The Usonian Interviews, No. 12: Literary translator Lizzie Buehler on "The Disaster Tourist"
A climate thriller from South Korean author Yun Ko-eun
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a new storyteller or artist from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with literary translator Lizzie Buehler about Yun Ko-eun’s novel The Disaster Tourist, which she translated from Korean to English.
The novel is a climate thriller about a woman named Yona who works for a travel agency that offers tours of places afflicted by natural and climate disasters. After Yona is given the opportunity to evaluate one of these vacations, to the Southeast Asian island nation of Mui, she discovers a conspiracy threatening everyone on the island.
You can order the book on Bookshop, Amazon, or wherever books are sold.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
THE USONIAN: The Disaster Tourist is now about a year and a half old (at least, the English version). What was it like to have this book released at the height of the COVID pandemic?
LIZZIE BUEHLER: It was good that it was released at the height of COVID. One, I think people were reading more. Two, it felt timely, because [The Disaster Tourist] has this ecological man-made disaster theme that I think resonated with people in the midst of COVID. That was cool, because the book got attention and felt timely in a way that it might not have otherwise. But obviously it was disappointing that after working on the book for several years and imagining going to bookstores and doing talks at the University of Iowa, none of that ended up happening. But I did a couple of virtual talks and interviews, and I have continually been pleased to see that the book is still getting attention. It was recently shortlisted for a Crime Fiction in Translation award, which is cool. I didn’t know there were awards for that specific of a genre.
TU: In the author’s afterword to the English edition, Yun Ko-eun writes that if Lizzie and The Disaster Tourist hadn’t exchanged cosmic winks with one another, I wouldn’t be writing these words, and you wouldn’t be reading them. What was that cosmic wink? How did you find this book and Yun Ko-eun?
LB: That afterword is funny, because it wasn’t in the British version. But then the American publisher Counterpoint Press emailed me last year, and they’re like, oh, we have a couple of extra pages available at the end of the book—does Ko-eun want to write an afterword? As the translator, I do interpreting between the English publisher and Yun Ko-eun, so I asked her if she wanted to [write something], and she said, Sure. So she wrote that little afterword.
The “cosmic wink” she was referring to was just me discovering her writing, which actually happened when I was a sophomore at Princeton. I was taking fifth-year Korean, which was kind of just a course where we read short stories that our professor liked, from throughout the last 30 or 40 years in Korea. A story by Yun Ko-eun was one of the stories we read for that class.
Yun Ko-eun wasn’t particularly well-known. It wasn’t considered a classic short story by any means, but I think my professor had just come across it at some point and enjoyed it. My junior year of college I signed up for a literary translation class in the creative writing department, and I really didn’t know very much about Korean literature at the time; almost everything that I knew came from what I had read in the class that I took the year before.
So when we had to decide a text to translate for the semester, I went back through the stories that we read in my Korean class and look to see which ones that I liked, and hadn’t been published in English yet.
It turned out this short story by Yun Ko-eun hadn’t been translated. I decided to work on that. I really enjoyed it, so I started working on the other short stories in that same collection that it came from. Short stories are a much more common form of fiction in Korea than in the U.S.; almost every writer starts with a short story collection rather than a debut novel. I ended up translating part of the short story collection for my undergrad thesis and then worked on that continually for the year when I lived in New York after college and got a publishing contract for that short story collection before I started my MFA. It still hasn’t come out yet; COVID sort of delayed things.
I guess the cosmic wink was just reading a story that [Ko-eun] wrote. Now we’ve met each other in person, which is cool, and are in touch regularly.
TU: Did you have to reach out to her at some point to say, “Hey, I’m translating your book, is that okay?”
LB: It was really scary at first, because every young translator doesn’t know at what point they feel like they seem legit enough. I think I emailed her at the end of my senior year because I wanted to start submitting the short stories that I translated to literary magazines. It’s probably similar with fiction, but usually you try and get a couple of stories published before you publish a whole book or collection.
I emailed her and just said, I’m a senior at Princeton, I translated part of your short story collection for my thesis. Here it is, I hope you approve, can I submit these to literary magazines, and she was extremely gracious and really responded so positively, and was super supportive, which is great. And I think the relationships that writers and translators have can be really varied in terms of how involved the writer wants to be. Yun Ko-eun is very comfortable not really being that involved with English translation. I think partially because she doesn’t really speak English. I know that some writers who know more English tend to get more involved. But she’s put an amazing amount of trust in me. I’m really grateful for that.
TU: The Disaster Tourist, is a work that might be classified as climate fiction, or cli-fi. It also has metafictional elements, thriller elements. And it even reminds me of a lot of movies coming out of Korean cinema, some of which combine a lot of different genres into one story. What aspects of this story appeal to you as a translator?
LB: To first to mention something that is not in the question. I really like how the style of the story is purposely extremely vague. It really appealed to me that you don’t ever learn much about Yona’s personality. In a way she’s kind of cold and personality-less, which is unique, especially for a book that does have a decent amount of action going on. It’s sort of a mixture of writerly style, and plot, which I don’t think is super common. I also liked how the purposeful vagueness made the story seem more universal in a way. Even though Yona is Korean, Mui is not a real place, it’s made up. It’s ostensibly in Southeast Asia. But a lot of different places that deal with tourism could identify with some of the elements of the relationship between Mui and its tourists.
I also think that the book deals with a lot of the questions that I think about in relation to my own life and the life of the people around me, because so many of my friends and classmates and myself—we take it for granted that we have this ability to travel the world, especially when you get fellowships like Fulbright; I got a scholarship to go to Korea and Germany between my two years in Iowa.
But the older I get, the more conflicted [I become regarding] the environmental impact of that travel. I haven’t decided what I think is the right thing to do yet. Yun Ko-eun and I have talked about how we have similar ambivalence about our love of travel, because there is a feeling of guilt involved.
The fact that the book brings up this tense relationship between Korea and its neighboring countries, including Southeast Asian countries that are in the same sort of cultural sphere, to some degree, I think there’s a really interesting tension that’s brought up indirectly in the novel, because Korea is so often placed in relationship with Japan or China.
But in the West, we don’t always look at Korea’s relationship with Southeast Asian countries that are often poorer. That’s a really interesting connection, because a lot of Koreans go on vacation to the Southeast Asian countries, and a lot of people from Southeast Asia come to Korea, either as sort of mail-order brides or low-income laborers. There is this weird class and social hierarchy division that a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about. I thought that this book was a really skillful way to deal with those social issues.
Another thing that makes it interesting to me as someone who studied Korean history is that Korea has this sort of national self-identification as an underdog. It makes sense because Korea was a small country in between China and Japan for so long. And, for most of the 21st century, it was really poor. First it was colonized by Japan, and then it was split up by war, and then as a developing country and not really a democracy until about 30 years ago. And I think there’s still this mentality that like, they’re the underdogs, they’re sort of downtrodden. But you can’t really say that anymore, because Korea is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and Koreans have a lot of power abroad. The book is about grappling with that transition.
TU: There are a lot of elements that a Western audience can relate to in this book. The opening has a plot about sexual harassment in the workplace. Then there’s this adventure tourism angle, with corporate conspiracies and the exploitation of less developed countries. While there are all these things that we were easily recognizable in a Western context, what were some of the challenges in rendering the Korean or Southeast Asian setting into English, such as idioms that were difficult to translate?
LB: I think that translating from Korean to English does require a level of transformation of the text that you don’t always need to have if you’re translating from Spanish or French or German to English, because just at the sentence level, Korean is a subject-object-verb language, and English is subject-verb-object. Even in the most simple sentences, you have to rearrange the words. Korean is also much more okay with long run-on sentences than English. One of the things that I always have to do when I’m translating is break up the sentences that might be a whole paragraph in Korean and figure out how to make it into manageable chunks for the English reader. And my philosophy on that is that I want to make the experience of reading the book in English stylistically similar to what the experience is for Korean readers. So if these sentences seem long to me as an English speaker, but they’re actually normal or medium length in Korean, than I want to have what we think of as medium-like sentences in English to keep the similar style and give readers a similar experience when they’re reading the translation.
I [also] sometimes wasn’t entirely sure what was going on in the text, because a lot of [the book] is very weird, right? So sometimes I would think, am I misunderstanding this? Or is this actually happening in the book? And that’s when it’s really helpful to have a good relationship with the author.
When I was finishing my first draft of this translation, there was probably a one or two month period where I was sending Yun Ko-eun an email every other day, just being like, in this sentence, did you really mean that the house was “crumbling?”
I think that relates to another linguistic difference between Korean and English, where Korean readers are much more comfortable with ambiguity than English readers. This is a big linguistic and cultural difference.
English sentences tend to require more information to be satisfying to readers, whereas in Korean, writers can be vaguer and get away with it. So sometimes there will be a sentence in quotation marks, and there won’t be a tag afterwards. So you have to sort of infer who is saying something. I oftentimes will add, you know, sometimes I have to consult with Yun Ko-eun and be like, who said this? And then I’ll add it in in the English because I think that it’s more jarring to English readers to not know [the dialogue tag].
Lizzie Buehler is a translator from Korean and a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Her book-length translations include The Disaster Tourist and Table for One, by Yun Ko-eun, and Korean Teachers by Seo Su-jin. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is working on a novel.