“Since we’re already here, I want to have a real conversation.”

When I was first starting out as a translator and wondering how on earth anyone could have enough endurance to translate an entire novel, a much more experienced translator explained to me that it wasn’t as hard as it seemed. She told me that short stories are the real challenge: by the time you figure out what the writer is up to, the story is already over. With novels, you just had to get through the first thirty pages and the rest would magically flow. In other words, the first thirty pages were all you really needed to grasp the writer’s approach, cycle through her range of sentences, and capture the characters’ voices.

Her advice held true for me up until I started translating Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time. I made it through the first thirty pages, slogging through sentence by sentence, but it didn’t get any easier over the next thirty, or the next. I couldn’t understand why. I’d always enjoyed Ji-young’s seemingly effortless style when I read her works in Korean, and I rarely found myself stuck or confused. But in the process of translating this particular book, the sentences turned into a knot of delicate chains that I couldn’t untangle no matter how I worried them between my fingers. It took longer than I care to admit to finally take a step back and assess what was going on. I stopped translating and started re-reading, and finally I understood. I’d been so intent on capturing the author’s sentences down to the last preposition that I’d missed the point entirely. All along, the narrator had been trying to speak to me, but in a language of silence and omissions. How do you parse what isn’t there?

Once I started paying attention to those silences, I realised how much of the novel is about the urgent need to speak and to be heard. To make real connections with other human beings through our words. About the risks that arise from making those connections, and sometimes about the impossibility.

When we first meet the narrator, Yujeong, she’s waking up in the hospital after a suicide attempt. She sneers at the language used to define her – “an attempted suicide patient, they called me” – and tries absurdly to convince her aunt that her overdose was merely an accident. Her introductory scene is filled with sarcasm, excuses, omissions, indirect dialogue, and even imagined dialogue. At one point, I stopped in the middle of translating the passage and muttered out loud, “Who’s talking?” It was tricky to keep track of what was actually said versus what was simply assumed by Yujeong.

As part of Yujeong’s recovery, her aunt takes her to meet Yunsu, a prisoner on death row. The scene where they meet is filled with the same sort of ghosted dialogue. We hear what is actually said, but we are also privy to Yujeong’s thoughts and her version of what Yunsu might be thinking. Yujeong finds herself empathising with Yunsu despite herself. Her internal dialogue, which usually works to shield her against contact with others, for once makes her vulnerable, inviting connection with someone from a different socioeconomic class and, worse, a convicted rapist and murderer. Ultimately, she grasps onto this absurd connection and approaches Yunsu face to face for some real talk, the “real conversation” that she craves.

Yujeong’s jaded monologue is interwoven with Yunsu’s straightforward account of his life, from his early childhood with negligent, abusive parents to his upbringing on the streets and finally his adulthood as a criminal. Between the two, Yunsu’s narrated passages were easier to translate but no less searing to read. One entry, “Blue Note 11,” is just five sentences long:

Six months later, my brother and I left the juvenile detention centre. Parents came to take their children home. The children whose parents did not come went with siblings. The children whose siblings did not come formed groups and went their own way. Eunsu and I stood on the street in front of the centre until the sun went down and it was dark.

Yunsu doesn’t name what he’s feeling. The omission speaks for him. Both Yujeong and Yunsu believe they are hollow, their lives occupied with echoes and regrets, but by talking to each other they find that what they thought was empty had actually been full all along.

For a translator who deals in words on the page, silence baffles. Distracted by the literal, I fell for Yujeong’s sarcasm and was misled by her excuses. Somewhere behind those layers of dialogue, monologue and imagined conversation, Yujeong was itching to speak but was too accustomed to being silenced and spoken over. This was reflected not just in her sarcastic asides but in all the things she left out, even on the sentence level. In a scene with her older brother, she speaks out passionately against the death penalty only to be met with a patronising, “When did you study all of that?” Instead of responding, she retreats into her head: “I wanted to yell, Why do you think so little of me?” The original Korean literally reads: “Why do you think only that of a person?” The line is loaded, bristling with tension, and yet at the same time it’s vague, evasive and unspoken. It remains inside her head.

Towards the end of the novel, Yujeong tries to make a similar connection with her mother by finally speaking her mind. I couldn’t help but recall my mother’s difficult relationship with her own mother. When I was growing up in the US, my mother would often rail about the secrets and lies that she believed infected Korean families. She had tried many times to talk to her own siblings about hardships they’d experienced growing up only to be met by their stubborn, insistent silence. “No one talks!” she would say. As I recalled this, I was momentarily tempted to lump it all together as a ‘Korean problem’, as if hiding one’s dirty laundry were pathologically, and only, Korean. But of course it’s not. It’s universal, this urge to omit. And in that way, Gong Ji-young has written a story that both is and is not Korean. No wonder, then, that the translation was difficult. Things worth saying are rarely easy.


Sora Kim-Russell is a poet and translator originally from California and now living in Seoul, where she teaches at Ewha Womans University. Her work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Azalea: A Journal of Korean Literature and Culture, Drunken Boat, Pebble Lake Review, The Diagram and other publications. Her translation of Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time is published by Short Books. Read an extract.