LIFE

IN LOVE WITH KOREA A Diplomat-turned-Translator Takes Korean Literature to France

Jean-Noël Juttet has enjoyed reading ever since he was a child. His love of literature led him to earn a doctorate of arts at Lumière University Lyon 2 and eventually to lead the life of a career diplomat, spreading French culture to other countries. Currently, he is introducing Korean literature to his native France and the rest of the world.

Jean-Noël Juttet has helped to make Korean literary works known around the world by translating them into French. He says he was attracted by the passion, openness and generosity of the Korean people.


In 1991, Jean-Noël Juttet, the cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Seoul, was about to leave Korea after wrapping up six years of service here. However, Juttet had come to love his host country, its literary works and its people, one woman in particular. He felt it sad, even “cruel,” to say goodbye to all of them, so he chose to remain in Korea — for good. This is how one of the most successful translating duos in the country came into being.
“Am I really in love with Korea, you mean? Yes, of course. If not, why should I be leading my post-retirement life here instead of a quiet and peaceful seaside village in France?” Juttet asks back.
To keep up with Korea and his Korean friends, Juttet continues to read Korean literary works, and to translate and introduce them to his country of origin. His encounter with Choi Mi-kyung, his lifetime partner in work and life, was no doubt a decisive factor.

Three Major Attractions
Juttet said three traits of the Korean people drew him to this country.
First, Koreans have passion. “Koreans work very hard and think positively about their work,” the veteran diplomat says. “This comes in stark contrast to French people, who are rather passive at work and afraid of increasing their workload.”
Second, Koreans are frank. “Koreans open their minds to foreigners rather easily. This is clear when compared with Japanese people, who are very kind but careful and closed,” Juttet says.
Third, Koreans are generous. “For example, French people are either misers or savers, slow in opening their purses when dining out with others,” he says. “In Korea, however, people compete to pay. Sometimes, someone else had already paid for the meal before I even realize it.”
But as a long-term resident in Korea, Juttet is not without some advice. “It is something of which I was not aware during my service here as a diplomat, because back then, most people I met were educated and cultured,” he says. “As I have lived here for an extended period of time, however, I can notice some inconveniences and most outstanding are the ‘violent elements’ in social relationships.”
Juttet cited Koreans’ “driving culture” as an example. “People who drive large, imported vehicles, such as BMW, Porsche or Maserati, often ignore traffic signals even on pedestrian-first streets, probably out of a sense of entitlement and in disregard of less privileged people,” he says. “Sadder still, even ordinary citizens tend to look down on people who are in lower income brackets.”

From Diplomat to Translator
There are many axioms about translation. “Translators are traitors,” an Italian proverb says. For an avid and extensive reader and editor, however, translation is a valuable job that turns national literature into world literature — or simply literature for everyone.
“It is a challenging and exacting job,” Juttet says. “We must agonize over how to give life to the beautiful sentences of the original writers by finding equivalent expressions in another language. In this process, translators can’t help but explore their own writing ability, feeling the joy of creation in the course of forging new sentences.”
As Juttet sees it, translation is not just about conveying lexical meaning but making the most of the translator’s writing expertise to produce the best possible sentences in another language, and eventually savoring the reward of hard work.
Another time-old topic in the world of translation, and literary translation in particular, is whether translators should know their native language or the language they translate into better. The Juttet-Choi duo presents a “third way” in this regard. Strictly speaking, Juttet is more a reviser or supervisor than a translator.
“Mi-kyung selects the original books, translates them and sends them to me, and I rewrite them in more refined French. I feel boundless joy when I turn th
e wonderful writings of Korean authors into beautiful French,” Juttet says. One might wonder whether this format, which could be likened to a three-legged race, is competitive enough. “This sort of operation is not easy, of course, but has its advantages,” Juttet explains. “By combining the abilities of the two of us, we can achieve synergy. As we can grasp the meaning of the original texts with the sensibility of two individuals, what was understood by Mi-kyung, who is a native Korean speaker, can be reimaged and reinterpreted by a Frenchman in his native language.” Indeed, this could be a topic at many academic conferences, he adds.
The duo’s efficiency has been well proven. In 2011, Choi and Juttet received the Grand Prize at the 10th Korean Literature Translation Awards, a biennial competition organized by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, for their 2009 work, “Shim Chong, fille vendue,” a French edition of “Shim Cheong,” written by renowned author Hwang Sok-yong.
In 2000, “The Reverse Side of Life,” a novel written by Lee Seung-u and translated by Choi and Juttet, was a finalist in the foreign literature category of the French literary prize, Prix Femina. “The Private Lives of Plants,” another work by Lee, who is better recognized in France than in Korea, became the first Korean novel in the Folio collection of Éditions Gallimard, famous for publishing literary masterpieces by the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway and André Gide.

“Before, most French people thought of Korea as a faraway country in Southeast Asia or something like that. Now, they know much more about Korea and their interest in this country is growing rapidly, as shown by an increasing number of young French people who learn the Korean language.”

Literary works translated by Jean-Noël Juttet, former cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Seoul, and his wife, Choi Mi-kyung, professor at Ewha Womans University’s Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation. Choi first translates the works and Juttet revises and rewrites her translations.

Prizes are the Result, Not the Goal
Awards have seldom been the objective of these co-translators, though. “Needless to say, it would be good if we happen to receive awards for choosing good books and translating them well,” Juttet says. “However, our goal is to translate as many literary works of excellent quality as possible. Prizes are mainly related to vanity, and require lots of good luck.”
“Not all works that received awards are good while those which did not get any prizes are not necessarily bad,” he says. The Nobel Prize in Literature, he believes, is no exception.
“It would be great if famous Korean writers, such as Hwang Sok-yong or Lee Seung-u, received the prize,” says Juttet. But he is doubtful that the Nobel Prize is such a significant award, noting that some winners have been entirely forgotten afterward. He also takes note of the considerable inequality inflicting writers from different language groups or areas. “There are numerous writers from the English, Spanish, French and Chinese language areas, but Korea is a small country which has emerged on the cultural scene only in recent years,” he says.
A similar sort of disparity exists even among major language groups. “For instance, French publishers tend to feel novels from Anglo-American areas are more important than they actually are,” he adds. This explains why Juttet thinks it necessary to translate far more Korean literary works than exist now, and to encourage young translators to do likewise. “The more Korean books we can find at the Asian or Korean corners in bookstores around the world, the closer Korea will move to the Nobel Prize,” he says.

Stay-at-Home Couple
Juttet spends most of his evenings and weekends revising translations by Choi. He also teaches aspiring translators, including French students who have received scholarships from the Korean government, at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea for about seven hours a week.“The other big part of my life is taking care of our household,” Juttet says. “As Mi-kyung is busy teaching at Ewha Womans University and working as an interpreter at international conferences, I do most of the housework, like cleaning, grocery shopping, taking care of pets and gardening. My life composed of these two roles — official and unofficial — is a quiet and satisfactory one.”
One of the good things about this quiet life is that he has lots of time for reading, says Choi. Both being stay-at-home types, Juttet and Choi do not meet many people, Korean or French, outside of their work circles. Instead, these long-time residents of Seongbuk-dong, an old quarter of the capital, exchange greetings with their neighbors while taking a walk around their home or to the nearby mountain.
Juttet’s spoken Korean remains quite limited. Asked why, he says, “I tried to learn Korean when I first arrived in Korea, but soon realized I didn’t need to. There were too many Koreans around me who spoke French very excellently.”As a person who has long played the role of a cultural and literary bridge between Korea and France, Juttet finds recent developments between the two countries both rewarding and encouraging.
“Before, most French people thought of Korea as a faraway country in Southeast Asia or something like that,” he says. “Now, they know much more about Korea and their interest in this country is growing rapidly, as shown by an increasing number of young French people who learn the Korean language.”
Juttet goes on, “I marvel at and am envious of the Korean-speaking ability of French students in my classes, a phenomenon that I expect will grow increasingly more visible in the years to come.”

Choi Sung-jin Executive Editor, Korea Biomedical Review
Shim Byung-woo Photographer

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