On Rebuilding Tower

2009 Korean edition (left), 2020 Korean edition (center), 2021 English edition (right)

My greatest pleasure from translating Korean literature into English, aside from engaging deeply with the text itself, has to be engaging directly with the author—a privilege rarely accorded to translators working in the opposite direction in my language combination. As early as twenty pages into my translation of Tower, I had access to Bae Myung-hoon’s email and was free to ask him as many questions as I dared, including about the genders of every human and animal character in the composite novel.[1] Our correspondences turned out to be such a gift, a learning experience in their own right. During my translation, I had been so caught up in laying the beams and columns of Beanstalk Tower and choosing the right textures and colors for its materials that I never thought to look up from the blueprints. It was only when Bae whisked me away to another vantage point and pointed at Beanstalk that I saw what was behind it, beyond it: the city backdropping Beanstalk, the capital of “the neighboring country” left mysteriously unnamed throughout the novel; the city where, just months before Tower’s original publication in 2009, police violently suppressed protestors demanding fair compensation for being evicted from a redevelopment area; the city of endless marches and candlelight vigils despite the tear gas and the water cannons and the barricades like the infamous Myung-bak Fortress. The city of Seoul.

I began to share Bae’s remarkably clear bird’s-eye view of state power in operation, of every cog in the machine from mindless bureaucrats and subcontracted foreign workers through colluding businesses, media, and intellectuals to the average citizen. Of their complicity in the machine’s smashing and crushing. These cogs are who narrate the entirety of Tower, the engineer never once deigning to make an appearance (the only “higher-up” we see in action is Film Actor P). Beanstalk’s leaders take no action and thus no responsibility, especially in moments when their people need them most. So the people rise, individually and together. There is power in great numbers.

My vantage point shifted once again when I began working with my editors. Beanstalk’s streets were swept clean, the windows wiped down, and many signposts added. Some bigger signposts bear mentioning. In the source text, certain characters compare Beanstalk to Babel to imply that both are cities of evil, lacking humanity, unity, and warmth—they are alluding to the Babel at the end of the famous biblical story. The editors, though, felt that most English readers would associate Babel with the hubris that led to its downfall, a view that the author and I accepted. So, I tweaked all the Babel references to put more emphasis on Beanstalkian hubris.

The story that underwent the heaviest editing is probably “Fully-Compliant.” One of its narrators, Şehriban, is a Muslim woman on a spy mission in Beanstalk for Cosmomafia, a militant group with historic links to the former USSR. The editors advised that some of her motives and actions may be interpreted very differently by readers in the UK and Korea as Islamic discourse in the two countries cannot be the same. The author and I trusted their judgment and let them take the lead in the relevant deletions and modifications.

The author himself revised the 2009 text considerably for the 2020 Korean edition. All his revisions are reflected in my translation. However, the glossary of terms, new author’s note, and blurbs by writer Chung Serang and literary critic Kim Mijung have been omitted in the English edition due to either time constraints or editorial reasons. 

So you see, the editing process was an intense collaboration between editors, author, and translator. When I first received the edits from Honford Star, I naively thought I could go over each and every one of them with the author. We sat down at a café in southern Seoul for this very purpose, but by the end of four hours we had only covered a quarter of the manuscript. Here, Bae gave me full control over managing the rest of the edits, an act of total trust in both me and the editors that I am deeply grateful for (though I still ended up asking his input for revisions I considered major). He also told me something then that I will never forget, when I said, half-apologetic that our meeting was taking so long and half-biased toward English’s impatience with ambiguity, “At least the text will be more polished.” He gently corrected me that English Tower was not so much better than Korean Tower as it was different. He’s right, of course. We’ve constructed twin towers, but fraternal twins. Each with different personalities living different lives, born equal. One does not tower over the other. All this I should know, I have a twin brother (who, in fact, checked my translations of the many military terms and titles sprinkled throughout the book, based on his experience serving in the South Korean Navy as an interpreter).

If ever I have the privilege to build a fourth Tower, I’d like to try a still different approach, maybe leaving some rooms locked, some streets unpaved, giving the reader the chance to get lost inside Beanstalk awhile, to find their own way. But I don’t necessarily have to be the next architect. Every translator will raise their own tower.[2] They’ll grow their own snowflake, like White Bear does one sacred afternoon. All of the snowflakes similar but none alike. Each fractal meaningful. Powerful. As the 2021 English translator of Tower, my wish for Beanstalk’s story, along with the rest of Bae Myung-hoon’s brilliant oeuvre, is this: Let it snow on!




From sample translation to publication, this book has been five years in the making. Naturally, it is indebted to many people. Thank you so much to . . .

*Bae Myung-hoon, for being so generous with your time answering my email blitzkrieg, for your unfailing demonstration of trust, respect, and humor;

*Honford Star’s truly stellar Anthony Bird and Taylor Bradley, for the passion and precision you brought to editing and publishing this book, for putting my name on the cover and offering to communicate directly with the author in Korean—details that mean so much to a translator;

*Anton Hur, my first reader, for line-editing all six of the main stories, for telling me many nice things about my translation that I needed to hear, since the first day I met you in workshop;

*Agnel, Anton again, Helen, Joosun, Slin, and Sophie for workshopping various excerpts from Tower, for the crucial community you’ve been, and ProfesSora for guiding us all;

*LTI Korea, for providing the infrastructure I needed to grow as a translator during my five-year enrollment in your Translation Academy (I wish you awarded PhD degrees) and supporting the publication of this book;

*Asymptote Journal, for publishing “Taklamakan Misdelivery” in 2018, which was a big reason this book came to Honford Star’s attention;

*Elmer Luke, for editing an excerpt as part of the 2017 BCLT Summer School and for your kind encouragement;

*Inhwi, for introducing me to Tower six years ago;

*Every single member of my family, for carrying me through 2019 (특히 “The Elevator Maneuver Exercise” 전체를 타이핑 해준 쌩, 두고두고 고마워).

February 2021

Sung Ryu

[1] Korean, a pronoun-dropping language, allowed Bae to write his minor characters and animal characters without having to assign a gender to them, but I didn’t have quite the same room for ambiguity in English (or so I thought) and asked him to pick genders for them. I was pleased to find that his answers matched exactly the genders I had imagined for each character during my first-draft translation—all except for the bears: I suggested we change White Bear from “The Bear God’s Afternoon” to female, for balance, since we already had one male animal entering nirvana in the book; and for the Bear God I proposed we use the pronoun “They,” capitalized, because I liked the idea of a nonbinary god. Bae agreed to both. Looking back, I think it would have been interesting to use the singular “they” for the rest of the characters with unspecified genders, leaving their genders up to the reader’s imagination or even indifference. This is, after all, a freedom the source text gives to Korean readers.    

[2] My thoughts here about the plurality of translation are inspired by the inclusive work of chogwa, “a quarterly e-zine featuring one Korean poem & multiple English translations,” and the paper “Applying Arendt to Translation Discourse” by Seong-woo Yun and Hyang Lee.