Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.
- Vernon Sanders Law

About one and a half years ago, I wrote a blog entry about my desire to translate Lee Sedol 9P’s book into English. I found his book very exciting for the contents, but also for the story of how the book was born to the world. I grieved over the fact that I was born too early. Otherwise I could have studied the book while preparing for the pro test. Of course I can still read and study the book, but it’s not the same now that I am in a different stage of playing baduk. There is something I can do though, I thought. The very idea of translating the book to English hammered my mind. I was excited for how much this book could mean to other baduk players around the world.

Luckily I knew a friend who was very close to the author, Lee Sena, and through this networking, I met up with her. My passion and admiration toward the book shined for themselves, and after talking with me, Sena asked for some sample translation. I found a native speaker editor to help me who liked baduk, and together we did work that I was proud of. After viewing my sample translation pages, the author gave me the permission to translate the book. Everything looked so bright and fresh. I wanted to make the Korean version of Invincible, the baduk book famous for its beautiful English and interesting comments and narrations.

In contrast to my excitement, however, the responses of publishing companies were stiff. I sent letters to several publishing companies, and while they were interested in having the book, they would not pay for the translation. The plan became dormant. In October, though, I attended the 6th Korean Prime Minister’s cup International Amateur Baduk Championship in Pohang, the Southern city of Korea. My mid-term exams were just over, and I was enjoying chatting with people around. Among the vendors was someone who also respected the book, who worked for a publishing company. We agreed that it should be translated to English to enable more players to access such a masterpiece.

It turned out, the publishing company was genuinely serious about the translating project, and contacted me about a week later. A meeting was arranged, and the writer, people from the company, I, and my editor convened. We discussed major terms of the contract, and set the milestones for the progress of the work. Though it wasn’t the best time to start the work for me, it was the work I’ve been eager to get. I had no complaints, but passion and ambition. Everything was going exactly as I’d dreamed.

Then, things started to go wrong. After weeks of discussion about terms, contracts, translation issues, and more, the publishing company decided they wanted to work with a different translator. I was hurt at first. Thinking about it now, however, I learned many lessons, and I am free to do something more exciting. I learned about difficulties in translating baduk books, and fierceness of a business schedule as well as the fact how nothing is secure in the business world. As the quotation says, the experience was the hard teacher, but I appreciate what I gained from it.

I’d like to pass along some of the lessons, in case anyone reading this had ever considered doing translation work. I hope you can benefit from my experiences. There are lessons specifically related to translation, and those related to doing business.

Book publishing in general operates on very thin margins. This is even more true for baduk books because of the small market and low print runs. It’s not very profitable. As I said before, many publishers were interested in the book, but not the outside translator and editor. It increases their overhead and cuts into their already small profits. This publisher decided to do it anyway to get access to the book, but they were not happy about it. For them, it as an unnecessary expense when they were already paying a salary to people on staff who could do the work.

Second was their aggressive publishing schedule. Just like I had a great ambition and excitement over my translation work, the publishing company had the blueprint for successful publication. They wanted to launch the book before the European Go Congress in Germany next July, so they had to have the book ready and sent to the printer well before that. The problem was that I considered myself a part-time translator and a full-time student, while the company’s timeline demanded a greater commitment. They wanted to keep the tight deadlines at the same time as imposing a rigorous revision process based on differing visions of what the book should be. The company then wanted greater time for their in-house revision process. I liked the idea, but I simply couldn’t spare too much time only for this. I told them I needed to extend the deadline by two weeks or postpone the revision process until I finish translating the entire book on the due date they gave me. As a result, the publishing company decided to change the translator to someone else.

These first two problems could have been solved by having the translation work done before contacting the publisher. Then, they could perform their quality control and send the finished file to the designer and printer however their own schedule permits. I could have translated on my own timetable and provided the attention to detail and quality that I thought the project deserved.

The final lesson is that a translator should never do any work without a contract in place. We negotiated the terms of the contract while we did initial translation work. When we started having problems, there was no protection, both for my involvement in the project, and for the work I had already done. While I reached an agreement with the publisher that was acceptable to both of us, I had no legal protection or recourse for being cut out of the project.

The lessons for doing a translation are no less significant. Understanding what is written was easy, but articulating it into English was not. I could explain the meaning to someone else if I was casually conversing. Writing is different. My primary concern was that literal translation often failed to deliver the same weight as the original sentences do. The purpose was clear: to allow readers of the English version to get as much as Korean readers get from the book. During the translation, I learned three issues which actively got in the way.

The first one was clarifying. We wanted players of intermediate levels to be able to learn from the book as well. My editor plays baduk, but is not too strong yet, so he was a good test to see if we were communicating with lower-level players. While he worked, he would ask me meanings of sentences to make sure he preserves them when he refines my translation work. In the process, I realized many explanations or statements had unstated premises or rationales that may be obvious to strong players, but are not quite clear to the players under a certain level. One easy example would be this. “Black 2 to 14 is a joseki, but the result in this situation is good for Black.” Seemingly simple statement as it is, there are some hidden elements here. If we expand this:
  1. The result of a joseki should be even (assumed)
  2. Black 2 to 14 is a joseki.
  3. The Black’s potential territory on the upper side and the White’s advantage in the center and the right side should be equal. (unstated)
  4. The circumstances make Black’s position on the upper side better than what White gains in the center and the right side. (unstated)
  5. The result in this situation is good for Black.
I admit that I sometimes took liberties using my professional status, and added explanations and clarifications where I thought they were needed. Some people might argue it’s beyond the translator’s authority. They may be right. My value or purpose, however, dictates that the most important aspect is whether the readers get the message the author intended to convey. It is like a professor’s lecture and her teaching assistant’s review. When students get lost in the main lecture and come to the review, the TA may show them the hidden bridges between the professor’s statements, because the TA understands both the professor’s language, and the students’ language.    

Repetitive use of certain expressions was another hurdle. Baduk books, especially in the Korean language, are very generous with repeating the same words or expressions. For example, expressions such as “it is playable”, “the result is good for Black”, “it is well-balanced”,  and “Black A instead of 27” are so common that you are likely to encounter one or two of them in every paragraph. As you well know, however, English language in general has very little tolerance for repetitions. Therefore my editor and I had to think about many synonyms or the alternative expressions to replace some of them. We used, “the exchange benefits Black”, “the move produces a favorable outcome for White”, “It is acceptable for both”, and so on.

The third issue was with certain Korean-style perceptual terms, which have multiple meanings according to the context. These words may have literal equivalents in English, but do not imply the same meaning as the Korean words offer. As I was facing those words, I’ve scrutinized the roots of the words and the best way to express them. One solution was to pick the closest word, and keep using it. Readers might grasp the meaning by the time they finish reading the book. Another one, which I preferred, was to use one or more specific words depending on the situation. For instance, “doo-tuh-un” may literally be translated as “thick.” Therefore, I could say, “Black 17 is thick” whenever I see the word in Korean, or “Black 17 solidifies his position while securing the territory on the upper side.” In the latter way, however, the word also can be “safe”, “slow”, “strong”, “having potential”, “influential”, and so forth according to the context in which the word was used.

I didn’t just want to translate baduk books. I wanted to translate this baduk book because I thought that it was worthy of what I could bring to it as an English user and Professional player. Though I have lost the chance to translate this book, I hope to someday find another book that excites the same passion and vision in me. If that day comes, I will hold these lessons closely.