Meet Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, internationally acclaimed Korean-to-English literary translators who reside in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood.

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Lit life |

Seattle is a multicultural mosaic, and here’s another piece of the picture — behind the doors of a modest Montlake bungalow, a Seattle husband and wife have made it their life’s work to translate the literature of Korea for English-speaking readers.

Translation is an exacting business; hours and hours of reading, writing, looking things up, then pondering words that may or may not have an equivalent in English. Montlake’s Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton recently received a major validation for their labors: they won Korea’s Daesan Foundation’s translation prize for their work on “There a Petal Silently Falls: Three Stories by Ch’oe Yun” (Columbia University Press). The award, for 30 million won, translates to about $27,500 — “it took us about a week to spend it on mortgages, etc.,” wrote Bruce Fulton in an e-mail.

The Fultons both have day jobs; Bruce, who got his doctorate from Seoul National University, is the inaugural holder of the Young-Bin Min Chair in Korean Literature and Literary Translation in the Asian studies department at the University of British Columbia. Ju-Chan is an airline ticket agent.

They met at Seoul National University in 1978, where Bruce was a Peace Corps volunteer, and married in 1979. They both got master’s degrees from the University of Washington, then returned to Korea for further study, and eventually realized that they had “the ideal translation team”: Bruce, a native speaker of English who knows Korean, and Ju-Chan, a native speaker of Korean who knows English.

Their method has varied over the years, but here’s how it works today. First comes text selection; what works are they interested in translating? Their choices help determine which works of Korean literature become accessible in English, since the pool of Korean-to-English translators of contemporary literature is very small.

Then Ju-Chan annotates the material with explanations of troublesome words, contextual material, etc. After Bruce produces the first draft, he reads it aloud to Ju-Chan. And so on and so forth, until they think they’ve gotten it right.

By now you may be wondering if this is too much togetherness for a married couple. Au contraire; working together “is probably one of the things that has kept us together for 30 years,” says Bruce, and Ju-Chan agrees: “working together holds the marriage together.”

The two have been able to translate Korean writers who have fallen under the radar of the Korean literary establishment, particularly women writers of short stories. Korean writers are expected to be “cognizant of the modern tragedy of Korean history,” Bruce says. “Until recently, if you wrote out of imagination, with a sense of humor or playfulness, you were considered a lightweight, not to be taken seriously.”

In 2005, Bruce co-edited (with Youngmin Kwon) “Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology” (Columbia University Press), an anthology that includes North Korean writers as well as writers who migrated to the North after 1945 and whose works were banned in South Korea.

At their reading at the Montlake library on May 25, they’ll read from their recent translation of “Lost Souls: Stories” by Hwang Sunwon (Columbia University Press), an author Bruce says is known in Korea as a “lyrical romanticist.” Hwang died in 2000, but the Fultons met him while he was still alive; they’ve been translating his work since the 1980s.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@

Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM’s Arts Channel at