The Translation Process

When I began translating Korean literature six years ago, I felt very uncertain about the process of translation. I knew that I started with a Korean text, and my goal was to produce an elegant-sounding English equivalent (ignoring the fact that there are no true “equivalents” in literary translation). But it took me several years—until I finished my first book-length project, in fact—before I became comfortable with the movement from the initial Korean to the eventual English text. I now have a fairly standard translation process that I stick to regardless of what project I’m working on. This allows me to balance my translation work with my other obligations—my PhD coursework, my own writing, etc.—while still making progress. Sometimes, of course, I fall off course, but the following is the schedule I follow the majority of the time.

1. I start by translating a very rough draft of the Korean text into English. At this point, all I want at the end of the workday is English words on the page that convey all the information in the original Korean. They don’t have to sound good, or even be grammatically correct. They just need to exist. My standard quota per day is three pages. Sometimes I’ve already read the Korean text that I’m translating already, but more often I haven’t. I used to feel like this was a shameful secret I needed to hide, but then I read Spanish translator Gregory Rabassa’s quote about how doing so gives the “translation the freshness that a first reading would have.” I want to translate the text like I’m a reader, experiencing the story for the first time.

2. After I’ve translated a chapter-length segment of the book—usually around twenty or twenty-five pages—I go through what I’ve translated and make the sentences “sound good” in English. This is where I go over the English and compare it with the Korean, too, to make sure that I haven’t made any factual errors in my first draft. I try to go through three pages a day at this stage, too.

3. Once I’ve gone through the second draft of the chapter, I print it out and reread the physical copy, marking it up as I read. Then I made edits accordingly.

4. Now I sent the chapter to a trusted reader—usually a friend or classmate whose readerly opinion I trust—and get their comments. Then I implement those as well—at least, the ones I agree with.

5. Once I’ve implemented my outside reader’s opinions, I give the chapter one more read-over, and then I’m ready to send it off!

6. I start over with the next chapter, and continue with steps 1-5 until the book is finished.