Ian Hideo Levy: An original work of literature, if it is good, should read like a translation.

At first I was skeptical. A lecture by an American who’d mastered Japanese and was writing novels in Japanese. His name was Ian Hideo Levy (b. 1950). I had homework. It was a Thursday. It had been a long week.

But boy am I glad I went – even though it was just for an hour.

He’d been immersed in Japanese for decades, reading and writing only Japanese. It felt much more natural for him to speak Japanese at lectures, he said, but he chose to speak English. He spoke it beautifully, mostly without referring to his notes. He paced, gesticulated. Sometimes he’d trip over a word, or there would be stoppage in his throat, an English word trying to make its way out.

He used to be a translator of Japanese literature. For many years, he stuck with translation only before a Japanese writer, Kenji Nakagami said to him — after drinking with Levy till six o’clock in the morning, “Join us.” Don’t just translate, Kenji was saying. Start writing in Japanese.

He told a useful story, one I knew I could use in this blog, about the problem of translating plural and singular out of Japanese into English. The same problem exists for Korean. He spoke of the expression “新宿の光” how he’d always thought of it as “Lights of Shinjuku.” He said it wasn’t until he saw the nine thousand or so signboards illuminating the night, bleeding into one another, that the 光 did not refer to many lights, but one innumerable, indivisible thing.

As if that wasn’t good enough, he went on to say this about literature. First he reminded us of the commonplace that we often hear about translations – that good translations should have a sense of being its own original. He turned it around to say that all good literature in these times – no matter where it is set, no matter who it’s about – should have some sense of being a translation, a sense of a way of communicating, a way of feeling, a way of being that has been lost in the final product.

He talked about zainichi writer Yi Yang-ji (Yangji Lee/이양지/李良枝) who wrote in Japanese. One of the themes that zainichi writers explores is the idea of going back. Right now Korea is divided, but the idea is that they will return from Japan once the Koreas have unified. Zanichi (在日/재일) is interestingly untranslatable. Literally, it means “residing in Japan” and refers only to ethnic Koreans. In an English article in Japan Times, he said that Yi had been described as a “South Korean writer residing in Japan” which reminds you of a bestselling writer from Pusan taking some time off in Japan and writing.

He talked about Yi, as a young zainichi woman, going to Korea as a foreign student to reconnect with her Korean heritage. She realizes that she cannot accept the langauge. There is a split between 母語 (mother tongue) and 国語 (national language). She talks about 言葉の杖 (언어의 지팡이) which Levy translated as the “cane” or “staff” of language. Every morning she would wake up and wonder to herself — should she reach for the “아” or the “あ”?

He told a story about how he got a call from a woman who sounded very young, like a freshman in university. The voice said “This is Yi Yang-ji.”

It said, “I read your novel, Levy-san. It was wonderful. Keep working hard.”

You could tell how much this meant to Levy, even as he described the exchange for us. A zainichi writer 先輩/선배 who wrote in Japanese, cheering on her an American writer 後輩후배 writing in Japanese.

He asked her if she could consider herself 韓国系日本人/한국계일본인/Korean-Japanese. She said that was such an American question. She said that is not how identity works, that it is not some social contract.

A few days later, he saw the headline, “Korean writer dead.” He pictured an old male
writer, a Nobel Prize contender perhaps, having passed away in Seoul, wearing hanbok.

They were talking about Yi.

Does Asian America Need a Brand Makeover?

If you get annoyed by orientalist cover art on novels by Asian American writers, if you don’t like the predictable range of roles that Asian actors and actresses are allowed to play, if you think there should be more quality Asian American films (as well as a channel through which you can access a community of moviegoers to share opinions about such films), you might find Jeff Yang’s ideas in the San Francisco Chronicle interesting.

His piece starts out as a review of Hangover 2. Basically, Yang hated the movie (in spite of the fact he found the first one enjoyable) and goes through all the egregious stereotypes in case you missed them: “Thuggish gangsters. Wizened monks. Lascivious ladyboys. Not to mention whiz-kid pre-meds, infinitely forgiving lotus-blossom brides and the Father of All Tiger Dads.” I swear I think even Bradley Cooper was wincing at himself as he delivered the line, “Not big breasts on her but a solid rack for an Asian” (for which — not the sympathetic wincing, but the line — Kate Muir of The Times docked the film a star).

Why can’t talented people like Ken Jeong find work in better films? Yang brings up Ang Lee and Justin Lin as examples of directors who have made profitable Asian American films. But now they direct features geared towards more mainstream audiences. Why? According to certain insiders, the industry’s current situation is such that, from an financial vantage point, you would have to be “retarded” to be making Asian American films.

Continue reading

Ask Not What Korea Can Do For Mini Han…

In today’s edition of OhmyNews.com, Michael Hurt (from “Scribblings of the Metropolitician“) contributed an excellent piece (titled “‘Korean Beauty’ Wins International Competition Only To Be Cast Aside By Korea”) on Mini Han (한민희), who won the 2010 Miss Internaional Queen pageant. He uses the pageant to raise awareness about the still widely held attitude of prejudice and fear regarding non-heteronormative sexual identity in Korea.

Some might say more Korean celebrities have been “coming out” of the proverbial closet in the recent years. Publicly visible figures such as Hong Suk Chun (홍석천)  and  Harisu (하리수) are important in that they bring human faces to what is generally decried in abstraction as a radical social taboo — even a mental disease. Yet their token presence should not be understood as a sign of that the society has become meaningfully tolerant. For example, Hurt claims that Harisu, by being more rigorously feminine than most women, serves to reinforce existing gender constructions and does not call into question deeply ingrained attitudes about gender and identity.

Hurt calls out the Korean media for its opportunistic celebration of achievement by Koreans in golf, football, ice skating (or for that matter, business, politics, art, scholarship — anything that should bring Koreans national pride). He singles out the national hysteria over half-Korean Hines Ward, who was named the MVP of Super Bowl XL. But rather than merely criticize the hypocrisy of this kind of idolization, Hurt emphasizes how this provided a productive moment for race relations in Korea — a rare opportunity for the marginalized (in this case, mixed children of American G.I.’s) to share their experiences at the national level, to reapappropriate the media’s disingenuous opportunism and push the spectacle towards a socially progressive moment of dialogue and reflection. Continue reading

One Week Left for ‘Greatest Burger in America’ Deal


Early this month, Eater awarded the Korean-inspired Bibimbap burger, created by Social Eatz chef Angelo Sosa won the title of “Greatest Burger in America.” If you happen to be in New York, for the rest of May, you can enjoy a free cocktail if you purchase a Bibimbap burger.

Check out the different winners by city here.

Interview: Novelist Shin Kyung-sook (Part 2 of 2)

Shin reads Maslin's Review over tea at Lincoln Center Plaza’s Avery Fisher Hall

This is Part 2 of an interview I conducted in late March, right when Please Look After Mom was released in the U.S. (Apologies for the late, late post!) 

For Part 1 of the interview, click here.

SOV: Most readers have been talking about mojeong (maternal love) as the primary theme of your novel. As I was reading some of the blurbs for your book, novelist Gary Shteyngart—I’m a fan of his work—said something that struck me. He brings up another theme that’s more historical—about the tragedy that often accompanies migration from the countryside to the city. That flow isn’t limited to Korea. The center/periphery relationship can be Seoul/countryside, but also, U.S./Korea, for example.

I think this theme is hugely important, especially in the context of your novel’s own “migration” from Korea to the United States. 

KS: That’s right. People move around for education, for example; it’s just how things are today. Now that I’ve come to the United State, I see that people do the same thing here. (Laughs) We’re constantly leaving where we are for something better, to achieve something. This brings alienation—the differences in environment, for example, between Seoul and the countryside. But this applies to the U.S. as well. In trying to gain something, you also lose something. But of course, something can be gained as well. This is true for Korea and for the United States. For example, you (referring to interviewer) – you were born somewhere else, and now here you are, in New York. This seems like a common story today.

As for the question of “center,” yes, most characters in my novel do not originate from the center. They started in the periphery, as outsiders, and worked their way to the center.

SOV: The second daughter also has an American-born son. When you wrote this book, you had no idea that it would be translated into English.

A: No not at all. But that is the reality these days. Many of the younger generation of Koreans, they can find ways to live a few years abroad without too much difficulty. Whether it’s because of work, or college, or it’s for some other personal reasons, to learn something. It’s not entirely uncommon for Koreans to have American-born children these days.  Even in New York, you’ll hear a lot of Korean on the street. That was really surprising to me. New York for me, it’s not like Europe—there’s something about the atmosphere that reminds me of Seoul. There’s a similarity, not in the older buildings, of course. But it can be really uncanny at times… So many different ethnicities live here and the culture is so diverse. Even in my case, I feel like I’ve come here as another person. It’s been a good experience. Because I always have my desk to return to.

SOV: Because your desk is your home.

KS: (Laughs) Yes, my desk is my home.

SOV: Writers are lucky, I think.

KS: (Laughs)

SOV: I was reading a customer review on Amazon.com, and one reader said, “I liked everything but I really wanted to know what happened to Mom in the end.” The reader seemed frustrated. I suppose wherever you go, you’ll find readers who need to have closure, who want something certain in the end?

KS: Sure.

SOV: Then someone else wrote a reply to the comment and explained the ending.

KS: Really?

SOV: That the chapter from Mom’s point-of-view is coming “from beyond.” And the original commenter wrote back, “Oh really? Is that what happened? It makes sense now.” I think that’s one possible interpretation. My interpretation has been – taking into account your earlier work like Solitary Room – on one hand you seem to be telling stories of forgotten people – the lower-class or people who are invisible to society; on the other hand, your work seems to confront the problem of representation in general, the inherent impossibility of speaking for those who are voiceless. Some readers, I think, read your works too transparently, to simply accept your descriptions and think, “So this is how they live.”

I feel that your work often has that additional, complicating layer, which suggests that we shouldn’t believe everything that is here, that there are things that cannot be known. The impossibility of testimony seems like an important theme for you.

KS: I think that’s spot on.

SOV: Even Mom’s first-person testimony is kind of contradictory, since she is illiterate and it is written…

KS: Sure. That’s why a part of me felt, as I was writing this, that it wasn’t me who was writing it, that my mother had taken my hand in hers to help me write it. Someone once asked me, if writers’ works are like their children, what kind of child is Please Look After Mom to me? And I wanted to say that I felt like I was the book’s child, not the other way around.

I am always plagued with the feeling that what I am seeing and feeling is not everything. There’s something impossible to capture there. But there’s also the feeling of wanting to get as close as possible to that impossible thing, and that’s the experiment of language I’m engaged in. It’s really hard to say. There’s always a remainder there. I like things to be interpreted in more than one way. If ten people read something I wrote, I want ten different takes; I want diverse readings.

As for the “Mom” section. The question is understandable. Even in Korea, I would receive questions about why I didn’t let Mom be found in the end, why I chose to leave the readers hanging. I don’t think it would’ve made sense to have Mom be found. That would’ve been something out of a TV drama. It’s not important in this novel whether Mom is actually discovered. What’s important is the process of finding, in “the absence” of this fictional Mom, “the presence” of our real Mom. So it’s important that Mom stays missing. “It’s been nine months since Mom’s gone missing.” This is what the last chapter says. It’s not over. We don’t know whether Mom is alive or not.  I had to create a point-of-view for Mom that would bridge the gap between this world and the next, because we don’t know what happened to her.

In a way, the question of whether she is found or not lies in the heart of the reader. And maybe there is something fundamentally maternal or “Mom-like” in all of us, that allows us to rear a small life, to pour our effort into making the world better for its sake. I wonder if the symbol of this Mom-ness might not be found within the self, so that I may be like a mother to you, or you to me, so that the mother-child relationship can be imagined within all sorts of social relationships. This seems to provide hope in these difficult times, when everything is bcoming rational, and everyone is obsessed with progress, with moving ahead. Maybe this idea of “advancement” shouldn’t be everything when it comes to being human. Maybe we can turn our attention to what is fundamental, to our point of origin. Maybe our task is to rediscover the thing that“Mom” had cultivated for us, for us to reclaim it in some way.

SOV: If you could mention a few writers you admire, or enjoy reading? 

As a young writer, Shin admired Oh Jung-hee's work. (Note: Oh's novella Bird was translated into English by SOV's own kokkiri)

KS: Foreign writers?

SOV: Korean or non-Korean, whichever you prefer.

KS: For the most part, I’m a fan of individual works rather than writers. (Laughs)  But of the older generation of Korean writers, I like Oh Jung-hee and Park Wan-seo. I was very influenced by them and enjoyed their works greatly when I was younger. I really loved much of the Korean literature I encountered while I was studying creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.

A great deal of foreign literature has been translated into Korean. I really enjoy Duras. Proust, also, because he is difficult. I enjoyed Russian literature too. As for American literature, I’ve been reading a lot of Paul Auster and Raymond Carver; many of their works have been translated. I have read and enjoyed Toni Morrison too.

SOV: I know that some writers dislike reading works by other writers when they’re in the middle of their own work. Some will say, though, when they get stuck, they’ll take down a volume of Proust and to get themselves unstuck.

KS: When I’m writing I usually do not read other books. I like to listen to music, actually. Rostropovich’s cello performances, for example. I like pieces that help me feel, from time to time, a strange convergence with my work. I listen to pieces without words, because the lyrics can distract me, because I end up thinking too much about them. When I’m not writing, I read more.

When I get stuck with my writing, I often call my mother. She has a lot of stories I can’t hear from anyone else. Because I live in the city, and Mom lives in the countryside. So she sees a lot of things I don’t see anymore, things that transpire in the countryside: what’s growing on the trees, the fields, and what it’s like during harvest time. It’s something I used to see when I was little, so hearing her stories, I can imagine what it’s like. And these details make their way into my work. It’s completely different from the city life I now lead, and so through her stories, these two disparate lives are allowed to meet.

SOV: Thank you for your time, Ms. Shin.

KS: It’s been a pleasure.

Interview translated from the Korean by Jae Won Chung. All mention of the country or polity of “Korea” unless otherwise noted, refers to Republic of Korea/South Korea

Interview: Novelist Shin Kyung-sook (Part 1 of 2)

Shin, at the checkout line, perusing Maslin's review of her novel, Please Look After Mom

I met with Shin Kyung-sook (a.k.a. Kyung-sook Shin) in the Upper West Side on March 30th, on the day Janet Maslin’s review of her novel Please Look After Mom appeared in the New York Times. We took a short trip to a nearby supermarket to pick up a copy of the paper and sat down to talk in Lincoln Center Plaza’s Avery Fisher Hall. We discussed, among other things, the U.S.-response to the release of PLAM, writer’s block, her self-understanding as an author, and the differences between the short story and the novel. 

Last week, Shin’s novel hit New York Times Bestseller #14. It is by far the most commercially successful novel of Korean-language origin in the United States. 


SOV: How would you describe your novel to someone who has never heard of it?

KS: It’s about Mom. It’s about what happens when Mom goes missing, and how the children — now adults — go looking for her. That’s the simplest way to describe it. “Mom” is someone you can count on to always be there for you, and the novel explores the mental and emotional state of the family members when she disappears. Continue reading

Interview: Translator Chi-Young Kim (Part 2 of 2)

Chi-Young Kim is one of the best known young translators of Korean fiction. To this date, she has translated and published five Korean novels in English: I have the Right to Destroy Myself (2007) and Your Republic is Calling You (2010) by Kim Young-ha, Toy City (2007) by Lee Dong-ha, Tongue (2009) by Jo Kyung-ran, and most recently Please Look After Mom (2011) by Shin Kyung-sook. Kim and I recently conducted an e-mail interview.

(For Part 1 of this interview, click here.)

SOV: I really like what you said about dialogue — the importance of “underlying sentiments and unspoken feelings.” There are all kinds of subtextual cues about the way characters talk and behave towards each other that usually help us understand characters better. Literal translations of dialogue often run the risk of destroying any sense of a lively interaction between speakers. I remember being especially impressed by the fluency of all the colloquialisms in your translation of Kim Young-ha’s first book (I know from experience how hard it can be to keep these sooth). Can you talk about specific instances of slang or idiomatic expressions that you might have struggled with? (I think it might help less-experienced translators to hear how you work through these specific issues.)

CYK: I can’t think of anything specific about the slang/colloquialisms in I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (it’s been several years…) but I was just working on something recently, where a prostitute says to her customer, “자기 멋져.” I kept coming back to that, because not only do you have to convey the meaning behind it, you also have to make it sound authentic. I don’t think a woman in that situation would say, “Honey, you’re great.” I thought about how prostitutes spoke to each other in books and movies. In the past year, I’d read Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which has several prostitutes as the main characters. I thought about how he had described that world, and how those characters spoke, and settled on “Baby, you’re awesome,” for now. It still doesn’t feel 100% right to me, so I’ll probably revisit it later, after I have some more time to think about it. Usually, I’ll put something down in my first draft, as a place holder, and then go back to it again and again. Often, I’ll ask people around me what they think someone would say in a certain situation. Frequently it isn’t until the last moment that I settle on something, and even then, that’s not the end of it. Since the editorial process at publishing companies take a year or so, in that time various copy editors/editors may make better suggestions, or I might think of something more fitting. Time and willingness to be open to other suggestions are two very important factors when I try to find the perfect expression for things like that. Continue reading

“Kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction” means I love you

After reading NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan’s review of Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, I joined the slew of readers who called it “offensive”, “classless”, “ignorant” and “racist.” (Jenny’s more articulate critique was posted earlier as the inaugural post of this blog.) My exact comment was:

With her racist & punchy “kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction,” Ms. Corrigan might wakeup tomorrow and realize that she’s become the Alexandra Wallace (of “ching chong ling long” fame) of book reviews.

Maybe a part of me was grasping at meme-straws, but I’ve given myself a few days to think about the review as well as my response to it. I still think the juxtaposition can be productive. First some similarities: Both Corrigan and Wallace showed misjudgment. Both were almost immediately denounced by Asians and non-Asians alike. Both probably regret what they said/wrote.

Though if you read through the comments on the NPR review, in the case of Corrigan, there’s a sense of “How could you, Corrigan?” or “How could you NPR?” We get the feeling that Corrigan’s offense cut deeper; because she’s a professor at Georgetown University and a reviewer for Fresh Air, she should have known better. When we called Corrigan’s comment racist, we did not mean the word in the same way we used it against Wallace’s more garden-variety epithet “ching chong ling long”  (or the way we might call Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh racist).

While I do not know Corrigan’s work well, I have faith as one liberal-minded person might have about another, that she is deeply saddened by the charge, and is probably asking  herself, even now, “What the hell happened?”

But another voice inside her (which best stay inside her, if she cares about PR), is probably saying, “Geez Louise, why are they so sensitive?” Continue reading

Interview: Translator Chi-Young Kim (Part I of 2)

Chi-Young Kim is one of the best known young translators of Korean fiction. To this date, she has translated and published five Korean novels in English: I have the Right to Destroy Myself (2007) and Your Republic is Calling You (2010) by Kim Young-ha, Toy City (2007) by Lee Dong-ha, Tongue (2009) by Jo Kyung-ran, and most recently Please Look After Mom (2011) by Shin Kyung-sook. Kim and I recently conducted an e-mail interview.

SOV: You’ve translated a fair number of important Korean books into English now. Were there meaningful differences in the kinds of challenges they posed for you as a translator?

CYK: All the books I’ve translated posed different challenges. Kim Young-ha’s books, for example, contained scenes around cardgames/hwatu, cars, sports, and video games. Stereotypically, I know next to nothing about those topics, so a major concern was conveying those scenes authentically.  So, for example, I didn’t know anything about StarCraft, and in Your Republic Is Calling You, there is a whole section detailing the action on someone’s computer screen.  I looked up the terminology of different characters and weapons, did a draft of that section, then found someone who plays StarCraft to read it over and give me pointers.  That person edited that section with the language StarCraft aficionados use.  In Tongue, the biggest challenge was the stream of consciousness writing style. When you directly translate the way the author wrote into English, none of it made much sense. I had to be very careful about keeping the tone and mood of the original while making sure to convey the meaning in a clear way.

For Please Look After Mom, the fact that the Korean original doesn’t always name the characters threw me for a loop. As you know, in Korean it’s easy to figure out who’s speaking, what the relationship is between the people speaking, or what the mood or tone of voice is, even without much description. I had to be very conscious of how someone with no knowledge of Korean would understand the dialogue, as well as the underlying sentiments and unspoken feelings. Also, the editor I worked closely with was confused by the fact that none of the cities were named, and that several universities were just referred to as Y University. All Koreans know what university that is, but we ended up being very specific about those types of names after consulting with the author. I had the most interactive experience doing Please Look After Mom. The editor would ask questions and make suggestions, and I would answer what I could and ask the author to clarify, or if she could add more or delete, depending on the editor’s suggestion. Then, the author would weigh in with her ideas and preferences, which I then conveyed to the editor. So it was truly a collaborative project.