Translating Korean Literature: A Conversation and Book Launch

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Students and faculty members gathered at the Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library on Thursday, October 4th to attend the event, “Translating Korean Literature: A Conversation and Book Launch,” hosted by the East Asian Library and the Centre for the Study of Korea. The event celebrated the recent publication of Dust and Other Stories, by Yi T’aejun, translated by Dr. Janet Poole (University of Toronto). Dr. Poole was joined by Dr. Samuel Perry (Brown University). The two speakers shared their experiences translating Korean literary works.

After introductions, Dr. Poole and Dr. Perry began the event by discussing the historical context in which Yi T’aejun lived. Yi T’aejun was born in 1904 in northern Korea. He lived, and wrote his influential works, throughout the periods of colonial and post-liberation Korea. Dr. Poole described various instances where the situation under which the work was written had a significant influence in the way the story was presented. Although certain characteristics in his work never changed—his interest in marginal figures, for example—political influences such as literary censorship greatly impacted the style of his works. It is through this historical lens that Dr. Poole composed the anthology. She also explained that it is by focusing on one author and his works specifically, that she was able to examine the changes in style that were brought forth by the historical context.

Dr. Poole read two short excerpts from her book to the audience. She first read a few paragraphs from the end of the “A Tale of Rabbits,” a tale that speaks of a family in financial crisis raising rabbits. The tale describes the struggles between morality and sustainment faced by many native Koreans during the colonial period. She then read a part of “Tiger Grandma,” which is a tale about a kind and helpful, but stubborn old woman in a village. Dr. Poole explained that “Tiger Grandma” was written for a campaign promoting literacy, but the majority of the story was spent describing the character, Tiger Grandma. This tale was classic in demonstrating Yi T’aejun’s unique style of focusing on characters more than a central plot.

Dr. Perry and Dr. Poole also shared some stories behind the translation process. They both agreed that a part of the fun in translating modernist literary works is in trying to decipher the enigma of “what did the author try to convey?” Dr. Poole explained that it took her 17 years to translate this anthology, because the translation process involved a lot of re-drafting of previous translations she made. She also stated that it is vital to take that time to re-draft as translators have a responsibility toward the original authors, as well as to the audiences that engage with their texts.

The event ended with a brief Q & A session, during which she shared more information on the cultural-historical contexts Yi T’aejun lived in, some stylistic decisions she made when translating, and the composition of her book. It was Dr. Perry that asked the last question, one that was on everyone’s mind: Which author is Dr. Poole looking to translate next?

After the panel, a reception was hosted. Students and faculty members enjoyed some refreshments while they discussed about Dr. Poole’s new book. Dr. Poole also kindly gifted two copies of her book to two lucky students in the audience.

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