Interview

Discover the shortlist: Anton Hur, ‘My most marketable skillset is translation'

Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Anton Hur is translator of two books on the list, Cursed Bunny and Love in the Big City.

Born in Sweden but raised all over the world, Hur reveals the far-reaching impact A.S. Byatt’s work has on his life and how a misspelling in Spot left him feeling scandalised as a child.

Anton Hur

Written by Anton Hur

What first drew you to working in translation and how do you find translating fiction in particular?

My passion is literature and my most marketable skillset is translation, so it seemed a foregone conclusion I would fall into literary translation. I just didn’t predict how far this journey would take me. My imagination is pretty wild but not this wild!

What’s your earliest reading memory?

My family was living in Hong Kong and I was attending a British school. There was an English children’s book about a dog named Spot who goes to school for the first time, and I remember ‘OK’ being spelled ‘Okay’ and feeling scandalised by this. I believe this is the first book I ever read on my own from cover to cover.

What did you enjoy most about translating Cursed Bunny?  What did you find most challenging?

Bora’s [Chung, author of Cursed Bunny] language is definitely what I enjoyed the most about Cursed Bunny. I loved handling it and seeing it come out in English. She is just so remarkably funny and sensitive and aware and empathetic. She gives equal weight to perfections and flaws. Every one thing has shades of the other. The challenge came after the translation was done—procuring funding, publishers, building up a readership for Bora in English from the ground up. I dragged Bora out to every event that would have us, despite her busy teaching schedule, and I’m so grateful to her that she went through all of it without a lick of complaint. She’s a star.

What did you enjoy most about translating Love in the Big City?  What did you find most challenging?

My absolute favourite thing about Love in the Big City is the humour in Sang Young’s [Park, author of Love in the Big City] prose. English takes to humour and irony naturally, thanks to centuries of fantastic writers of the English language who have made English such pliable and endlessly creative material, and I really enjoyed using words like ‘dickmatised’ in a literary translation (now a Booker-nominated literary translation, no less). I don’t recall anything particularly challenging to translate about the work. Sang Young did such a seamless job that I didn’t really have to clarify anything with him, and even Sang Young was surprised I didn’t end up asking him any questions during the process. I just showed up in his inbox and plonked down the PDF and went, ‘Here it is!’

Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation?

For Cursed Bunny, I drew from some truly astonishing fairy stories written by AS Byatt (winner of the 1990 Booker Prize for her novel Possession) for ‘Snare’, ‘Scars’, and ‘Ruler of the Winds and Sands’. AS Byatt has written many deceptively simple and secretly diabolical fairy stories, and I kept thinking of the ones in Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice and The Little Black Book of Stories. My own pen name, Anton, comes from the “Antonia” of Antonia Susan Byatt. I’ve read and re-read her books so many times that I’m sure her influence is all over everything I do.

Love in the Big City was a bit more straightforward; I asked Sang Young who his influences were, and he named some (thankfully!) English writers that were especially useful in triangulating the Sang Young Park voice in English. I ended up going with David Sedaris, Chuck Palahniuk, and my own gay self as ‘the voice of Sang Young Park’ and I think it turned out fine.

Anton Hur

Almost all of the authors that I translate gives me a feeling of stepping into an incredibly detailed—emotionally detailed—virtual reality experience

What steps do you take in your process to marry your work with the author’s, beyond literal translation?

I make sure I like the work for what it is, and this takes care of a lot of it. The greatest compliment I’ve ever been paid by an author was when Kyung-Sook Shin once told me that talking to me about her books made her feel like I’d gone inside her mind and come out of it. Almost all of the authors that I translate gives me a feeling of stepping into an incredibly detailed—emotionally detailed—virtual reality experience. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes and misreadings, but as long as you convey what you’ve so intensely felt as a reader, I don’t think authors sweat the details too much.

Tell us a lesser-known (fun) fact about you

So many little Korean boys have black belts in a martial art, and mine happens to be in a Korean form of Kendo. (Incidentally, Bora Chung is also a swordfighter. We are one writer-translator duo who are ready for the apocalypse.)

And an interesting fact about the books

I think it’s notable that the writer, translator, and cover artist (Choi Jaehoon) of Cursed Bunny are all Korean nationals, and the publishers at the time of publication were resident in Korea. It’s an interesting twist that so much of the talent associated with the book ended up being ‘locally sourced’.

I initially wanted the title of Love in the Big City to be its last chapter, ‘Late Rainy Season Vacation’, because it’s set in Bangkok and I went to high school in Bangkok and I love Bangkok more than I love Seoul. Everyone else liked Love in the Big City better, however, so I capitulated. It really is a nice, catchy title.

Tell us about a book that changed your life

I don’t even know where to begin with this, as you can imagine—but I’m going to say Possession by, again, AS Byatt. I was a teenager in Bangkok, Thailand, and all my friends were going to study business or engineering in college. I wanted a literary life and had no idea what that meant or what forms that could take aside from somehow becoming a writer who made enough money to sustain himself in hypercapitalist South Korea. Possession was the first time I was shown that a literary life is possible and can take all sorts of forms, that it didn’t need to be flashy and can be quite pleasantly mundane. My entire professional life has basically been living in the wake of reading this book.