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.
믿을 수 있는 친구, 삼성 (1997)
내가 먼저! 삼성은 다시 뛰겠습니다 (1997)
삼성은 세계일류 2 (1995)
삼성은 세계일류 1 (1995)
함께사는 우리 사회 (1991)
앞서가는 새기술 三星電子 (1975)