On Being a Language-Specific Translator Collective

The Smoking Tigers is a language-specific literary translation collective, making it somewhat unique among literary translator groups.

We get asked about it often: How does that work? Doesn’t it get competitive having only Korean-English translators? Do you have regular Translator Thunderdomes where Two Translators Enter, One Translator Leaves?

In the interest of aiding those who are thinking of setting up their own groups, we’ve whipped up a list of possible advantages and disadvantages of going language-specific.


You can trade manuscripts and solve each other’s translation/language problems easier.

How would you translate this expression? What would the proper tense be in this paragraph? In the Korean military, is a Navy lieutenant different from an Army lieutenant? During workshops, we are constantly sharing solutions to problems endemic to Korean literature in translation. Multi-language translation workshops do the same thing, of course, but because we all work in the same language combination, our solutions tend to be more generalizable from one project to another.

You can share information more pertinent to your language group. 

How much are your peers getting paid? How do you obtain funding? What work should you stay away from? Korean literature in translation has a very particular funding structure and roadmap when it comes to obtaining rights. This information is constantly in flux, and no single individual has all the pieces of the puzzle at the same time. The Smoking Tigers have won virtually every literary translation grant available for our language combination; if we have a question about a particular grant, we simply ask whichever Smoking Tiger had won it last.

You can pass on work you’re not available for or get work passed on to you.

This happens so often that we ended up opening a separate Slack channel to pass on jobs we couldn’t take on. The Smoking Tigers was never meant to be a translation agency, but sometimes, it sure feels like one! This is handy for the client as well because they are more likely to end up with someone who is a better fit for their project.


You become more mired in source-language issues and nitpicking.

There is always a danger of getting bogged down in “the meaning” of a word in the source text and nitpicking each other’s work. This is especially a danger for Korean-language-related groups due to the overwhelming preference for literal translation in Korean academia and the press. Most of the Smoking Tigers have operated under strict workshopping rules introduced in Sora Kim-Russell’s LTI Korea classes or Elmer Luke’s workshop at BCLT 2017. These rules are designed to circumvent unhelpful comments.

You may feel pressured by a sense of competition.

We do have what are jokingly referred to as “Hunger Games” situations when a bunch of us happen to submit during the same grant cycle or award. But in practice, we find that the positives of competition balance out the negatives. It is inspirational to see how creative people are in your language group, opening up new possibilities for your work. At least for Korean literature, which has been relatively under-translated in the past, there’s still much to work on and everyone’s different tastes take them to different work; knowing what people are actually working on makes it feel less like we’re in competition. And even if you “lose” to a Smoking Tiger, you can still bask in reflected glory, because at the end of the day, we’re all friends who are genuinely glad to see each other succeed.

Geographical constraints make it feel less like a community.

Many other translator collectives are geographically based, whether formally (they might have the location in their names) or informally (everyone just happens to be living in New York). This makes it easier for them to get together or hold events. The Smoking Tigers are scattered across three continents, and we have to make more of an effort to meet up. But again, it helps that we’re friends and we’d make an effort to see each other, anyway. We also go to enough of the same events—book fairs, conferences—to keep bumping into each other. And because we’re translators, a fundamentally collaborative profession, we’re used to email, social media, and other means of keeping in contact.


In the end, we’re together because we like being together, not because of some networking BS, and everything that works about us works because we share a language of trust, respect, and friendship. And that, really, is the true “language” that the Smoking Tigers is specific to.

Anton Hur and Sophie Bowman

%d bloggers like this: