Hindi, Korean & Malayalam: Interview with Agnel Joseph

At ITA, the latest crop of mentees were announced for the Writers Centre Norwich's annual literary translation mentorships. In the second of our series of interviews with the recepients, our publisher, Deborah Smith interviewed up and coming translation star Agnel Joseph.

What's your connection to the language you'll be translating from? Are there any other languages you know, or have even tried translating from? 

I just had my first Skype session with Jason (a fellow translator) and he put it beautifully: We’re two guys who have no business speaking the languages we do. Hindi for him and Korean for me. You see, I translate mainly from Korean. Now, thanks to the mentorship offered by the Writers’ Centre Norwich, I get to dip my toe in the waters of Hindi literature.

I was born and raised in New Delhi in North India, the centre of the Hindi heartland so to speak. My parents hail from the southern state of Kerala at the opposite end of India so their mother tongue is Malayalam. Growing up, I navigated quite naturally between Hindi, Malayalam, and English. To add to this sweet mess, I ended up learning Korean in college. So there you have it: I speak four languages. Well, three and a half really, because while I can converse in Malayalam, I can’t read or write in it. As for Hindi, we’ve had a turbulent relationship. It was my weakest subject in school. I still can’t count beyond 50, and still confuse grammatical genders. Thankfully, I have no problems counting in English and I don’t have to deal with the pesky problem of genders. Whew!

 What's the appeal of literary translation, and how did you fall into it? What's your path been like so far? 

You know, that feeling you get after you successfully fit all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or solve a difficult mathematical equation. Translating literature gave me that same high. So, initially, it was all about this very personal pleasure. I received a fellowship from the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea) to attend their Translation Academy where I could get some grounding in the mechanics of literary translation. I still didn’t think anybody would ever want to read my translations. Then, in 2013, I won the LTI Korea Award for Aspiring Translators and The Korea Times’ Modern Korean Literature Translation Award. I guess that gave me a much needed push and I began to translate in earnest. I’m working on my first full-length book: Park Min-gyu’s omnibus collection Double. 


 Do you have a favourite Hindi author whose work you'd love to translate? What kind of writing appeals to you? As well as your aesthetic preferences, are there any other issues - gender, social class etc - that would make you keen to translate a particular author?

One of the reasons I applied for the mentorship was to improve my knowledge of the contemporary Hindi literature scene with which I’m not well versed. When I saw that Jason was the mentor for Hindi, I knew I had to grab this opportunity because I had recently read his translation of Uday Prakash’s short story collection The Walls of Delhi and was blown away. Jason has already sent me a couple of links where I can check out stories by different writers. We plan to translate around half a dozen stories during the mentorship. I have to pick my first story within the next week. (No pressure!) I don’t have any preconceived notions of what I want to translate. I’m definitely interested in issues like gender, caste, LGBT, social class and so on, but I want the writing to speak to me, to excite me in some way. Even better if it is something I haven’t come across in English or Korean before! With over 300 million speakers, I should be able to find interesting voices in Hindi literature, shouldn’t I?  

Aside from literary translation, what do you do?

Are you asking me how I make my living? (Because surely literary translation can’t be it, right?) Well, I work as a translator-slash-editor-slash-program-officer at LTI Korea (ltikorea.org). I’m part of a new venture where we are trying to set up two-way translation and publication projects between Korea and countries where Korean literature hasn’t been introduced. I also edit the Korean Literature Now magazine (koreanliteraturenow.com). 

Rising talent Agnel Joseph

Rising talent Agnel Joseph

Agnel Joseph translates Korean and, more recently, Hindi literature. He won the LTI Korea Award for Aspiring Translators and The Korea Times’ Modern Korean Literature Translation Award in 2013. He works as a program officer at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea and edits the Korean Literature Now magazine. He is currently translating Park Min-gyu’s omnibus collection, Double. He tweets as @AngelMisspelled.