We're delighted to be joined on the blog this week by translator and author Paige Aniyah Morris, to tell us more about her translation of Soyeon Jeong's 'Ensign'/ 깃발, featured in our December 27th issue. Paige holds BAs in Ethnic Studies and Literary Arts from Brown University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University-Newark. She has received awards from the Daesan Foundation, the American Literary Translators Association, and the Fulbright Program, and is currently based in South Korea. You can find her on Twitter here, and on her website here.
As both a translator and a writer yourself, can you tell us a bit about how you got started in translation, and how your fiction and translation feed into one another?
Even before I came to see myself as a writer or translator, I feel like I formed a broader identity as a literary person of some sort quite early on. Stories have long been how I’ve viewed the world and made sense of it. I love to read and write fiction that plays with ideas about what the world is and what it can be. Literature was one of the first ways I learned how to see and think about things in a different way.
I didn’t realize the extent to which reading was my tether to the world until I came to live in Korea for the first time and found myself feeling isolated in a lot of ways from everyone and everything around me. I wasn’t homesick for much, but I remember how painfully I missed bookstores, of all things. I missed what I could do in a bookstore—scan what was on the newsstands, browse the new releases, spend time with the stories of the moment. I was so used to consuming stories all the time in the Anglosphere, but even though I had studied Korean for years at that point, I felt (and still feel at times) so daunted by everything I didn’t know. I forgot that reading was how I might learn.
Eventually, I was craving stories and literary discussion so much that I got over that fear and started going to Korean bookstores. I started reading more Korean literature. And I started understanding—slowly, partially, but much better than I’d been able to before—more of the world that now surrounded me. At first, I started translating bits and pieces as a way to keep track of what I was finding for myself. But soon enough, when friends from back home would ask what I was up to, I wanted to talk in-depth about what I was reading and learning, what people were writing and thinking about, not only in novels and poems but in the news and on the internet. I was glad to be able to share especially meaningful passages and stories with people, whereas before, there had been so little I felt I could share about my life in Korea with non-Korean-speaking friends. Translation opened up more conversations and became another way through which I could share stories about the world I was navigating.
What drew you to the work of Soyeon Jeong, and to this story in particular? What were the challenges and rewards of translating the story?
Soyeon Jeong is a huge figure in the Korean literary world, particularly the sci-fi scene. She founded the Science Fiction Writers Union of the Republic of Korea, and she’s also a translator herself of English-language science fiction into Korean. I was first introduced to her work in translation, funnily enough. Her story “Home” was translated by Sophie Bowman and appeared in Guernica, while her story “The Flowering” appeared in Clarkesworld in a translation by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar. I came across this particular story, “Ensign,” in one of the anthologies of queer Korean short fiction published by QQ Books. I remember really enjoying other stories in that collection, but “Ensign” was the one that struck a completely different emotional chord in me. I wanted to tell tons of people about it, which was how I knew I wanted to translate it. The world Soyeon Jeong had built was so impressive to me, but more than that, the story had real heart. I felt like I had been everyone in it at some point in my life, had felt every emotion that each of the characters felt, and had come up against the same difficult choices here on Earth that they were facing in their star system. When I reached out to the writer, she met my enthusiasm about this story with enthusiastic support of her own for my translation. One of the main challenges I faced while translating was the knowledge that the author had been translated into English before, so I wanted to maintain some consistency with other translators’ approaches while also staying true to my own translator’s voice. There were also technical terms (superluminal communications! digital load indicators!) that I had to spend a bit more time nailing down, as a lover of SF who also happens to have a woefully poor understanding of most sciences in general. Despite the challenges, the greatest reward of translating this story was getting to spend more time exploring the beautiful, subtle relationships in the story that grew richer for me with each re-read.
And can you say anything about how the story links with her other work?
Sure! So I mentioned earlier that Soyeon Jeong has been translated into English before, and “Home,” translated by Sophie Bowman, is actually set in the same universe as this story, “Ensign.” When I reached out to the writer about translating the story, she told me about this universe she had envisioned and depicted in several interconnected stories, some of which appeared in her debut collection of sci-fi short stories, <옆집의 영희 씨> (Younghee Next Door). This particular series of stories centers on the fictional Caduceus Corporation and the power it exerts over the development of outer space and day-to-day lives of people living there in the future. Like “Home,” “Ensign” looks at how this sort of power structure shapes the lives of people all the way down the social ladder.
Are there other Korean authors you'd like to translate, or whose work you'd like to see in English translation?
Some of my favorite Korean writers at the moment, who have stunned me with their unusual ways of seeing and writing the world, include Kim Heejin, Choi Jeonghwa, Chung Serang, Kim Geumhee, Shin Haewook, Hwang Jungeun, Cheon Seonran, and Heuijung Hur. I regret that I have but my one “wild and precious life” with its limited store of time when there are tons of writers I want to see in translation. But there are so many great translators working today that I trust these writers and their stories will find their way to Anglophone readers in time. In the meantime, I feel incredibly lucky that I do at least have the honor of translating some of this amazing work.
Can you tell us what you're working on at the moment?
In the realm of SF and speculative fiction, I’m translating Heuijung Hur’s excellent, genre-leaping collection of short stories, Failed Summer Vacation, with the support of a grant from the Daesan Foundation in Korea. The stories in that collection range from hard sci-fi to fabulism to realism with wrinkles of the irreal—I can’t wait for more folks to read them. Another great work of science fiction that looks at the possibilities and dangers of augmented reality, The World You Want To See by Chang Kang-myoung, will be out in my translation from Asia Publishers later this winter. I hope Samovar readers will check out these writers and their work!
Thank you, Paige!