My Translation Method

SETUP: HARDWARE

I use a 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro (refurbished, natch). My 32-inch curved Samsung monitor, Apple Magic Keyboard, and Apple Magic Trackpad are space gray to match the computer. I actually ordered a space gray MacBook by mistake—I thought Apple Store Korea online had run out of the silver refurbs—and space gray looks very butch to me and I’m more, to use the term popularized by Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir, “princessy”? Now I’m used to it, it’s like having a boyfriend.

I work from my apartment in Seoul, in redeveloped Guro, which used to be all factories (see The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung-Sook Shin). Now it’s all brand new apartments and a lovely mountain park right behind our complex. Hidden somewhere in this peaceful residential area is a maximum security prison.

I loathe having a workspace that’s cluttered with books and pens and papers (I truly, truly despise loose bits of paper above all else) and try to have around only a cute celadon dish for my wallet and a peacock-patterned box to hide all the loose crap one needs to survive a desk job: chapstick, USB-C cable, pens, post-its shaped like the Korean peninsula, etc. I also have a 15-minute sand timer gifted by a friend and I’ve been using it for the Pomodoro method; the author Porochista Khakpour has pointed out they’re better than using timers on your phone because you’re less likely to get distracted by notifications.

SETUP: SOFTWARE

I kind of hate OSX and to this day prefer Windows, but Apple hardware lasts longer—my computer is five years old and refurbished but it still works as well as it did on the first day—and now I’m used to it, I guess. And I learned how to use Terminal, which helps. I use Microsoft 365 because my clients insist on it, but no translation tools; none of my clients have asked, and I don’t dabble in localization, which is its own thing. I do have an annual subscription to Grammarly, but it seems to be rather pointless as I don’t know what advantage it has over the free version. I tried Hemingway App a bit but it seemed even more pointless. I use OSX Preview for PDFs because I don’t need anything fancy for that. I have tried, bought, and abandoned Scrivner.

The really nice thing about Microsoft 365 is its integration with OneDrive—they give you a terrabyte with your subscription—and it instantly syncs with your file on the computer, meaning every edit is saved instantly on the cloud. (You can write on the cloud with, say, Google Docs or Word online, but I want a local copy to live on my local drive). I am *regularly shocked* by translators who do not backup. Even if someone stole my computer, I would be able to pick up where I left off from work immediately after, from any computer or phone connected to the Internet. Remember that Sex and the City episode where Carrie Bradshaw gets Sad Mac’ed and she’s like, “My whole life is on that computer”? I’m like, well aren’t you a stupidy stupid. Using Microsoft 365 for mobile, I’ve edited entire books on my phone while sitting on the subway. I’m still waiting for someone to create a split screen app for iPhones so I can translate with my phone when I’m bored.

I have the PDF on the left side of the screen and the empty Word file on the right. You can also use “tile-left/right” in your OS’ GUI but I found it annoying to constantly scroll up the text as I worked and I don’t want to translate at the bottom of the screen, short as I am. For editing, I fit a Chrome tab on the right side (I don’t “tile” it because Chrome will tile only one tab) instead of the source to search and use online dictionaries. (God, is any of this interesting?? I hope you’re good at skipping over things.)

For the Word file, I want it to be single-spaced 12 point Calibre (no spaces between paragraphs) left-justified and on “Internet” view, *not* Print view, because I want the text to fit the window. I use this ugly font because I want the letters to have as much physicality as possible.

Kate Briggs gave a talk at 2019 BCLT Summer School where she says she has the first draft look physically rough so it would feel more “made.” AS Byatt likened her writing in progress to be like a piece of knitting in your hands, and as a knitter myself, I relate. What you don’t want is it to look like what it would look like as a printed book—although I’ve heard of people working this way, and they have their own very good reasons for doing that.

PREPARATION

I demand a PDF from the Korean publisher. Each Korean book comes with the email of the editor in charge, but normally I just go through the rights departments at the Korean publishers because they know me.

Sometimes I would’ve read the book I’m working on, sometimes I would’ve just skimmed it and done a sample. Either way, I make sure I haven’t read it too closely before translating because I want it to sound fresh when I’m translating it. The actor Julianne Moore said in an interview she doesn’t like to over-rehearse because she wants the heat of the performance to happen in front of a camera, not when she’s alone in her living room. I don’t want to be bored either—but I do find my authors to be eminently re-readable.

Because most published books are written and edited with the reasonably educated Korean reader in mind, and I am that, I don’t really need to do a lot of research beforehand. Don Mee Choi said I should read the philosophers my authors have read and mentioned, and she has a point, but whenever I’ve done that, it doesn’t really make much of a difference in how I read and translate their works unless they are directly making a reference to something, of course. The thing is, I am just . . . extremely fluent in Korean?? I’ve spent most of my childhood in Korea, all of my adult life in Korea, have four Korean college degrees—you get the picture. My ability to read Korean text is pretty solid.

THE PROCESS

Finally! The actual act of translation.

I try to translate the way I interpret, which means reading the next sentence while I’m still translating the sentence before it. It’s a workflow I’ve internalized as a simultaneous interpreter, where my listening-self and speaking-self have to be necessarily separate and my ears are listening while my mouth is speaking. So while I’m typing out the translation of one sentence, my eyes are scanning the next one, my mind sliding its words around into the target word order. By the time I get to the end of typing up the previous sentence, I have something for my fingers to type regarding the next (the subject at least, or a dependent clause). The trick is to not let my hands stop typing, even if it means typing a little slower when I don’t quite have the sentence down. This will let me enter into what is a very fluid (and very productive) workflow.

A very important thing about my process is that I absolutely refrain from using dictionaries or the Internet in my first pass so I don’t interrupt this workflow. My friend Donyae Coles, a writer and visual artist, said to me: The first draft is always crap. Just get it done. I think Stephen King says the same thing in On Writing. If I don’t know a term or can’t think of the right phrase in the moment of translation, I will leave it in Korean and move on. The manuscript looks hideous as a result but frankly, if it’s a first draft, the more hideous the better. It will save you A LOT OF TIME in the long run instead of getting mired in the time-sink that is editing-as-you-go. Here’s an example:

So a bunch of things to note about what happens in this draft:

  1. I am completely unconcerned with the aesthetics of the sentences. I don’t care if it’s beautiful language or “reads well” or is translationese.
  2. I want to keep every little thing I could and be as “literal” as possible, redundancies and all. When I edit, I allow myself to take out or put in as much as I want, but on the first pass, I want to have everything in front of me.
  3. ESPECIALLY IMAGE ORDER IN A SENTENCE, even if that results in some convoluted English grammar. The actor Jeon Do-yeon once said, she likes the challenge of having weird lines in her scripts and making them her own without changing a word (see The Miuccia Prada Rule).
  4. IMPORTANT KOREAN NOTE RE: #3. In the Korean language, the predicate tends to come LAST in a sentence whereas in English, the verb tends to come right after the subject. Because the verb or predicate is usually the most interesting part of the sentence, or the volta/twist of the sentence’s imagery comes AT THE END, the Korean language has tension and suspension built into the grammar whereas in English, you kind of give up a lot of the suspense in exchange for a faster flow of information (and they call KOREANS impatient). Korean writers take this aspect of Korean literary language completely for granted, but as a translator, you cannot. Deborah Smith taught me that you have to delay the “payoff” of the sentence until the end so the sentences maintain their tension and don’t fall flat. I hear you cry, But it’s just a sentence! These effects accumulate, trust me. You want your prose to bounce with energy, not drone on and on.

After this draft:

  1. I make a second pass just going through all the nouns etc. that I don’t know or couldn’t think of in the moment. These are mostly historical or geographical references that I don’t have the English for offhand. With the document setup that I have, lines with Korean in them will have more spaces between than lines with just English (see pic), so it’s easy to go through the file and pick them out one by one, Googling as you go along. Note that Word allows you to search for text in different languages, so even if the line spacing is the same with both your languages, you can still search and replace the words you left in your source language.
  2. In the fourth pass, and this is another very Korean-to-English thing, I vary the sentence structures. Korean is much more generous re: repetition and the prose’s rhythm tends to be more internal (Korean words are unaccented, like French), which might sound monotonous to the English reader when carried over.
  3. I do a fifth pass, just to see if everything works.
  4. I run the file through Grammarly. It’s good for picking out that one typo you missed, but otherwise, it’s mostly for your psychological benefit.
  5. I send the file to a (usually) Korean translator (usually a Smoking Tiger) for editing. Normally I ask them to read only the English and to just highlight whatever they find weird (it would take too long if they had to ask questions etc.). Normally if they just point to something I did wrong, it’s enough for me to understand what they mean.
  6. I get it back from said alpha reader and go through their edits. If there are A LOT of edits, I will run it through Grammarly again.
  7. I send this “first draft” to the publisher.

(What happens after this point with that draft is roughly:

  1. The publisher sends back manuscript edits.
  2. I send back manuscript edits.
  3. The publisher sends back “bound galleys” [usually pdfs, not actual galleys].
  4. I send back bound galleys edits.
  5. There are A LOT of emails mostly regarding info needed by the publisher from the author. Is this part of your job? That’s for you to decide on a case-by-case basis. I normally supply whatever they ask me for but I’ve said no to some truly bizarre requests!
  6. The book is published.)

QUOTAS

I use daily quotas, which isn’t unusual. What’s a little less usual is that I set a limit on how long I work. I can begin as late as I want in the day—freelancer benefit, baby—but I absolutely stop working at 4PM, flow or no flow, unless I haven’t been working during the day (see I Adopt a Work Routine).

TIME OF WORK

Before I met my husband, I worked at night and went to sleep just before first light. (I think I have Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome.) But I have since forced myself to work during the day. Usually it’s around 11AM–3PM, after chores. I hate working during daylight hours—I feel completely sluggish and unable to concentrate during the day, I have to translate through a fog—but I get through it with tea and a lot of forcing myself to work. I can’t be too caffeinated though, because caffeine crash is real. (They do say switch to green tea for this reason, among many other reasons.) Sugar crash is also real. Eat breakfast and a lunch filled with colorful vegetables, etc., if only to keep working until 4 (see A Flight of Daedalus).

PRODUCTIVITY

I am very lazy. There’s some kind of principle where a task expands to the amount of time you give it, and that happens to me all the time. Other Korean translators tend to think I’m very busy, but my husband, who knows me best in the world, gently reminds me from time to time that I can afford to work a bit more lol

But I refuse.