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(Yonhap Feature) Translator tries not to take everything literally

By Charles Montgomery
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Dec. 5 (Yonhap) -- Behind the dazzle and glory of any success are people who help silently so that the hero/heroine can shine. In literature, the spotlight is always on the author, but for Korean writers who are making inroads abroad, the translator is just as important.

   Behind the international bestseller "Please Look After Mom" is Kim Chi-young, perhaps the most skilled translator currently working, certainly one of the most successful.

   Until now, Kim has done her translations on a part-time basis, making the task arduous and subjecting her to extreme time constraints. She has always had another job, so much of the work has been relegated to evenings and the weekend.

   Her strategy is to get as much translation done as she can in one sitting. When the initial translation work is complete, usually after several drafts, she puts the Korean text away and focuses on the work as a piece of English text.

   Kim is a firm believer in getting the idea of the text across, not necessarily translating literally. "It's pretty controversial... translating from Korean to English to make it really an interpretation of the original text, because my intention is for the American or English speaking reader to read it and get the same feeling and kind of oomph out of it as I did when I read it in the original," she said. "And in order to do that, you really have to kind of break down all the barriers... If you do a literal translation, there's going to be barriers."

Kim Chi-young

Kim's previous literary translations include Lee Dong-ha's "Toy City" (2007), Kim Young-ha's "I Have the Right to Destroy Myself" (2007) and "Your Republic is Calling You" (2010), and "Tongue" (2009) by Jo Kyung-ran.
The international response to Kim's translations has been uniformly positive. The New York Times Sunday Book Review was the first to mention her for her translation of "Tongue" -- "Here, in a translation by (Kim Chi-young), Jo does marvelous and disturbing things... serving up dishes rich with a variety of feelings."

   When "Your Republic is Calling You" was published, Bloomberg noted, "With its casual style (a triumph of translation by Kim Chi-young) and its hectic plot, it would do fine as a beach book."
But it was with "Please Look After Mom," which reached 14th in the New York Times bestseller list for fiction and was selected by Oprah's Book Club, that Kim's skill as a translator was universally recognized. The Times Literary Supplement took note of the fact that the book was easy to read due to its "flawlessly smooth translation by (Kim Chi-young). ... We must hope there will be more translations to follow."

   The New York Times described the book as "intimate and hauntingly spare in this translation by Chi-Young Kim." Similarly, BookPage calls the novel "elegantly translated by Chi-Young Kim."

   Kim Young-ha recalls his meeting with her in 2004 and beginning to work with her. Remembering the experience, he said he was "extremely content with their collaboration together, partly because she works so efficiently."

   A graduate of Wesleyan University, Kim Chi-young worked at a publishing company in New York before moving to Los Angeles. Her mother, Yu Young-nan, is also a translator of considerable repute, having worked on such books as Park Wan-suh's "Who Ate Up All The Shinga," "Three Generations" by Yom Sang-seop, and "Everlasting Empire" by Yi In-hwa among other novels and short stories.

   Kim Chi-young credits some of her career to the fact that her mother was a translator. "My mom has been translating my entire life so I grew up with stacks of paper all around," she said in a recent interview with the Web site www.ktlit.com. "And as I got older I kind of helped her with certain phrasings since she is not a native speaker of English and she did Korean to English.

   "So I was involved at a pretty young age and I've always been interested in translation because I was an avid reader both in Korean when I was younger and living in Korea, and also in English. I read a lot of translations of other works into Korean when I was younger." This bilingual upbringing in a translating environment is certainly one of the factors that has helped create her success.

   What does the future hold for Kim Chi-young? Certainly more translations.

   "I think I've been getting better and better with each book," she said. "I know that there's a lot more to learn. Especially because I feel like the more I do it the less I feel ready to do it. It's like the more you learn, the more..."

   She trails off. Her mind already set on the task ahead.