Lessons from a Translator in Residence

07/09/2024 09:55 | Brianna Salinas (Administrator)

by Tim Gregory

Prolific and bestselling Korean-English literary translator Anton Hur was the first guest of the University of Washington Translation Studies Hub’s Translator-in-Residence series, thanks to a generous gift from Lee Scheingold and the ongoing support of the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the UW. Hur led three public events during his visit to Seattle:

  • first, a lecture titled “Translator Jetlag: Voice and the World We Build,” 
  • second, a literary translation masterclass at Seattle Central University,
  • and third, a workshop titled “How Books are Born: The Art of Pitching Translations.” 

To wrap up his visit to our region, Anton Hur also attended a reception and Q&A hosted by NOTIS and the Northwest Literary Translators at Folio (a favorite venue of ours, tucked away in Downtown Seattle’s Pike Place Market).

Each event was enthusiastically attended by students, faculty, and members of NOTIS and the Northwest Literary Translators, and Anton Hur freely shared his experiences and knowledge he has gained as he has shifted from earning a living as a full-time freelance translator and interpreter to a full-time translator of Korean literature.


In the first lecture, Hur compared the act of translation to the fog of being stuck in the “in-between” during periods of jetlag, contrasting this with the very different experience of a reader—the author’s intended audience. Anton explained that the author generally eases the reader into the story, giving them time to adjust to the world as they read and find their way to familiarity with the narrator, characters, texture, and style. If any disorientation arises, it is usually intentional. For a reader, finding their way into the story is like riding a slow ocean liner from Asia or Europe to America—with plenty of time to acclimate to the shifting time zones.

Translators, he said, “cross that ocean on the god-damned Concorde!” After a supersonic flight, translators are parachuted into this new text, expected to carry on as though we had not just crossed an ocean in less than four hours—and then, when our feet hit the ground, we are expected to sound like we have lived in that new world our entire lives.

The jetlag a translator experiences when beginning a new text is a third space, a gap between the source language’s literature and that of the target language, but the hard part is when we start out: “It is the part where you have to peel off your skin, take a new one out of the package, and then stuff yourself into it that is hard.” Your immune system will kick up a fuss, but adjusting to this new skin lets you, the translator, feel like you have become the narrator.


On the issue of voice in translation, Hur encouraged translators to read and engage with their languages in books written in a diverse array of styles because you never know when a specific voice you’ve read or heard will suit a project.

Anton Hur said that his personal preference for translation is to stay as true to the source as possible, arguing that “the binary between accuracy and beauty is concocted by nerds who always need rubrics and the approval of authorities to create works of art.” And on the other great dichotomy of literary translation—whether it is a talent or a learned skill—Hur came down more on the side of learned skill. He said that to be a great writer or translator, you must understand the source materials and your own work at the critical level, and literary criticism can only ever be taught.


Prior to the lecture, attendees were encouraged to read Anton Hur’s blog post on pitching literary translation and to review a sample cover letter he has shared on his website. I would also encourage you to review these excellent resources!

One of the first points Anton Hur made was to remind those in attendance that, no matter how much we love them, the books we want to translate (or that we have translated) are “properties” and “assets.” Translators must make a living.

In pitching, Anton Hur called to mind that one friend we all have who has fallen head-over-heels for a certain book or TV series and will gush for hours about it if we let them, leaving you wanting to rush home to read or watch it for yourself. When pitching a book, the translator must become that friend. We must convince publishers that the book we are trying to sell is the very best book, share those things that make the book special, that make it interesting, and, especially, that will make it sell.

In writing a pitch, we cannot hold back spoilers. A full synopsis of the story, the unexpected twists and turns, and the surprise ending should all be included. He encouraged us to make the synopsis fun to read and entertaining in its own right—but all in under two full pages. This synopsis should be in the body of the email you send, not an attachment; editors are unlikely to open attachments without the incentive of a good cover letter and synopsis. If you do include an attachment, that is a good place to put a translation sample.

He used car sales as an analogy for selling translated books. If the publisher knows both languages, this is like being able to go to a car dealership and take the car for a drive—they can read the book for themselves. A publisher has hundreds of cars coming in every week that they can go test drive, but when a book comes in where they do not have direct access to the source language, they are now in a position where they are asked to buy a car without touching it, much less driving it. They have to trust you, the translator, completely. This leaves us translators in a position where we must become the greatest salespeople in the world.

If an editor or buyer is interested, he told us, we have to help that person become the next greatest salesperson by providing them with nuggets they can share: like awards the author has won in their own language, notable source language reviews (which you will likely have to translate for free), or reviews in other languages (if it has been translated before). If the author has given a particularly good interview, it may help to translate it or portions of it.

Another sales point Anton Hur brought up was about classification or category; often the general category is unhelpful in a pitch. He said that “Arabic Feminist Fiction” may be important, and it should be read by more people, but, if you want a publisher to invest $20,000 in bringing a book to print, you need to give them the hook: what is it about the book that will make people really want to read it?


When it comes to getting into the publishing community, Anton Hur said to keep yourself open to new friendships and connections at book fairs, awards ceremonies, and conferences. Despite the reputation of literary translators as introverts, which Hur acknowledged as a useful trait when it comes to getting the work done, valuable opportunities can be created by pushing yourself to code-switch into extroversion and to get over any aversion you have to reaching out to talk to someone who may benefit you or have advice on something you have come across.

Near the end of the seminar, Anton Hur stood up from his seat to be sure we were all paying attention to this statement:

“We as translators, we hold so much power, but we are constantly gaslit into thinking that we are the least important, the lowest people in this room. That is so not the case. We hold everyone’s careers in our hands. Even our authors; we are more important than our authors! You are there because your author cannot market their work in your target language. You can. You are the source of everyone making money and literary prestige. Without you, nothing happens.”


The final event of Anton Hur’s residency in Seattle was the NOTIS Northwest Literary Translators reception at Folio. Those attending were a mix of people who had attended the other events, Folio members, and members of NOTIS and the Northwest Literary Translators. This provided a much more personal venue and allowed for a less structured Q&A with Anton. The Northwest Literary Translators gave Anton a collection of books translated by members in gratitude for spending time with us.

There are other articles about Anton Hur’s visit, each of them well worth reading: 

NOTIS and the Northwest Literary Translators were actively involved in and present for each event during this first UW translator residency, and we look forward to continuing to work with the Translation Studies Hub for their Translator-in-Residence series and other events of interest to us all.

Image captions, top to bottom:

  1. Anton Hur poses at Folio with a gift bag and several books translated by members of the NW Literary Translators — tokens of their gratitude. Photo by Sasha Senderovich. 
  2. A selfie of/by Anton Hur at the entrance to Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum.
  3. UW Translation’s Sasha Senderovich and Anton Hur toast to a successful event series, with the Seattle skyline in the background.
  4. Hur compares literary translation to jetlag at a University of Washington lecture organized by the UW Translation Studies Hub. Photo by Sasha Senderovich.  
  5. Hur gives a Literary Translation Masterclass to the students of Takami Nieda’s translation course at Seattle Central College; NOTIS members join in. Photo by Sasha Senderovich. 
  6. At the Translator’s Reception and Q&A at Folio, Hur poses with Shelley Fairweather-Vega (past NOTIS President and NW Literary Translator), Sasha Senderovich (co-lead of the UW Translation Studies Hub, UW Professor of Slavic Languages & Literatures), and Lillian Dabney (Folio Seattle Librarian). Photo by Takami Nieda.
  7. Hur snaps a satisfied selfie and posts it to social media with the caption “NOTIS got Ethiopian food for my last event!!!” 

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