RIP: Prof. Suk-kee Yoh, ICF Chairman and Champion of Korean Literature

via Brother Anthony:

The International Communication Foundation (ICF) has announced the death earlier today of its Chairman Yeo Seok-ki (Suk-kee Yoh)

Professor Yoh was formerly professor of English literature at Korea University.

As Chairman of the ICF he has overseen the provision of very important grants  to a number of overseas universities for the funding of teaching positions or other projects linked to Korean Studies, especially Korean literature. Also the ICF has been awarding generous scholarships to younger scholars interested in the translation of Korean literature.
He will be greatly missed
Brother Anthony

Sora, Jaewon, and I first worked together at the ICF-sponsored Korean Literature Translation Workshop, and we’ve all benefitted from the  support of Chairman Yoh and the ICF, as have so many excellent translators and scholars of Korean literature. His contribution to the promotion of Korean cultural studies and literary translation was huge, and we thank him for it.

Translated from the news item/obituary via NEWSis:

Drama critic and Professor of English Literature Yoh Suk-kee (92), Chairman of the International Communication Foundation, passed away on June 12 following a car accident.

Born in Keumreung in 1922, he entered the English Literature department at Tokyo University in 1939, but was drafted in 1944 and had to suspend his studies. He returned to Korea in 1945, and completed his studies in English literature at Seoul National University in 1946. After working as a lecturer at Daegu University, he joined the faculty of the English literature department at Korea University in 1953.

He was the president of the English Language and Literature Association of Korea (ELLAK) and the Shakespeare Association of Korea. He served as director of the Korea Culture and Arts Foundation (precursor to ARKO, the Arts Council of Korea), and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He became Chairman of the ICF in 1984.

In 1996, the International Association of Theater Critics – Korea established the Yoh Suk-kee Prize for Criticism.

His scholarly works include: Dramaturgie [희곡론] (1964), 20th Century Literary Theory [20세기 문학론] (1966), Contemporary Theatre [현대연극] (1970), Realism in Korean Theatre [한국연극의 현실] (1974), Notes on Contemporary English and American Dramaturgical Theory [현대 영미 희곡작품론 노트] (1987), Comparative Research on Eastern and Western Drama [동서연극의 비교연구] (1987).

His major works of translation include: Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence [달과 6펜스] (1955), Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [젊은 예술가의 초상] (1959), Hamlet [햄릿] (1964), Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night ‘십이야'(1964), Richard III ‘리처드 3세'(1964), and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author [작자를 찾는 6인의 등장인물] (1975).



When Editing Opts the Contributor Out of the OpEd

Image for “When C.E.O.’s Embrace the Occult,” by Boyoun Kim for the New York Times

If you’ve been following me here, you may know that I’m not 100% in love with the cultural reporting of “far-flung correspondents” sent abroad by major English language news outlets. So much of it devolves into gawking at niche fads or other cultural “oddities,” often with the inevitable fortune cookie conclusion that, in Asia, “Confucius still say…”

So I was especially excited when I saw that one of my favorite Korean authors, Kim Young-ha, was contributing op-ed pieces to the New York Times. Since his first piece, “When C.E.O.’s Embrace the Occult,” appeared last October (2013), I’ve looked forward to getting his wry take on the latest news from Korea without having to wait a year or two for his next novel. I was surprised, though, by the heavy reliance on reportage in what I thought were supposed to be well-informed personal observations.

As the months passed, the reporting seemed to increase as Kim’s personal anecdotes and sly asides decreased. It was as if his opinion, which is so influenced by his writerly way of illustrating how current events in Korea are felt as every person’s individual history, was being marginalized. In its place there loomed an editorial voice that needed to explain the facts and figures behind the news items.

When I got to have a turn at translating the essays, I discovered that the Grey Lady’s style guide is indeed zealously enforced, and fact checking rules the day. I’ve translated, taught, and written enough about Kim Young-ha’s work to see where he ends and where the influence of past editing processes for these articles seems to peer over his shoulder. He’s expressed his dissatisfaction with the process to me and the other translators (Krys Lee and Sora), and it’s uncertain whether he’ll want to keep contributing his particular acuity and lively histories of contemporary issues in South Korea to the Times.

Last week’s “Navigating a Post-Samsung Era,” for example, was meant to show the conflicted ambivalence Koreans feel towards Samsung and the chaebol system, but ended up repeating the same facts, figures, and lore about Samsung and the Lee family as the Japan Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and the New York Times itself to name a few. The Washington Post’s article, “In S. Korea, the Republic of Samsung” from two years ago even covered much of the same territory about what a post-Samsung Korea might look like.

The thing is, Kim Young-ha knows how to spin a great yarn. His most important contribution to the information reported about Korea is how he shows the emotional depth and self-consciousness with which Koreans experience their history. Here’s what he wanted to tell us about Samsung and Lee Kun-hee’s succession:

Very few people predicted that the introverted, taciturn third son of Samsung’s founder Lee Byung-chul would succeed his father after he passed away in late 1987 and turn it into the economic giant it is today. I certainly wasn’t one of them.
In 1993, after Lee Kun-hee called Samsung executives to a meeting in Frankfurt and announced new management with the now famous saying, “Change everything but your wife and children,” I was drinking beer with my friends at a campus bar in Seoul. I made two predictions that day; the first was right, but the second was wrong. First, I said that Lee Kun-hee’s ambitious plans for a Samsung Motor Company wouldn’t succeed, and second, that the whole conglomerate would collapse as a result of such a risky venture. Lee had been passionate about cars since he was young, and he pushed Samsung into the automotive industry as soon as he took control of the company. Thanks to the wholehearted support of the Korean government and an alliance with Nissan Motors, he launched Samsung Motors.  The company went into receivership in 1999, and Samsung subsequently exited the auto industry. It was a huge blow to the company for sure, but contrary to my second prediction, the Samsung Group didn’t completely collapse. An increased demand for semiconductors worldwide had saved the company.
I still remember that idle bar chatter twenty-one years ago because of the strange thing that happened next. As my friends and I boisterously cheered, “Samsung’s going down!” several bottles of beer materialized at our table. A group of office workers in suits sitting at the next table had sent them over to us. They introduced themselves as Samsung employees, told me that my prediction that the company would fail was completely baseless, and then embarked on a point by point rebuttal of my drunken claim. I don’t remember what proof they gave us, but I remember vividly the reverence they felt towards the heir who had just ascended to his father’s seat. They had already attached the honorific suffix ‘-nim’ to Lee’s title, and spoke with great deference about their “Hoejang-nim” (Honorable Chairman).
Now, in those tumultuous days in the early 1990s it was rare to hear anyone speaking deferentially, let alone reverentially, about a chaebol chairman anywhere near a university. University campuses were by and large critical of the conglomerates that were suppressing the labor movement with which the students felt great solidarity. Needless to say, it was even worse for some heir born under a lucky star and taking over his father’s exalted position. Yet here were these young Samsung employees sitting at a campus bar attaching honorifics to Lee Kun-hee’s title and extolling the virtues of Samsung Corp. Seeing the tenacity of those employees defending their leader, I was almost convinced that Samsung wouldn’t go down so easily.
Things changed quite a bit over the next twenty years. Not only did Samsung not fail, it became the biggest conglomerate in Korea. And the way college students view Samsung has really changed as well. Samsung Electronics is now the number one pick for future employers among college students in almost every survey taken. Of the 670,000 university graduates in a year, 200,000, or almost a third of them sit for Samsung’s employee aptitude test, but this test is just the first step to being chosen as a new hire at Samsung. There’s even a cottage industry of cram schools specifically devoted to Samsung’s exam.
But what would happen if a company like Samsung were to fail?
Kim’s story was deleted and replaced with this:
Very few people predicted that Mr. Lee, the introverted, taciturn third son of Samsung’s founder, Lee Byung-chul, would blossom after succeeding his father after his death in 1987 and turn the company into the economic giant it is today. But under Mr. Lee, Samsung thrived and became a top player in the smartphone and television markets. The share price has skyrocketed during his tenure.
Samsung Electronics is now the No.1 pick among college students for where they want to work, a significant change from 20 years ago, when university campuses were largely critical of the conglomerates, which were suppressing the labor movement. About 200,000 university graduates, almost a third of the country’s annual graduating class, sit for Samsung’s employee aptitude test.
In general, South Koreans’ opinions of the conglomerate are mixed. There is an unmistakable pride that we feel over its success, which is tied to our country’s rise over the last decades. But we are also very wary of Samsung’s deep reach into society.
Where did he go?! I know there are space limitations, but why have a novelist write a World Book entry about Samsung when there’s already Wikipedia?
Kim’s anecdote illustrates the deep-seated collective resistance to the chaebols and the part it played in galvanizing the opposition movement that ushered in a democratic government at one table; and the familial fealty and absolute faith in Samsung that has persisted over the course of three generations at the next table over. And it all goes down with a few dozen bottles of beer. Well, I’m guessing at least that many, given what we know of Korean bar culture. Who else but a writer like Kim Young-ha could get 30-plus years of economic, political, and social history into a story about a chance encounter between two groups of young people on a bender?
For me, the most egregious sanitizing happened last month when Kim Young-ha’s devastated self-critique and anger over the Sewol Ferry tragedy was diluted to the point that at least one blogger on the Korean portal Naver expressed disappointment that the piece didn’t sufficiently represent the rage people were feeling about the failure (and you’d better believe several wanted to blame it on the translator: “밑에 보니 제니 왕 메디나라는 여자가 영작한거 같은데 원문의 느낌이 많이 상실했나봐요~ ㅜ.” Well harumph to you too. And big thanks to my little brother for naver’ing his noona and asking why I messed up the article.). 
After seeing how much Kim Young-ha had been removed from his own writing, I fretted that Sora, Krys, Matt (my in-house editor/husband), and I would be the only ones to get to read these funny, poignant essays in their entirety. But lucky for us, he has graciously agreed to let us post our original translations here on SOV. I’ll be putting up the other ones intermittently, so keep an eye out for more Kim Young-ha, himself.
Here’s the translated piece about Lee Kun-hee and Samsung’s presence in Korea before it went through the editing machine(note that this means it precedes the NYT’s fact-checkers): “Samsung” by Kim Young-ha, translated by Jenny Wang Medina 

And for a larf, here are some vintage Samsung ads. The owl in the last one is my favorite.

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믿을 수 있는 친구, 삼성 (1997)

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내가 먼저! 삼성은 다시 뛰겠습니다 (1997)

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삼성은 세계일류 2 (1995)

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삼성은 세계일류 1 (1995)

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함께사는 우리 사회 (1991)

앞서가는 새기술 三星電子

앞서가는 새기술 三星電子 (1975)

“Freedom has become freedom for the rich”—Gong Ji-young in CommonWealth Magazine

Gong Ji-young: “This Is Not Freedom, It’s the Law of the Jungle” in CommonWealth Magazine.

Gong Ji-young via CommonWealth Magazine

Taiwan’s CommonWealth magazine featured a great profile and interview with Gong Ji-young last week, and she takes the opportunity to speak at length about her concern about the widening wealth gap and the need for more social welfare in Korea.

Some edifying bits from the article:

Hailing from an affluent family, Gong admits that before she began to study at university she had no idea that some Koreans were so poor they had to do without food. Gong grew up during the iron-fisted military dictatorship of South Korean president Park Chung-hee, the father of incumbent president Park Geun-hye. While studying literature at prestigious Yonsei University, she became involved with the brewing democracy movement. Once she even went to jail for participating in a demonstration.

In response to the question: “From the outside, it appears that South Korea whole-heartedly embraced economic liberalization following the Asian financial crisis. In your eyes, what did the South Koreans gain from liberalization? What did they lose?

A: I am not an economic expert. I can only give you the perspective of an ordinary Korean.

I have personally lived through South Korea’s transformation from military dictatorship to democracy, the country’s banking system being taken over by the IMF following the Asian financial crisis, and the massive opening of free trade. I firmly believe that a closed society is bound to march toward its demise. It doesn’t matter whether it is a group, society or nation, if it is kept closed all the time, it will be doomed. Therefore, we definitely must march toward opening. Yet on the other side, opening does not mean you won’t be doomed. Over the past decade, free trade allowed the South Korean economy to perform very well, but the greatest problem is that it dramatically increased the wealth gap.

When I was a teenager, a person who worked hard made money and was able to enjoy a good life. That was the widely held ideal and belief back then. Now, these ideas have turned out to be illusions. It seems that nothing at all can be expected from the future.


Everyone talks about freedom, freedom. And on the surface, this country definitely looks free. But the true meaning of freedom has not been achieved. Freedom has become freedom for the rich. Right now what we call freedom would be more accurately described as the absence of rules, or the law of the jungle.

I believe that freedom still requires state intervention to ensure that citizens’ rights are protected. The current freedom leaves many people with a feeling of utter despair, because they feel they won’t be able to improve their lives.

And an interesting lead in from the interviewer, given the shared colonial past between the two countries:

Q: Does that mean that the South Koreans are happy? Many Taiwanese people think the South Koreans must be happy, because their economy is doing well.

A: On the political front, democracy is currently taking a step backwards, so I feel unhappy. The economy is also showing many problems, so in that regard I’m not happy either.

The daughter of the president who subjected me to military education serves as president now, so I’m not happy. Now everyone vents their misgivings on the Internet. That’s another thing that makes our ruling party so nervous.

Everyone seems to be very happy because of Korean TV dramas like Man of the Stars. These make people temporarily forget their real problems, just like an injection of pain killer.

Gong Ji-young’s most recent work translated into English is Our Happy Time, tr. by Sora, available now.

It’s all happening… press for Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll Be Right There, tr. by Sora

I’ll Be Right There, Polish edition – I prefer to use this image instead of the “half-obscured Asian lady face” English edition (sorry Sora)

I’ll Be Right There, Shin Kyung-sook’s newest novel in English translation, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, will be released in the U.S. on June 03, 2014 from Other Press Books. It’s available for sale now in the U.K. (released April 10, and amazonUK says they ship to the US, fwiw).

Reviews have been great so far. Let this serve as advance warning that there will probably be a whole lotta Shin Kyung-sook around here for the next couple months. And yay for Sora on her latest publication! So proud… *sniff*

In case you haven’t read anything about I’ll Be Right There yet, here’s the link to an excerpt on Words Without Borders, and the synopsis from Other Press:

How friendship, European literature, and a charismatic professor defy war, oppression, and the absurd

Set in 1980s South Korea amid the tremors of political revolution, I’ll Be Right There follows Jung Yoon, a highly literate, twenty-something woman, as she recounts her tragic personal history as well as those of her three intimate college friends. When Yoon receives a distressing phone call from her ex-boyfriend after eight years of separation, memories of a tumultuous youth begin to resurface, forcing her to re-live the  most intense period of her life. With profound intellectual and emotional insight, she revisits the death of her beloved mother, the strong bond with her now-dying former college professor, the excitement of her first love, and the friendships forged out of a shared sense of isolation and grief.

Yoon’s formative experiences, which highlight both the fragility and force of personal connection in an era of absolute uncertainty, become immediately palpable. Shin makes the foreign and esoteric utterly familiar: her use of European literature as an interpreter of emotion and experience bridges any gaps between East and West. Love, friendship, and solitude are the same everywhere, as this book makes poignantly clear.

Other Press has pull quotes from some of the reviews up as well.

Links to some of the first reviews and mentions:

  • Publishers Weekly – “Shin can suggest profound implications in restrained detail, and though the story ends in tragedy, her frequent references to both Eastern and Western literature testify to the duty to hope and to survive.”
  • Kirkus – “Shin’s uncomplicated yet allusive narrative voice delivers another calmly affecting story, simultaneously foreign and familiar.”
  • HuffPo: One of “30 Books You NEED to Read in 2014″
  • Book Verdict: Library Journal – “‘I do not specifically reveal the era or elucidate Korea’s political situation,’ writes Shin, recipient of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize for Please Look After Mom, in the ending of her latest spectacular novel in English translation. Ironically, those missing details make this story urgently universal: in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and too many other countries in tumult, young people will continue to form life-changing bonds and fall hopelessly in love.”
  • Banana Writers – My favorite bit of the interview:

    A    is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food? “I like roasted banana ice cream sundae.”

  • KTLit (includes a nice review of Sora’s translation as well)
  • Korea Times – Ooh, a little criticism: “Amid the tumult, questions go unanswered. In particular, the students’ relationship with their mentor – whose illness precipitates the telling of the story – is underdeveloped. He is constantly in their thoughts but remains in the periphery, leaving us to wonder if his story couldn’t have been more compelling.”
  • FemaleIntel – Included in a short list of “Great Books by Women to Read in 2014,” along with Lorrie Moore, Emma Donoghue, Susan Minot, Molly Antopol, and Yiyun Li
  • The Daily Mississippian – Campus newspaper adds it to the list of movies to see and books to read over the summer: “This intellectual mystery is perfect for a hammock, a chair, the edge of your seat, anywhere that you can sneak away to, really.” Curious, that one.
  • Random goodreads review that I liked: “El estilo de la autora también me agradó muchísimo. Fue una lectura distinta y un soplo de aire fresco. La historia era en parte triste, en parte dramática, y con unos pocos momentos de alegría. Muy reflexiva. Es un libro que está bueno de leer, algo de un estilo que no se ve a menudo, pero que tantas personas pueden encontrar aburrido como otras sumamente entretenido.”

And… Korean press about the foreign press coverage (SO META…):

I could’ve sworn there was more, but that should do it for now. I’ll do these roundups once in a while as the frenzy mounts.


Ko Un poem in response to the Sewol disaster on WWB

via Brother Anthony and Words Without Borders

Poet (and perennial Korean Nobel Prize candidate) Ko Un’s response to the Sewol ferry disaster, <일음짖지 못한 시> (“A Poem I Didn’t Name“) has been translated by Brother Anthony and Lee Sang-Wha and published on Words Without Borders

Here’s an excerpt:

A floodtide of sorrow has risen
in every corner of this country,
everyone feeling indignant, fists clenched.
Not only anger,
not only sorrow, but a mingled clot of black blood
is rolling inside every breast.

Did you say country?
What kind of country is this?
We have realized just how vulnerable
what we call humanity or what we call justice
really is in a country like this.
Number one in the world in such and such?
It was outside number one in its suicide rate.
Number ten in the world in such and such?
It was beyond number ten in despair.
Did you say society?
What kind of society is this?
There is not one alley left anywhere
where people really live together.
Did you say trust?
What trust do we have?
The traces of the ancient friendship
in which we gladly trusted each other
have disappeared from every sloping road.

Often it’s said there’s nothing public,
only privacy in this country.
Not so.
There is no privacy, either.
Rightly founded privacy alone can bring forth what is public.
Sacred privacy is all rotten now.
Now is an age of death in which
power is seized and wealth is gained
by such privacy.

Again today they sit facing the southern sea.
No matter how many times they beat on the ground with their hands
all they have are bruised, bleeding palms.
They will never come running, their faces bright.
However, they still gaze out at the blank morning sea,
that was awake all night.

Read the full text of the poem in translation here and the Korean poem here

Color footage of Seoul, 1938

Seoul 1938: 16mm color footage of Seoul and the countryside shot by Swedish diplomat Thor Wiestlandt.

Posted by Designersparty

It’s really interesting to see this footage in color, but where is all the modern technology? 1938 would have been during the wartime mobilization in colonial Seoul, so where are all the soldiers, the streetcars, the cars, lights, and moga/mobos (modern girls/modern boys)? Korea, are always in the eye of the beholder.

Also, did he catch a man micturating on a fence by Chungyecheon at 1:25? Eeps!


Seoul, 1938 in color


No room of one’s own: Jamie’s WWB Dispatch on Kim Aeran

Read “Totalitarian Capitalism in a Windowless Room,” Jamie’s new piece up on Words Without Borders. She writes about discovering Kim Aeran’s work and translating the story “Ascending Scales” (from the April 2014 issue of Words Without Borders) in a beautifully written reflection on how the confined spaces of millennial Korean youth—gosiwon, rooftop rooms, and love motels, those uncomfortably tight spaces where young people try to find some affordable room of their own—are metaphors for the choices available to them in post-war, post-authoritarian, post-developmental, and post-democratization Korean society.

Like so many Koreans who came of age around the turn of the century and thereafter, I had first-hand experience with those uncomfortable rooms. I shared a nine-square-meter dorm room with three other girls (“Crossing the Meridian”), visited my wife in her gosiwon room the size of a pantry (“Prayer”), and spent many nights in unsavory love motels with Saein (“Christmas Specials”). These places were widely accepted as the norm, a rite of passage of sorts that were romanticized as a necessary, dehumanizing part of becoming a “grown up”—a spatial embodiment of gojingamnae, or “after pain comes sweet reward.”

The affinity she feels for the disillusioned young adults in Kim Aeran’s stories is not just sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden (like the realism of yore), but also an uncomfortable empathy at the realization that their struggles probably won’t be met with a commensurate reward(gojingamnae). The new generation of writers like Kim Aeran were initially criticized for their lack of seriousness or historical consciousness in the early 2000s, but it seems rather that the seriousness of their historical moment just hadn’t been recognized as such yet.

Many young Korean writers today write about the disillusionment with the future they were promised—the promise of social justice, the promise that hard work would be rewarded. As Kim Young-ha said in an interview with BBC, the previous generation of writers who lived through the horrors of the Korean War and the Democracy Movements often dismisses the disappointment of the younger generation as trivial. But I think the true horror is the possibility that the previous generation’s economic and political achievements, based on tremendous sacrifices, are in danger of coming apart in every sense of the expression.

The betrayal of the promises made to younger generations of South Koreans is felt more keenly as suicide rates across age groups rises and as recent events show a failure of inter-generational reciprocity. It seems that the recognition is dawning that the metrics have changed drastically and it’s high time for a reassessment of expectations across the board.

Read more here:

South Korean lit as proxy for every Korea, past, present, and future

Ten Korean writers on a country sawn in half | Books | The Guardian.

With Korea as the “Market focus” country at the London Book Fair this week there has been a lot of advance hubbub about the history of Korean literature, its characteristics, its leading lights, etc., but the big elephant in the room was mostly left to mind its own business. That is, until this Guardian piece that admits what the world really wants from Korean literature: to explain all of Korea, but especially North Korea:

After two years of political hot potatoes – first China and then Turkey– this year’s“market focus”country presents a different challenge to the London Book Fair, which runs this week: who wants to read books from Korea? The choice of name could be dismissed as opportunistically misleading: Korea is two countries, but the 10 writers who will be at the book fair are all from the south.

We’re desperate to hear the inside story of North Korea because it is the stuff of nightmares, locked in unending cold war, complete with nuclear bombs aimed at unknown targets. We have no access to the first-hand stories of its citizens, so we rely on western writers, whether of novels, such as Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer prizewinning The Orphan Master’s Son, or of journalism. Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea won the 2010 Samuel Johnson prize, while John Sweeney was more recently accused of putting a group of London students at risk by joining them incognito to research his book, North Korea Undercover.

I imagine that the desire to continue with another “political hot potato” was there, but assuming a lack of cooperation, an eager South Korea has taken on the role of representing both sides of the Korean peninsula and satiating the world’s “desperate” desire “to hear the inside story of North Korea.” As Sora and Jamie pointed out in their notes on the translation of “I am a Communist,” this is a role Koreans all over the world are asked to play:

North or South? Whether you’re Korean-American or an expat living in South Korea, it’s the question everyone wants to ask you. Which Korea are you from? Which Korea are you living in? It’s usually answered with an eye roll and a muttered “South, obviously.” Which isn’t to say that no one is ever from the North (the relevance of this question could soon change, given the number of defectors), but for expats, at least, the absurdity lies in the notion of anyone choosing to live in the North. After all, it’s a horrible place with no food or electricity, where everyone only pretends to be happy, where the country’s leadership works best when it’s the butt of a joke, right? No one would choose to be North Korean. Right?

The sensationalist media coverage of North Korea cyclically feeds on and regurgitates a demand for the inscrutable and inexplicable North that turns most coverage of South Korea into a prism of identifications: any mention of Korea gets confused and conflated with North Korea’s despotism, South Korea’s hyper-technologized society, as well as whatever identifications the local media has from its interactions with the (mostly South) Korean diaspora. Whatever extremes are found in South Korea (the suicide rate, generational conflict, faddishness) are deliriously catapulted into the mythology of the “bizarre” culture of North Korea as an essentialist explanation as well as an additional rebuke to the failures of the North Korean state.

This happens to Korean-Americans as well, where the image is again confused by this inability to separate stereotyped images—remember Arrested Development’s Annyong (n.b. I love this show, but this character…)? The Korean adoptee in “traditional Korean dress” (that looks more like a Chinese changshan or whatever Fox had leftover in the “Asian costumes bin”) seemed like he might turn out to be a North Korean spy, but was later revealed to be the grandson of a Korean immigrant from whom Lucille Bluth stole the idea for a frozen banana stand then had deported, thus securing the Bluth empire. Arrested Development nails it again with Annyong. He covers most of the Korean stereotypes: adoptee, possibly North Korean spy,  docile until deadly, ruthless business owner, and maybe kind of Chinese?

annyong bluth

But I digress.

The cultural difference demanded of Korean literature in the world market asks for quite a lot: it’s expected to explain the war, division, family and tradition, and ethnic insularity for two nations as well as for the million-plus Korean diaspora. On the other hand, it’s a job that Korean-American writers have been expected to incorporate in the obligatory first “identity” novel for at least a hundred years, represented in the article by Chang-rae Lee and Krys Lee (although, as she points out, she’s an even more complicated case since she spent some of her formative years in the U.S., but has lived in Korea for much of her adult life).

So we get a recognition of the difficulties that South Korea faces in being asked to represent the extreme polarizations within the multiple Korean societies known to the world, but not a pass:

Problematically for the international profile of Korean literature, the rituals that unite these pairs of brothers separate them from the rest of us: we understand more about communism than we do about the hybrid of religion and superstition in a country that mixes Buddhism, Confucianism and Catholicism, while boasting the five biggest protestant churches in the world.

And then, finally, it gets turned into the task of the translator:

Such extremes of cultural difference demand a sophistication of translation that is simply not evident in many of the classic texts, though there are signs that this is beginning to change. A recent bestselling novel by Kyung-Sook Shin, Please Look After Mother – about a family dealing with the fall-out from the disappearance of their senile mother – was premised on a tradition of family duty deemed so alien to western readers that it is said to have been substantially adapted in translation (by the LA-based translator Chi-Young Kim).

I’m not sure this is what Benjamin had in mind… actually, maybe it was, but it assumes and demands a helluva job from the source text and the translator that is:

…not merely promoting and translating books but mediating one culture to another in such a way that the narratives we want to read are not simply journalistic horror stories, but the nuanced, culturally specific fictions that can illuminate the soul of a fascinating, complex, geopolitically critical, country.

This is true. It is a very big job that is just starting to be understood in all its complexities. For my part, I’d amend the last bit so it would read: “It’s a big job: one that involves not merely promoting and translation books, but mediating several historically and ethnically intertwined cultureS to another that views itself as universal (alt.: to other cultureS) in such a way that the narratives we want to read are not simply journalistic horror stories (yes, please!), but the nuanced, cultural specific fictions that can illuminate the soul of two or more fascinating, complex, geopolitically critical, countries.

I know, it’s wordy and overwrought, but so is the situation.

p.s. Stay tuned for more on this later, when I finally get around to posting about the circulation of the mok-bang (먹방) meme on it’s dizzying journey to the heights of the Wall Street Journal.



Kim Young-ha on Suicide in Korea in the NYT—tr. by Jenny

Kim Young-ha’s latest Op-ed in the New York Times is online. Translated by Jenny (er…me). He wrote it last week, then in the middle of the translation/editing process, the news came out about The Avengers 2 crew finding another dead body under the Mapo Bridge so he added it in. But apparently the Grey Lady doesn’t provide free publicity, so it became “big-budget Hollywood film.”

BUSAN, South Korea — As the author of the novel “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself,” I’m often asked why I think South Korea’s suicide rate is so high. The protagonist in my story is a professional “suicide counselor” who is hired to help clients plan and execute their own deaths. I started writing the novel in 1995, a time when South Korea’s annual rate of suicide was much lower than the average of the other industrialized nations. But it soared in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis — and it has been getting worse ever since.

When the novel was published in 1996 no one, including me, would have thought that suicide could become such a scourge. South Korea has had the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world for eight consecutive years; 14,160 people committed suicide in 2012, an average of 39 people per day and a 219 percent increase from the 6,444 suicides in 2000. It’s the No.1 cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 30. For people in their 40s, suicide is the second most common cause of death, after cancer. Among the older generations, the numbers are even more bleak.

Today, I could never write a suicide-filled novel like “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.” I would be too afraid of inspiring others to kill themselves. I look forward to the day when a writer like me can once again comfortably use suicide as the stuff of fiction.

Read the full piece here

Impossibilities in translation: music, words, and death

My friend asked me to read over his translation of the song “벗이여 해방이 온다” (“My friend, liberation is coming”) by Yun Seon-ae last week, and we had (what I thought) was an interesting exchange about it.

He’s a former student movement leader from the early 90s, and this song was really important to the movement, he said. I didn’t know it and had never heard it before, so I approached it from a purely textual standpoint. The difference between the tone of our translations is striking, showing how much context and voice can change the meaning of a text.

Here are the original lyrics:

벗이여 해방이 온다

그날은 오리라, 자유의 넋으로 살아
벗이여 고이 가소서, 그대 뒤를 따르리니
그날은 오리라, 해방으로 물결 춤추는
벗이여 고이 가소서, 투쟁으로 함께 하리니
그대 타는 불길로, 그대 노여움으로
반역의 어두움 뒤집어 새날 새날을 여는구나
그날은 오리라, 가자 이제 생명을 걸고
벗이여 새날이 온다, 벗이여 해방이 온다

Here’s his translation:

My friend, the day will come.

The day will come, alive with the spirit of freedom
Goodbye my friend, I will follow in your footsteps
The day will come, dancing in the waves of emancipation
Goodbye my friend, I will join you in our struggle
Like a flame ablaze, with your indignation
You reverse the treacherous darkness and open up a new day, a new day
The day will come, let us put our lives on the line and march forward
My friend, the day will come
My friend, emancipation will come.

I read a more aggressive tone in the lyrics and suggested changing “the day will come” to “the day is coming,” which I thought would give the verb a more forceful prophetic voice. Then I tried to make the “poem” more temporally present—more like a call to arms, which is how I read the words.

Here’s my translation:

Liberation is coming, my friend!
The day is coming, it lives for the spirit of freedom
Go boldly, friend, for I’m right behind you
That day is coming, it dances through the waves of emancipation
Go boldly, friend, for we fight together
Like a fiery blaze, your wrath
upsets the treacherous darkness and oh, the new day, the new day comes
That day is coming, let’s go now, we lay our lives on the line
My friend, the new day comes,
my friend, liberation is coming.
Then he sent me this video of Yun Seon-ae singing the song.

Oooh, it’s an elegy to the fallen protestors, I realized. The quiet melancholy in my friend’s translation of the song made much more sense to me then, and I understood that the prophetic voice was meant to be wistful, enraged, hopeful, and mobilizing all at the same time.

Touché. I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like to see the things he saw, like a student’s self-immolated body falling from a building on his university campus, and to do the things he did, like throwing molotov cocktails at a makeshift police detention center where his comrades were being tortured, but I can hear it much better in his poem and in Yun Seon-ae’s song.


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