Newsrama interviews Hellen Jo: translator of Uncomfortably Happily

“HELLEN JO Gets UNCOMFORTABLY HAPPILY Translating Korean Graphic Novel for D&Q” / Newsarama / Zack Smith / June 21, 2017

Hellen Jo already has widespread acclaim for books such as Frontier and Jin & Jam, and her work on such animated series as Steven Universe and Regular Show. But now she’s added another credit in addition to writer and artist - translator.

Uncomfortably Happily, which comes out in English from Drawn & Quarterly this month, is a widely-praised autobiographical manga from creator Yeon-Sik Hong – and for its North American release, Jo served as translator, going through 400 pages of material to help retain the cultural and universal qualities of the story. We spoke with Jo about the challenges in translating the material, her passion for the story, and more.

Newsarama: Hellen, tell us about the book.

Hellen JoUncomfortably Happily is an autobiographical memoir comic by Korean cartoonist Yeon-Sik Hong. In the comic, Hong and his wife, a fellow book artist, move away from noisy, expensive Seoul, to a remote mountain house, deep in the woods at the edge of a rural village.

They struggle to balance their new isolated forest lives with their elusive personal goals as artists and their own surmounting insecurities and debts.

Nrama: How did you first encounter it, and what made you want to serve as translator for the North American edition?

Jo: Drawn & Quarterly actually approached me to translate this book. They were looking for a Korean cartoonist who was a native English speaker, one who understood the language of comics and who could provide natural-sounding English for a Western audience. Cartoonist and friend Matt Forsythe referred D&Q to me.

I had never translated anything before Mr. Hong's graphic novel, but I was able to convince everyone to trust in my heritage speaking skills - I was born and raised in the United States by Korean immigrant parents.

Though I wasn't familiar with Mr. Hong's work at the time, I devoured the original Korean graphic novel in a matter of hours, and shortly after, when his Korean agent sent me another one of his works, Mr. Madang's Table, I read it in one sitting, wept openly, and understood the importance of sharing Mr. Hong's work with English-speaking readers.

I have long believed in the need for more English translation of Korean comics and graphic novels. There is a large, thriving and talented community of Korean cartoonists and illustrators, nearly all unknown in North America, and I am very excited to have helped made the work of one of the best available in English.

Nrama: What were some of the biggest challenges in translating the book? It's intriguing/depressing how many books and films that once seemed flat and boring improve once new translations capture the vitality of language that was lost before.

Jo: To be honest, I'm not sure what the second half of this question is referring to. Uncomfortably Happily has never been translated to English before, so I'm not sure I can claim that my translation "recaptures" any "lost" vitality of a previous translation. As I understand it, the French translation of this book was highly acclaimed.

As a heritage speaker whose principal language is English, I struggled with a few major challenges when translating this book. First of all, Korean is a language of idioms, many of which I am very unfamiliar with; I translated about half a dozen of these very literally, not quite understanding their enigmatic meanings, and my proofreader - my mother - caught these mis-translations and explained their true meanings, which I then tried to match to existing English idioms or phrases.

Translation is already a two-step process: first, you translate the language accurately; then, you interpret the intent behind the original words and re-interpret or re-shape them into natural English that flows for the reader. Throw in some strange - to me -  idioms, and the road towards the final translation becomes twisted.

Making this harder still, the Korean language is full of implication and unsaid meanings. I can translate a page very literally and accurately, but then about 65% of the intent is missing from the translation. At times, when I could not glean the unsaid intentions, I would do some internet research on those phrases or words, and study the context of the comic.

Then, once I had actually understood the unspoken meanings of those phrases, I'd have to figure out how to cram or editorialize the resulting maze of a run-on sentence into an intelligible English that would fit those tiny dialogue bubbles.

Another major challenge with this book was dealing with the sheer diversity of Korean sound effects. Korean is a very onomatopoeic language, with there being specific nouns and verbs and adjectives that describe not only every single possible sound out there, but also physical sensations and textures.

For example, in the original graphic novel, there were several specific sounds related to eating dinner -  the sound of dishes clinking, the sound of dishes being washed, the sounds of chewing, the sounds of teeth crunching, the "sound" of the steam of rice, the "sound" of the sticky texture of a certain type of food, gulping, swallowing, sipping, sniffing, inhaling, exhaling ... and each of these had about three different equivalents also scattered throughout the book.

The sound of wind was expressed about four different ways, and in English comics, you can really only express wind with "WHOOSH", but in a windy, forest-bound book such as this, "WHOOSH" can get really old really fast.

Other sound effects simply did not have an English equivalent - can anyone tell me the English sound effect for stickiness?! -  so I'd either have to omit the effect altogether, or fall back on that favorite Western comics device, using the action itself as an effect , i.e., writing in "slide" for the sound of a sliding door.

I'd say the greatest challenge was the sheer length of the book. As a person with no real academic translation experience, it was a very daunting task to complete the work, and I was also nervous about working on Drawn & Quarterly's first Korean book ever, as well as a major award-winning, highly regarded graphic novel back in Korea.

I built up and put an enormous amount of pressure on myself -  much like the main character of the book! -  and consequently, my translation took a very long time to complete. However, I'm very proud of how it turned out in the end, and I believe I did my very best to create a natural, easy read for this new audience.

Nrama:  You talk about this in the afterword  a bit, but tell us about what you feel is universal about this story.

JoUncomfortably Happily is a book about an artist who wants to have it all - a comfortable home, time and energy for personal work, a peaceful marriage, an endless supply of money. However, he struggles instead with a strange isolated rental, incredibly stressful freelance jobs, a quirky and independent wife, and poverty without relief.  He experiences major existential dread, self-loathing, and lack of control, and he falls victim to the darkest of depressions.

Honestly, these are struggles that many artists, and especially most cartoonists, can identify with. While I was working on this book, I experienced nearly all of Hong's own specific struggles and fears at the same time in my own life. It was uncanny.

If even the translator of this book can identify with that spiraling depression and subsequent push-forward depicted within, then it seems that many others will be able to empathize and hopefully find comfort in this story.

Nrama:  Obviously you had a personal connection to this, but are there any other works you'd like to translate into English, or be translated from a language you don't know by another writer?

Jo: Sadly, my knowledge of current Korean graphic novels is woefully outdated and very limited. It's very difficult to find contemporary Korean comics for adults in the U.S., even in Los Angeles, and even more impossible to order them online.

Obviously, I'd love to see more of Yeon-Sik Hong's comics available in English; Mr. Madang's Table, which I mentioned earlier, was a truly moving, even devastating work, and it serves as a sort of sequel to Uncomfortably Happily. It would be an important one to have available to his new English-speaking audience.

One Korean graphic novel I read years ago and still think about is Youngsoon My Love by Yong-deuk Kwon. The comic follows Youngsoon, a Korean punk singer, sensitive and misunderstood by the conservative society around him, as he fights and runs from grimey underworld gangsters while pursuing the love of a mysterious girl named Younghui.

I'm also very excited by the ongoing comics anthology series, Quang Comic Art Magazine, and all of their associated artists.

Other works in other languages I would love to see published in English include:

  • Ping Pong, by Taiyo Matsumoto: the greatest coming-of-age sports manga ever, I adored the Korean translation, and I have been passing around an English fan translation of this Japanese comic for years.
  • Le Petit Christian, by Blutch: I do not let anyone borrow my copy of the German translation (Der kleine Christian by Reprodukt) of this sweet, sensitive, uproariously funny, and beautifully drawn coming-of-age French autobio comic. It is in my top ten favorite comics of all time.
  • Any and all works by Aisha Franz (author of Alien, published as Earthling by Drawn & Quarterly), Sharmila Banerjee, and Anna Haifisch, three of my favorite German cartoonists.

I would love to translate more work (of Korean origin, of course; my German is awful), but honestly, if anyone is thinking of hiring me, you'll also need to rent a bunker, lock me in it with a limited supply of food, and throw away the key. Otherwise, I'll take forever!

Nrama:  Did you work directly with Hong at all?

Jo: I did not actually work with Hong on this translation; nearly everything I needed was contained beautifully within the book itself. The rest was provided by internet research, my trusty Korean-English dictionary, and my proofreader, Dr. Sahie Kang - thanks, Mom!

Nrama: What are you working on now, in comics and in other media?

Jo: I'm currently working on a series of paintings for a group show titled OVUM, curated by Junko Mizuno. I'm also writing a short skater comic, which I plan to self-publish.

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