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.

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.

On Sparkling, and Promoting Korean Culture

SNU professor and hanok enthusiast Robert Fouser’s op-ed in the Korea Herald, “How to Promote Korean Culture” has a useful brief history of some of the previous administrations’ efforts at putting Korea out in the world. It’s a good read with a sensible point:

Hangeul as a cultural product is also problematic. Koreans are very proud of Hangeul and culture promoters are eager for foreigners to discover its “superiority.” The idea of presenting Korean culture as “superior,” however, is the core problem with government efforts. To justify the expense of taxpayer money, bureaucrats argue that a Korean cultural product is “good for foreigners” and that promoting it is in the national interest.

The problem, of course, is that foreigners may not see the “superiority” in what the promoters are trying to push. They may be attracted to other things, but the promoters often construe this as evidence of the need for a “proper understanding” of Korean culture. The logical problem with official efforts to promote Korean culture is that Koreans want to claim ownership not only of the cultural product, but also of its reception. Claims of ownership, however, only alienate foreigners and cause interest to drop.

I like to call it “unrequited globalization,” since it’s abundantly clear that the world is in Korea. But Korea is getting into the world quite a bit these days too. I’ve always thought that promotion should occur through support for makers: food, fashion, art, literature, music, in Korea and for those interested in learning more about it. Awkward slogans (Korea, sparkling? Or every English-speaker’s favorite, “Visit Korea Year 2010-2012,” you know, b/c that’s TWO years?) and ad campaigns don’t do much. Support people and organizationshelp them continue to create and perform and do all the amazing things they’ve already been doing, then promote them. You know, sparklingly.




^_^ ㅎ_ㅎ @_@ Korean emoticons infographic

A cute and handy little primer on Korean emoticons from Dom & Hyo via Chris on Beonyeok Musings

Korean emoticons from Dom & Hyo

It’s missing a few of my favs, but it’s cute. And handy.

(  ._.) (._.  ) – 돌이돌이 – shaking your head no in shame, learnt from a funny prof in Seoul

ㅎ_ㅎ  ㅂ_ㅂ  ㅍ_ㅍ  -_-  ㅇ_ㅇ – 그냥 – whatever

ㅅ_ㅅ – laughing face

And, for the mother of all Korean emoticon guides in Korean, go here.

Sora and I discussed what ㅎ_ㅎ means because I thought it was a stern, angry face, and she kind of did too, but she found the “그냥” translation. Maybe 그냥 is whatever with a big W, like, “Whatever, major loser,” which in my house, has become “What-Ever, Major Lizard.” Because, you know, loser is not a nice word, kids.


from CNN photos: Old versus new in South Korea


purdy pitchers…

In this image, Fullerton-Batten captures the impression of hanbok-clad women harvesting tea in the middle of Seoul. (Julia Fullerton-Batten via cnnphotos)

In this image, Fullerton-Batten captures the impression of hanbok-clad women harvesting tea in the middle of Seoul. (Julia Fullerton-Batten via cnnphotos)

Originally posted on CNN Photos:

Although the hanbok has recently made a debut in high fashion and is a school uniform in some South Korean schools, the centuries-old Korean dress is typically worn only at ceremonies and special occasions.

Photographer Julia Fullerton-Batten focused on these heavy, layered dresses to juxtapose South Korea’s history and culture with its modernization.

“Even though they aren’t so flattering — you don’t see their bodies, it’s quite wide and the top is wide — they’re very graphic,” Fullerton-Batten said.

During a recent trip to the South Korean capital of Seoul, Fullerton-Batten shot these cinematic images of Korean girls in hanbok with modern architecture as a backdrop. The bright colors of the dresses look out of place against the gray, austere buildings, representing the conflict between the old traditions of the country and the modernization of the city.

She visited during monsoon season and had to carefully time her shoots in…

View original 422 more words

Precious Moments: Best Senior Portraits Ever

Apparently, these high school seniors in Korea were given carte blanche for their yearbook photos, with hilarious results. From the Korean sites, it seems like they come from different schools — so I guess this is a thing now?

A few of my favs via Kotaku and other (Korean) links:


From Kim Young-ha’s latest op-ed for the New York Times, as translated by Sora:

The Seoul subway’s designated-seating section has become a curious backdrop of intergenerational conflict in South Korea. In the 40 years or so since full-scale industrialization began, the social divide between generations has widened. Senior citizens grew up during Japanese occupation and the Korean War, and lived through the era of breakneck economic growth that followed, building a modern country from the ground up in just a few decades, most of the time under a military dictatorship. Most younger South Koreans have come of age in a time of relative affluence and freedom, and like many younger people in East Asia, have gradually become more independent-minded than their elders and less attached to the traditional Confucian values that have been the basis of Korean society for centuries.

In recent years, South Korea’s economic woes have put strain on both groups, and frustrations are high. Older South Koreans are finding themselves financially unprepared for retirement, while younger people can’t find jobs. The Seoul subway is a rare place where the generations cross paths — and the intergenerational tensions are playing out in the crowded trains.

In 2003, I gave one of these seats up for an elderly lady despite my broken foot in a cast and crutches (yeah, yeah, I’m such a good girl) because the 20-something girl next to me wouldn’t get up. Several of the other elderly folks sitting nearby chided her until she let me sit down and she got off at the next stop, looking ashamed. I got off at the stop after that (not actually my stop) because I was embarrassed too and didn’t want to listen to people clucking over me. That was ten years ago now… I doubt the scene would have played out the same way now.

Happy Seollal! Now let’s go bow
to our elders…

Han Kang opines in the NYT on plastic surgery

Han Kang, author of The Vegetarian, had an op-ed in The New York Times in December about plastic surgery.

From the article:
I thought about the strangeness of the situation — my old friend, with her new face — on the way home. Someone like her, who liked to do things properly, would have met with several doctors and had a number of consultations. Despite her busy schedule, she would have taken the recommended amount of days to recover. I wonder how long she spent looking at herself in the mirror before deciding to go through with the operation. Had she felt alone? Didn’t she perhaps feel even more alone now, with that stranger’s face looking back at her? I missed the eyes she’d had, the beautiful, clean lines of those simple half-moons.

Are these op-eds by novelists a new tactic for encouraging interest in Korean literature? If so, I like it… I’ve always enjoyed reading the authors’ prefaces and postscripts in most works in Korean and wondered why they weren’t included in the translations. Korean literature has a long tradition of editorials and personal essays, and I’m glad to see this form of writing making headway into a broad English readership.

via KLTI

*Update: the piece was translated by Deborah Smith (@londonkoreanist), who also translated The Vegetarian. Well done!