Joowon Lee crams into the train heading towards Soongsil University in Seoul, South Korea. Rush hour in the South Korean metro is cram-packed with people keen on their destination. After being squeezed and bumped around the train for about 60 minutes, he finally arrives at his university near the heart of Seoul.
Theories of computer programming language boggle his mind as he walks into an old PC room. Empty and silent; the perfect environment for work. He brings out his laptop and immediately brings up Microsoft Word. Now, there is nothing to interrupt him from translating.
Joowon Lee, or commonly known to his readers by his Internet persona “Chamber” is among a new generation of Korean-to-English translators. Unlike professional translators that toil away at translating miscellaneous documents, he is behind the computer screen translating teeth-clenching novel chapters into English for readers across the globe.
But before he was known as the Mecha-Translator of the forums of NovelUpdates (a directory of Asian novels translated into English), he was a frequent anime watcher. His slow internet bandwidth turned him to Japanese manga and eventually the online translated novel community. Having spent five years of his youth in Britain, Lee had no problem reading stories he loved in English.
Gradually, his involvement in the translated novel community deepened the more he browsed its never-ending stock of stories.
“[I’m] not that much different from how other people got into translating,” notes Lee. “I was just a lurker in the novel community reading away at novels, so after a little bit of time I suddenly had the ‘urge’ to wanting to give back to the community.”
He started translating his first novel in April of 2016 titled “Coder Lee Yong Ho”, where it was hosted by translation organization Kobatochandaisuki (KCDS) before he was relayed a takedown notice by KCDS’s administrator after 112 chapters in February 2017. While translating “Coder Lee Yong Ho,” he also picked up “God of Music” for 52 chapters before dropping it to focus on “Everyone Else is a Returnee.”
“The author was being too whimsical in ‘God of Music,’ especially length-wise,” cited Lee. “[At one point,] I had five chapters to do on just one Sunday and I simply gave up.”
Lee first began translating “Everyone Else is a Returnee” in June 2016. At the time, it was Munpia’s (an online Korean novel site) top-rated novel written by Toika and published by Raon E&M. After reading a few chapters, he decided that he wanted to translate it to English.
“At first, I wasn’t even doing this fully, and [I] just gave my entire translation folder to NovelsnChill, [a novel translation organization] who [was] doing it at the time,” he remembers. “Then I found out [that] the translator had pretty much disappeared after translating the prologue so the admin at NovelsnChill approached me and [asked me to translate it with them].”
Lee first hosted “Everyone Else is a Returnee” on the NovelsnChill domain before moving to KCDS, which offered a better work environment for him. He continued to translate on their domain and eventually finished the novel on Sept. 13 after 14 months of translating. On the same day, he posted an afterword declaring his retirement from translating in order to serve his two years of compulsory South Korean military service and focus on his degree in computer science.
Having put in his application for the military, all Lee had was his studies to occupy him.
“[But I was] bored with nothing to do,” says Lee. “Going to military service will pretty much make me forget whatever I learned before [so I’m just waiting until it rolls around].”
Four days after his “retirement,” he posed a poll on the NovelUpdates forum asking members to vote for two novels to translate. In the end, “God of Music” by Lee Chang Yeon and “One Man Army” by Seong Jin won the most votes to be translated. Since he declared his departure from KCDS along with his retirement from translating, they will be hosted on his new website titled Chamber’s Cleanup Service.
Despite his success in translating popular novels that has long-since secured his reputation in the novel community, he still hopes to become a computer programmer.
“[Translating] isn’t a full-blown job since it won’t earn me enough money to make a living, but… I do see it as more than just a hobby,” comments Lee. “I might continue translating even if I end up working later in life.”