The translator’s note at the beginning of Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (Drawn & Quarterly, 480 pages) suggests just how fraught is the story that follows. The term “comfort women,” it says, is controversial, distorting, inadequate – a euphemism that misrepresents the sexual slavery endured by Korean girls and women during the Second World War at the hands of the Japanese military. Grass tells the story of one of this system’s survivors, revealing the horrific realities that the term “comfort woman” occludes.
The book derives from the testimony of Granny Lee Ok-sun, a stoic survivor who tells cartoonist Gendry-Kim about her childhood poverty in Busan, her wartime abduction to an Imperial outpost in China, and her late-in-life repatriation to Seoul, where she continues to speak out about the violations she and others like her endured.
Gendry-Kim treats Granny Lee’s story with respectful distance, often opting to step back from her trauma and focus on sombre images of grass, trees or landscapes, rather than the violent details of her captivity and rape. The artist’s deep pools of ink and rough, insistent brushstrokes convey mourning, numbness and pain in ways that Granny Lee’s words must leave implicit.
To render these words into English, Vancouver translator Janet Hong brings an attentive ear, sensitive to what remains unspoken. Following prose translations that have earned her plaudits and awards – notably Han Yujoo’s tricky, unsettling novel The Impossible Fairy Tale – Hong has also turned to translating Korean graphic novels, beginning with last year’s Bad Friends by Ancco, devastating memoirs of chaotic kinship between teen girls.
Hong spoke with The Globe about the peculiarities of translating comics and her experience creating a faithful rendition of Grass, a book that asks readers to consider the unspeakable.
Why was Grass urgently in need of translation?
The history of the “comfort women” is a subject that needs more attention, for the same reasons we need to learn about past atrocities like the African slave trade, the residential school system and the Holocaust. We need to learn about what happened, not only to prevent similar tragedies in the future, but also to restore dignity to the victims and move toward healing. This horrific component of WWII history is far from resolved.
Gendry-Kim conveys so much of Granny Lee’s story without using words. How does this reticence affect your translation?
When there are only a few words that span several pages, as in some of the most powerful parts of Grass, the stakes are higher for every word that’s used. The weight, sound, rhythm and placement of each word has to be meticulously considered. And because silence itself is a tool that Gendry-Kim is using intentionally to tell Granny Lee’s story, I have to hold back, in terms of my word count, tone and intensity. I have to let the silence shine, so to speak, and trust that the synergy of the images and text is enough.
How does translating prose compare with translating comics?
When I translate prose, the words are doing everything; they’re both the melody and the accompaniment. In comics, the words tend to be more in the background; they’re playing accompaniment to the images. If they’re working well, you’ll hardly notice them.
What challenges are particular to translating comics?
First, there’s the logistical issue of trying to fit all the English words into a word bubble, which originally contained Korean words. Then there’s the headache posed by Korean sound effects, [which] are based on onomatopoeia and mimetic words. But more difficult than these are probably getting the dialogue and voice right, in a very limited amount of space. Comics are often dialogue-heavy and more casual than some texts, so everything needs to sound natural, while capturing a sense of character. It also needs to flow seamlessly with the images.
What kind of world of Korean writing are you eager to share with English-language readers?
I gravitate toward stories that feature broken, imperfect people, the unremarkable, the odd, the neglected, the marginalized and the disenfranchised. The authors I translate tend to give voice to these types of characters, rather than those accustomed to privilege and power, and they do it with immediacy, inventiveness and incredible skill. Translating their works evokes a strange knot of feelings in me; in some ways, I’m allowed to become these extraordinary authors (since I am the one coming up with the words for the work to come to life), yet at the same time, I cannot help but be in a state of complete awe; it’s a simultaneously proud and humbling experience.