In conjunction with their interview with Ch’oe Yun, author of There a Petal Silently Falls, PRI’s “The World” also spoke with Bruce Fulton, the book’s translator. In the interview Fulton considers the place of Ch’oe Yun in Korean literature, the state of fiction in Korea, and what it’s like to translate with your wife.
You can read the entire interview here and below are some excerpts from the discussion:
The World: For Western readers unfamiliar with Ch’oe Yun discuss her place in modern Korean fiction.
Bruce Fulton: Ch’oe Yun’s brought a new level of narrative sophistication and intelligence to contemporary Korean fiction [contemporary by convention meaning post-1945]. She’s one of the few South Korean fiction writers who can balance (1) the traditional emphasis (brought to bear by the conservative and patriarchal Korean literary establishment) on historical, political, and societal relevance with (2) a highly developed literary technique. Though she draws for inspiration on historical and ideological issues arising on the Korean peninsula, she makes it clear that these issues, such as institutionalized violence, affect peoples the world over.
The World: What are the difficulties of translating from the Korean? And does the ambitious fiction of Ch’oe Yun pose a special challenge?
Bruce Fulton: For an inbound translator like myself (one who translates from a foreign language into his native language), subtext (meaning that must be read between the lines) is probably the biggest challenge. In the case of Korean-to-English literary translation, much of the subtext is cultural, and because traditional East Asian cultures are different in important respects from traditional Western cultures, a literal approach to translation will not work.
Korean is also a very rich language, comprising in roughly equal amounts both a native lexicon and a lexicon of loan words from Chinese. Yun’s stories are challenging (but often delightfully so!) because of their sophistication, irony, wordplay, intertextuality (for example, the references to “Tristan und Isolde” in “The Thirteen-Scent Flower”), and narrative techniques (such as stream-of-consciousness in the girl’s first-person narrative in “Petal”).