A Talk With the Translator of the Memoir You Have to Read Next


“The book is a trap, an infection, a time bomb,” thinks the professorial protagonist in Margaret Drabble’s The Red Queen. (See James Hunter’s review, “Soul to Seoul.”) The dangerous text in question is The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong, known in Korea as “Records Written in Silence” and Englished most essentially by JaHyun Kim Haboush, a professor of Korean studies at Columbia.

Haboush’s translation was written with the audio on. “I tried out each sentence by reading it aloud,” she tells the Voice. “Until I thought it sounded natural, I didn’t write it down.” The supple result makes it gloriously easy for any reader to get trapped—not to say infected and exploded—by Lady Hyegyong’s tragic account of tearstained court life, of madness and bloodcurdling murder.

Haboush came to the University of Michigan from her native South Korea in 1968, initially planning to study film, but got sidetracked. “I really knew very little of Asian culture,” she says. “When people asked me about certain things, and I couldn’t answer, I started to read about China, in English.” At Columbia, she shifted to Korean studies, encountering Lady Hyegyong’s memoirs while working on her dissertation about the crown princess’s father-in-law, King Yongjo (r. 1724–76). An NEH grant allowed her to pursue a project to translate the Memoirs—no simple matter, as previous translators worked from less than pristine sources, and took structural liberties to produce a more linear narrative.

Drabble contacted Haboush a few years ago about the possibility of writing a novel that would utilize the Memoirs, to which Haboush had no objection. She was a bit dismayed, however, upon reading the first portion of the Red Queen MS, a re-creation of Lady Hyegyong’s voice that perhaps betrays a touch of Orientalism. “There is a kind of moral authenticity that we are looking for, and in that sense, The Red Queen is Margaret Drabble’s imagination—it’s very much embedded in the British post-war literary generation, where enlightenment comes from the West.” But, she accepts, “it’s her work.” Those intrigued by Drabble’s fiction are urged to seek out the original.

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