Korea: Translating The Tweets Of Novelist Lee Oisoo


Lee Oisoo (Twitter profile photo)

Lee Oisoo is a Korean novelist and artist who has been described as “an eccentric, a genius and a lunatic“. Even though he was named Korea's most popular novelist in a recent poll (he is especially popular with young readers), he is little known outside of his country because his work has not been translated into other languages. Writing since 1972, Lee Oisoo is recognised not only for his novels and essays, but for his work on radio and television, and online. When he set up a Twitter account last year he quickly amassed thousands of followers. Now his tweets are being translated into English in order to reach a wider audience. But how did a Bahraini blogger get involved?

Lee Oisoo's translated tweets are being posted on a blog. This tweet introduced the novelist:

소설가 이외수입니다. 대한민국 강원도 화천에 서식하고 있습니다. 세상이 개떡 같다는 생각이 들거나 인생이 눈물겹다는 생각이 들거나 사람이 못 견디게 그립다는 생각이 들면 로긴하겠습니다. 모기가 정력에 좋다는 설이 있습니다. 소문내서 멸종시킵시다.

I am Korean novelist Lee Oisoo. I live in Gamseong Maul in Hwacheon, South Korea. Gamseong Maul actually means ‘Village of Feeling’ in Korean. This place makes one aware of one’s own drowsiness.
I will log on twitter whenever I am displeased with society, whenever I am moved to tears in my life, or whenever I strongly miss human beings.
According to a report from an unknown source, eating mosquitos improves people’s sexual capacities. Let’s spread this rumor and exterminate a species!

One of the translators of the tweets is Hasan Hujairi, a Bahraini blogger and musician who lived in Japan for a number of years. In an interview with Global Voices, he explains how the project started:

How did you get involved in this project? Who had the idea of translating these tweets?

While I was in Japan, I had much access to East Asian culture and arts. One of the friends I made in Japan, Ohsoon Yun from Korea, personally knew Oisoo for years. I became interested in the works of Oisoo through Ohsoon's descriptions and was disappointed to find that his works are not easily accessible to non-Korean speakers. Once I arrived in Bahrain after spending four years in Japan, I was informed by Ohsoon that Oisoo just launched his own Twitter account.

In regards to the idea of translating Oisoo's “tweets”, Ohsoon had mentioned to my surprise that Oisoo, though being famous inside of Korea and especially among youths, is relatively unknown to the outside world. We had discussed on several occasions the idea of making both Korean and Arabic literature more accessible to the rest of the world by translating different works and making them accessible through open mediums such as the Internet. When we heard of Oisoo's Twitter activities, we jumped into the translation project immediately!

How does the translation process work? Do the participants work on the tweets individually or as a group?

The translation process is certainly a team effort. There are three people involved in the translation process: Hasan Hujairi, Ohsoon Yun, and Hyoseon Eo. When Oisoo posts his tweets, Ohsoon would read his writings carefully, as she has an extensive knowledge of his works and also regularly contacts him with any questions she may have on his writings via email. She then produces a literal translation of the tweets as a rough draft for us to discuss and develop at a later stage. Once I am provided by Ohsoon with the new rough translations, we'd discuss them and explain how to present it in a style that comes close to capturing the voices used by Oisoo in his writings. We also discuss, when necessary, whether any footnotes on Korean culture or linguistics need to be made. Discussions are held online via video chat and/or email correspondences. Once we agree on the most suitable translation, we upload it to the website.

The process is relatively flexible and doesn't terminate at the time the translations are uploaded online. We look at comments left by some readers and see how they react to our translations. In some cases, readers suggest changes and we discuss such suggestions carefully to see whether those changes need to be introduced to our translations.

I must also add that a key member to this project is Hyoseon Eo, who is the technician of the group. He is the one who helps us out with any technical issues and suggested that Oisoo's translations should be presented through Tumblr.com in a way that isn't typical to how most would use the service to get around Twitter's limit of 140 characters per tweet.

As the process suggests, the bulk of the work happens by interaction through the Internet. Lee Oisoo and Hyoseon Eo live in different parts of Korea, Ohsoon Yun lives in Tokyo, and I am currently based in the UK. I have personally never met Lee Oisoo or Hyoseon Eo, and yet we are managing to see this project through. Despite the physical distance between everyone involved in this project and despite the difference in time, the project is still underway thanks to today's technology and means of communication.

시적인 포스팅에는 비교적 리트윗이 달리지 않는 편이다. 현저하다. 그러니까 여기서는 문화의 비경제적 부산물인 시가 확실하게 왕따를 당하고 있음이 분명하다.

Poetic postings on Twitter do not garner many RTs (Retweets). It is notable. Therefore, it is clear that poetry – an uneconomic cultural by-product – is most definitely bullied on Twitter.

Has Lee Oisoo been using Twitter for long? Does he read your translations?

Oisoo started using Twitter in June 2009, but prior to that he used a Korean social-network service (SNS) called PlayTalk (similar to Twitter) between 2007 and the time he switched to Twitter. Incidentally, Oisoo is also known to have a very interesting approach to using the Internet in order to connect with readers. He launched his website back in 1998 and one of the key features of this site – along with his writings and illustrations – is the forum he maintains (and very often participates in), using it as a direct line of communication with thousands of readers. He is also known to use computers to make digital music and art at times, making him an artist with a contemporary approach to things. It may come as a surprise that Oisoo is in his 60s right now, yet knows how to communicate well with youth through modern ways. He also has a reputation of knowing how to talk to youth using their own terminology (he even knows how to use web emoticons effectively to the point in which he created his own unique emoticons and Internet-based expressions that are commonly used by Korean Internet users today!). This can only suggest that the Internet can be a very powerful and effective tool for artists both for communicating directly with their audiences and for in a sense using it to create art.

In regards to whether or not Oisoo himself reads our translations and gives us feedback, I must say that Oisoo has been very supportive of this translation project. He does not personally give us feedback on his opinions as he does not know English, but his apprentices and friends directly report to him about the translations that are uploaded and what they think of them. As I mentioned earlier, Oisoo is very accessible and he always replies to any questions we may have about the meanings of his writings. I can't stress enough the fact that communication is seamless through the Internet is key to this project.

What comes next, as far as this project is concerned?

We intend to translate these messages until Oisoo stops using Twitter. A major publishing company which publishes all of Oisoo's works intends to publish Oisoo's tweets in a book. In March 2008, a book containing selected writings he posted on PlayTalk was published and is said to have sold over 500,000 copies in its first year in Korea. In a sense, this type of project is not Oisoo's first, but a work that also contains his translations within the same work is a new development. We hope that if this publication gains much attention, we will work on translating some of his novels that had a huge impact on modern Korean culture. We hope that this movement encourages people to find way to promote Korean literature and art as it remains relatively inaccessible to non-Korean speakers. If this could spur similar projects and collaborations with other artists (maybe even from places outside of Korea), I think that this would be a success in its own right. I would also like to translate some of his works into Arabic after seeing the reception we receive from the English translations.

30년 이상을 글밥만 먹고 살았는데도 국수틀에서 국수가닥 뽑아내듯이 글을 뽑아낼 수는 없습니다. 140자밖에 안 되는 단문을 올리는 데도 장인정신이 필요합니다.

Although I have been eating text-rice for over thirty years, I still cannot produce writings as a noodle machine does noodles. Even uploading a 140-character message on twitter needs an artisan’s spirit.


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.