Unanswered questions from my Translation Clinic

These are answers to questions we ran out of time before answering during the 19 Aug 2021 Center for Fiction Translation Critic (hosted by Cedilla & Co.) A video of the presentation and Q&A will be available soon.

I was so intrigued by Anton saying how The Vegetarian and Cursed Bunny etc all of those books weren’t necessarily widely popular in their home countries until the translations come out? Why does the translated affect it so much? I am having trouble thinking of a similar book that was originally written in English and has taken on a life of its own after the translation.

Translators often talk about an “English translation effect” of sorts where Anglophone publishing is considered to be so averse to translations that when an Anglophone major does pick up a translation, other international markets immediately sit up and take note. The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin had a French translation before I translated it into English—the book is partly set in France—but it was only when my translation came out that the Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian editions were published (I suspect the Romanian sale was also an effect of the English edition).

I think a similar effect happens in Korea where Korean success stories in the Anglophone arts world are so rare that people do start paying more attention to artists that find success overseas. There are quite a few Kpop artists that did well in Japan or Southeast Asia who would use that as leverage to gain more popularity in Korea, so I guess it wasn’t very surprising for me to see the market behaving this way for books as well. I’m also drawing a blank on works originally written in English that become successful after translation, and I think the Anglosphere being such a bubble is the issue here.

So many kdramas and cdramas have been adapted from novels and books and essays—for example, the really popular kdrama move to heaven that just came out—why have they not been translated? How are these professors and publishing houses not persuaded by that TV power behind it?

Right? Serang Chung’s The School Nurse Files is still not published, and the Netflix show has been out for ages! It was even a hit! I think in the case of Move to Heaven, the book happens to be non-fiction and Korean publishers only very recently began to sell non-fiction to Anglophone publishers in earnest. It would be nice to see it in English, but in order for Anglophone publishing houses to consider it, someone has to sell it to them first, and that’s a whole process the rightsholder may not be ready for or even considering.

On the other hand, I’m not sure how big the overlap is of people who watch kdramas and people who read Korean books in translation. Kdramas and Korean books have a very different vibe, and I’m sure it’s the same with Cdramas and Chinese literature. I love how innovative and edgy Chinese-language novelists are, I just finished Geling Yan’s The Secret Talker translated by Jeremy Tiang and loved it, but dramas—all dramas in all territories—tend to be very made-by-committee. Some people like that family-friendly vibe, some don’t. I don’t know if there are any examples of a really successful Korean drama boosting a Korean translation. I don’t think Mr. Sunshine fans went out in droves to buy copies of The Court Dancer, for example.

A more interesting phenomenon to me in this vein is Kpop fans buying books recommended by their idols. I think it’s much easier to trace the success of Kim Ji-young, Born in 1982 and Almond to these books’ promotion in the Kpopsphere. A book I’m translating right now, I Want to Die but I Also Want to Eat Tteokpokki, was spotted as being read by RM of BTS at one point, and I’ve been receiving the nicest and most encouraging messages from the BTS army all over the world saying they can’t wait to read the book. I would much rather translate for these young readers than professors of literature. Not because these readers are a “market” or whatever, but because they keep us honest. The market can follow.

Is there a big difference in experience with pitching/working with smaller presses like Tilted Axis and Honford Star, vs bigger like Grove Atlantic?

I was not the person to pitch Love in the Big City to Grove Atlantic, credit for that sale goes to the redoubtable Julia Sanches. She’s a great agent, and she’s also an incredible translator, and she makes awesome pots, do you hate her yet? (I successfully pitched the book to Tilted Axis, who then pitched it to Grove Atlantic.)

I do pitch to the Big Four on occasion but mostly it’s through agents, who often do need our help. My limited experience here gives me the impression that there are more people to persuade within the machinery of a bigger publisher than there would be in a smaller press, so if you have an editor there who really wants to fight for your book, you’ve got to give that editor as much ammunition as possible. After your pitch succeeds, write long answers to these questions for them: What are the external funding opportunities for the work? What are the underlying themes of the book and what makes it urgent in today’s climate? What is the “vibe” of the book? What awards has the book won in its source language, and what do reviewers and readers say about it? What’s the author like? All of these questions can really only be answered by the translator, unless the agent happens to speak the source language and is persuasive in the target language—a rare combination of skills. Arm your in-house confederate with as much information and persuasive ammo as possible. Make their jobs easier for them.

I love working with both small and big presses, and they really do feel different. I can’t quite describe it. In bigger houses, I feel like I keep getting introduced to people—this person handles the copyediting, this person handles galley distribution, this person handles social media, hi, hello, how are you—which is really frenzied and fun, and in smaller houses you feel like you’re building something totally new and exciting. I’m so proud to have published with Honford Star—twice!—and Tilted Axis, for example, because I look at the other books they’re putting out and I’m like, Ooh I’m a part of that.