Spotlight on Literary Translators is a regular feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!

 Spotlight on Literary Translator Ian Haight

LC: What language(s) and genres do you translate?

IH: I work with Korean and classical Chinese. I read next to nothing of classical Chinese so work with a partner, T’ae-yŏng Hŏ, when (co-)translating classical Chinese. Alone, I have translated Korean into English, but prefer to work with a partner when translating from Korean, too.

It’s been my experience that with a partner I’m able to work more efficiently and quickly, and arrive at a better translation. Korean poetry written in classical Chinese is highly idiomatic. These idioms are difficult to deal with for a number of reasons. First, the idiom has to be recognized and not read literally; then it has to be understood; understanding the idiom often requires knowing a story—frequently a legend—and how the story relates to the idiom; then this information needs to be framed within the Korean poem’s context. Oftentimes to completely grasp the nuances of the Korean context one has to have a fluent understanding of traditional Korean culture and the situation of the poem’s Korean speaker. Another layer of complexity is added if the speaker is a persona of the author, and the author is using the persona to address an issue that would have otherwise been inappropriate for the speaker. Given all this, a simple four line poem can become quite befuddling.

I’ve worked with translation of essays and legends in both Korean and classical Chinese. Essays, although certainly cover-01[1]charged with personality, can feel intellectually programmatic in ways that, to me, are less communal. I like translating legends because I like the fantastical in literature—especially if it has the appearance of normality. Translating a legend feels more purposeful when it is connected to a personal expression, as happens in classical Korean poetry.

My main point of interest and where I’ve devoted most of my translation energies to is the genre of poetry. I prefer classical Korean poetry written in Chinese. The work is entirely non-proprietary so I can translate whatever I like without worry of asking permission. The lyric modes of classical poetry I find enjoyable, perhaps because there’s a closer sense of immediacy with the person who wrote the poem.

LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?

IH: I got started as a literary translator mainly because I wanted to be a better writer. Probably around the year 2000 I decided I wanted to take writing seriously, and in the next year as I began with earnestness to read and study writers that I admired, I realized just about all of them had done literary translation. I decided then if I wanted to be a good writer I had better do translation. It seemed a natural and timely thing to do as I was living in Korea and had been for about 10 years.

To do committed work which would be meaningful to me I had to care about the writing I was translating. Part of that equation was translating someone who hadn’t been translated into English before. T’ae-yŏng showed me a poem by Nansŏrhŏn that had been translated into Korean. It was a poem about the death of her children, written with the frank immediacy of the T’ang style. I was smitten. The more I read of her, the more I liked, and at the time, she hadn’t been translated into English.

As fate would have it, within a few months of beginning to translate Nansŏrhŏn, I learned a grant had been awarded to a professor in Australia, Yang-hi Choe-Wall, to translate Nansŏrhŏn’s poetry. I was heartbroken because I felt like anything I would do could only pale in comparison with Choe-Wall. Fate, however, knocked again. I learned Choe-Wall was making more a scholarly book and she would be translating and commenting on mostly excerpts of Nansŏrhŏn’s shorter poems.

I decided I might still have a chance to receive support to translate Nansŏrhŏn, but it would take some time and effort. I decided I should win several grants and publish several books to demonstrate to the Korean grant awarding committees I was a competent translator of classical literature.

Happily the Daesan Foundation did eventually award me a grant to translate Nansŏrhŏn’s complete poetical works. Having learned so much about translation and Korean culture through my other book projects, I highly value all the translation work I’ve ever done and remain grateful for the opportunities and learning my other translation projects have given me.

LC: What do you love most and least about this work?

IH: I like least the drudgery of the translation process. Clustering phrases, examining all possibilities of words and the context for their use can be a real chore. Breaking down an idiom in classical Chinese—learning the origins of the idiom which would have been relevant to the author and then why and how the idiom fits in the poem requires meticulous attention to detail. A single idiom calling for further references and research can take weeks, or even months if it’s an old one.

Appendices also can be difficult. Poems in classical Chinese often name historical persons, places, or texts. In my translation approach, this information needs to be contextualized not only in the poem, but for further nuances and clarity, also by appendices. Generating these appendices can be just as arduous as idioms.

What I like best about translation is the payoff at the end: after years of hard work, stepping back and reading a manuscript, and then realizing there’s a unified voice in the poems. Finding that voice helps me imagine what the author’s lived life might have been like, and then I get a sense of the person who put ink to paper several hundred years ago. A good collection of translated poems will bring the author out of history; the collection will deliver a sense of life to me closer than scholarly prose can.

LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?

My most recent project is Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim which will be released in June from White Pine Press. Hyesim (1178-1234) was the second patriarch of the Korean Chogye Buddhist Order, and the first Sŏn (Zen) Master dedicated to poetry in Korea. I had a particular interest in this manuscript because of how some of the poems appeared to speak to “inner” meditative experience. I’ve always been interested in human spirituality and have practiced meditation since 1993. When it came time to sequence the poems into a cohesive manuscript, I tried to imagine the life of Hyesim and why he chose to write a particular poem, including how a poem could speak to progressive meditative experiences. This allowed me to consider more than the limited scholarship on Hyesim’s life. I hope that through the poems of Magnolia and Lotus readers experience a relaxed companionship with Hyesim and his life.

Note to readers, Ian shared this guest post with Intralingo for the launch of his book!

LC: Ian, your translation work is absolutely fascinating. I hope fate stays on your side!

 Dear readers: Please leave any questions or comments for Ian Haight!

Ian Haight_picture for bio (4)

Ian Haight was a co-organizer and translator for the UN’s global poetry readings held annually in Pusan, Korea, from 2002-4. He has been awarded translation grants from the Daesan Foundation, Korea Literature Translation Institute, and Baroboin Buddhist Foundation for the translation, editing, promotion, and publication of Korean literature. Ian is the editor of Garden Chrysanthemums and First Mountain Snow: Zen Questions and Answers from Korea (2010), and along with T’ae-yŏng Hŏ, the translator of  Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Hŏ Kyun (2009) and Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim (2013) all from White Pine Press. Ian’s translations, essays, poems, and interviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Writer’s Chronicle, Barrow Street and Hyundae Buddhist News, among many other publications. For more information, please visit