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The Translator’s Voice — Morgan Giles on Translating Yu Miri’s “The End of August”

The Translator’s Voice — Morgan Giles on Translating Yu Miri’s “The End of August”

  • An interview with Morgan Giles about translating Yu Miri's "The End of August" from Japanese.

The Translator’s Voice is a new monthly column from Ian J. Battaglia here at the Chicago Review of Books, dedicated to global literature and the translators who work tirelessly and too often thanklessly to bring these books to the English-reading audience. Subscribe to his newsletter to get notified of new editions as well as other notes on writing, art, and more.


The End of August is a monumental book, in every sense of the word. Originally serialized in two newspapers over a decade ago, The End of August follows the author Yu Miri, a Zainichi Korean writer born and raised in Japan, as she attempts to come to grips with both her Korean heritage and her birthplace of Japan. The book follows Yu after a traditional Korean seance, where she attempts to trace her family history back to her Olympic runner grandfather and his life under Imperial Japan in Colonial Korea. She blends autofiction and history, covering not only the oppression Koreans experienced under the Japanese empire, but their defiance and perseverance.

Thanks to a translation from Morgan Giles, this tale of personal oppression and the broader movements of Colonial Korea, such as the Korean “comfort women,” is rendered in searing, visceral language for an even wider readership. Both touching and heartbreaking, The End of August is a novel I know will stick with me for a long time.

I was able to talk with translator Morgan Giles about her connection to Yu Miri, what it’s like translating such a personal book, research, and finding the balance between confronting but not overwhelming a reader with another language and culture.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ian J. Battaglia

The End of August is a big book with lots of very difficult to translate components. Can you talk about how you approached this work? Was it different from previous works you’ve translated?

Morgan Giles

In a lot of ways it’s really similar to Tokyo Ueno Station, just on a grander scale. Tokyo Ueno Station has these segments where you get voices that kind of intrude into the main narrative—these little overheard conversations—which is also a feature of The End of August. But in The End of August, they seem to function almost like a Greek chorus; especially the women washing clothes by the riverside. You don’t really get to know them on an individual basis, but they take you out of the narrative and comment on it, gossip on it; giving a broader view, but also giving us a concrete look into the daily life of women in Colonial Korea. I think there are a lot of similarities with Tokyo Ueno Station. So I started to approach translating it in the same way that I did Tokyo Ueno Station. I was really just focused on voice more than anything. Not only are there the sort of Greek chorus elements, but—I’m not sure how many narrators there are in The End of August—but there’s at least five. So keeping voice first and foremost in my head was super important to me as I began, but then the further I got into it, doing the research really became the most important part of the process. When [Yu] was writing the novel, she was writing it for serialization in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, and it was also being serialized simultaneously in Korean by The Dong-a Ilbo newspaper. So she had at her disposal a research team in Tokyo and a research team in South Korea that could help her with the historical background. I did not have the advantage of either of those things. [Yu] very kindly offered me copies of a lot of her personal research right when I needed it, and helped me find people that could talk to me, and answer various questions that I had. But a lot of it was just actually reading academic texts on Colonial Korea and Colonial Manchuria, and looking at 1930s travel guides written in English to get place names correct. Just a lot of really kind of “in the weeds” stuff. I mean, the novel took me three years to translate, but I think two of those were probably just reading. 

Ian J. Battaglia

You’ve mentioned the connection you have with Yu Miri. Is this unusual? You said it’s helped you with the research aspect, but has it changed how you thought about it at all? 

Morgan Giles

I do think [Yu] and I have an unusually close relationship. I haven’t heard of too many other translator / author pairs that are as close as we are. She was a witness when I got married. Which is crazy.I can hear her voice very clearly. I can also maybe guess more fully what she means by something because of it. That said, she wrote this novel over a decade ago, and I think has undergone a lot of changes [since then]; as we all would in a decade. In so many ways it’s an out of the ordinary novel in her oeuvre.I will say that having a close relationship with her makes it easier to keep the faith as I’m working and trust in her writing, and in the novel. 

Ian J. Battaglia

You talked a little bit about how much research you had to do for this project. Do you typically do a lot of research in translation projects, or because this is such a historically grounded novel, was it more important this time? 

Morgan Giles

I did do some research for Tokyo Ueno Station, but that was quite limited really; I did some sort of “on the ground” research, like using the book as a guidebook to walk around Ueno Park, just to make sure I was getting the sort of geography of things right. But yeah, I definitely didn’t spend days upon days at my desk reading for that novel.I guess I am a bit of a nerd in that way. I really enjoy reading academic texts, and I enjoy researching, so that is probably part of why I was drawn to this novel in the first place; the opportunity to really delve deeply into some subjects and try to make it as alive on the page as possible.

Ian J. Battaglia

It’s such a powerful book. I’m curious though, not only is it such a powerful book, but it’s so personal to Yu and her experience, or I guess her relationship to her background.What is that like for you? Are there any different considerations you had to take into account, translating something that’s so personal, so powerful, so raw?

Morgan Giles

And so different from my own background. As I worked on it, I was very, very conscious of the fact that this novel is a powerful statement about who she is, where she comes from, the political circumstances that led to her being a citizen of South Korea that was born and raised in Japan.There were lots of things in the translation that I agonized over, because I wanted to do justice to all of those issues that I don’t personally have any connection to. One way that I did that—beyond talking to [Yu], which I did quite a lot—she provided me with lots of materials like a documentary that she made for Japanese TV, before she ever even started writing The End of August. That was about her visiting Miryang and trying to track down facts about her grandfather’s life. So hearing her discuss her feelings about it even before she had begun to conceptualize the novel; those words rang in my head quite a lot as I was working.My main concern was getting it “right” in whatever way that might mean. And for me, beyond doing a lot of research, it also meant engaging with Korean translators, who not only helped with trivial language questions, but helped with lending me their own particular sense of what some of the context of these events [was], or what the importance of them might be. I’m really, really grateful to so many people who really were very generous with their time. 

Ian J. Battaglia

It is fascinating because obviously this is a Japanese translation, but there’s a ton of Korean words, Korean language; and even beyond that, just so much Korean cultural information.How did you handle that? Especially in regards to how you decided what got translated, and what was left in the original language.

Morgan Giles

Anton Hur helped in the very final push by checking over all of the Korean in the novel, which he managed in an astounding five days. Which, given how long the novel is and how busy Anton is, I cannot say thank you enough to him. Without that crucial help from him—for which he was compensated, let me just add—I would not have been confident in signing off on the final edits. I think [The End of August] is, at heart, a book about linguistic freedom. Specifically, the right to your name, the right to your language, the ability to speak—which so many of the characters [in the book] are denied by the colonial power of the Japanese empire. If the Korean isn’t right, then it just doesn’t work. The whole novel falls apart in English. So it was super, super important to try to get that right.But how Korean is represented in the original Japanese text is really different, and it’s done in a way that can’t easily be replicated in English. I know you know about Japanese, [but] I don’t know how deep into the weeds you want to get…

Ian J. Battaglia

Let’s get into it.

Morgan Giles

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So it’s in katakana [one of the three scripts used to write Japanese, typically reserved for loan words or words of foreign origin]. It will be the Korean word written in katakana, and then to the side of it in rubi [superscript characters most often used as a pronunciation guide to unfamiliar words] will be a Japanese translation. Which means that it’s kind of like going to the opera and there’s like supertitles. You can kind of subliminally take it in. You can take in the sound at the same time as the meaning, if you don’t know Korean. But that’s much, much harder to do in a non-avant-garde way in English. So [I] really, really agonized over this. I spent long hours talking about it with Deborah Smith, before she stepped down from Tilted Axis Press.In the end I kind of came up with a compromise, of “stealth translation”; sneaking in a summary of what the Korean says—there’s also Chinese further on in the book, but that’s more addressed using italics, hoping that that’s a way to sort of whisper in the reader’s ear. If your eyes jump over [the Korean or Chinese], then you can see this and pick it up. It took two or three drafts to find the balance.[This] may be surprising, but there’s a lot less Korean in my translation than there is in the original; and there’s a lot in my translation, right? Some sentences I would look at and I was like, “Aaaah!,” and friends that translate from Korean would say, “Why are you doing this? This word is not special.” I’d say, “Well, it represents something, some internal freedom over language to these characters.” But yeah, trying to find a balance between confronting the reader with the Korean language and not making it completely overwhelming was pretty difficult. 

Ian J. Battaglia

For myself as a reader, I like to think that I sort of inferred a lot of the meanings of Korean words just through context and repetition. There were a handful of Korean terms that I looked up. While reading, I was remembering what it was like when I first started studying Japanese; I was finding charts online that list what you call your relatives in Korean or whatever.It was fun. I don’t think I’ve really picked up that many Korean words, but it was an interesting way to read it.

Morgan Giles

Surprisingly, I don’t think I’ve picked up that many Korean words from translating it. I think I could probably count to 10 off the top of my head. I could say left and right. [Laughs].

Ian J. Battaglia

The last translator I interviewed was Francis Riddle, who translates from Spanish. She said something that I thought was really interesting, about trying to find the balance in a translation between presenting something that’s smooth and readable to an English ear, an English reader, and also trying to shake up the reader in a certain way; kind of confront them.I definitely felt like in this book, because of what it’s about, you have to be confronted by it in a certain way, and that it was meant to be if not jarring, at least direct. Was that something you were thinking about while you were translating?

Morgan Giles

Absolutely. [For] one, this novel was written to be read simultaneously by Japanese and Korean readers. So [I had] to develop a way of doing it that is both confrontational to the monolingual reader, and welcoming to the multilingual reader.That was foremost in my mind. I was thinking that I wanted Korean Americans to read this and feel that it’s a novel that belongs to them, in whatever way that might mean.The coexistence or friction between Japanese and Korean is such a central part of the novel that to smooth over that would be a disservice to the reader. I thought a lot about the afterward that Takahashi Genichiro wrote for the original paperback version of The End of August.He says, “All the words here are beautiful. And it is because the languages of these two countries, which could never mix together or be reconciled in reality, are here blended together miraculously, giving us a glimpse of a world that nobody has seen (or read) before. […] There is a cruel history surrounding language. Which is why language must not be lost.”I kept that thought in my head. Every element here is important, not just the Korean; and it should be jarring because this is, like he says, a novel that represents a linguistic reality that could not come to pass. So it should stand out to you in some way. It should feel unusual and fresh in some way.

Ian J. Battaglia

Were there any particular challenges or joys that came up while working on this book?

Morgan Giles

It was nothing but challenges and joys really!I’m just so excited—after years of living in this world—to have other people live in it for a little while too. I feel like it’s only after a novel is published that I can step out of the world of the novel; it stops being my own personal imaginary space and becomes… it becomes a book.A book is an imaginary space that’s shared with others. I’m just so thrilled to finally have people to talk about this book with.

FICTION
The End of August
By Yu Miri

Translated by Morgan Giles
Riverhead Books
Published August 1, 2023

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