 words [in English characters].”
But after a string of translators refused to take on Park’s novella, Hur decided to do it himself.
“The workload indeed proved to be enormous,” said Hur. “But now it has paid off because he is nominated for the Booker Prize!”
It generally takes Hur around four to five months to translate one book. During this time, Hur approaches literary translation not only as a writer but also as an ordinary reader of a book that he finds interesting or feels strongly about.
One of the ways that he translates as a reader is by simultaneously reading and translating the book page by page instead of reading the whole book in advance.
“[Before I begin translating] I don’t want to read too carefully because I still want to be surprised when I turn the page, and I want that feeling of surprise and discovery to happen to the English readers as well,” said Hur. “I don’t want the curse of knowledge in my head where I know what is going to happen so I am kind of prejudiced about the reveal in the translation.”
For similar reasons, Hur is famously known for distancing himself from the original authors of the books while he is translating.
Hur translates the material as he interprets it to be rather than deciphering the author’s intent for every sentence — like how a regular reader would read a book.
He added that translations are not simple conversions of one language to another but creative content in its own right.
“Translations have copyright,” said Hur. “It incorporates the style and voice of the translator.”
Hur’s work also goes well beyond the art of translating.
From finding an overseas publisher to applying for grants and marketing, translators like Hur work behind the scenes to ensure the book’s success as the author and the Korean publishers often lack language skills and knowledge outside of the local market.
Underlying Hur’s efforts is his work philosophy as a translator which is to discover and introduce fresh, quality content to a wider audience.
“It is my experience that readers don’t know what they want until they see it,” said Hur. “It’s only when you present them with a mind-blowing piece of literature that they are like ‘Oh, I like this.’ This is what I want to convey through my translations.”
The two Booker nominations only confirm Hur’s discerning eye for exceptional literature.
He is especially drawn to books that revolve around issues and characters that are less mainstream.
“As a translator, I wasn’t too keen on seeing so many middle-aged cisgender heterosexual Korean men getting covers of magazines and being pushed by funding agencies,” said Hur.
“Cursed Bunny” and “Love in the Big City” are part of his aspiration to shift the relatively hetero-normative and patriarchal literary scene in Korea.
“Bora in ‘Cursed Bunny’ attacks the patriarchy and its ridiculous concepts with her humor, and it is very effective,” said Hur. “It makes people laugh but also makes them think ‘Yes this is very absurd and we shouldn’t be taking these stupid ideas that we have about women seriously,’ like the notion that men should control women’s bodies. It’s horrible and absurd. And we should laugh about it, then attack them for what they are — untenable ideas.”
Hur continued, “Even Sang-young, although he seems like a very mainstream literary writer, because of his particular topic of queer literature, he has had to suffer a lot of backlash from the literary establishment, commentators and the public.”
“It was very clear to me that we needed some sort of reset for the establishment and we need some way to highlight the other literature that is being written in Korea in other perspectives, outside the majority,” said Hur. “So it was extremely important for me to translate those works and promote them. I imagine that it will continue to be important for me in the future.”
Anton Hur was born in Sweden and raised in Hong Kong, Ethiopia and Thailand. But for some 30 years of his life, he has lived in Gwacheon in Gyeonggi and Seoul and continues to live in Seoul today.
His translations include books “The Court Dancer” by Shin Kyung-sook and “The Prisoner” by Hwang Sok-yong. He has also won a PEN/Heim grant for his translation of the “Cursed Bunny.”
“Cursed Bunny” and “Love in the Big City” were translated by Hur last July and November, respectively, and published in Britain, which made them eligible for the 2022 Booker nominations.
“Cursed Bunny” is a collection of 10 stories that criticize the modern societal issues of patriarchy and capitalism through fantastical settings and events.
“Love in the Big City” follows the exuberant yet heartbreaking life of a queer man named Young just out of college in 21st-century Seoul.
Complementing the Booker Prize which awards authors of books written in English, the International Booker Prize, is an annual award given to a single book that has been translated into English and published in Britain or Ireland.
The award recognizes the author and the translator equally, and the final prize is split evenly between the two.
Korean books that have previously been nominated for the International Booker Prize are “The Vegetarian” (2007) and “The White Book” (2016) by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith; and “At Dusk” (2015) by Hwang Sok-yong and translated by Sora Kim-Russell.
“The Vegetarian” won the prize in 2016. It is the first and only Korean literature to have won the award.
A total of 135 foreign language novels that were translated to English were considered for this year’s award.
Six books will be whittled down from the 13 books that were selected for the 2022 International Booker Prize’s longlist.
The shortlist will be announced on April 7 and the final winner on May 26.
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]