International Booker interview: How Sora Russell and Youngjae Bae translated ‘Mater 2-10’ from Korea

Sora Kim Russell and Youngjae J Bae translate from the Korean into English. Their co-translation of Hwang Sok-yong’s Mater 2-10 is shortlisted for the 2024 International Booker Prize.

Mater 2-10 is centred on three generations of a family of rail workers and a laid-off factory worker staging a high-altitude sit-in. The novel vividly depicts the lives of ordinary working Koreans, starting from the Japanese colonial era, continuing through Liberation, right up to the 21st century. The prize jury has described it as “a sweeping and comprehensive book about a Korea we rarely see in the West, blending the historical narrative of a nation with an individual’s quest for justice…”

Sora Kim-Russell has also translated works by Pyun Hye-young, Kim Un-su, Hwang Sok-yong, and Bae Suah, among others. Her translation of Pyun Hye-young’s The Hole won the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award for best novel, while her translation of Hwang Sok-yong’s other novel – At Dusk – was longlisted for the 2018 International Booker Prize.

Youngjae Josephine Bae is the winner of the 2019 LTI Korea Award for Aspiring Translators and the 2021 Korea Times Literature Translation Award. She has also translated two non-fiction titles: Imaginary Athens and A Global History of Ginseng.

The translator duo spoke about the author Hwang Sok-yong and their experience translating his book, Mater 2-10.

How and why did you get into literary translation?
Sora Kim Russell (SKR): I started while doing my own writing. I used to write poetry and was interested in fiction and literary nonfiction. At the same time, I was reading Korean fiction and liked what I was reading and became aware of translation as another genre of writing. To cut a long story short, I fell in love with translation as a form of writing in itself.

Youngjae J Bae (YJB): I was working as an English editor for a research foundation. Out of nowhere, I wanted to try a different genre of translation. A few years before that, I had applied for a competition hosted by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. It’s for aspiring translators. I tried my luck and failed.

When I went back to their website, I found they were running a translation academy for literary translators. I joined their special course and that’s how it all started.

Please tell us about the author Hwang Sok-yong and his contribution to contemporary Korean literature.
SKR: It’s not easy to summarise him because he’s been actively writing for so long. I think you could describe him as one of the pillars of modern Korean literature. Mater 2-10 is his eighth novel in translation. He has also been translated into French and other languages. His contribution is significant. In addition to writing fiction, he is also an activist. He’s a very politically engaged writer who likes to write about the working class. And he’s also significant in that he incorporates Korean folk traditions, not only into the subject matter but also into the way he writes.

He’s pursuing a distinctly Korean narrative voice in his work. And I think that is one of his greatest contributions to literature.

Mater 2-10 is described as a multi-generational tale. How would you summarise the book?
YJB: It’s essentially a family saga that covers four generations, of which three generations are railroad workers. The novel goes back and forth between the past and the present. And in the present, is Gino, the fourth generation of the Yee family.

He goes up the chimney of a power plant to protest and in the night, he has flashbacks about people in the past, especially his grandmother. The story spans over a century from the Japanese colonial era through the liberation and up to the 21st century. So it’s a story about a family’s struggle through one of the most trying times in the history of Korea.

The name of the novel is something else in the Korean. Tell us about choosing “Mater 2-0” as the title of the English translation.
SKR: We had nothing to do with the title change. “Mater 2-0” is also what Hwang had originally chosen as the title but his Korean publisher had him change it to the Three Generations of Railworkers because they thought it would be more approachable for Korean readers.

When the manuscript went to the English publisher – Scribe – they said, okay, but could we change the title? And I think before they could even start brainstorming, the author was like, yes, and here’s what the title will be. So luckily we didn’t have to do a thing with the title.

What kind of readers would be interested in reading the book?
YJB: I think the story has a bit of everything for all kinds of readers, especially if you’re interested in historical fiction then this is right up your alley. But there is also folktales, Korean culture and food, how families engage with each other. Although it is historical fiction, the themes are very much connected to the present.

Sora, I gathered Youngjae was your student. How did the idea of co-translation come about?
SKR: The reason we ended up co-translating the book is that neither of us was available to do it on our own. When Yong’s agent approached me about translating it, I was expecting my second child and didn’t want to tackle a new translation, especially for a book of this length, at the same time as caring for a newborn and a toddler. I was planning to take a break from translating completely. I immediately thought of Youngjae as someone I could recommend in my place.

She was in a workshop that I had taught in 2016. She’s a brilliant translator, and I knew from the work she’d done that she was not only a good fit for Yong but was also more than ready to have her work published. I thought this could be a great opportunity to find a perfect translator for the book and help Youngjae get her foot in the door.

However, when I contacted Youngjae to see if I could recommend her to Young’s agent, she was busy with other work and was reluctant to take on the book as a solo project. It would have been her first translation of a full-length novel, and given the length and complexity, it’s admittedly a lot to ask of a new translator.

Meanwhile, I’d started reading the book, and as often happens with me, I started to fall for the story and was already working out some of the solutions in my head. So Youngjae and I agreed to co-translate. We split the book in half, with me taking mostly the latter half, so I could take maternity leave before jumping back in.

And what was the experience of co-translating like?
YJB: I actually jumped at the opportunity that Sora offered because, as I just told you, I’m a former student of hers. This is my first book-length translation of fiction. And so I just knew I would be able to learn a lot from the experience.

That was, I think, my biggest joy in doing the project. When she wanted me to go solo, I was terrified and said no, there’s no way I’ll do this on my own. You have to do it with me or else I’m not doing it. I think the advantage was that we got to discuss everything – every detail – about how we would go about with the names, the nouns that do not exist in English. We were also looking at the communist slang terms that we encountered in the book.

It’s a great support system for any translator. Because normally you don’t have that if you’re translating on your own. We had plenty of discussions with each other and our editor, David Golding. That was also a great advantage.

SKR: Translating communist slang terms! I’d forgotten until she just mentioned it. It was very difficult to find the right words in English

For me, one of the advantages, as she said, was being able to talk through things and not feel like I was alone. I did not have to second guess myself at every turn because I could go to her and ask, am I insane? Does it sound okay? I get really obsessed.

Then there were the familial terms. The characters aren’t addressed by the same name throughout the story – this might be challenging for some readers. They’re addressed by kinship terms. I was dead set on keeping as much of this texture in the book as I could because, among other things, a part of the book takes place during the colonial era when the Korean language was being stamped out. And I felt this was significant. At the same time, I went off the deep end and Youngjae was so great in pulling me back and saying, reminding me, that the book ultimately has to be readable. I couldn’t ignore the readers. This was a very important realisation for me.

Listen to the interview here.

Harshaneeyam’s podcast focuses on translated literary fiction from around the world.

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