The Book in Korean?

Yesterday, I took the subway out to Daehakno a little after lunch. It’s been three years since the last time I went to the area, which was around the time my friend and former co-worker Aidan left Korea. I went this time to spend some more time with Aidan and his family while they were visiting in Seoul, but the primary reason was that Aidan wanted to introduce me to a Korean poet and writer he befriended at the coffee shop on the ground floor of the apartment building he used to live in. While I’m not particularly keen on meeting elderly Korean men, the reason I agreed was that I’m having trouble finding a publisher who will print the book in Korea so I can get the book back on the shelves at Kyobo Bookstore. I had heard it was relatively easy to get published in Korea, but I haven’t had a single reply so far.

It was kind of an awkward start, but Mr. Choi had heard about my book and was interested. As we talked, I found him to be an amiable man, quick to smile and laugh, interested in the ills present in Korean society, and prolific in his work, his poetry and writing. He asked me for a copy of the book, which I happened to bring with me, and he made it a point that he wouldn’t be able to read it because it was in English.

“Have you ever thought of a Korean version of the book?”

“Yes, I have. But I figured it would happen only if the book became a huge success abroad. Anyway, it’s not really feasible at this point.”

“Why is that?”

“I can’t afford to pay anyone to translate it. I’ve only made around $150 from the book so far.”

“You’re publishing it in the wrong place. You need to publish it in Korea. The problem is that publishers will only pay for an established writer’s book to be translated. But what I really want to ask is, does it have to be translated?”

“Yes. My Korean has never been fluent, even after I finished the service, and it’s only gotten worse. I can probably write at a middle-school level.”

“But can you do that? Can you re-write the book at a middle-school level?”

“I guess. But it would probably take me a very long time.”

At this point, I already had an idea as to what he was leading up to, but I didn’t want to seem presumptuous so I played the dummy.

“This is what I was thinking. If you can write the book in Korean, at a middle-school level, then all you’ll need is someone to edit it and make it sound nice.”

I nod thoughtfully and wait for him to continue.

“If you can do that and I deem it publishable, I’ll edit it for you.”


“You wouldn’t have to pay me. But I’ll only do it if I think it’s good enough. Sound good?”


“Just send me what you can get done, even if it’s just a chapter at a time.”

So that’s where I am now. It’s a roundabout way to get the book back on the shelves, but I figure if a publisher agrees to publish the Korean version of the book, I can probably convince them to print the original as well. The problem is, I think I might have overestimated my Korean ability. Maybe upper-elementary-school level would be more accurate. And I’ve also forgotten a lot of the Korean Army jargon. It took me a good five minutes last night to remember that mess hall is simply shikdang (restaurant/cafeteria) in Korean.

I am working on some other ways to print the book at the moment, but this new development means that there might be a Korean version out before I can get the English version back on the shelves.

* Aidan is also an artist, a potter (my focus in college was also ceramics), and his older son Liam is already beginning to show his artistic talent. While I was talking with Mr. Choi, I spotted Liam sneaking glances at me and drawing on his pad. This is the artist with his portrait of me.

I guess I appear to be a hairy monster in the eyes of a six-year-old.

Having seen Liam grow up since birth and wanting to foster the artist in him, I stopped by a shop and bought him another drawing pad and pencils of different lead grades. I was impressed by his portrait, and I’m interested in seeing how his skill will develop.

Aidan and his family now live in Jeju, and before we parted ways, Aidan reiterated his offer for a place in Jeju to work on my writing. With the side editing job I’m doing now, it’s not likely I’ll be able to take him up on his offer this summer, but next year I’m definitely taking the bike down to Jeju to see if the island life can help me in my writing.

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2 Responses to The Book in Korean?

  1. bighominid says:

    I’m pretty sure that you and I have at least idly tossed around the notion of getting your book translated. This sounds like a great opportunity, although it’s also going to mean a hell of a lot of work. Venerable Mr. Choi is certainly kind to offer his services as text-polisher, although one wonders how proper credit will be assigned to all involved parties. In essence, you’ll get the primary translation credit since you’ll be doing the heavy lifting; Mr. Choi, meanwhile, will be… what? Copy editor? Or will he be listed as a sort of co-translator? (A friend of mine, Dr. Jeff Hodges, does team-translation work with his wife. Madame renders the Korean into unpolished English, and Monsieur supplies the grammatical propriety and literary eloquence that his wife’s rough rendering lacks.) As for writing in Jeju—wow. That’s quite an offer.

    Regarding Liam Le Jeune Artiste: obviously, he’s just a kid, but in his drawing he hit some of the salient points—the facial stubble, and even a sense of pensive melancholy. He’s obviously a sensitive, perceptive soul. His line work also shows a good deal of conviction and decisiveness. The face on the page looks, with its stubble/shading, almost like something that might have been drawn by Shel Silverstein.

    There’s a really cool art-class exercise you can do with Liam. You’ve probably done it yourself because it’s pretty 101-level stuff: tell Liam to get out paper and a drawing implement (pen, pencil, charcoal, whatever); tell him to put his free hand on the table next to the drawing paper. Tell him he can look ONLY at his hand, and NEVER at the paper. Then tell him he has to draw his hand—just by looking at it and “feeling” his way through the drawing. This is a very good proprioception exercise, and it might help Liam the next time he’s trying to get face shapes right.

    Another great way for an artist to develop a sense of shape and proportion is to practice writing Chinese characters, which require something of an artist’s eye to do right.


    • Young says:

      I think that Mr. Choi doesn’t want to see it as a translation but rather a separate work based on the book in English. I agree with him; while the general content and structure will remain largely the same, the fact that the audience is different will mean that the book will be a different work. I’ll have to tailor it to a Korean audience.

      As for credit, Mr. Choi has already said that he doesn’t need any monetary compensation, but I think an editing credit is definitely due. If the book is ever to be published in Korean, it will require major editing. It will probably be as much his work as it is mine.


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