Using translators like Google Translate or Papago makes us realize that translating language is not just about changing word for word – it is about understanding how the language is used within a societal and cultural context. When translating plays from English speaking countries filled with subtle and multilayered meanings, a careful approach is essential.
Ham Yu-seon, a graduate from the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation (GSTI) of Ewha, is a gifted translator whose expertise revolves around translating the latest plays written in English into Korean. She is a member of SPOKEN, a research institute that translates plays, composed of graduates of GSTI. SPOKEN discovers and introduces foreign plays which have never been introduced to the Korean theater scene.
SPOKEN, as described by Ham, carries out attempts diverged from existing procedures in the drama scene. One of the most notable distinctions about SPOKEN is that members work in groups. Like actors, the translators read and act out each line from a rough draft of scripts. Then, they exchange suggestions on each other’s work and complete the translation together. These activities allow them to find out whether the lines sound and flow naturally in terms of both pronunciation and meaning. Published scripts created by SPOKEN are available during their annual public readings.
The annual public reading in 2014 made Ham leap into the field. Ham vividly remembers how she was fascinated by the play translation in that event.
“I just received my degree from GSTI and had no interest in the field of play translation back then,” Ham said. “Seniors working in SPOKEN asked me to do some tedious work at the annual reading. At the reading, I came across the play ‘Seven,’ a documentary play about seven feminist activists written by seven women playwriters. This suddenly struck me with an idea that translators can actively speak out their voices by deciding what to translate and how to express the original script in another language.”
Ham saw the unexpected role of the translators as active decision makers rather than those who stand behind the original writers. Thinking of herself as an unorthodox person, Ham is naturally drawn to stories about people like her.
“I am a person who deviated from the traditional standards of women,” Ham said. “I never acted gently, nor did I prefer long hair, and was taller than any other girls. I once felt devastated thinking I could not belong in this society because of the way I was. But soon, despair turned into motivation, enabling me to find more stories about people considered to be abnormal in our society.”
Following her intuition, Ham began her career as a translator translating the play, “All That I Will Ever Be,” which follows a homosexual immigrant prostitute. Working on the play, Ham also learned about the hardship that actresses face in the scene.
“The only actress in ‘All That I Will Ever Be’ told me how hard it is for actresses to get a role when they are in their mid-30s,” Ham said. “I thought it was unfair for these talented actresses and decided to translate as many scripts containing female narratives as I could. Luckily, I succeeded in finding numerous plays about women to translate.”
Most recently, Ham published a British script, “Out of Love,” which is about two women living in London during the 1980s when gender discrimination was rampant. Ham realized that women today all owe that generation of women for standing up for their rights during that period. It also reminded her of the importance of research regarding the backgrounds and expressions of a script for translation.
“I mainly translated scripts about contemporary issues happening to women in the United States,” Ham said. “It required extra research to understand the backgrounds of the feminist movement in the late 70s and 80s and elaborate it in my work.”
For students who are interested in translation, Ham suggests working on how to communicate with others – in a way where it is not only about delivering words but meanings behind them.
“There are countless moments of joy that you can obtain from this job,” Ham said. “You will relearn to write, read, and listen properly. For me, as a guide to two completely different worlds, I take pride in my work. I believe you would find your own joys in translation.”