From K-pop Fan to Translator: In Conversation with Shanna Tan

Shanna Tan discusses Korean healing fiction, the translation scene in Singapore, and the dream of starting her own bookstore.

In 2023, Singaporean translator Shanna Tan debuted with a translation of the Korean bestseller Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop by Hwang Bo-reum. The slice-of-life novel follows Yeongju, who suffers from burnout and quits her high-flying career to open a bookshop. AAA’s Associate Editor Koel Chu speaks with Shanna about the beginning of her literary translation journey, how she translates, and her take on the growing popularity of K-healing fiction. This conversation is part of Afterlives, a series exploring the politics of translation.



Koel Chu (KC): How did you become a translator of literary fiction?

Shanna Tan (ST): I started studying Korean on my own when I was eighteen. One of my earliest memories of translating was when I translated a Korean post about G-Dragon on Me2Day (a now defunct social media platform) into English. I derive a lot of joy from sharing things I love with a wider audience. It was then that I began to think about translation. I used to gravitate towards the source edition of books in the languages I could read in, but it was Anton Hur’s stirring and beautiful translation of The Court Dancer by Kyung-sook Shin that made me take notice of translated fiction. When I learned Anton was the Korean mentor for an emerging translator mentorship programme, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. He taught me so much—from the craft of translation to the business side of the industry, and he was so generous in linking me up with publishers whenever there was an opportunity. For that, I am and will always be very grateful. In retrospect, as a Singaporean who has spent my entire life in the country, I may not fit the stereotypical profile of a Korean-English translator, all I had was blind faith in myself.


KC: How do you usually approach translation? What is your process like?

ST: Even when I’m doing a sample translation, I usually read the novel cover-to-cover because I can’t resist the desire to know the entire story. It’s crucial for me to get a sense of the vibes, voices, and the mood—the most important parts of a book to me. I know of translators who start their first draft right away but that’s not for me because I have an obsessive need to see the big picture. My first draft is usually very messy, leaving in untranslated sentences or phrases, as well as several alternatives I can immediately think of. The idea is to be relatively fast and to have something to work from. I’m a Singaporean, so I have no qualms of putting in Singlish in my first draft. It helps me nail down the meaning for some phrases very quickly, but of course, I edit those out in subsequent drafts.

I’m very inspired and comforted by Daniel Hahn’s translation diary Catching Fire, where he talks about his translation process. He shows us bits of his draft, the translation conundrums, and the multiple editing rounds to polish the text. Reading the book gives me reassurance I’m doing okay. We’re humans. We don’t magically come up with beautiful sentences right from the start. A lot of the work is editing and refining the sentences as we go through multiple drafts. I’d recommend that book to all aspiring and practising translators.


Image: Shanna Tan's language learning notes. Courtesy of Shanna Tan.


KC: How did you come to discover Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop in the first place?

ST: It was already a huge word-of-mouth bestseller in Korea so I had plans to read it. One day, Anton Hur introduced me to an editor at Bloomsbury. It turned out that the publisher was also intrigued by the title and wanted to know more. They commissioned me to do a book report and a translation sample. Thankfully, they loved the book and my work, so when they bought the English-language rights, I was asked to translate the book. It was a dream come true because I absolutely love books about bookshops.


KC: How long did it take to translate the book? What are the challenges in bringing it into English?

ST: About six months. I had a brilliant time working on it, and I enjoyed every minute spent in the Hyunam-dong Bookshop with Yeongju, Minjun, and the other characters.

Pacing was something I was conscious of when working on the translation, even at the sentence level. I wanted to recreate the calmness in Bo-reum’s writing. The novel is deliberately slow-paced so you can unwind, savour the time spent in the bookshop, and reflect with the characters along the way. I was very pleased when a reader of Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop describes reading the novel as akin to drinking an iced americano in a cosy café in Seoul.


KC: What was it like working with the book’s author Hwang Bo-reum?

ST: I greatly appreciate authors who give me free rein. It’s extremely important because translation is also a creative pursuit. There should also be trust—trust that the translator loves and cherishes the work as much as the author does, and that they’ll do a good job. Bo-reum was wonderful to work with. Her prose is beautiful and the voices of her characters shine in her writing. It was a joy to translate her work. I did clarify a couple of details with her. For example, the gender of side characters may not be immediately obvious in Korean novels because they can be referred to by their titles throughout the novel, such as sajangnim for a boss or shop owner. But I need to use pronouns in English. It’s interesting to see how my interpretation may coincide with or deviate from what Bo-reum has in mind.

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KC: You commented: “We all need a Hyunam-dong Bookshop in our neighbourhood.” What is Hyunam-dong Bookshop to you?

ST: Like Yeongju in the novel, I think of Hyunam-dong Bookshop as a safe space and a place of community. At the same time, it’s a sanctuary for those who want some time alone. I’ve come across reviews saying that it’s the epitome of an ideal bookshop, and a lot of us—including me—lament that there isn’t such a space in real life. But I think that’s also because many of us don’t visit independent bookshops regularly. Even if we do, we’re too shy to approach the staff or other patrons of the bookshops. I wonder if we’re all secretly waiting for each other to strike up a conversation and to make the first move to create a community.


KC: On that note, if you were to open a bookstore, what would it be like?

ST: I’d love to start a multilingual bookshop that carries fiction in the various languages of Asia, language-learning textbooks, and translated fiction. I even have a name for it: THE LANGUAGE BOOKSHOP. It’d be the perfect intersection of my interests, which include reading, language learning, and translation. I’m a big advocate of learning foreign languages. Over the years, I’ve shared a lot of my own language learning tips and resource recommendations. A bookshop is a perfect complement to that. Like the Hyunam-dong Bookshop, I want to organise a lot of events too, especially multilingual readings and translation workshops. Oh, the dream!


Image: Published translations and originals of Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop. Courtesy of Shanna Tan.


KC: Initially published on a blog platform, Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop has become a hit worldwide, and in South Korea alone, over 200,000 copies have been sold. It was even adapted into an audio drama last year. Why do you think the book has received so much love from readers around the world?

ST: It’s like a warm hug that we all need. Although there are themes related to ultra-competitiveness in Korean society, many of the themes are much broader too—the anxiety of the rat race, definitions of happiness and success, how we view work and capitalist society, the dilemma between pursuing our dreams and a stable career, just to name a few. What I love most about Hyunam-dong is that it gently nudges you to reflect on your own circumstances and to arrive at your answers instead of telling you “This is what you should do!” Personally, reading Hyunam-dong helps soothe my own anxieties about pursuing a path less taken. Also, it’s not only a book about bookshops, but also one that offers a very realistic and detailed introduction to book selling. I’m sure a lot of booklovers will be curious about it.


KC: Many critics have compared the book to I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki, another Korean bestseller that deals with similar themes on mental health. Do you think there’s an interest from Anglophone publishers to translate Korean books on self-care, healing, and work-life balance?

ST: Anglophone publishers are already paying attention to this genre: “K-healing”—uplifting slice-of-life novels, usually set in places like convenience stores, laundromats, cocktail bars, etc. I know a few more of these novels have been picked up and will be forthcoming in English. There's interest to publish more translations dealing with themes like corporate burnout and definitions of “success” and “the good life”, with the appeal of knowing how other cultures and people deal with similar issues. I really enjoy how Korean authors have so deftly blended these themes into their writing by creating an oasis of calm and refuge, so it feels reflective without being overly preachy.


KC: How’s the translation scene in Singapore? Encompassing literature in four languages, how does Singaporean literature—when in translation—stand in the Anglophone literary world?

ST: I’m probably a little better placed to talk about Singapore Chinese literature. It has long been underrepresented both within the realm of Chinese literature, as well as in terms of English translations distributed worldwide (which usually means having a UK or US publisher). The last I checked, Publishers Weekly’s translation database lists only four translated works from Singapore. Among these, three are from a single author and the same publisher, and the only US publication was released more than a decade ago. I’m translating Singaporean Chinese author Wong Koi Tet, an established prize-winning author. Through my translation, I hope to bring his work offshore. I’m very honoured that excerpts have already been published in established US literary journals (The Common, The Southern Review, and The Georgia Review) and I hope to find a US or UK publisher for the full translation.


Image: Shanna Tan. Courtesy of Shanna Tan.


KC: What are you working on these days?

ST: I’m very excited about my upcoming translation of Dakota. It is a witty and sharp blend of literary fiction and autobiography written and illustrated by Singaporean Chinese author Wong Koi Tet, which won the prestigious 2020 Singapore Literature Prize. The book contains vignettes about a bottle of cod liver oil, monitor lizards in a storm drain, spirit-medium rituals, and a coffin in the living room. Dakota is a paean to life in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s that is little known outside the country. It’s forthcoming with City Book Room in Singapore in the first half of 2024, and I’m still looking for a US or UK publisher to bring it to more English readers.

I’m also working on two Korean novels. One is Marigold Mind Laundry by Jungeun Yun, forthcoming with Doubleday UK in October. It’s a cosy magical realism novel about a mysterious laundry service and its enigmatic owner, Jieun, who has the power to erase the biggest pain in one’s heart.


KC: What are your recent favourite translated works?

ST: I really enjoyed People Who Talk to Stuffed Animals are Nice: Stories by Ao Omae, deftly translated by Emily Balistrieri. The stories feature people struggling with their identity, relationships, and societal labels. I read it sometime back, so the details are hazy, but I remembered how it made me feel—to me, that’s the definition of a good book. It’s as if the characters are speaking aloud my innermost thoughts and I was oddly comforted by that. It also reminds me of how in Hyunam-dong, there’s a line that goes: “At a crossroad in life, a forgotten sentence or a story from years ago can come back to offer an invisible hand to guide you to a decision.” I think this is one such book for me.


Shanna Tan is a Singaporean translator working from Korean, Chinese and Japanese into English. She is the translator of the bestselling Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop by Hwang Bo-reum (Bloomsbury, 2023). She is currently working on several book-length projects from Korean and Chinese, including novels and creative non-fiction titles.



Koel CHU, 朱嘉喬


Shanna TAN

Wed, 27 Mar 2024
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