There is no doubt that Lee Eyun-kee is Korea's top translator, expert on mythology and writer. His mythology book has sold more than a million copies, and his professional expertise as a translator is also widely respected.
Lee is currently working on the translation of Shakespeare plays, a massive project that is expected to have a strong impact on the local publication industry again.
In an e-mail interview with The Korea Herald, Lee shared his thoughts on the unwieldy issues translators confront when they attempt to bridge two different cultures and languages.
Last year, "In Search of Good Translations: American and British Masterpieces," a book written by English literature scholars and translation experts, found the 1963 version by Kim Jin-man is the best Korean rendition of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales."
As for the possibility of having a "translation classic," Lee said the expression like "current English" deserves attention. "Words are changing. My son and daughter, who graduated from colleges, cannot read my translations well because I once preferred old-fashioned traditional writing styles. Look at the word 'currency.' It's a money that has to be circulated. If it's not in circulation, it's not currency."
Lee stressed that worthy books should be translated again and again, with the language that is "contemporary."
Translators are always struggling with the dilemma between the faithfulness to the original and the readability. In some cases, translators tend to agonize over imperfect sentences in the original, which they believe they could improve in the target language version.
"I believe it's beautiful because it's contradictory. So I don't improve phrases even though the original is not satisfactory. But I do divide long sentences into shorter ones to make them more readable. For I think individual writing styles have almost disappeared in recent years."
But the bigger issue arises when translators work on poems. Here is Nabokov's famous poem on the emptiness of translations:
What is translation? On a platter
A poet's pale and glaring head,
A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
And pardoned if I have your pardon,
O Pushkin, for my strategem.
I traveled down your secret stem,
And reached that root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Into my honest roadside prose -
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.
Lee said he could feel the rhythm of Nabokov's poem, though it's quite difficult to translate all the rhyming as the original version does. "It's difficult, but we have to do it anyway. Whenever I translate this kind of poem, I thoroughly search Korean dictionaries, page by page, because I want to put my Korean version as close to the original as possible. The same is true of the translation of Shakespeare plays, and that's why it's quite difficult," he said.
"I'm a novelist, and I believe writing is also a translation behavior - the act of translating a certain sentiment. The mental sentiment and the language I have chosen cannot be the same. It couldn't be perfect. When it comes to foreign languages, the gap is inevitably deeper. And here comes the sad fate of translators. New wine needs new bottles. Now, people do not put their wine in sheepskin bottles any longer."
By Yang Sung-jin