Meet the translator who got lost in a 'Whale' of a literary world

Translator Kim Chi Young, left, and the cover of the book that she translated titled "Whale" [KIM CHI- YOUNG, SCREEN CAPTURE]

Cheon Myeong-kwan’s “Whale” is a sprawling 20th-century epic that follows the lives of three females from the Korean countryside: a mute giant who can only communicate with elephants, her mother with seemingly inexhaustible ambitions and a one-eyed woman who controls honeybees with a whistle.

Betwixt reality and fantasy, the book drafts quintessentially Korean experiences of its modernization period with otherworldly characters whose potent desires, fear, anger, love and heartaches drive this very real story to unexpected and consuming turns.

It was hailed as a modern classic in Korea since first being published in 2004, receiving local awards and being praised as stretching the realms of fiction.

Translator Kim Chi-Young, like many other avid Korean readers, picked up the book upon publication and recalls it making a particular impression on her for its “vivid characters and sly sense of humor, in addition to its wry commentary about modern Korean culture and history,” she told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an email interview on April 25.

What she didn’t know was that 19 years later, she would be taking the helm of translating that same book and then, be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, arguably the most prestigious literary award for translated fiction.

Six books, including "Whale" by Cheon Myeong-kwan and Kim Chi-Young, top left, made it onto the International Booker Prize's shortlist last month. [INTERNATIONAL BOOKER]

She described translating the book for 10 months throughout the Covid-19 pandemic as a thrilling process.

“I would find myself laughing all alone, sitting in front of my computer. Mr. Cheon's writing is fearless and funny, and translating his novel was exhilarating.”

Kim is a literary translator and editor based in Los Angeles who has translated over a dozen books, including works by notable Korean authors such as Kim Ae-ran, Jeong You-jeong and Kim Young-ha.

Below are further excerpts from the interview.

Q. Before we begin, I believe congratulations are in order! How does it feel to be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize?

A. It's a true honor to be shortlisted for the International Booker, especially alongside such wonderful authors and translators. I'm hoping that many more people will read “Whale!”

When and how did you first encounter "Whale?" What was your first impression of the book after reading it?

I encountered “Whale” as a reader soon after it was published and loved it. I'm partial to sweeping, multigenerational stories, but the vivid characters of "Whale" and sly sense of humor, in addition to its wry commentary about modern Korean culture and history, made an impression on me.

The English translation of the book was published 19 years after the original publication. Why was a book that came out in 2004, translated into English only recently?

A few years ago the publisher of Archipelago Books, the American publisher of "Whale," which acquired the English-language rights, reached out to see what I thought about the book. I actually worked at Archipelago for a few years after college, and we've always wanted to work together again. So, I jumped at the chance. It was also an easy decision because “Whale” is so compelling and I personally loved the book so much.

I translated the bulk of the novel in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, and it was a relief to spend time in the world of “Whale.” I would say the translation took about 10 months to complete.

Is there anything that you paid particular attention to while translating “Whale?

I wanted to make sure that Mr. Cheon's humor came through in English. Humor is often tricky to translate, so I paid particular attention to the cadence of the jokes and the choice of specific words to convey the hilarity of Mr. Cheon's satire. Throughout the process, I would find myself laughing all alone, sitting in front of my computer. Mr. Cheon's writing is fearless and funny, and translating his novel was exhilarating.

I understand you first began translating as a hobby. Could you explain in more detail how you became a professional translator?

I think the "hobby turned into a career" formulation is a bit inaccurate. The thing about literary translation is that the pay is very low, and most of us are unable to translate literature full-time. Many have day jobs, whether it's teaching, translating, interpreting more widely or working in other industries. I started translating while working as a book editor, continued while in law school and practicing as an attorney, and kept translating in the years since leaving the legal profession while working full time.

Having grown up a third-culture kid, I've always mediated between cultures and languages, and exploring that in-between state is what I find interesting and unique about literary translation. That's what keeps me engaged in this work.

What kind of books are you drawn to translating?

I pick projects based on what I'm personally drawn to and what I like to read. As a translator, you're immersed in a world of the author's creation for long periods of time, so I gravitate toward books I'd like to spend months inhabiting. I look for an emotional truth in the characters, whether it's a thriller or historical fiction or a coming-of-age story. Over the last twenty years, I've translated books spanning across many genres and styles, and I think the thread linking all of them together is the way all the characters are drawn with emotional depth, their flaws and contradictions on full display.

Is there a book you are working on right now, or planning to begin?

Right now I'm working on “Blowfish” by Jo Kyung-ran and a book by Gu Byeong-mo.

Could you recommend some books to those around the world who are looking to indulge in literature written by Korean authors?

For English readers, I would like to recommend any and all Korean books translated into English! While more and more books are being translated, thanks to a growing cohort of Korean-to-English translators, the number of Korean books in English is still a tiny percentage of Korean literature. Everyone should be reading all of them in my opinion. There are so many styles, genres and stories, from the experimental to the blockbuster. You can't go wrong.

Next on my to-read list is Dolki Min's “Walking Practice,” translated by Victoria Caudle, which was published in the United States last month.