SEOUL, April 22 (Yonhap) -- To look at Paul Taewan Kim in his hometown of Mountain View, California, is to observe what looks to be a normal teenager. He plays soccer for his high school team, does well in class, and as a senior is busy preparing his college applications and getting ready to move away from home to earn his degree.
Yet, in one certain way, Paul Kim is very different from his friends and acquaintances. This is because at the age of 15 and over the following two years, when other students his age were hanging out, shopping, or surfing the Internet, he took it upon himself to translate an entire Korean book, "Tears of Blood," and help shepherd it through to publication.
"Tears of Blood" is the story of 70-year-old Yoo Young-bok who spent 50 years of his life as a prisoner of war in North Korea. Like 60,000 other POWs, Yoo was not released by North Korea at the cessation of the Korean War (1950-53). Instead, North Korea kept him as a prisoner for most of his adult life. In fact, Yoo even raised a second family in North Korea while he was a POW. When he finally did step off of on airplane to freedom in Seoul, he swore that he would write a book about his experience, and that of his compatriots, so that their story would not be forgotten.
The book was published in Korean as "Starry Nights in Hell," and there it stayed, until Kim learned of Yoo's story in his sophomore year of high school.
Kim heard the story through a friend of his father's. His father had been doing legal research for the family reunion of South Korean POWs, which was headed by Lee Oak-hi. One day, Lee was invited to lunch at the Kim household and after revealing the story of her own escape from North Korea, gave the family a copy of Yoo's autobiography. Kim read the story and decided it was a story that needed to be told to as many readers as possible, and that if it weren't, the story would disappear. For this to happen, he would have to become a translator, and for this to happen, he would need much help.
Paul Kim and the book he helped translate
Kim explains that just reading the book and entirely understanding it "took a few months," and the translating, which took place "in between school, homework, and playing soccer" took him quite a while to complete, adding that the first manuscript was finished after about a year.
The process was a long one because despite the fact that Kim visits Korea regularly and speaks, reads and writes Korean fluently, and had the help of his family, he found some of the historical background and deep culture a bit difficult to understand.
Kim's family speaks Korean at home, and he kept his writing sharp by writing to his grandmother in Korea, but this did not completely prepare him for the project.
"The hardest part was probably overcoming the gap in culture and language between myself and the book," he admits. "In Mr. Yoo's autobiography, there are so many references to Korean history and culture that were mysterious to me, and the nuances inherent in the Korean language are often very difficult to express in English."
To overcome some of these difficulties, Kim worked both at home and through technology. "I went to my parents for most of my culture questions. I had a really good electronic dictionary that I used for language, but it often couldn't capture the little nuances... so I would often have to go to my parents for that, too," he said.
Kim refreshed his knowledge of Korean history through research, in conversations with his parents, and reading Prof. Bruce Cumings' "Korea's Place in the Sun."
Cumings' role expanded when Kim reached out to him, and the professor agreed to read and comment on the text of the translation as well as write an endorsement of the work which was published in the book. After the initial translation was complete, Kim spent a summer working with editor David Alzofon. Finally, as Kim relates it, "over the summer David introduced us to Frankie Frey, who did the book design. It finally came together on Sept. 1, when WonBooks, Korea, published the book and began printing copies."
The resulting translation is heavily annotated with footnotes, which is somewhat unusual for mainstream translations.
"I realized that there were so many things that even I didn't know regarding culture and history, and since Mr. Yoo wrote his book with a Korean audience in mind, these things are not explained in the text," Kim said. "From the first chapter there are things that needed to be explained with footnotes -- otherwise a non-Korean reader would be very confused."
For a reader, the book is an amazing story told in understandable prose. Prof. Barry Welsh, from the LinguaExpress Department at Sookmyung Women's University who recently organized an author roundtable in Seoul featuring Yoo, notes that Kim's translation of "Tears of Blood " is simple, precise and entirely effective."
Cumings is quite happy with the translation that resulted. "I thought the quality of the translation was very good, and it was great that Paul put in the effort to bring this important and sensitive book to a larger (English) reading audience, and it should help Americans gain a finer understanding of North Korea," he said.
Even with the success of his translation, Kim does not intend to continue on as a translator. He believes, modestly, that his talents lie elsewhere. What he is certain of is that he will continue to work between the cultures of the U.S. and Korea. After college Kim hopes to live in Korea for some time, as he sees opportunities for young, talented, bilingual individuals.
For now, however, as he awaits responses to his college applications, Kim has something on his resume that very few of his fellow students have. He is not only an accomplished student and athlete, but he is the remarkable interpreter of a work of impressive power. He is a translator.