Collective Conversations: An Interview with the Smoking Tigers

Literary translation can be lonely work. Translators mostly work alone, often as freelancers without the benefit of institutional support or the company of co-workers. To combat this isolation, literary translators have begun coming together to form collectives. These take a variety of forms, serving different needs from professional advancement to building community. In a new monthly series, we present a series of interviews showcasing some of these organizations, with one collective interviewing another. First up is a focus on the Smoking Tigers, with Cedilla & Co. interviewing.

Smoking Tigers

Left to right: Sung Ryu, Slin Jung, Joosun Lee, Sora Kim-Russell, Anton Hur

Who are you?

We are a complaint of literary translators working from Korean to English. We exchange manuscripts and information, promote our work together, and run a translation workshop in Seoul. There are fifteen of us. Most of us have known each other for years and were already working together in editing and workshops but decided to become a collective in 2017. Our name comes from Korea’s phrase for “Once upon a time,” which goes, “Long, long ago, back when tigers used to smoke…”

Where are your members based, and how often do you meet in the real world? What other means of communication do you use to stay in touch?

About half of us are in Seoul, with other members in Toronto, New York, Singapore, and Iowa City. The Tigers in Seoul run into each other frequently and others often fly in for conferences and things. Mostly we use Facebook groups to keep in touch, and many of us are on Twitter. As translators we’re used to emails, calculating time zones, managing social media, working from the Cloud, and are terrified of speaking on the phone, so we keep in touch mostly through written communication.

How did you find each other, and how did you first become a collective?

Half of us met at Sora Kim-Russell’s translation workshop in Seoul, and the other half joined us at the 2017 British Centre for Literary Translation summer school. The UK translators collective Starling Bureau came to give a talk that year, and one of our members Sophie Bowman suggested we do something similar and everyone who was queried immediately came aboard.

Are you accepting new members? What would your ideal size be?

We have no procedure for accepting new members at this time. We love hearing about other amazing translators from Korean and other languages, but we’re basically a group of old colleagues. That’s the thing about us that might not be obvious from the outside, that we were very used to working with each other long before we formalized our collective. So we might make new friends, but we’re not actively searching for new members. Plus most of the people who’ve inquired are still students, and we just don’t have the capacity right now to guide emerging literary translators, and there are other programs in place to guide and fund this particular subgroup, like LTI Korea.

Given that you all translate from the same language, does it ever get competitive? How does working from the same language affect what you do?

Korean literature, which is a veritable treasure trove of compelling material, is not stylistically monolithic by any means, so it’s unlikely that we find ourselves wanting to work on the same thing. Our own styles and tastes are not monolithic either and we’re a pretty diverse group, so we’re not tripping over each other trying to get the rights to things. If anything, because the collective keeps in touch with who is working on what, even with translators outside of Smoking Tigers, being in a group of the same language pairing gives us at any given time a pretty good picture of which rights are taken and which aren’t. This helps us to not step on each other’s toes and also inspires us to have a go at more things, submit to magazines, search for writers and works that no one else is working on, and find gems.

Is it your sense that the Man Booker award for The Vegetarian has made English-language publishing more receptive to Korean literature in translation, or do some of the usual challenges still stand? What are the particular challenges faced by Korean literary translators?

Man Booker International-winner (and Smoking Tigers member) Deborah Smith herself has pointed out that African and Asian literature in translation tends to be viewed through an anthropological lens, that such works are not treated like works of art but anecdotal travel brochures informing a Western readership about what life is like in these foreign places. While Deborah dislikes taking credit for literally anything and she would never say this herself, the Booker win for Han Kang’s The Vegetarian went a long way to change this perception in the public discourse. We see more focus given to the artistry and language in translations, more discussions around what it is about language, and not statistical word-to-word correlation, that makes a good translation. Books from the African continent have it even worse than we do in terms of being Othered, and while the subject of prizes like the Man Booker International or the Nobel remains controversial, there is no doubt that these types of recognition do have positive effects on issues that perhaps French, German, or Italian translations don’t have to contend with as much.

Was there a moment or an event when you realized “this could have only happened because of Smoking Tigers”?

There are many such moments! Really we consult each other more for networking and negotiating deals and getting grants than we do, say, asking each other how to translate what Korean word into English. A lot of what we do is hard to quantify and involves more than us to go forward, but being in the collective makes it easier to make informed decisions in the business of our craft.

What are some of the books you’ve been most excited to promote through the collective?

We love all of our books but are especially excited to have made our first direct sale from Smoking Tigers—the deal is still being negotiated and we can’t say anything yet. Everything we work on from Smoking Tigers is passion projects, ranging from award-winning short story collections like GKL Korean Literary Translation Award first-prize winner Shoko’s Smile to YA works like International Date Line. But we’ll promote any book a Smoking Tiger translated. This has been a point of confusion for some people who expect us to be some kind of free PR company for all of Korean literature, but we promote only the works we feel strongly about so that readers and the industry will trust the work we put out.

What would success look like for you? Might there come a point when the collective has achieved its objectives and no longer needs to exist, or is it an ongoing project?

First and foremost, we exist to help publishers and agents find great Korean translations to publish. Our idea of success is to help the work connect with a publisher who is as excited about the work and help it find an audience beyond the confines of the Korean language. This is necessarily an ongoing project as we’re always discovering new work that we want to bring out into the world. Korean writers are very productive and have so much to offer that we’ll never be able to keep up with them!

What are your favorite kinds of tigers?

Sadly, the Korean tiger was hunted to extinction by the Japanese during the colonial occupation. But the spirit of the Korean tiger lives on in the peninsula and in the name of our collective. So I guess a bunch of ghost tigers are our favorite kind?

What advice would you have for other translators looking to form a collective?

Work with each other before working with each other. The ability to work together—manage expectations, respect boundaries and confidentiality, respect other people’s time—is a separate set of skills that have nothing to do with how fabulously bilingual you are and how easily you can change Korean words into English. Also, if you’re making a website, you can save a lot of money if one of you happens to be really good at WordPress.


More information about the Smoking Tigers can be found on their website, and you can connect with them on Facebook and Twitter

Questions by Cedilla & Co., a (mostly) New York-based collective of literary translators committed to the belief that translators are a living bridge, connecting countries and cultures around the world. Find out more about Cedilla & Co. on their website.

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