After studying literature in Cambridge, UK, Kyung Hun Oh moved to Berlin four and a half years ago. He has now translated numerous books for DOM publishers. An advocate of clarity, he gently reminds architectural critics: sometimes, less is more.
Text: Björn Rosen
Photo: © DOM publishers
Good translators ask good questions. The ones Kyung Hun Oh asks his colleagues are sometimes met with bewilderment and often spark long discussions. Is there, for example, a difference between the words ‘Konstruktionsart’ (literally: type, style, manner, or method of construction) and ‘Bauweise’ (building method)? And how scathing does a critic mean to be with the phrase ‘geistige Kurzatmigkeit’ (literally: intellectual shortness of breath)? Such questions are difficult to answer, even for the German native speakers at the Berlin-based publishing house. And they reveal some of the challenges involved in Oh’s work – and the high standards and degree of precision he aims for.
Oh joined DOM publishers two years ago, where his main task is to translate manuscripts from German into English. They are always about architecture and urbanism, though some texts are very technical, others very theoretical. He has translated ten books for the publishers so far, including the last three editions of the German Architecture Annual for the German Architecture Museum and most recently Radikal Normal, a collection of essays by the architect and architectural theorist Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani. When he speaks, you hear his unmistakable British accent. As the son of Korean parents, he grew up just outside London, though he has also lived in the US and Spain. He first came into contact with the German language when he lived in Frankfurt am Main for a few years as a teenager: there, he attended an international school and learned German as a second language. Later, while studying English literature at the University of Cambridge, he also had the opportunity to read German poetry and plays.
Berlin has been his home for four and a half years. ‘To me, English feels quite linear, with a clearer sense of direction. German is more circular. A sentence leaves more room for detours and asides before the verb is finally revealed,’ he says. His discerning eye has also registered several over-used terms in German architectural jargon. The word ‘vermitteln’, in the sense of ‘mediate’ or ‘connect’, is just one example. ‘Once, an architecture practice euphemistically described a high fence around a gated community as a “mediating element” between the public streetscape and the private spaces inside,’ he says. ‘I get the feeling that some authors try a bit too hard to write beautifully – often at the cost of clarity. Sometimes, what you have is four walls and a roof, and it’s perfectly fine to just say that.’ When asked about examples of good architectural writing in English, he cites the works of Oliver Wainwright, Jane Jacobs, and Richard Sennett.
Oh is co-editor of the English edition of the DOM magazine. And he has also translated this (in his eyes very complimentary) profile, which you have now read to the end, from German.
Diesen Text auf Deutsch lesen.