On ‘Crying Clowns’ and ‘Scandalous Deviants’: An Interview with Sang Young Park and Anton Hur
Written by Sang Young Park and translated into English by Anton Hur, Love in the Big City (Tilted Axis Press) was longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize and has been widely praised for its sharp translation and its tender, humorous examination of Korean queer life. In a society that still oppresses and ignores its queer citizens, and where it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to survive, Young’s story has a particular poignancy. It is a celebration of those who exist on the periphery, and an exploration of the relationships – platonic, familial, and romantic – that change one’s life irrevocably.
In this interview with Victoria Caudle, author Sang Young Park and Anton Hur discuss the parts of themselves and their experiences that they brought to their work, the difficulties of being young and queer in Korea, and the limited opportunities for translators to make a sustainable living.
Victoria Caudle for Wasafiri: Love in the Big City is separated into sections that focus on different relationships in Young’s life — first his best friend Jaehee, then the older man and his mother, then Gyuho (Q-ho), and finally Habibi. The chapters have a loose chronology that allows for the stretching and looping of time through retrospection and reconnection. What was your strategy for piecing together the different facets and fragments of Young’s life? Did you plan out the chronology of the novel as a whole, or write the interlinking stories separately and see how they connected as you wrote?
Sang Young Park: I actually started writing the two chapters ‘Jaehee’ and ‘A Bite of Rockfish, Taste the Universe’ at the same time. As you well know, literary magazines in Korea run mostly commissioned work instead of submissions, especially when it comes to new writers. These two chapters – one that has to do with friendship and solidarity with women, the other having to do with Young’s mother and a man he meets in a philosophy course – first came about as short stories published in magazines. Even after publication, the character of Young kept following me around in my head, which is why I felt there was more story there that needed to be told. That’s how I ended up with writing the other two parts of the book, which is the title chapter ‘Love in the Big City’ and ‘Late Rainy Season Vacation.’ I guess you could say it was the natural progression of things. Because I always had intended to write a composite novel – a novel comprised of interconnected short stories – it wasn’t that difficult to bring them all together into a book when the time came. There were a couple of timeline discrepancies that I had to iron out with my editor, however.
The spectre of homophobia haunts this text, but the narrative doesn’t centre those external issues, focusing instead on the joy that Young finds in life, and the pleasure he gains from his queer community, seemingly avoiding the tragic tropes of queer literature. Taking the oppressive homophobia of Korean society into consideration, did you make a conscious decision to not highlight upsetting realities, but rather, through illustrating Young’s life, provide a more well-rounded understanding of what queer life can be?
SYP: Lots of literature labelled as ‘queer’ in Korea is used as a showcase of hardship and suffering. And there’s a lot of melodrama as well. I love melodrama myself, but there was always something a tad objectifying in the relentlessness of it all. I wanted to show in my narratives that queer people live multifaceted lives, that they have agency, and that queerness is but one among many conditions of life. That’s why I took a multi-layered approach to writing about Young’s life. Also, I’m always interested in expressing tragic aspects of life in comic ways. Kind of like a crying clown, if you will.
Nowadays, young Koreans are finding it hard to live up to societal expectations while facing difficulties finding jobs, housing and more, coining the term ‘Hell Joseon’ — a term criticising the unsustainable South Korean socioeconomic situation. Do you think the feeling of being adrift in life is common amongst Korean people of similar age to the protagonist, Young, who struggles on the job market while pursuing his dream career as an author? Or is there a particular sense of detachment because of the way that queer lives do not follow heteronormative ‘life milestones’ expected or heavily encouraged by society?
SYP: Just as you say, Young is someone who has both of these dimensions. He experiences ‘Hell Joseon’ through his difficulties in getting a job and keeping it, not to mention the current housing crisis that young people face in Korea. Then there’s the queer erasure in Korean society, with queer people excluded from the structures of Korea’s societal frameworks, biased as they are towards the nuclear family ideal. We don’t have same-sex marriage in Korea, for instance, and any form of cohabitation without marriage or familial ties is also largely unprotected. These systems amplify the kind of violence queer people suffer in society. So, both of these systemic oppressions intersect in Young’s life.
It seems that Young was able to break free from both of those pressures by crossing the Korean border, but the freedom he felt was ultimately unsustainable. Thinking about his second trip to Bangkok with Habibi, it is possible to see Young attempting some form of transnational queer solidarity through their interactions. Would you say that through the narrative of one gay Korean man, you intended to start a conversation around the universal experience of queerness?
SYP: I think anyone who is in the minority in their society can only become free once they leave their normal space — the space where they live their daily lives, their space of residence. I also believe that all individuals are utterly unique but also universal for that very same reason. I think one should read the characters of my novel and the novel’s themes in much the same way.
There is a point in the novel where both Young and his mother are living with medical time bombs — HIV for him, cancer for her. Do you think Young could have found any comfort in sharing his condition with his mother? Or would her previous intense homophobia and pathological view of queerness ultimately have severed what was left of their relationship?
SYP: Judging by Young’s stubbornness, I highly doubt he would ever tell his mother anything. Just as Young’s umma hid her cancer diagnosis from her clients, Young would’ve hid his sickness from her indefinitely. The two characters are like mirror-selves of each other. They love each other, but they can’t touch each other. Even if Young’s umma happened to learn of Young’s HIV status, she probably would’ve told him to pray away the virus or something.
Reading the Translator’s Note at the end of the novel, your translator, Anton Hur, says that as a gay man living in Korea, he’s had many similar experiences to Young. What was it like working on Love in the Big City with a translator who is intimately familiar with Korean queer spaces and queer lifestyles?
SYP: Even before we came together as writer and translator, Anton read my story ‘Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta’ and posted about it on social media. I was so pleased to see what he wrote; that it was moving to read a story of a gay person who was living in the same time and place as him, and that these were emotions he was very familiar with. I’m very happy that he became my English translator later on.
When he started to translate Love in the Big City, he told me he would contact me if he had any questions, but all the way up to the very end of translating the book, he didn’t ask me a single question. It’s when I read the English translation of the book that I realised he hadn’t needed me to answer any questions because he simply didn’t have any to ask. There wasn’t a single mistranslation, and it made me incredibly happy to see all the nuances of my work alive in the English. I was especially impressed by things like how he retained particular Korean words like ‘hyong’ in the English. I thought this was very daring. And seeing how many English readers have commented on the excellence of the translation, clearly, I am not alone in thinking this.
Anton, I love your use of English slang like ‘dickmatized’ — this and other word choices really brought a playfulness to the text and created such a compelling English voice for Young. Did you have any strategy for creating a queer vernacular in your translation?
Anton Hur: I brought a lot of myself into Young’s voice. The book keeps mentioning that he’s very obviously gay, but I don’t think he really comes off as that in the Korean text, although it may be a tone issue. He doesn’t really use the queer nomenclature of Itaewon and Jongno, for one thing. So, I camped up the voice as much as possible in places. There are scandalous deviations of tone here and there, but nothing out of place for a book about a scandalous deviant.
As a translator who is deservedly in high demand and potentially working on multiple projects at once, do you find it difficult to switch between the voices of different authors or characters? Do you have any tips for transitioning between projects?
AH: This is actually the hardest part of translation for me, that almost no one talks about. I’m always sluggish in the beginning of a book, but then I find a rhythm to the language and the translation begins to pick up speed. But I almost always have to interrupt that flow with sample work or some other translation emergency. Even a week of uninterrupted translation work on a simple project is a huge luxury. I try to get back into something by reading what I’ve translated over and over, or if it’s a new work, I read the source over and over until I find myself resonating with the voice. Usually, I’m back to speed in a few days.
Speaking of the hard parts of translation that are rarely discussed, you have been a vocal advocate for translator’s rights and working conditions through your public presence at events and through your Twitter account. With the current going rates for manuscripts and samples, it seems that mentally taxing situations such as switching between texts are unavoidable for a full-time translator and many may quickly burn out. How do you decompress or relax from translating? Is it even possible to make a living?
AH: Let’s answer the second question first, because it is by far the question that I get asked the most. The Seoul Research Data Service estimates Seoul’s average household income to be 3.27 million won a month, or 39.24 million won a year (about 24,500 GBP). LTI Korea, on their website, says a translation grant from them is on average 8 million to 14 million won. Let’s be generous and say LTI Korea decides your book deserves 14 million won every time (note that for my Booker-nominated translation of Cursed Bunny I only received a little over 8 million, and for my other Booker-nominated translation Love in the Big City I received 12 million). 39.24 divided by 14 is about 2.8, which means you have to translate 2.8 books in a year to make a full-time living in Seoul. That’s three books a year! How many Korean books in English translation are even published in a year? Ten on average, twelve in a good year? I judged the National Translation Award for Prose for translated books published in 2020, and I could almost count the number of Korean entries with one hand. Let’s say Anton Hur has already taken up three of those ten book slots for this year and the next, and Janet Hong or Sora Kim-Russell the other three. That leaves maybe one slot to fill, and only on a remarkably good year for Korean literature.
That’s right: the market could sustain two, maybe three full-time literary translators of Korean into English, and these slots already filled for the next two or three years. And that’s why we do samples. If you’re lucky enough to get this work, you can supplement your book income at around 1.5 million won a pop. If you do three samples a month – maybe you’re friends with an extremely go-getter agent who knows how to work with the system – then you can survive in Seoul that month. Well, the month after, because that’s when the money comes in. In April of 2021, I did so many samples that I translated an entire book’s worth of samples and almost made as much money, but my hands were about to fall off my wrists and I felt completely disassociated from my own brain. Which brings us to the first question: I don’t really have special ways of decompressing. I ride my bike with my husband through the parks of Songdo, I go to stationery shops and gaze at pretty notebooks, and generally use my brain as little as possible when I’m not at work. I wish I had a more creative way of decompressing! Kim Un once asked me if I had any hobbies because he was worried for me, and I said I’d bought a ream of drawing paper on sale. He asked me what I’d drawn, and I said I hadn’t opened the shrink wrap yet.
Victoria Caudle is currently a PhD student in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. Prior to moving to LA, she completed an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia and has an MA in Modern Korean Literature from Seoul National University. She was a recipient of the ICF Literature Translation Fellowship which funded her studies at SNU, and attended the LTI Korea Translation Academy in 2013-2014, as well as the Special Section course in 2016. She’s been published in Words Without Borders, Korean Literature Now, and Nabillera . She tweets and posts on Instagram as @nureonjongi.
Anton Hur was born in Sweden in 1981 and raised in Hong Kong, Ethiopia and Thailand — but mostly in Korea, where he has lived for 30 years. Hur has translated Man Asia Literary Prize-winner Kyung-Sook Shin’s The Court Dancer and Violets, Booker International Prize-longlisted Hwang Sok-yong’s The Prisoner, and many others. He won a PEN/Heim grant for his translation of Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny, which was later shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize. He currently lives in Seoul.
Sang Young Park was born in 1988 and studied French at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea. He worked as a magazine editor, copywriter, and consultant before debuting as a novelist. The title story of his bestselling short story collection, The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta, was one of Words Without Borders’ most read pieces ever. He lives in Seoul.
If you enjoyed this, you might like our special issue, Wasafiri 96: Korea: Divisions and Borders, or this conversation between author Norman Erikson Pasaribu and translator Tiffany Tsao, who were both longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize with Happy Stories, Mostly.