"The customer comes in alone. The owner is a bit slow-witted and asks, “How many in your party tonight?” This is a family-style barbecue restaurant, though, so you can’t say she’s that slow-witted. Two servings of pork belly, a bowl of rice, a bottle of soju. Nothing too unusual, but for a woman who came in alone at 7:00 p.m., it is sort of strange. . ." —from TABLE FOR ONE, Working Titles 3.1
Tell us about one of the first pieces you translated.
Funnily enough, “Table for One” was actually one of the first pieces I translated. I began working on the story in a creative writing workshop I took as an undergraduate at Princeton. I only ended up translating the first few pages in class, but I knew from the beginning that I would eventually finish the entire story. About two years ago, I decided to rework my initial translations and began translating the rest of the story in earnest as part of my undergraduate thesis.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
While I was translating “Table for One,” I tried to read other short stories that embodied a similar combination of whimsical imagination and deep sadness. I wanted to better understand how writers layer these two seemingly opposing forces. The works that had the strongest impression on me were “Seven Stories” by Dino Buzzati, “A Hunger Artist” by Kafka, and “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe.
What other professions have you worked in?
Until last year, I was a student. Since graduating, I have pursued jobs that give me the flexibility to pursue my own literary translation endeavors. I don’t think I was ever cut out to spend most of my day in an office. I currently work as a tutor and a freelance Korean translator. In college, I was co-manager of a university-run café that gave away cookies and tea to the Princeton community, free of charge. I still miss that job.
What drew you to write a translation of this piece in particular?
When I enrolled in my first translation workshop, I still didn’t know much about contemporary Korean literature. Most of what I did know about Korean literature came from the advanced Korean language class I’d taken the year before, so I decided to translate one of my favorites from the stories that I had read in Korean class. I looked back at the stories I had enjoyed most and saw that “Table for One” had not yet been translated into English.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Definitely Seoul. Most of the stories I have translated take place in unnamed urban settings. Seoul is the ultimate urban setting in Korea, and it’s also the Korean city in which I have spent the most time. I lived there for six months after graduating from high school, and there are certain neighborhoods in Seoul that I know very well. When I read stories like “Table for One” that are set in large cities, it’s very easy for me to visually place the characters in environments that I’ve experienced personally.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I find translating to be relaxing, but it also requires pretty intense focus and mental energy. When I’m working, I try to stand up and walk around or maybe get a cup of water every 20 minutes or so. This makes it much easier to translate for an extended period of time.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My mom. I’m lucky to have inherited her passion for reading, and she’s always willing to take a look at my work when it’s at its roughest. Usually after she reads it, I’ll go through a round of edits and then ask a willing friend to read a more polished draft.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Illustration. I was an illustrator for student publications in college, and I’ve always loved to doodle.
What are you working on currently?
I’m finishing up my translation of the full collection Table for One. I’ve also started translating the beginning of one of Yun’s novels, and I have a feeling that will be my next project.
What are you reading right now?
Recently, I’ve been trying to read more translated work from languages and cultures about which I know very little. I’m currently reading The President’s Garden, written by Muhsin Al-Ramli and translated by Luke Leafgren. It tells the story of three childhood friends who grow up together in a small Iraqi village in the 1980s before the Gulf War tears them apart. I’ve never read anything translated from Arabic before. I actually found the book in a giveaway pile on someone’s front stoop in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, so I have an anonymous stranger to thank for unintentionally introducing me to Iraqi literature.
LIZZIE BUEHLER is a freelance Korean translator and editor at Asymptote, based in New York City. She grew up in Texas and studied comparative literature at Princeton University. Her translations of Yun Ko Eun and other writers are published or forthcoming in journals including The Massachusetts Review, Ploughshares, Korean Literature Now, and Litro.