Meet the Translator: Interview with Sung Ryu (Korean to English)

Today’s Meet the Translator post is a follow up to my blog post where I reviewed Tower by Bae Myung-Hoon and translated by Sung Ryu. I thought I would take the opportunity to find out more about not only the translating process but also more about the translator herself Sung Ryu.

First, could you please introduce yourself.

I’m Sung Ryu and I translate between Korean and English. The authors I’ve translated include Bae Myung-hoon, Kim Bo-Young, Choi Eunyoung, and Anna Mary Robertson Moses (more popularly known as “Grandma Moses”).

What was your inspiration for pursuing a career in translation? And how did you get started?

I had secretly wanted to become a writer, writing in both Korean and English, so translation seemed to be the perfect training. I figured I’d translate and learn from writers I admire, perhaps for a few years, until I could start writing my own stuff. My plan succeeded only halfway: my writing did benefit hugely from spending so much time with the words of stellar writers I translated, but I hadn’t counted on the fact that the publication of my first book-length literary translation would take eight years. It was a classic case of “the bellybutton outgrowing the belly,” as Koreans like to say. I’m glad it was, though. I’ve discovered that I’m quite at home between my languages, in the bellybutton, and don’t see myself moving out anytime soon.   

Why did you want to translate Tower?

It was an instinctive decision after my first read. The imagination, the humor, the heart, I fell for it all. I wanted to articulate my exhilaration, to release it, and translation seemed to be the most gratifying outlet—I started translating out of a purely selfish joy. But when I began to talk to the author, workshop my translation with other translators, and send out partials to publishers, I was increasingly driven by a sense of responsibility for the author’s work and also my own. It only seemed right to see the project to the end.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a translator?

I’m not sure if I can start doling out advice to other people already, but there are some things I want to tell my 23-year-old self who was aspiring to become a translator: Translate only what you must. Save your time and your wrists for projects that truly matter to you and earn a living through other means. Find or found a community of translators as soon as you can. You will lean on them and they will lean on you, like the Chinese character for “people” 人. Sit less, move more, build your muscles as you would build your vocabulary, because at the end of the day you translate with your body. 

What authors/translators do you like to read? And what five books do you feel have really shaped and inspired you as a translator and a person?

I like to read translations by my friends haha. Many of them are in but not limited to Smoking Tigers. I also admire Kim Jung Ah, who is a very cool translator, teacher, and person. She has translated into Korean Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin, Slavoj Žižek, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Talal Asad, Rebecca Solnit . . . so many that I can’t keep up. She translates mostly from English but also from French and German. To my knowledge, she reads extensively for each translation, including most, if not all, of the author’s oeuvre, their biography, criticism on their work, translations of the work into other languages, etc. I think she’s even studied Russian while translating Nabokov just to understand his puns? She worships the text. I enjoy reading her footnotes[1] because they are distillations of such vast research. My envy-transcending awe of her mastery over her craft is probably obvious by now; I just feel fortunate to be her reader. (Also, I kind of interviewed her for this interview, so thank you Jung Ah for your time!)

Every book I’ve translated has altered and expanded my worldview. To name a few others, Tehanu and The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. Le Guin, 엄마의 말뚝 [Mother’s Stake] by Park wan-suh, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, and interviews by Grandma Moses (which I’ve compiled and translated a few years ago but haven’t been published yet) are on my mind a lot lately. I’m drawn to stories of or by women who’ve lived to a great age, those wise women who’ve experienced the full gamut of the human condition.

What books are you excited about or working on now?

I’m giving myself a sabbatical right now after translating Kim Bo-Young’s I’m Waiting for You: And Other Stories with Sophie Bowman, Bae Myung-hoon’s Tower, and Choi Eunyoung’s Shoko’s Smile back to back.

Are there any Korean books that you would love to translate in the future?

There is a dream project my thoughts keep returning to. I’d love to translate a selection of myths about Korean goddesses. Korea is full of goddesses, especially in the island of Jeju. I’ve tried my hand at translating the origin myth of Jacheongbi, my favorite badass Korean goddess, but the experience taught me that I have a LOT more to learn about the Jeju language and its rhythms, the practice of shamanism (these are living myths sung by Korean shamans to this day), and the history of Korea and Jeju, before I can even hope to do the stories justice. The project is more of a pipe dream at this point, but maybe if I keep talking about it to other people and myself, I’ll start to believe in it.

When it comes to the promotion of the books that you have translated how involved are you?

As much as my introverted self can stand, sometimes more (I signed up to Twitter just to promote Tower and my subsequent publications). Whenever a promotional opportunity comes along, like this interview, I feel obligated to take it.

Has the perception of Korean Literature in translation changed during the time you have worked as a translator?

I think Korean literature is starting to mean many different things for many different readers, thanks to the growing diversity of what is being published by both big and independent presses. I’m seeing a lot more Korean speculative fiction, queer literature, poetry, children’s & YA books, and even nonfiction in translation. It’s an exciting time to be translating.

Finally, what are you currently reading.

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents and Yeoh Jo-Ann’s The Impractical Uses of Cake, among others.

Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview and I cannot wait to read more of your translations in the future.


[1] In English-to-Korean translation, footnotes are standard and encouraged over in-text glosses.

(Photo of the book is my own and photo of Sung Ryu is the property of Sung herself so please do not copy/take without permission first).

One response to “Meet the Translator: Interview with Sung Ryu (Korean to English)

  1. Pingback: Favourite Books of 2021 | Where there's Ink there's Paper·

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