Behind the Scenes of the Translation Process That Brought the BTS Memoir to English-Speaking Fans

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Behind the Scenes of the Translation Process That Brought the BTS Memoir to English-Speaking Fans

It was early spring of 2023 when translator Anton Hur was cold-emailed by Megan Lynch, a senior vice president and publisher at Flatiron Books, about translating a mystery manuscript from its original Korean to English. In the initial pitch, he was only given the broadest of details: The book is non-fiction. It’s around 400 pages. And it has to be translated in a month. “I was like, ‘You, sir, want us to translate a 400-page, non-fiction book? In a month?’” recounts Hur, via Zoom from his home in Seoul. “And then [Lynch] said, ‘Oh, also the book is still being written.’” The email exchange began a furiously fast-paced, highly collaborative translation process that had Hur and co-translators Slin Jung and Clare Richards dropping everything to translate Beyond the Story: 10-Year Record of BTS, an oral history memoir chronicling the first decade of the Korean music group’s culture-shifting career. The book would debut at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list, the first by a Korean author to do so. But, first, it had to be translated.

Putting the Team Together

To put this undertaking into context, it generally takes one-and-a-half to two years for a book to move through the publishing process—and that process usually starts after a manuscript has been completed. Translators, who tend to come in once a book has been published and found success in its original language, traditionally have about four months to translate a book, though Hur says he prefers to have at least six and up to a year. Hur made his translated-novel debut only five years ago, and has since gone on to translate 11 additional books and counting, including the International Booker Prize-nominated titles Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung and Love in the Big City by San Young Park. He regularly shares stories from his translation experience on social media and through interviews, serving as an advocate for the broader literary translation community. 

That being said, the opportunities are still few and far between. Hallyu, a.k.a  the Korean wave, hasn’t hit Korean literature yet. Despite the export success of Korean drama, pop music, food, and beauty around the world, it’s still not common for Korean-language books to be translated into English—only about 13 titles per year. This lack of institutional interest is a reality not just in the Korean-English literary translation world, but across many language pairings—especially for source material that originates from outside of the West. In June, Hur wrote about the current dismal state of Korean-to-English literary translation in an essay for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop: “Getting Anglophone publishing to buy a Korean book is still like trying to draw blood from stone.” Flatiron SVP Lynch, who was in charge of shepherding the English-language edition of Beyond the Story to completion, sees the book as a rare example within the Anglophone publishing world. “BTS and this book are not products of U.S. cultural hegemony, which is part of what made the project so exciting,” she says. “My colleagues and I all realized that in publishing this book we were a part of something much larger.” 

So Hur said yes to the mystery project, but with one caveat: he would need help. He brought on London-based translator Clare Richards. She and Hur had gotten to know each other when they were paired up as part of the National Centre for Writing’s Emerging Translator Mentorship program in 2021, a moment Richards calls “the most important turning point in my career.” Hur calls Richards “a flawless kind of translator,” with a “clear-cut” methodology, explaining: “If Claire says that she can do something, she will do it.” Slin Jung, another superstar in the Korean-English literary translation world, was the third translator to work on the project. (Jung was unavailable for interview.) Hur and Jung both belong to the literary translation collective The Smoking Tigers. When asked to reflect on Jung’s work as a translator, Hur says she is the only person he has ever been in a workshop with who handed in a manuscript that was literally flawless, recounting: “I remember handing it back to her and saying, ‘I know it looks like I didn’t read your manuscript. I absolutely read every single word. I just couldn’t find anything to comment on.’” 

A Race to the Finish Line

Once the team was committed, they began to translate the book—or at least the parts HYBE, the multinational entertainment company built from BTS’ success (and the Korean publisher of the book), had already given them access to. In its English edition, Beyond the Story is a one-pound, 544-page tome (including about 100 pages of photos). The plan was for it to be printed on June 13th, the 10th anniversary of BTS’ debut as a group. It would then be published on July 9th, the 10th anniversary of the official naming of ARMY, BTS’ fandom. Ideally, the translators would have divided the manuscript into thirds, each taking a consecutive chunk to translate before Hur went over the entire thing to ensure “consistency of voice.” However, the chapters were delivered piecemeal to the translators over the course of the month, which put additional pressure on the process. 

Beyond the Story: 10-Year Record of BTS was co-written by journalist Myeongseok Kang and the seven members of BTS—RM, Jin, SUGA, j-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook—over the course of three years. “At first, I thought I could spend about a year to interview BTS about their past and wrap things up,” Kang told Weverse Magazine in July. “But after the release of ‘Dynamite,’ I was like, ‘Man, I can’t not cover this period.’ Then, there was ‘Butter.’ And then, as the pandemic was coming to an end, they could resume stadium tours, and we couldn’t overlook that, either.” In the same article, Kim Yeonju, the project manager and editor of HYBE’s publications, added that: “Since BTS was active in their career, the circumstances were constantly changing, so in a way, there were subtle shifts in the members’ values or feelings over time, and we had to constantly check what the ‘real final version’ would be.”

Beyond the Scene is to be published in 23 languages around the world. In order to ensure consistency and accessibility across editions, HYBE gave the translators a glossary to use that included specific guidelines on how to translate the way the members refer to one another—an aspect of the translation Hur says he would have pushed back against, if they’d had more time. “They insisted on all the nicknames being taken out, and only using their official stage names,” says Hur. (The members’ use of nicknames is preserved in the original Korean-language edition.) “I really regret not being able to do the nicknames. I think it would have been really nice to do. But I also understand where they’re coming from. All translation is about choices, and this is just the choice that they had to make in order to make the translation as accessible as possible to as many fans as possible.”

Beyond the Story also includes English-language translations of some of BTS’ song lyrics. Originally, these were all the “official” translations of the lyrics, and the translators noticed some inaccuracies.  “At some point, we were like, ‘This is the point where translation breaks down,’” says Hur. “And this is just a typo, or this is just wrong.” The translators were able to get some of the English-language lyrics changed to a more accurate translation — though not without a fair amount of back and forth. “We would find some discrepancies, and we had to inquire with the rights’ holder [Big Hit Music, a subsidiary of HYBE], whom we could not talk to directly,” he says. “And, to the rights holder’s credit, they would always say yes to the changes. I think around the end of the project, they became a bit more flexible about things. But, at that point, there was just no time.”

A Framework for Translation

When it comes to translation, there is often a misunderstanding that the work is more of an exact science than a creative art, that there is only one “accurate” translation of a text rather than an infinite possibility of interpretation. “We call for translation to be understood as a specialized form of writing,” states a manifesto the PEN America Translation Committee published in April. “The lack of this acknowledgment has led not only to the erasure of the translator’s labor but also to a suppression of the social and political nature of the translator’s cultural work.” Translators are always making choices about how to interpret a text and those choices are informed by cultural, political, and historical contexts. A translator has immense power—for better and worse, in intentional and unintentional ways—to shape a translated text. They can preserve a meaning that lives in the text, or leave meaning behind in the alchemic reshaping.

In the case of Beyond the Story, the relationship between BTS and their fans would be the guide for the text’s interpretation. “Our priority was to respect ARMY and what they would want, and that was the direction Anton really wanted for us,” says Richards. BTS are amongst the most-translated public figures in the world. Multilingual fans make up a network of translators who regularly translate BTS’ songs, interviews, live streams, etc. from Korean into other languages. In this way, fans already have an understanding of the translated voices of the BTS members, and it is often quite literal. “It’s quite different to how I would usually translate,” says Richards of the Beyond the Story translation. “When I’m translating, I’m usually coming up with something that’s actually very structurally different from what it is in the source. What we’re trying to do here [is to keep] the full sentence more [often], in order to try to preserve what the band members were saying.”

For Hur, it was about getting out of the way and letting the BTS members’ individual voices come through. “I had faith in how honest and candid the members were being, and that it would shine through the translation,” says Hur. “What emerged was just how thoughtful they are, and how careful they are, how prudent. They think about every single little thing in what they put out — not just their albums and songs and dances, but also the words that they say in public, and how they approach fans.” For Hur, a standout moment in the book’s translation process came from BTS’ oldest member, Jin. In the book, Jin expresses having to confront a feeling of insecurity, a concern that he was the weakest link in the K-pop group. “This was so surprising to me because he is the eldest in a group of boys,” says Hur. “So, by default, [in Korean culture], he should feel the most entitled. He should feel like he’s the biggest deal. But he doesn’t feel that way. He has all of the responsibilities of being the eldest … but, at the same time, he doesn’t seem to enjoy the privileges of being the eldest [with] that feeling of security.” Hur continues: “That was very, very moving to me, that he would go on the record saying this, because this can be misconstrued in so many different ways. But he trusted ARMY enough to say this, and for them to understand where he is coming from.” 

From Hur’s perspective, this moment epitomizes the way BTS has been able to hold onto a kind of humility in the face of such success. “It is so easy to slip into a sense of deep entitlement when you become successful and to get angry at every single little thing that doesn’t go your way,” says Hur. “But, for Jin—and for BTS, in general—they went in the opposite direction. The more successful they got, the more humble they became, and the more critical they became of how they did things. Not in a self-hating kind of way, but in a way that you can tell that they’re constantly questioning themselves, looking at reach, and trying to reevaluate what success means to them … For the most successful band of our time to not be playing along with that and to be trying to understand success and failure in their own terms, that is a very moving theme of the book and of BTS itself.”

Reflecting Back

Despite the short timeframe, Hur and Richards expressed gratitude for having the opportunity to have worked on Beyond the Story. Richards was blown away by the support and enthusiasm she received from BTS’ fandom. “I was so struck by how wonderfully supportive ARMY have been,” says Richards, who entered the field of Korean-English translation in her late 20s, shortly after being diagnosed with autism. “The thing I was most moved by was the neurodivergent community of ARMY. They were just so happy that an autistic person was involved in the translation process, and I’ve never had that kind of acknowledgement and acceptance of that part of me before.” 

For Richards, the acceptance and support that BTS’ fandom is capable of is a major theme of Beyond the Scene, which chronicles many of the hardships BTS experienced in launching their career—from year after year of breakneck work schedules to the online hate and allegations that came in response to BTS’ immense success. “This kind of warm, loving, supportive community is what I see as a reaction to that of everything that BTS have been through—and, also, that ARMY went through in defending BTS and supporting them,” says Richards. “Obviously, the one could not exist without the other. And actually seeing that warmth and support coming to us as translators as well has been wonderful.” 

BTS has also had a direct impact on the Korean literary scene, especially member RM. The BTS bibliophile can turn a book into an international bestseller by recommending it or even simply being seen carrying a copy. This includes Baek Sehee’s therapy memoir I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki, which Hur translated into English in 2022. But, for Hur, the impact of BTS goes far deeper than this tangible impact RM’s book recs have had on his career. “For decades  — and I grew up overseas, so I know — Koreans overseas were not perceived as human beings,” says Hur. “We were perceived as extremely shallow people who were always trying to survive, who do not care about art or literature, who have no interiority, basically … People look at a French author and go, ‘Oh, they’re so profound.’ And then they look at a Korean author and go, ‘Oh, this is like a thriller. This is so shallow. This is genre.’ So we’re not given that kind of credit.” 

From Hur’s perspective, the relationship BTS has fostered with ARMY, through their music and storytelling, has begun to change that racist stereotype. “Because their approach to their music is very literary, I feel like they create this wonderful perception of Korean interiority that is rich, profound, and deep. The way that ARMY approaches BTS’ music is so rich and generous and profound [too]. They think, ‘Oh, reading this book will help me understand this literary work: BTS’ music,” says Hur. “That is the power of BTS.” 

In the end, the manuscript was verified, translated, and printed in time for publication on ARMY Day, July 9th. Looking back, Richards says the month-long period of work that brought them from Korean-language manuscript to a finalized English-language translation is a bit of a blur. “The process was so intense that I didn’t have the chance to step back and reflect on my feelings … The feedback from ARMY has been so supportive and positive — and if ARMY are happy, that’s what matters most to me. I know that our hearts were in the right place, and we did the best we could do under extremely limited time constraints.” Hur credits Richards and Jung, the members of his team, for making it happen. “If it weren’t for them, I don’t think this book would really exist.”

Kayti Burt is a culture critic with bylines at TIME, MTV News, Refinery29, and Den of Geek. For more pop culture analysis, including K-culture context, you can follow her @kaytiburt and visit her website.

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