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The Emerging Literary Translator Valley of Death

By Anton Hur

Anton Hur, translator of Kyung-Sook Shin’s The Court Dancer and Kang Kyeong-ae’s The Underground Village, offers insights into the challenges facing literary translators and tips for navigating “the Valley.”

There’s a name for that dangerous period in the beginning stages of a company where there’s money going out but none coming in: the Valley of Death. It is described in this way because many companies go bankrupt at this stage, not because their products are bad necessarily but because of problems with cash flow. I know about the Valley of Death because I used to edit an innovation policy journal. In fact, I toiled away at translation and interpreting jobs in every field you can imagine before switching to translating literature exclusively last year.

It took nine years from my graduation from the Literature Translation Institute of Korea to the publication of my first book. I call this period my Emerging Literary Translator Valley of Death. Most emerging literary translators simply give up at some point in the Valley. I did myself, in fact, adding three years to my time within it. And even more translators give up after a slew of magazine publications or after winning a competition or even obtaining a degree. They are simply never heard from again.

Under this rubric of “first book publication,” different translators spend differing amounts of time in the Valley, mostly due to the business of living and the sheer luck it takes to get published. For even the most famed Korean literary translators, it can range from a couple of years up to a decade. Some rubrics are stricter; Asymptote Journal, for the purposes of their annual translation contest, defines an “emerging translator” as anyone who has published up to one book, probably because there are many translators who publish one book and are never heard from again. Under the Asymptote criteria, I officially finish emerging on November 30, 2018, when my second book translation comes out.

But even now, with just one book, I can tell that there’s a big difference between having a book and not having one. There are residencies and funding that I am suddenly eligible for (and quite a few that I am no longer eligible for) by virtue of having a published book. I’m also a more convincing expert in my field when I’m auditioning for a gig—although, believe me, I am still auditioning, dancing for publishers in my tights to “What a Feeling.” Despite that, it still feels as if I’ve just come out of something, and have reached a point in my career during which things feel more solid, even if I continue to fill in the gaps in my cash flow with “translating-adjacent” activities, such as teaching translation—although I would argue that teaching and editing are an integral part of being a literary translator.

So what to do until that first book? In other words, what do people do in the Valley? The responses vary, but they include: freelance translation, funded degree programs in translation (more of these exist now), funded degree programs in something other than translation, supporting a breadwinner spouse, teaching something (English in Korea or Japan is a popular choice), joining the Peace Corps, Scientology, doing drugs, actual death—you get the picture.

The Valley of Death is where we learn the lay of the land, and it is also a time period in which we keep asking ourselves if this is what we want to do with our lives.

In a sense, we collect experiences and material in the Valley as much as we collect money to live on. I like to think that we really grow into our languages during this time, because no matter where translators live physically, we always live in our languages. They are psychic neighborhoods that we are tapped into at all times. The Valley of Death is where we learn the lay of the land, and it is also a time period in which we keep asking ourselves if this is what we want to do with our lives; to mix metaphors, the Valley of Death is also a Dark Night of the Soul. You emerge from it with a knowledge of not just your languages but of yourself and your place in the world. And the fact of the matter is that most multilingual, well-educated, and literary young people are likely to have their talents better appreciated in other parts of the professional world than in literary translation. (Note that picking up JavaScript is nowhere near as difficult as picking up literally any human language, and it is likely to be more lucrative.)

I’m as skeptical as Susan Bernofsky as to whether literary translation may actually be a sensible career choice (her article on the subject is essential reading), but then again, my own mentor, Sora Kim-Russell, has shown that it is technically possible. But you should take a long, hard look at the available funding in your language combination first, prepare yourself to supplement your income with other work, and understand that it takes a long time to build up the chops and the network that will get you through the Valley.

Becoming a translator looks easy and, chances are, you’re probably a decent one already if you’re looking into literary translation. Maybe the work isn’t that hard—it’s getting the work that’s really difficult. In fact, every successful literary translator I’ve talked to has mentioned that it takes a very large dose of luck. But I think luck is a matter of doing the best with whatever opportunities happen to be at hand, just like in any other situation; this is why your path out of the Valley is going to look different from everyone else’s. And, as in any other situation, always remember that it’s what you gain from the process that counts, not whether you publish a book or not. I enjoyed the work I did outside of literature. I’d advise you to do the same: Enjoy your time in the Valley. It’s quite an adventure.

Published Nov 12, 2018   Copyright 2018 Anton Hur

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