In translating literature into English, tone and flow are everything. The right tone will capture the author’s intent and voice, magically transporting the reader into a different world created by the novelist. A not-quite-right tone makes the reading experience much like listening to a CD that keeps skipping— the reader will be pulled out of the story, unable to inhabit the fictional world the way she might if she were reading the original.

As a translator from the Korean, I am constantly on guard against that reaction and therefore take very seriously the task of landing on the right tone. It can be challenging to capture, particularly when the author or narrator’s voice is so different from my own. To put myself in the right frame of mind, I read widely in English when I take on a new project. To translate a satirical, postmodern novel, I read several such English novels; when working on a novel about a poet and his poetry, I read various volumes of poetry. This ritual isn’t so much to gain direct inspiration, but rather to energize me, the way one might listen to upbeat music while jogging.

I’ve translated many novels with alienated, lonely male characters, who often express their disillusion with life through destructive behavior I don’t relate to or talk in ways that feel foreign to me. In these cases, I pay particular attention to the way men of a certain age and epoch speak in movies, novels, and in life. Dialogue is revised and edited again, as I poll acquaintances, friends, and colleagues to craft an authentic voice. For example, in one project, a character is a middle-aged former baseball player, and to properly render the way he thinks about his past career and talks shop with a buddy, I read articles and blog posts about baseball to get a feel for the way people discuss the game, and asked baseball fanatics around me for their opinions on how they would talk about certain aspects of the sport. Little touches like these go unnoticed when done well, but are glaring when done poorly; they contribute greatly to the overall tone of the book.

Using these methods, I have embodied the voice of a middle-aged North Korean spy, a guilt-ridden writer despairing at the loss of her mother, a 1940s Japanese prison guard, a coddled but neglected ten-year-old girl who feels like an outsider, a murderous sociopath, and an autistic math whiz.

The most challenging, however, wasn’t any of these characters, but a hen named Sprout. In The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, recently published in both the US and the UK, the feisty, spunky, independent-minded hen, yearning to leave the battery cage to lay and hatch an egg, charts her own course, refusing to settle for anything less than the life she has in mind for herself. The author’s writing is spare and charged with emotion, and I wanted to convey that while keeping the prose elegant.

As I read classic and modern-day fables, I went through several versions of the manuscript, editing, discarding, and reworking to get to the right tone. In one of my early drafts, I had rendered a passage this way:

Sprout slowed down to match the baby’s gait. The female ducks fell back unwillingly. ‘The weasel, that terrifying hunter! I’m scared. And I hate him. He took everything precious to me. I wish I were stronger than the weasel so I could get revenge!’ It was a foolish thought. Revenge? Just thinking about living in the wide-open fields was enough to make her cry. But she didn’t, closing her beak firmly.

Although more literally translated, the hen’s thoughts in single quotes were jarring in English. Eventually, I decided to do away with the single quotes throughout the text while retaining Sprout’s feelings and thoughts. In the end, I ended up with the passage below:

Sprout slowed down to match Baby’s gait. The female ducks fell back unwillingly. Sprout felt surging hatred toward the weasel. He’d taken every precious being. She wanted to be stronger than the weasel to get revenge. But she knew it was foolish. Revenge? Just thinking about living in the wide-open fields again was enough to make her cry. But she held her tears at bay and set her beak.

In the second version, Sprout’s fear and gumption are still on display, but the text reads more fluidly, encapsulating the mood of the novel more effectively. As this novel is a fable, I wanted to convey the deeper meaning while keeping to the lean style of writing. It was surprising how difficult this proved to be, but it is because works with more complex sentence and narrative structures that seem more difficult at first glance allow for a wider choice of words. My goal for every translation I do is to recreate the mood of the original novel—in this one, to transport the English language reader into Sun-mi Hwang’s universe of brave, singular animals.

  • Sun-mi Hwang  is speaking at the Cambridge Literature Festival at 10am on Sunday April 6th, in the Lightfoot Room at the Divinity School,  St John’s College, St John’s Street, Cambridge, as well as at the English PEN Literary Salon, at the London Book Fair, Earls Court, at 11.30 on Weds April 9th, all as part of the British Council Cultural Programme.
  • Please see here to buy the book The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly.
  • Please see here for an interview with Sun-Mi Hwang, author of The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly.