A Flight of Daedalus

When translating, you can’t put too much energy into it (you’ll burn out) or too little (you’ll be unengaged and bored).

Your energy level has to maintain a flight of Daedalus: not too high for the sun to melt the wax holding the feathers of the wings, not too low to get the wings drenched by the spray of the waves.

If you want to make it to shore, you have to maintain the right elevation to the end.

The Miuccia Prada Rule

Finding something you don’t like in a manuscript is always super interesting.

Instead of deleting it, interrogate it. “Why do I hate this part so much?” It may lead you down a path where you discover something about the manuscript and, ultimately, yourself.

And because I need to name everything, I call it the Miuccia Prada Rule.

Prada always includes a texture she absolutely hates into her collection—“crochet, for example”—exploring why she hates something so much. It’s always profitable for her.

Draft Drawer: “Translating the Korean Diaspora”

* The following is the first draft of a presentation I’d been planning to give, with two other translators, at the 2020 American Literary Translators’ Association conference on the topic of “translating the Korean diaspora.” While the conference itself was moved online instead of being canceled, my fellow panelists and I, in a haze of COVID–19 despair, decided not to go ahead with this particular panel. Bear in mind that this is the first draft; I have included notes and brackets for omissions I’d been planning to fill later and never did.


Is this conference really happening??? Are we really going to have CONFERENCES where we FLY INTERNATIONALLY to attend while a PANDEMIC rages against the flattened curve???? Am I going to get held up in Incheon International Airport when I get back and have to pay for two weeks of quarantine and my own 500-won coins for some communal washing machine the managers haven’t sanitized that month or in thirty cycles whichever comes first???????


The Literary Translation Institute of Korea, under the auspices of its president Kim Sa-in, has launched a new initiative targeting the promotion of Korean diaspora literature and begun projects to fund the translation of works written by non-Korean nationals into English. A significant beneficiary of this new policy are the Zainichi and Joseonjok, two diasporic Korean groups that have managed to cultivate a rich and innovative literary tradition in their “third” space “in-between” their first and second cultures. Translating these works into English creates yet a fourth “in-between” space, and in discussing the dynamics of this space, this panel will focus on three works in particular: Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go: A Coming of Age Novel translated by Takami Nieda, Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station translated by Morgan Giles, and Kang Kyeong-ae’s The Underground Village: Collected Short Stories translated by Anton Hur.

[Takami’s paragraph]

[Morgan’s paragraph]

“Joseonjok” is an umbrella term we use for the descendants of Koreana displaced into different parts of the Asian continent (mostly China) during the last days of the Korean Empire and throughout the Japanese occupation. Until recently, however, writers in the Korean-Chinese diaspora were rarely considered as part of the mainstream of Korean literary discourse or, indeed, even Korean. Similarly to the Zainichi in Japan, the Chinese-Korean displaced persons and their descendants face discrimination and suspicion in South Korea to this day, and it is interesting to analyze this dynamic using the “danilminjok” racial homogeneity propaganda prevalent on the peninsula as well as McCarthyist anti-Communist paranoia that pervades South Korean society to this day. In this part of the presentation, Anton Hur will use as an example his translation of Kang Kyeong-ae’s The Underground Village: Collected Short Stories to address these issues of defining what, exactly, falls under “Korean diaspora” or “Korean literature,” and how the dynamic is changing in terms of Korean diasporic works being published in English.


Danilminjok (단일민족)” is the Korean word for “single nation” and, in general usage, the word for the whole system of single-race propaganda in Korea. Danilminjok, in everyday usage, assumes two things: 1) Korea is “racially” homogenous and 2) this is something to be proud of. As a child growing up in the Korean public school system, I was always perplexed by this boast of racial purity; how could the school teach hybrid vigor in biology class while brag about being danilminjok in social studies class? It seemed as weird as that other thing Korean propaganda always mentions as an absolute good, that of having “four clear seasons.” I’d lived in Thailand; they basically have one season, and they can harvest rice three times a year! Maybe if Korea had that instead of four distinct seasons, we wouldn’t have starved as much.

And we would probably have a much smaller diaspora than we have now (did you know that there are less than 300,000 Thai Americans but almost two million Korean Americans?). Economic strife, imposed by colonial Japanese stealing all our rice just like the English did to the Irish, is surely the major reason for entire communities making the decision or being forced to move to faraway countries where they are cut off from everything they had ever known. This was certainly true for the people of Korea displaced into China during the Japanese occupation; the majority of Kang Kyeong-ae’s short stories feature characters from this particular branch of the Korean people. [some statistics from foreword of The Underground Village] In the long short story “Salt,” the main character is a woman whose family’s lands were stolen, and her thoughts of this land ache with loss: [quote] This visceral, physical ache is also described in “The Authoress” where these deep feelings of loss for a land one had ties to going back who knows how long are not shared by the bourgeois, condescending literati, no doubt the target audience for this story (*note to self: gesture vigorously towards audience). [read quote].

Despite the stories being set in what is now mainland China, Kang makes pains throughout her stories to point out things that are Chinese as opposed to Korean. The centralizing of the Korean people is so strong in these stories that major characters are assumed Korean until pointed out otherwise. [Examples in “Salt,” “Drugs,” and “The Authoress”] This sense of being Korean and displaced in a foreign land pervades the entire book. Kang made it her mission to write the stories of these people, not only as a fiction writer but a professional journalist, in an era where women in journalism were a rare sight, much less international correspondents.

It may surprise the audience to learn, then, that many of Kang’s works were suppressed for decades after the Korean War. Kang was motivated by her political sympathies to tell the stories of the disenfranchised, but these political sympathies were the C-word in postwar South Korea: Communism. Any association with Communism taints virtually any discourse. To this day, Korea’s National Security Act includes statutes against, quote, “the praising of socialism or Communism” [cite this shit, use the official translation] that are so vague that anyone can be imprisoned for saying anything. For example, [photographer who was imprisoned for retweeting North Korean account sarcastically]. Our supposedly progressive current government, despite promising to strick down this Act, has so far failed to do so, no doubt in deference to conservative Baby Boomers who still believe in the Red Commie boogeyman.

How does this affect Korean-Chinese diasporic literature? For one thing, China is still Communist, and any association with China will have tainted the work red. Note that South Korea normalized relations with China only on [whenever tf it was, the 90s?]. Intriguingly, a team of researchers at Dongguk University managed to use [the technology] to analyze bowdlerized versions of Kang’s long short story “Salt,” revealing passages replete with Communist sympathy and, well, propaganda. Here’s a comparison:

[Communist shouting, sans content]

[Communist shouting]

This part, censored for the original newspaper edition of the story, made the ending of the censored story, which was already nonsensical, evermore completely so. Here is the censored ending published in [whenever] that every published South Korean edition of this story featured since:

[censored ending:]

The policemen knew very well she had no license. ‘You despicable woman! Selling private salt! Get up!’

One of them grabbed her arm.


For decades in South Korea, the ending for this long short story was abrupt and a non sequitur; a policeman grabbed the main protagonist’s arm, and then what happened? After all those words, all those chapters, the story just fades to black? In my translation, we leaned on the previously mentioned work by [researchers at Dongguk University] and the Korean forensics authority to restore the original ending, which I present to you now:

[example of recovered ending. When reading out loud, make it fcking dramatic. Embarrass yourself:]

The policemen knew very well she had no license. ‘You despicable woman! Selling private salt! Get up!’

One of them grabbed her arm. She felt a jolt of electricity run through her as she remembered the words spoken by the voice on the hill, the voice she had listened to with contempt.

You are our comrades! Only when we work as one can we fight against the rich bastards who are our real enemy!

Those words thrown at her from the dark! Her heart was fit to burst. The communists had not taken her salt. She felt that if they were by her side right now, they might even help her. Surely, they would help her! And the real enemy was the rich bastards who were stealing her salt! She was shouting this aloud before she even realized. All the resentment she had harboured until now was blasting from her like flames.

She sprang to her feet.

[“She sprang to her feet.” Then literally spring to your feet and do a RuPaul “And may the best woman, win!” gesture]

What I want to point out in this instance is the fact that if it weren’t for Kang being a diasporic writer, it would’ve been much more difficult for us today to be given this type of insight into the diversity of Korean political thought, especially in that crucial and fertile—almost too fertile, and mind you, fertilizers are often used for bombs—period in Korean history where Koreans ostensibly murdered each other over ideology. Bear in mind that South Koreans do not have access, for the most part, to North Korean writing, and there is no North Korean branch of the Literary Translation Institute of Korea. [Definitely mention, but don’t go into, the Zainichi connection re: North Korea] This more complete picture of ourselves is given to us through our diasporic writers, and this only makes sense, as the Korean diaspora themselves are part of us: [RuPaul gesture again] the Koreans.

I am very happy to have sent this translation out into the Anglosphere, not for any nationalistic pride in Korean literature, but to enrich the access other Korean diaspora will have through an English translation of Korean work: such as the two million Korean Americans I mentioned earlier, many of whom for reasons of their own have not had access to learning the Korean language, but whose own brilliant contributions to the Korean diasporic canon cannot possibly be exaggerated.

I Adopt a Work Routine

The trickiest part of adopting a work routine was learning to stop for the day.

I would always want to do some extra pages while I had “momentum.” But I learned to resist this urge.

I learned from some wise friends that chasing these feelings of “productivity” and “virtue” was foolish, especially when these feelings, which are just twisted forms of anxiety, had nothing to do with actual productivity or virtue.

Exhausting myself by the end of every workday had felt like the “correct” way to live (thanks, capitalism!). But exhausting myself only made my recovery time longer and beginning work the next day harder. When you’ve been a freelancer for almost twenty years, you get used to deadline sprints. But I was translating books now, not to mention pushing forty, and I couldn’t pull those hours anymore.

So I learned to save a little bit of energy at the end of the work day, emphatically switching off my external keyboard and trackpad as soon as I hit that day’s quota. I use the excess momentum to think about dinner, to read a book, or to look at the big picture. Or to look at pictures of cats. Where is the “productivity” of looking at pictures of cats? There isn’t any, but there is definitely virtue in it.

Interestingly, I became less productive over short periods of time, but much more productive over the long run. It made sense, because I continued to have good energy for longer periods of time. And, because I also had more time to read more books and look at cat pictures, I became more virtuous as well.

I’ve tried many times over my career to adopt a routine (again, twenty years of freelancing!) and failed.

This time, I succeeded. Because this time, and only this time, I learned to stop.

Korean Literature 101: A Reading List

*My high school English teacher asked me to put together a reading list of mostly contemporary Korean literature. This is what I gave him:

1. <100도씨> 100 Degrees Celsius by Choi Kyu-seok

Genre: Graphic novel (historic fiction)

Every list on contemporary Korean literature should start with this work, which describes the events leading up to the June Democracy Movement of 1987. Readers are given both historical and visual insight into postwar Korea, which is especially helpful for foreign readers for visualizing this key era that crops up again and again in contemporary Korean fiction. The Korea Democracy Foundation has made the entirety of the work available for free online at http://www.kdemo.or.kr/610/100c.html (book version available from Changbi Publishing).

Availability in English: No

If you liked it, try: The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-yong

2. <외딴방> The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung-Sook Shin

Genre: Fiction (autobiographical)

This novel is the most important work of fiction to emerge from postwar Korea. It is set during the peak of Korea’s economic development phase in the late seventies, and is the story of a teenage girl who leaves her home in the provinces to work in the factories by day and attend high school by night. Throughout her traumatic ordeals she holds a secret, seemingly impossible dream of becoming a writer, but even after her dreams come true, her past comes back to haunt her.

Availability in English: Yes

If you liked it, try: I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin, Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

3. <한중록> The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea

Genre: Memoir

Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1815) wrote these memoirs looking back on a life where, among other things, her father-in-law the King murdered her husband, the Crown Prince of the Joseon Dynasty at the time. I strongly recommend reading them in modernized Korean or in English, the latter of which an excellent translation exists courtesy of the late Professor JaHyun Kim Haboush. This is the book that inspired The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble, a cross-cultural work of historic fiction.

Availability in English: Yes

If you liked it, try: The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin, Jewel in the Palace (TV drama)

4. <입 속의 검은 잎> A Song of Melancholy Youth: Black Leaf in My Mouth by Ki Hyongdo

Genre: Poetry

Black Leaf in My Mouth is Korea’s bestselling collection of poetry by a single author. An industrialization-era poet of magnetic lyricism, the collection continues to enthrall readers decades after the poet’s early death in 1989. There is also quite a lot of discussion surrounding the poet’s autobiographical background; all is not as it seems.

Availability in English: No (only in bits and pieces)

If you liked it, try: A Dictionary Composed of Seven Words by Jin Eun-Young, Sky, Wind and Stars by Yun Dong-ju

5. <채식주의자> The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Genre: Fiction

Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Award, this critically acclaimed novel is the story of a woman who decides to become a vegetarian and how she is victimized for her decision (and for more than her decision). Relevant: according to the UNODC, Korea has one of the highest proportion of female victims of violent crimes in the world.

Availability in English: Yes

If you liked it, try: The White Book by Han Kang, Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-yong

The Art of the Critic

* A student asked me about how to critique other people’s writing. The following is an excerpt from my answer.

It begins with you. You have to have a “reading” of the work. Something within you will tell you that something is bothering you about the work, or really engaging your attention. Try to enter a mental space where only you and the work exist and listen closely to what you’re feeling when you’re reading.

Criticism and reading is a huge part of writing. Being a critic is about being sensitive to your own reading, more so than it is about being a scholar (many people confuse “being a critic” and “being a scholar” as being the same thing; they are not the same thing). In Korea, unlike the Anglosphere, criticism (평론) is considered a genre of literature. I agree with this stance. Critics, like poets, need to be very sensitive to their own reading, to their own thoughts. Most Koreans are not trained or encouraged to do this. We’re mostly taught to do what the teacher tells us to do.

I can’t tell you what to feel. Only you can feel what you feel. Explore what you feel, even if it seems small or insignificant; God may be hiding in that detail. Listen to yourself, and ask yourself on paper: why do I feel this way about this sentence? About this paragraph? About this work? Always remember that criticism is as much about you as it is about the work you are critiquing. You are trying to discover something about the writing and the author, of course. But you are also discovering something about yourself.

Korean Skin Care Secrets

*Disclaimer: I am not responsible for what happens to your skin.

Have good genes. If you don’t, rest assured there’s only so much you can do anyway, so don’t waste too much time and money on skin care.

You can’t really “make skin look younger.” You can only hold on to young skin for as long as possible. In short: sunscreen.

Always wear sunscreen during the day. (If you only want one rule, this is it. Just cleanse properly before bed.)

Never expose your skin to direct sunlight, even with sunscreen on. Never means never.

The toner-essence-emulsion routine is a cosmetics industry scam. Those three products are the same thing with different textures.

You don’t need fifty products, just five: facial cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen, tea-tree oil, and retinol. You only use the first three every day.

This is the only routine you need: 1) Cleanse. 2) Moisturize. 3) Sunscreen (morning, every day) or retinol (evening, once in a while).

Cleanse with warm water but rinse with cold water at the end to close your pores. It doesn’t have to be freezing, just colder than your cleanse.

Many people with bad skin don’t cleanse properly. Unless you have an actual disease, no. Your skin is not special. Cleanse your face properly.

If you get a blemish, apply tea-tree oil after moisturizer. And don’t touch it, even (especially) if it tickles.

Whitening is a scam. Darker skin is better skin: your flaws are masked and you wrinkle dramatically less. And freckles are so lovable!

There are a lot of scams in skin care. Their claims are not regulated like pharmaceuticals are. Rule of thumb: retinol is the only thing that really works.

Retinol is the only thing that reduces wrinkles and aging, except Retin-A, which should be taken only when retinol stops working when you’re older (if at all).

The point is not to eliminate or be ashamed of aging but to not look older than you actually are. You know who you are.

Don’t use expensive products (or retinol) when young. Start with the cheaper stuff and work your way up as you age. If you use Sulhwasoo at 30, nothing will work on your skin at 50.


You will never look 23 forever, unless you have the genes. But with proper care, you can look youthful and vibrant at any age. That’s the goal.

But the real secret to Korean skin care is our culture of relentless casual judgment of each other’s appearances. If you don’t have that, you’ll never have what we have.

Annus Mirabilis

The following is the translation of a speech I gave this December, representing the graduating LTI Korea Academy Ateliers of 2017. It was originally delivered in Korean.

First, I would like to thank the tireless people at the LTI Korea Academy who do so much work on our behalf, from coordinating the demands of all of the graduates you see here to staying up at work until late at night to collect our attendance sheets. Thank you so much for everything you do for us.

2017 was an amazing year for the English-language Atelier program. Sung Ryu, Slin Jung, and I won LTI grants. Sophie Bowman and I also won PEN grants, and our professor Sora Kim-Russell and I both won Daesan Foundation grants for fiction this year. Unfortunately, our very own Agnel Joseph snatched up the biggest prize of the year, the GKL Grand Prize, leaving the rest of us rather bereft. Lastly, I was also asked to teach at the Ewha University Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation beginning this fall.

The reason why I’m telling you this is to make a point: this summer, I had quit literary translation. There was no progress, no future, and I was even almost ripped off by a malicious fraudster. Plus, I had just graduated from a coding boot camp and was working as a programmer in a tech company, and was tying up the loose ends of my translation career.

But I’m standing here today because just after I had retired from the profession, almost all the good things I told you that happened to me this year had come in a rush in the space of a week. Do bear in mind that I started at the LTI Academy in 2009, and it’s only next year, in 2018, that my first translated books will be published.

I don’t believe in what we Koreans call “hope-torture.” I only wanted to give you my personal perspective of this industry. To be honest, not all of you will become literary translators. In fact, some of you shouldn’t be literary translators. And that’s fine. You can learn JavaScript and make lots of money. I can even recommend a good boot camp.

But for those of you who must become literary translators: know that you have to have long-term perspective. Don’t just pick any project at random, pick something you feel really passionate about, because you’ll be stuck with it for a long time. And if something bad happens, which it will, shake it off as quickly as possible. Cultivate a far-seeing perspective.

Because translating one book and getting it published is almost easy. Most translators do just one book and disappear forever. It’s only after your second book that you can really call yourself a literary translator. Be in it for the long run.

It’s a long game. Fair play to those who stick around. “Good luck. And don’t. Fuck it up.”

Thank you.

Language Imperialism

The translator of a certain bestselling science-fiction novel once said that he did not aim to normalize his work into English, that he wanted his translation to read a little weird, that he felt he was contributing to the English language by introducing Chinese translationese.

This translator,  an award-winning writer in his own right, is Chinese-American. An important point. He grew up in America, lives in America, and, well, is American. His experience of language imperialism is going to be very different from mine: I grew up mostly in Korea, spent my entire adult life in Seoul, and am a Korean citizen with no other nationality. To him, English is part of the means for his survival as an immigrant, an imposition. To me, English is an escape, an extraneous, alternate plane of existence I can slip in and out of. No one exactly forced me to read Jane Eyre (quite the opposite, but that’s another story).

My point is, no one would take me seriously as a translator if I wrote translationese. As a non-native speaker of the target language, I do not have the privilege of being seen as “original.” Immigrants and their children are, of course, exposed to similar prejudice, but at least they can say they have literal rights to their language. Whereas I have to take extortionist exams like the TOEIC or IELTS to “prove” that I speak English. I simply don’t have the wherewithal to withstand language imperialism. For now, I have to speak the language of the Empire.

And when my students here in Seoul mention Spivak etc. and the diverse forms of colonialism that are still alive in this world, I don’t know what to tell them. That they are guests in this language, and it is not our place to move the furniture? Or that they owe it to this language to give it new life through new permutations?

I tell them that it’s up to them. Who am I to decide what their contributions will be? I can’t protect them, I can only show them how to protect themselves. As dissatisfying as it is, it’s the only way of letting go of a problem I can’t solve.

SFF Sonnet

A vastness of mind is set to heart

Of narratives placed in distant stars

The space of space, a door ajar

A noun a portal into art. 

Giants teased from micro parts

Dinosaurs bloom from drops of tar

A species in a single scar

A universe’s end writ in its start.

The alpha and omega in a line

Each line decides the ending yet to come

And blind are we to words but touch is fine

We trace the path in darkness back to one.