Double-longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize – and then shortlisted for Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny – Anton Hur is perhaps one of the most recognised faces among international translators today. Born in Stockholm, Sweden, and raised in British Hong Kong, Ethiopia, Thailand, and Korea, Hur has created a body of translations from Korean to English that enables English-language readers to access the vast and fascinating variety of literatures that South Korea has to offer.
Hur has translated several female and queer writers from South Korea, and has been a vocal advocate for fair treatment of writers, translators, and publishing industry workers. A passionate and informed translator, a star in his own right, Hur spoke to Scroll about his translation choices, mentoring new translators, the role of boy band BTS in making Korean literature popular, and more. Excerpts from the conversation:
I read about your fascinating translation method on your blog. Since most of my questions were answered in it, I would still like to ask, how did you begin to translate?
I was a kid and I would interpret for my mother. Eventually, I began doing it for money in high school and college and I just never stopped. This is a very typical path for many translators.
A translator can also be a curator. For instance, someone like me who knows nothing about Korean literature would be eager to read a new author if the front cover had your name as the translator. Do you consider yourself a curator for the English-language audience or do you take on a book simply because you like it and without burdening yourself with what the larger implications might be?
Both things. I agree a translator can be a curator. The spate of science fiction novels translated from Korean that came out in the past couple of years – I’m Waiting for You, Tower, To the Warm Horizon, Cursed Bunny, Walking Practice – were made possible by a group of translators who actively and deliberately sought out edgy Korean SF to translate. I was also keen on translating queer Korean literature, hence Love in the Big City. But a lot of the time, I just like a book. Indeterminate Inflorescence is a great example, it’s the kind of book no one knew how to categorise and it was unthinkable anyone would translate it into English or any other language, but I really wanted people around the world to read it because it’s such a treasure.
If someone were to go through your list of published translations, they’d find a few names that make multiple appearances – Kyung-Sook Shin, Baek Sehee (sequel forthcoming in 2024), and Bora Chung. What makes you return to the works of these authors?
It’s not dissimilar to certain actors appearing in the works of certain directors time and again. The match between a translator and a writer is alchemical, it’s like casting a movie or being in a marriage. The partnership has to somehow go beyond being a sum of its parts. With a writer like Bora Chung especially, I’ve invested so much of myself into bringing her name up from untranslated to Booker-shortlisted that any other translator taking her away from me would be considered really bad manners on the part of that translator. Translators are asked to sacrifice so much, we can’t keep doing all of that work if your author isn’t interested in working with you in the long term, although I understand if an author wants to move on.
It is also heartening to see how you have actively translated women and queer Korean authors. Is this a conscious choice?
Absolutely. It’s very rare that I find a cis-het male writer that I like. I do translate them, but even as a young reader, I’ve always preferred the work of women authors. With queer authors, it’s happened a couple of times where I would take on their work and learn later on that they’re queer. So I seem to naturally gravitate towards their work. I enjoy destroying the patriarchy. We all have to do our part.
To add to this question, (if I am not wrong) Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, thus far, is your only translation into Korean from English. Can you tell me what made you translate this book into your mother tongue?
Well, it’s Ocean Vuong. You don’t say no to Ocean Vuong! I also really like this Korean publisher, they’re the most prestigious publisher of poetry in our country, and I wanted to work with them. I also wanted to translate a book into Korean because it’s a different vibe, but the opportunity never really presented itself because I was so busy with my other translation work. But I plan on continuing to be a bidirectional translator. I’m already a bilingual author, as I’ve signed contracts to write books in both Korean and English. No one told me I couldn’t do it, so I just went ahead and did it.
Literary fiction, science fiction, speculative fiction, memoirs, poetry…you have done it all. Do you have a soft spot for any specific genre? And which one of these do you find most challenging to translate?
I don’t really believe in genres, I mean, they’re cute marketing terms and handy for readers to find what they want to read, but from a translator’s point of view, the only thing I care about is that they’re well-written. Most readers I know read in multiple genres, so there’s no reason translators and writers shouldn’t work in multiple genres either. If I had to pick a genre I have a particular affection for, I would say speculative and science fiction. But I also have great respect for romance, memoirs, self-help, and nonfiction. And love poetry. My master’s degree is in Victorian poetry. I just really love books.
You are the only translator who was double-longlisted for the International Booker Prize. Other than that, you have multiple grants and awards to your name. It would not be an exaggeration to say that you are one of the most recognised translators in the world today. Despite the achievements, you have spoken up about how contract conditions continue to be unfair to you and translators in general. What do you think the reason for this apathy might be?
Both Frank Wynne and Sophie Hughes were double-longlisted for the International Booker before I was, but yes, there have only been three such cases in history so far. I’ve only won two awards, and one of them was for fourth place. So I’ve actually not won a lot of awards. I feel like I’m so visible because I do a lot of social media and microblogging and interact with readers a lot, more than my achievements per se.
Contract conditions remain bad for translators because they remain bad for people in publishing across the board. Writers have it bad, young people in publishing have it bad, and the HarperCollins union went on strike – thank god they won. Capitalism is why pay in publishing remains stagnant despite huge profits. I don’t really have a special answer for this, my answer is the same as everyone else’s.
You have taught translation and you have been a part of translation awards juries too. What is the future of translation like? What excites you most about the new crop of translators?
There is some truly exciting work coming from young translators all over the world, and so many names to watch out for. Soje, Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda, Jack Hargreaves, Robin Munby, Reuben Woolley, my mentees Clare Richards, Shanna Tan, and Gene Png – they are the lifeblood of our profession and I hope they all come out with their incredible and wonderful books soon that will make people forget about us oldies.
When I was a judge for the National Translation Award for Prose in 2021, I was also astonished by the incredible literature coming out of South Asia, so much so I said yes to judging the Armory Square Prize this year not so much for the experience of judging but for industrial espionage purposes; I just wanted to get a preview of what everyone in those languages was working on.
Every translator has a translation rule or mantra that they live by. What is yours? And have you ever deviated from it?
I’m sure I have one, I just can’t quite put my finger on what it might be. I guess mine is “Return to the source”? I think I can safely say I’m one of the most conservative translators working in my language combination because I really hate leaving things out or putting new things in. Which is often a silly attitude to have, because sometimes you have to do those things for the sake of the translation, but for me, the fun of translation is to figure out a way to express something that seems inexpressible in the target language. Whenever I am stuck with something or I see something in the translation that’s a mess, I always return to the source to figure out a new way to do it. The answer is always there, in the source.
Korean movies have always been popular but the K-pop boom has made Korean culture a thing of desire. Every big city in India not just has K-drama and K-pop fan groups but cafes, bakeries, and restaurants serving Korean cuisine are mushrooming by the dozens. Language schools now teach Korean alongside French, German, Spanish, and Mandarin. There is clearly a great interest in Korea’s cultural offerings. Would you say this is a great time to be a translator of the Korean language? And does it sometimes get a little overwhelming?
With extremely few exceptions, there is very little audience spillover from K-pop and K-drama into Korean literature. Just because someone likes a BLACKPINK song, it doesn’t make them want to pick up Hwang Sok-yong. That doesn’t happen for Korean K-pop listeners, so I don’t see why that would happen for non-Koreans. I recently had a “Korea blogger” try to interview me without ever having read any of my books. We’re just “content” for this crowd. My audience is not, and never has been, that audience. The only reliable ally for Korean literature in K-culture is BTS, specifically RM, who loves reading. The BTS fandom, called ARMY, has long been supportive of Korean literature in translation. They are almost the only exception to the rule.
Let’s imagine that Anton Hur has been asked to create a Translator’s Paradise. What are the top three things you will have in such a space?
A room of one’s own, steady income, and an agent to take care of rights haggling, pitching, and other problem-solving that has nothing to do with the actual act of translation.