An Interview with Sora Kim-Russell

24 Apr
Sora Kim-Russell lives in Seoul, where she writes and works as a teacher and translator.

Sora Kim-Russell lives in Seoul, and her translations of the Korean writer Bae Suah are among the first of that form-breaking writer’s work to appear in English.

Sora Kim-Russell is a literary translator based in Seoul. Her translations include Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll Be Right There and Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time, as well as Bae Suah’s Highway with Green Apples and Nowhere to Be Found. Her translation of Hwang Sok-yong’s Princess Bari will be available on April 27, 2015 through Periscope (UK).

To read an exercise on characterizing an entire society and Bae Suah’s novella, Nowhere to Be Found, and also an interview with Bae, click here.

Michael Noll

The style of the language in Nowhere to Be Found is plain and direct. There are moments of metaphor and some lovely writing, of course, but from the first page, the narrator’s voice is very matter-of-fact. I’m not a translator myself, but I can imagine the difficulties of trying to find a match in English for the tone of the original prose. Did you have a strategy for this? Did you play around with different approaches until you found one that was right?

Sora Kim-Russell

I did play around with the narrator’s voice, especially in the opening pages. It was important to me to capture the narrator’s tone and attitude right from the get-go. Korean-to-English translation has an innate tendency to veer abstract and indirect, so I really tried to push against that and keep the language clear and direct. That way, when the story later takes its flights of fancy, those parts would have room to shine. As for capturing tone and voice, I think my approach is a combination of text analysis and method acting. In terms of text analysis, I look for rhetorical patterns—words or images or emotions that reappear, particular sentence styles and shifts in sentence structure, anything at all that gets repeated—in order to pin down how the narrator is telling her story. As for the “method acting” part, I thought about my own experiences in my twenties and tapped into those memories of dead-end jobs, dead-end relationships, fear of the future, and so on, in order to channel those emotions into my translation. By that, I don’t mean that I wrote myself into the character—it was more like orienting myself emotionally onto the narrator and mapping where our choice of words and phrasings aligned and diverged.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about challenges you had as a translator in finding English equivalents for basic aspects of the Korean setting. There aren’t very many well-known Korean writers in America and certainly not many who are being translated. As a result, I found myself realizing as I read how little I know about Korea, especially as it was during the 80s. In some ways, the narrator seems like any young, single person. In other ways, though, the effect that poverty and the cultural expectations for single women feels quite different from what an American might experience. Does the prose in Korean take for granted certain things that had to be illustrated or explained a bit for an American audience?

Sora Kim-Russell

There were a few “taken for granted” parts, though to be fair, at least one of those references would be just as tricky for young Korean readers today—namely, the “officer-in-training” system that Cheolsu was in. I got really stuck on how to translate Cheolsu’s rank (silseupsodaejang). I guess it’s very roughly analogous to the ROTC system in the US, with the critical difference being that most Korean men don’t choose to go to the military. In South Korea, all able-bodied men have to undergo two years of military service, usually right in the middle of their college years. Cheolsu’s situation is different because he goes into the service after college, his stint is very short, and he starts at a higher rank than other men. He has it easy, in other words. The writer explained to me that, back in the ‘80s when the novella takes place, the officer-in-training system offered a loophole intended to benefit men from elite families, but as the man on the phone (towards the ends of the book) explains, some lower-class men were able to take advantage of it if they could pass the exam. So that was a very specific historical detail that is not explained in the original but which sheds light on who this Cheolsu guy is. I opted to add in a brief explanation, because there was no way to pack all that context into a single word translation.

Also, more broadly, the whole system of military conscription and the idea of women providing support and encouragement (from food, visits, and letters to perhaps more than that) to men undergoing military service is a ubiquitous part of modern Korean culture. If you know that, then it might be easier to understand why the female protagonist resists it. It also helps with understanding South Korea in general, though I would argue that this notion of women feeling pressured to provide “comfort” to men in the military is close to universal and no doubt found in every patriarchal, militarized culture around the world.

Another “taken for granted” part worth pointing out is the title itself. The original title was “Cheolsu,” but it didn’t work in translation because Cheolsu is an extremely common male name in Korea, comparable to “John.” In English, the name comes across as exotic and foreign, which is exactly the opposite of its intended effect in the original, so we opted to change the title in order to convey that sense of ordinariness and anonymity in a different way.

Michael Noll

How much freedom did you take in structuring sentences? For instance, a street in Uijeongbu is described this way: “A perfectly gray street. An old and dirty street.” Were the original lines fragments as well, or is that a construction you used in order to achieve a particular effect?

Sora Kim-Russell

I actually stuck very close to the author’s original sentence structures. There’s something jarring about her sentences in Korean, especially the shifts from long, antithetical sentences where she takes a phrase and turns it back and forth before moving on, to abrupt fragments where the speaker seems to have run out of breath. If I changed anything, it was because it didn’t work grammatically in English, but wherever possible I followed the author’s lead. There were a few places where I had copy editors suggest changes, either deleting a fragment or changing a word choice that seemed out of place, but I stuck to my guns and insisted on keeping them, or looked for ways to smooth them out just enough to allow them to fold into the text but still assert their presence. Whenever there was any doubt, I checked with the writer, and she gave me her opinion on what she thought could be changed or deleted without hurting the text, and which things needed to stay in place. She likes to jar her readers, but the challenge was to find the right words in English that jar without completely unseating the reader.

April 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

One Response to “An Interview with Sora Kim-Russell”


  1. Writing Exercise Inspired by Bae Suah’s Nowhere To Be Found | subject object verb - April 27, 2015

    […] Interview with yours truly […]

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