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INTERVIEW Choi Byong-hyon:
Bringing to Life Heroes from Korean Classics

Professor Choi Byong-hyon compares translating ancient Korean classics into English to “swimming without water, and fighting without an enemy.” His solitary battle over decades has finally earned recognition with the publication of his works by prestigious university presses in the United States. The National Academy of Sciences acknowledged his efforts at producing essential texts for Korean studies programs overseas by presenting him with its 2016 annual award.

Professor Choi Byong-hyon, director of the Center for Globalizing Korean Classics, forges ahead with the translation of Korean classics into English with the mission of addressing the lack of available works in this field.

Some say it is the translator’s lot in life to be invisible. It is considered a professional virtue: all attention should fall on the original work. At times, the translator comes to the fore, as witnessed recently when “The Vegetarian” by the South Korean novelist Han Kang received the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The prize was awarded to both Han and her novel’s British translator Deborah Smith, but those working in the classics largely go unnoticed.
“Without notice, without a name” is how Professor Choi Byonghyon describes the situation. Working alone in his office at Honam University in Gwangju, over the past 20 years he has quietly translated some notable Korean classics: “The Book of Corrections: Reflections on the National Crisis during the Japanese Invasion of Korea 1592–1598” (Jingbirok), “Admonitions on Governing the People: Manual for All Administrators” (Mongmin simseo), and “The Annals of King Taejo: Founder of Korea’s Choson [Joseon] Dynasty” (Taejo sillok).

Poet, Novelist, Translator
“If I hadn’t been a professor at a regional university, all of this would have been impossible,” Choi says. “It was quiet. Nobody bothered me. My office was beautiful. I had a lovely view of the surrounding forest. You could say that the time was long, you could also say it was short. Anyway, I wrestled with those texts all those years, and last year I retired [from the university].”
Despite the serenity of his words and the look of peace on his face, the massive tomes were by no means easy to produce.
“The Book of Corrections” (2002, University of California, Berkeley) is a war memoir written by the Joseon Dynasty scholar and chief state councilor Ryu Seong-ryong, who directed state affairs during the Japanese invasions of the late 16th century. Its translation took four years to complete.
The second work, “Admonitions on Governing the People” (2010, University of California Press), was written by the scholar-official Jeong Yak-yong, a leading propounder of Silhak, or “Practical Learning.” A manual for local officials, it contains examples of corruption, and deals with topics such as taxation, justice, and famine relief. Running over a thousand pages, it took Choi 10 years to complete.
Jeong Yak-yong had lived inside Choi’s head and heart for such a long time that during a commemorative lecture he gave in Gangjin, where Jeong wrote the book during his 18 years in exile, Choi had a vision of the Joseon scholar sitting in the audience, dressed in a traditional coat. “It was a strange experience,” Choi recalls, wondering about it even now. For his translation, a 10-year endeavor, Choi received a grant of 20 million won (about $18,000).
The most recent publication, “The Annals of King Taejo” (2014, Harvard University Press), is the official chronicle of the reign of Yi Seong-gye who founded the Joseon Dynasty in 1392. This translation also took four years.
In addition to working with the original texts, Choi wrote extensive footnotes to aid readers’ understanding. There were countless names of government offices and positions, hard to understand even in Korean, for which he had to find English equivalents. The Internet offered little useful information.
At this point, one can only wonder why he started on this path in the first place.
At the time, Choi had a stable job as professor of English literature at Honam University and was also an award-winning poet and novelist. His first poetry collection, “Piano and Geomungo,” written in English at the age of 27 while studying at the University of Hawaii, won the Myrle Clark Award for Creative Writing in 1977. His novel “Language,” written in Korean, won the first Hyun Jin-geon Literary Award in 1988.
When he wrote “Language,” Choi was studying for his master’s degree in English literature at Columbia University, a time that he describes as the most difficult in his life. While serving his mandatory military duty in the 1970s, he spent a week on his knees as punishment for voting against the dictatorial government’s Yushin Constitution and suffered through the investigation of his family and others close to him. When he went abroad to study he swore never to return. In America he came under all kinds of new influences. In the 1980s deconstructionism was all the rage. Choi began to wonder, “Why has language itself never been the main character of a novel?” and through language he began to deconstruct everything he had known up to that point. The resulting “poetic novel” features the rhythms of traditional pansori and modern rap. Its leading characters, named Sa Il-gu (April 19), Oh Il-yuk (May 16), and Sam Il (March 1), are textual symbols of major resistance movements in modern Korean history. “Language” was the synthesis of many of Choi’s ideas about politics, language, and literature.
Choi envisioned bringing together East and West, as suggested in the title “Piano and Geomungo.” One of his poems in the collection, “Confession,” contains the line, “Why did I choose the way I cannot tell.”
“I thought I would integrate English literature and world literature,” he says. “I didn’t know it would take the form of classics translation.”

Selecting the Texts to Translate
In 1997, Choi was invited to teach every Saturday at the Korea campus of the University of Maryland. “I taught English literature in the morning and Korean literature in the afternoon. English literature was relatively easy because there was a lot of good material. But Korean literature was difficult. It was tedious, because there were no texts available in English,” he recalls. “So for every class, I began translating parts of the texts that I wanted to use, Goryeo period literature such as Pahanjip (Collection of Writings to Dispel Leisure), for example.”
Later, while teaching Korean literature at the University of California, Irvine, as a Fulbright scholar, he ran into the same problem. One of Choi’s beliefs about learning is that it should be put to use, and it seems this led him to what he calls his “manifest destiny.”
“I realized what I had to do — English literature not for the sake of English literature but using it as a springboard for making Korean culture and history known around the world. And as soon as I started to think that way, I started to torment myself,” Choi says with a rueful smile.
In selecting the texts to translate, Choi decided that the most important thing was to convey the voice of the Korean people. Then he set down two principles: themes that are local and universal; and contents that are timeless and temporal. Hence his first choice fell on “The Book of Corrections,” which shows a leader’s wisdom in a time of national crisis and holds lessons for future generations. At the time he was translating the book, Korea and other countries were reeling under the Asian financial crisis. “Near the end of the 16th century people did not understand why Hideyoshi invaded Joseon. The same with the financial crisis of 1997. No one really understood why it happened. In both cases, people were busy passing blame. It was the perfect text,” Choi says, explaining his choice.
Translation of this book and those that followed was, in Choi’s words, “Like swimming without water, and fighting without an enemy. Every birth was difficult.”
The search for Korea’s heroes appears to be another guiding principle in Choi’s translation of the classics. In seeking to “directly revive the voice of our ancestors,” he has brought to life Ryu Seongryong, Jeong Yak-yong, and King Taejo for an international readership, and he hopes to bring attention to many others. At home, they are popular historical figures whose lives have been dramatized often in movies and television series. “They were value-oriented and goal-oriented — men with a mission,” he says. These Korean classics may not have the romance and excitement of the “Iliad” or the “Odyssey,” but shining through them is a spirit that Choi defines as integrity.

“I realized what I had to do — English literature not for the sake of English literature but using it as a springboard for making Korean culture and history known around the world. And as soon as I started to think that way, I started to torment myself.”

The Mission Imposed on Himself
Choi, no doubt, has a mission of his own — the globalization of Korean classics. As director of the Center for Globalizing Korean Classics, he wants to make Korea’s heroes famous outside the country also. Fortunately, all his translations have been published by prestigious university presses in the United States after passing their rigorous standards. Thanks to the universities’ distribution systems and influence, the books are now found in university libraries around the world, and are must-read texts in all Korean studies programs.
The books have also caused quiet reverberations at home, raising awareness of the need to encourage work in the classics. In 2014, Choi was asked to head the (now-defunct) Center for Korean Classics Translation at Korea University. There he worked with a team of scholars on “Discourse of Northern Learning” (Bukhakui) by Park Je-ga, scheduled to be published in 2017. This year he was asked by the Poongsan Group to write a biography of Ryu Seongryong, author of “The Book of Corrections,” who is a direct ancestor of the group’s founder. Though yet to be written, the biography has already been titled “Ryu Seong-ryong, Heroic Minister of Korea.”
Heroic in what sense, one may ask. “How can a scholar-official be a hero?” Choi answers: “The concept of a hero is different between the East and the West. In the West the hero is a warrior. In the East the hero is a scholar, the Confucian ideal of the ‘superior man’ (gunja, or junzi in Chinese). The true meaning of a hero lies in spiritual rather than physical power.”
The new book will be written in English. Thanks to his work and a total of 18 years studying and living in the United States, Choi is just as comfortable with English as with Korean. More so perhaps, because English, he says, has a flavor of its own, “That particular cleanness.” The great thing about his translations is that they are easy to read. In wonderfully clear English, they make accessible primary sources that are actually rather daunting in their original Chinese or Korean language versions. This clarity is based on Choi’s expertise in the subjects covered by his material, ranging from politics, war, and Confucianism to agronomy, geography, and the arts.

While teaching English literature over the past 20 years, Choi Byong-hyon has also managed to translate some important classics, such as "The Annals of King Taejo: Founder of Korea's Choson Dynasty," "Admonitions on Governing the People: Manual for All Administrators," "The Artistry of Early Korean Cartography," and "The Book of Corrections: Reflections on the National Crisis during the Japanese Invasion of Korea 1592–1598." These are precious resources for Korean studies scholars.

Every year as October draws around, Korea tends to tense up when the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature is announced. But rather than making a fuss about the elusive Nobel Prize, Choi advocates a change in the country’s international profile through the globalization of its classical works. “If they want to give Korea a prize for any modern literature, first they will want to know about the country’s roots,” he argues.
The biography is a step in that direction. His model is the John Adams biography by David McCullough, among others. This may be a move away from classics translation for himself, but having “cut the cord,” he hopes many others will take up the work. It’s a tall order. Funding for classics translation is limited and in-depth knowledge of classical Chinese and Korean studies is required. It also calls for years of hard work without recognition. In short, it requires a sense of mission.
This may sound like ivory tower idealism but Choi believes there are people “like salt, like flowers hidden in the mountains” who are working hard in their given places. “We need to bring those people to the light,” he says. As with Choi’s motto “Without notice, without a name,” recognition would be welcome if it comes, but it can take a long time. Choi was happy to wait. “I’m like [the ancient Chinese statesman] Jiang Taigong, who spent his years in exile fishing without a hook, waiting for someone to come for him,” he says. He speaks of a time frame of a thousand years, no less. If recognition doesn’t come in this lifetime, then perhaps in posterity.
Fortunately, Choi’s wait was far shorter than a thousand years. In addition to acclaim for his work overseas, in September this year he was named one of six winners of the National Academy of Sciences Awards. He sees the award as recognition of translation as an academic field of study in its own right. His wife, who was invited to stand on the podium with him when he received the award, is pleased that his quiet effort over the past decades has been noticed. The same for his daughters in the United States, who had sent him a Kindle to comfortably carry around the vast collection of books that he needs in his work. He doesn’t like leaving home without it.

Cho Yoon-jung Assistant Editor, Koreana; Professor, Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation, Ewha Womans University
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer


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