Coffee & Literature: An interview with Barry Welsh

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Coffee goes great with conversations on literature!

It is November 15th 2016 and I am sitting inside a busy coffee shop just near to Dongguk University Station in Seoul. It has just gone 10 minutes past four in the afternoon and I am chatting with Barry Welsh. I say chatting rather than interviewing as it feels less like me firing questions at him, but a friendly conversation between two people who have met for the first time after connecting on facebook over a year ago.

Barry Welsh is an assistant professor at Dongguk university and founder of the Seoul Book and Culture Club and we are currently talking about coffee after sitting down to drink it. I am meeting with Barry primarily to talk about his foray into Korean translated literature and the origins of the club which he founded in 2012. He tells me during the conversation that he is not a scholar of Korean literature nor does he consider himself a fanatic or one that is obsessed. At this point I feel his eyes fixing on me in wonder and I feel a confession is in order. Although I question internally if I qualify as an obsessed fanatic? I have not read every Korean to English translated book in print as yet, but I know reading translated literature helps bring me closer to a culture and language that I wish to loose myself in. I explain the latter to Barry and he nods almost relieved to know he is not being interviewed by a Korean literature fanatic. (Well as far as he is concerned, anyway.)

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Pictured – I have the Right to destroy myself: Kim Young-Ha (Translated Chi-Young Kim)

The club unofficially began as a way of Barry getting to meet people. Seven years ago, when he moved to Korea from the Isle of Man to teach English, he was uninterested in the drinking and partying scene that many expatriate teachers immersed themselves in. He wanted to form a deeper connection with people and with books. Having been in book groups/clubs most of his scholarly life, he thought it would be a good idea to start one and use the medium of facebook to reach out to those interested. At the first session, there were 6 members. Back then, people were free to choose what they wanted to read as they met in a coffee shop in Itaewon once a month. Books discussed included Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Teacher Man by Frank McCourt.

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Author Krys Lee, photo by Matt Dourma

At the time Barry vaguely knew the writer Krys Lee, author of the short story collection ‘Drifting House’. Krys is also an assistant professor of creative writing at at Yonsei University. Barry got  in touch with her and asked her to come along to talk about her book. Advertising through facebook, the response received was more with 20 people turning up.

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Shin Dong-Hyuk and Barry pictured at the club event.

Seeing the success of this gathering, Barry wanted to do something similar and explored establishing a relationship through someone he knew that in turn knew the human rights activist Shin Dong-Hyuk. Shin is the subject of a biography, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s remarkable Odyssesy from North Korea to Freedom in the West. Advertising this event via facebook received incredible responses and Barry knew he needed a proper venue as opposed to a coffee shop. He booked the biggest he could find that accommodated 50, but even then, he was turning people away at the door. He decided to pursue these events where he could invite writers to talk about their works to a captive audience. He set about researching expat writers and Korean authors that had been translated into English and has since had Shin Kyoung-Suk, Han Kang, Kim Young-Ha, Gong Ji-Young, Hwang Sun-mi, Han Kang and more recently Bae Suah to name but a few. He has also recently had British novelist  Helen Oyeyemi on as well.

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[10th June 2017]Bae Suah & Barry Welsh at the book club. Photo Credit Timothy Holm

We start talking a little about the logistical challenges of ensuring good interpreters at these events as expats and Koreans make up the audience.  It is vital that good Korean and English are spoken throughout. We also discuss how the events are now made accessible through facebook’s live feature for those who live abroad. I am chiefly thinking of myself in this capacity as well as those dotted around the world.

I ask Barry about his personal discovery of Korean translated literature and find that we both share the book  ‘Three Generations‘ by Yom Sang-Seop (translated by Yu Young nan) as being our Korean translated novel.  However I soon find that he did not make it all the way through as the text was a little laboured. ‘I have the right to destroy myself’ by Kim Young-Ha, translated by Chi-Young Kim,  was his first read novel. It was the title and the cover of a woman falling from the sky, that attracted him to it. The book reflected his personal experience of Seoul that  he was having at the time. Coming from a small Scottish town and transitioning to a large modern city, he was able to relate to the description of a fast paced urban landscape setting of Seoul. Being his first novel, it was only natural that Kim was his first Korean author that he had on the club, Krys Lee aside.

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Writer Cho Chongae pictured at Seoul Bool & Culture Club

We begin exploring other Korean authors that Barry likes and enjoys reading. He directs me to a modernist writer Pyun Hye-Young.  Her book ‘Evening Proposal’ translated by Park Youngsuk and Gloria Cosgrove Smith is a collection of short stories, that have been recently published by Dalkey  Archive. He particularly likes one of her stories ‘Mallow Gardens’ Translated by Cindy Chen, a short story that is set in a a post apocalyptic future, where there are people living in an apartment block become corrupted and their bodies turn into frogs. Just nasty stories apparently. I am intrigued and am already highlighting her as an author I must read as soon as possible. He also speaks of Park Min Gyu, because of the oddities of his stories and Cho Chongnae’s ‘How in Heaven’s name’ Translated by husband and wife team, Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton.

I ask him if there is anyone he is rather keen to get to come along to the club and he talks of a graphic novel translated into English  titled, ‘Uncomfortably Happily’ by Yeon-Sik Hong. Barry said it would be a first for Manhwa if he could get the author to come along.

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Kim Young-Ha at the London Book Fair 2014

I know Barry is not a translator but he knows Korean enough to get by (much more than me as I heard him order the coffees.) I ask him about the challenges in translating works from Korean and staying true to the thinking and  sentiment including cultural differences. Being an avid reader of all kinds of genre, he answers me having just read ‘Mr Fox’ by Helen Oyeyemi’s whose book is packed full of meaning as it references fairy tales and folk tales that English readers would immediately understand. He says that some of its essence would be lost if translating to another language and he believes the same happens when translating Korean to English. I am reminded of Kim Youngha’s response to being translated when he was interviewed at the London Book Fair in 2014 by Krys Lee. He likens seeing a translated book to an ex-girlfriend holding a child and you are not entirely sure is yours or not. Kim believes that once a work is translated, it enters the culture of the language that it is translated into and as the original author it no longer belongs to him.

 Not that I am any authority on translation, but it can be challenging to convey the inherent meaning whilst keeping the tone, rhythm and structure in another language.
It is however thanks to the incredible cadre of  talented translators out there that I am even sitting where I am in the coffee shop talking to Barry about literature. They strive passionately  to bring us English speakers closer to the world of Korean literature and I am unable to thank them enough. If it wasn’t for them, Barry and myself would just be talking about coffee and Marks and Spencer (A British Multinational retailer). Not that our conversation would have been boring but perhaps  one that I could not use for a blog post.

A big thank you to Barry Welsh for the interview and the coffee!

Photo Credits:  Seoul Book Culture Club, Timothy Holm, Matt Dourma, Korea.Net, & DiMi

If you are living in Seoul and want to see up and coming events via the Seoul Book and Culture Club. Click here

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