Endings & Experimentations: Conversations with Bora Chung and Anton Hur
Bora Chung was born in Seoul, Korea. She has earned an M.A. in Russian and East European area studies from Yale University and a Ph.D. in Slavic Literatures from Indiana University with a focus on modern Russian and Polish Literatures—specifically, utopian literature. She fell in love with strange, fantastic stories by Eastern European writers while majoring in Russian language and literature in college. Propelled by inspiration, she wrote “The Head,” which won the 1998 Yonsei Literature Prize. In 2008, her novella The Fox won the Digital Literature Award, second prize in the Mobile category. In 2014, her short story “The Seed” won a Gwacheon Science Center SF Award (second prize for short stories). Her novel The Red Sword is a Korean SF bestseller.
Chung has written three novels and has published three collections of short stories. She teaches Russian language and literature and science fiction studies at Yonsei University and translates modern literary works from Russian and Polish into Korean.
Bora Chung’s collection Cursed Bunny, translated from Korean to English by Anton Hur, is scheduled for release from Workman imprint Algonquin on December 6, 2022. Cursed Bunny is “a genre-defying collection of short stories, which blur the lines between magical realism, horror and science fiction,” and was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize.
Indie publisher Honford Star has purchased two books by Chung and Anton Hur: collection To Meet Her, originally published in Korean in 2021 (scheduled for 2023 release), and an as yet untitled standalone novel (scheduled for 2024).
Are there books, authors, or specific works that you feel influenced your writing in important ways?
Polish writer Bruno Schulz has a beautiful, dreamy style and a vividly visual kind of imagination. He calls his kind of imagination “mythification of reality.” Schulz was a painter before he turned to writing. I obviously do not have his talent, but I admire him and want to learn from him. I’d love to be able to transport my readers to that dreamy world of myths and imagination the way Schulz does.
Russian writer Lyudmila Petrushevskaya was born in 1938 and is still active. She is a feminist role model even though she doesn’t come out and say so. She is witty, sharp, heartbreaking, and satirical all at the same time. And she has this extremely chatty style that drowns the reader in a waterfall of monologues and/or dialogues. I love everything about her, and I’d like to be like her when I grow up.
In your brief reading on YouTube for the Booker Prize, you describe the stories in Cursed Bunny as “somewhere between horror and speculative fiction.” What is it that appeals to you about horror, what does horror or darker-leaning fiction do that is different from other kinds of works?
In Korea, in the Seoul subway stations, are short poems on the walls that are mostly written by regular citizens. A few days ago, I was on the subway and I just read a couple lines from one of these poems without thinking. It was about a mama bird feeding baby birds, and I read the last lines as “The mama is so busy feeding her babies/ I wonder if they ate their mama.” And I thought something was weird and read it again and it actually said “I wonder if their mama ate,” meaning the narrator/poet, a woman, was worried whether the mama bird fed herself.
But I also like how I misread. “I wonder if they ate their mama,” still with the same concern and warmth in the narrator’s tone, but now it’s homicidal and bone-chilling (with my deepest apologies to the citizen poet: I’m the one who misread your beautiful poetry because I’m weird). I like how the world can stand upside down when you change a few words or switch your point of view.
What were your primary concerns with translating Cursed Bunny and these stories becoming available to anglophone readers?
I never genuinely believed it was going to be published in English, so I didn’t really have any concerns. And then Anton somehow did it and his translation is wonderful, so I really didn’t have any concerns. I hope my readers enjoy.
You are fluent in English and also an accomplished translator. What were the factors that went into having someone else translate your work, instead of doing the translation yourself?
The stories in Cursed Bunny were originally written in Korean with mostly life in Korea in mind. I didn’t have the vocabulary outside of my own language to describe the Korean and mainly Asian existence. I was trained to conduct a very specific kind of academic research in English, I’d like to believe my professors trained me well in that field, and I can probably function as a tourist in English, but that’s about it.
Also, I must confess here that when I speak or write in English, my articles tend to disappear. Korean, my native tongue, does not have articles; I studied Polish and Russian for about twenty years and these languages do not have articles; so, when in doubt, which happens quite often, I just drop articles altogether. The poor professors on my dissertation committee got really annoyed. I remember one professor’s comment on my draft: “put an a or a the, there has to be something!” I’m really sorry, Professor B.
Was there an organizational principle behind what stories went into the collection, or the order in which stories appear? Are there important similarities and differences between this set of stories and your previous collections?
My publisher selected the stories, put together the table of contents, and chose the title story. The title, the cover, and the table of contents together belong to the realm of marketing, which I know absolutely nothing about, so I just agreed to whatever he suggested. Same thing with the English version, where they changed the order a bit and put “The Head” first. Anton once said it was his idea and I think it worked well. My previous collections had sexier stuff I think, more about women trapping and killing men. I like them.
Are there themes and ideas in your fiction that stand out as more important to you, or about which you feel passionate?
What I think I’m writing and what my readers are actually seeing could be two different things. With that in mind, the topic of exposing injustice and standing up to it is very important to me. The situation in the story may vary, it could attack some kind of grave social injustice or could describe something that happens between individuals or at home. But injustice is injustice. I want people to understand that such experiences often leave trauma.
In movies and TV shows, when there is injustice, very so often there are heroes who come to exact vengeance, the viewers feel catharsis, this uplifting feeling that ok the bad guys got what they deserved and all is well in the world again. In reality, the victims suffer long, often their whole lives, thinking ‘why did this have to happen to me?’ and ‘can I go on with life when I’m this broken?’ I want to tell them that I understand. And you can go on. And that the world is as broken as, or even more broken than you are. The world sucks and you’re ok.
Has anything changed about your writing—craft, approach, or anything else—since your earlier works, your first novel, and your first collection?
I think I became better at explaining things as I became more used to my craft. And I also think I’m becoming mellower. I like my earlier stories better because they are stronger.
Have the awards and acclaim had an impact on your writing or process?
Shortly after the Booker events, I found myself worrying a lot when I started writing again. I was examining every word, every sentence, trying to make sure it was up to par with Cursed Bunny. But then I remembered that Cursed Bunny was a complete flop when it first came out and with that I kind of regained my confidence that I write for myself and nobody else. My stories can flop and not sell at all and not even get published and I can still write. So, I went back to writing.
Are there aspects of storytelling/writing that you feel are more challenging for you, or things you struggle with? And how do you deal with those elements?
I love mysteries, detective stories, but I have never been able to write one. Every time I come up with a crime story idea, I immediately think “a ghost did it,” “an evil entity from beyond did it,” and I start imagining all the gruesome details of a haunting and there goes the crime scene investigation and scientific reasoning and everything. I’m not sure if I answered the question. I try to write mysteries and I end up with a ghost story.
Cursed Bunny is your US debut collection. If readers looked at three stories in this book, what would you want them to be, and why?
Firstly, “The Head,” because Anton wanted it as the very first story in the book so there must be something about it. Secondly, “Snare,” because it really is my kind of story. And thirdly, “Goodbye, My Love” because I like how the story ends. It’s very satisfying. Anton agrees.
Are there one or two stories in the collection which hold more meaning for you, or which you’re particularly proud of, and why?
“Goodbye, My Love,” because I came up with the story while I was talking in class. I used to surreptitiously bounce ideas off my students and this one was one of the results. So, my students gave this one to me without actually knowing it and I appreciate it.
“Reunion” because I love Krakow. I love Poland. And Poles are now supporting Ukrainian refugees. I had a chance to go to Poland again this September, thanks to this story, and could feel the threat of Russian invasion everywhere. I stand with Poles and with Ukraine.
Looking at reviews, I think something that stands out for many readers is Voice. In terms of craft, how do you find, develop, or write with a Voice which stands out?
I read others, especially women writers, and try to learn. And I try to have as many stylistic variations as I can, kind of like a musician practicing to widen her repertoire and use them appropriately. I never learned how to write so I can’t really explain precisely how I write. I have a story to tell, and I tell it in a manner that I think, I hope, can most effectively convey what I’m trying to say.
In terms of writing short fiction, what is important for you when you write—what are you focused on the most?
I focus on the ending. Boris Eikhenbaum (1886-1959), a great Russian literary theorist, once said, something to the effect of “a short story is like climbing up a hill. Whatever you see on top should be different from what you see at the bottom of the hill. Therefore, in a short story, the ending is the climax.” I read “The Theory of Prose” by him much later in my writing career and felt very happy. I’ve been doing something right at least.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about your work, this collection, or you as an individual?
Indiana University Bloomington is beautiful! I miss Bloomington, IN!! Go HOOSIERS!!!
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that you’d like readers to know about?
I am supposed to write a book of horror stories and the deadline is coming up, which is horror in and of itself. I am also writing a cycle of stories about sea creatures. I started with octopuses, went on to crabs and sharks, and am now working on ocean sunfishes. The ocean is dying and if we keep throwing stuff in the sea eventually, we will all die with the ocean. We need to learn to respect other forms of life and live with them on this Earth because this planet belongs to nobody and to everybody.
Anton Hur was born in Stockholm, Sweden, and was raised in six different countries on four different continents including British Hong Kong, Ethiopia, the United States of America, and Thailand, but mostly in Korea. He studied Law at Korea University (with a second major in Psychology), French at the National Open University of Korea, and English at Seoul National University Graduate School—specializing in Victorian poetry. During his time in the Korean Army, he earned the title of Person of Distinguished Service to the Nation after a construction accident broke two of his vertebrae and all of his heel bones.
Hur has worked as a simultaneous interpreter and translator for over two decades. As a literary translator, he’s won virtually every grant available for literary translation in his language combination including the PEN Translates, PEN/Heim, Daesan, and numerous LTI Korea grants.
In 2022, he was double-longlisted for the International Booker Prize—for Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City (Grove Atlantic, Tilted Axis) and Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny (Honford Star)—and shortlisted for his translation of Chung’s collection. He is the first translator of color to do so.
Anton Hur has taught at Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference, the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School, Seoul National University, the Ewha University Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation, Yonsei University, and the Literary Translation Institute of Korea, and was a Translator in Residence at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich, UK as well as the Queen’s College Translation Exchange at the University of Oxford.
He also has a black belt in Haidong Kendo (a Korean sword -fighting martial art), plays the trumpet (badly) and the piano (even worse), knows just enough knitting to have finished several scarves, and is a chaotic reader who takes on several books at once. Hur divides his time between Seoul and the science fiction-y island of Songdo with his husband. He’d like a cat, but his husband is allergic. They have plants instead.
What were the works or who were the authors that were important to you when you were younger, how did you get into fiction?
The most influential writer of my life is surely AS Byatt—I named myself after her because the A in AS stands for Antonia—but I’ve always loved books as a child and read the usual classics like the Narnia Chronicles, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, and all the books you would expect to read at that age. I think the first adult book I read was The Rowan by Anne McCaffrey and I plowed through almost all of her books. I remember feeling very proud of myself for finding a fantasy series I liked in the Dragonriders of Pern because I’m more of a science fiction fan, but it turns out those were science fiction all along. I at least try to read what everybody else is reading to see where the market is, and I like discovering new things. But AS Byatt is whom I have reread the most.
What are the trickiest or most challenging aspects of translating short fiction?
There’s more incentive for experimentation and artistry in short fiction compared to the novel. And it’s a delicate balance of trying to engage the reader and not throwing them into the deep end of the story, which so many authors seem tempted to do when it comes to short fiction. When that happens—and that happens often in Korean literature, unfortunately, although not with Bora Chung—I have to figure out other ways to engage the reader’s interest, and that becomes a matter of language. Luckily Bora has a very engaging style, and she can make the most mundane situations uncanny and interesting. I know the mundane is a necessary component of the uncanny, but Bora can really create the right mood. I think readers immediately respond to that and appreciate it, which is why her short fiction has the reach that it does, even in translation.
In your Books and Bao interview you talked about translating work when you “hear” the English for it, and that the sounds of Cursed Bunny “sang off the page.” Were there one or two stories in the collection whose songs were especially enthralling, or that you enjoyed more for other reasons?
“The Embodiment” was my favorite moment in translating the book. There’s this passage probably no one else thinks about where the main character is lying in the hospital and imagining herself floating up to the ceiling. It was the last part of the story that I was editing and when I placed the last verb change, I could hear an angel choir singing. I could not believe how well the story had come together in translation. I was creating a sample for that book to apply for a PEN/Heim grant, and I was so happy with the translation I no longer cared whether it won a PEN/Heim or even found a publisher, I knew this work was great on its own and it would find readers no matter what and I didn’t care about anything else. I was going to have had this experience for the rest of my life and nothing would matter more than this moment no matter what. Anyway, it won that PEN/Heim.
Bora Chung, in her Publishers Weekly interview, talks about people finding meaning in her work, but the stories being random to her. Is there an element of interpreting meaning and subtext and theme that goes into translation? And how do you navigate that territory?
I don’t believe in randomness, and I would venture to say that when Bora says something is random to her, she means she isn’t constructing deliberately at least for the first draft, that she approaches her work more intuitively. I think she must find what comes out of her mind as exotic and fascinating as her readers do. The stories are absolutely abundant in meaning and subtext, they wouldn’t work as well as they do without them. To me Bora is someone who listens to everyone and tries to see everything no matter how painful it is to watch another person’s suffering, she’s someone who stands at the edge of human existence and uses her artistic empathy to bear witness for humanity. So, her saying she writes at “random” doesn’t mean she doesn’t think or feel what she’s writing, it just means she’s using her empathy and being not just her own voice but a voice of the people on the margins of our society. Everyone ought to listen and listen hard. Well, read hard. If you’re a translator, you better be the person who reads the hardest of all.
Which are the stories in this collection that you feel will challenge readers more, and how so?
A lot of readers have commented that they felt very affected by “Snare” and “Scar.” These are fairytale stories, and fairytales are about using fantastical storytelling and the euphemism of symbolism to help children process the horrors of the world; I would still not recommend these particular fairytales to children. They are written more for adults, not so much to prepare them for the horrors of the world but to remind them of such. I don’t know if many adults are even prepared to confront the horror of these stories, but the fairytale presentation helps make the storytelling a little gentler and more merciful to the reader. Bora does not present violence gratuitously and she is a very careful writer in terms of portraying characters who are disenfranchised. I know for a fact she abhors media that uses stories of women being victimized as something to be consumed by readers and moviegoers. While those two stories will be especially taxing, I hope the reader realizes it’s to reveal violence, not revel in it.
Social and political nuance in fiction is sometimes missed or misunderstood when reading translated work. Are there a few pieces here that are daring in their subjects or subtext in ways that Anglophone readers might miss?
This is not an anxiety I share. I believe in readers. Sure, we all miss things here and there when it comes to reading and translating, but that’s inevitable. I can’t be looking over the shoulder of every reader going, “Did you get it?” every time they turn the page. But readers will get it in the end, maybe not everything, but enough. There is nothing I consider as essentially Korean in Bora Chung’s stories that I think readers from other cultures would miss because I simply do not believe in essential Koreanness. And Bora is such a cosmopolitan reader and writer and translator that she is very much tapped into global sensibilities, one doesn’t have to be Korean or know much about Korea to understand her work. And I do as much glossing as possible anyway. I have faith in Anglophone readers. They’ll get it.
Are there particular or special challenges to translating speculative work, which don’t come into play with nonspeculative fiction?
Definitely the worldbuilding. I helped Sung Ryu workshop her landmark translation of Tower by Bae Myung-hoon and it was very instructional for me to observe how Sung handled worldbuilding in translation. She couldn’t just rely on doing what the author was doing on the page because certain things that were permissible or arguably even encouraged in Korean, such as deliberate opaqueness and moody vagueness, would be read as incompetent writing or translating in English.
Bora has a subtly evocative style of writing where just a brushstroke or two can bring to life a whole character or setting. If you look at a story like “The Frozen Finger” where there’s basically no description of the setting, or none to speak of, you still know very early on that we are not in a world that is our own. She does that with very few words, with just a tweak of a metaphor, an adjective that is just a little off as to be unsettling. It was fun bringing that into English.
Some translators have expressed concerns about gatekeeping in the world of translation publishing, and in particular, a tendency to hire Western translators over non-Western translators. Do you have thoughts, experiences, or observations on this?
My own funding institution, LTI Korea, did not give me a fellowship when I attended their academy. They gave the Americans and the Brit in my division a living stipend while they attended the same full-time program. Of my cohort, I am the only one who actually ended up becoming a Korean-to-English literary translator, a fact I try to remind LTI Korea as often as possible. Despite this, they have fired me once to give my class to a white man who subsequently ran that class to the ground and tried to replace me with another white translator for the National Centre for Writing mentorship they fund.
Clearly, they still regard me as a placeholder for white translators, someone whose labor they exploit in building up positions and authors and then discard to pass on the fruits of that work to someone white. It’s still very rare for a non-white translator to win an international translation award or even get nominated for one. It was great to be double-longlisted and shortlisted for the Booker this year, but a translator of color has never won in the history of the prize and very, very few have been shortlisted. The work we do is clearly and immediately discounted in terms of artistry.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you, your work, or Cursed Bunny?
I often hear from readers who tell me they will pick up a book because I translated it, even if they know nothing about the author or source text. This is so moving for me, even when I do the very same thing for translators I am a fan of, just as I would do for a writer. This is a great book-buying strategy. It doesn’t have to be my books you buy—it might be interesting to find translators who are great at picking projects like Jennifer Croft, Sawad Hussain, or Jeremy Tiang. We tend to be more prolific than writers, there will always be a Frank Wynne translation you haven’t read yet. Find a translator you like and explore their oeuvre. It could be fun!
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that you’d like readers to know about?
At the time of this interview, my agent and I are on the verge of announcing the acquisition by a major publisher of an English-language novel I’ve written, and Bora has very generously offered to translate it into Korean. That would be pretty amazing, and such a hilarious and generous Bora Chung-type thing to do, she’s just such a genuinely wonderful person.
I’ve also signed with a Korean publisher to write a novel in Korean, so the next step in my publishing journey is to become a bilingual author. Or a bilingual translator, actually, because my first English-to-Korean translation, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is being published here in Korea this December. I’ve always felt that author/translator is a false binary and, well, I’m about to find out for real.
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards, for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.