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).



Win $500 for reviewing Bae-Suah story! (not junk)

From LTI Korea, a chance to win a $500 Amazon Gift certificate for reading and reviewing Bae Su-ah’s “Highway with Green Apples,” translated by Sora.

K-Lit Review Contest on

* Topic: Read Highway with Green Apples(A Short Story) by Suah Bae 
(Amazon link: and write a 500 word review.


* Eligibility: Open to all foreigners residing in and outside of Korea

* How to Enter
1) Read the book :-)
2) Post your review in English on the book’s Amazon page (Limited to 500 words)
3) Fill the application form on the LTI Korea’s facebook page

* Prizes
1) Grand Prize (1 person): $500 Gift Card or equivalent
2) First Prize (3 persons): $100 Gift Card or equivalent(Each)
3) Second Prize (5 persons): $50 Gift Card or equivalent(Each)

* Reviews will be judged by the judging panel. They will be looking for originality, content, and humor. 

* The winners will be announced on the LTI Korea’s facebook page after 7/1/2014.

Terms and Conditions:

A. Prizes will be forfeited if a review is plagiarized or has received an award from an another contest. 
B. Literature Translation Institute of Korea(LTI Korea) will have the right to post, print, publish or otherwise use the contest submissions.
C. Any legal issues concerning portrait rights or copyright violations arising from a submission are solely the legal responsibility of the contestant.



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.


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.


Flesh Flowers for Han Kang’s The Vegetarian


@maxjohnporter of Granta Books and Portobello Books tweeted this incredible image of the cover for Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, tr. Deborah Smith (@londonkoreanist). The novel won’t be available until January 2015 (agh, can’t wait!) from Portobello Books, but you can read an excerpt on Words Without Borders. Cover designed by Tom Darracott.

April 2014 – Writing from South Korea – Words Without Borders

April 2014 – Writing from South Korea – Words Without Borders.April 2014 - Words Without Borders

The new issue of Words Without Borders featuring South Korean fiction and poetry is up (and sov is in the house!).

Full table of contents:


  • “Say Ah, Pelican,” by Park Min-gyu, tr. Jenny Wang Medina
  • “Lament,” by Han Yujoo, tr. Janet Hong
  • from I’ll Be Right There, by Kyung-sook Shin, tr. Sora Kim-Russell
  • “The Suit,” by Kim Young-ha, tr. Sora Kim-Russell
  • “Ascending Scales,” by Ae-ran Kim, tr. Jamie Chang
  • from The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (@londonkoreanist)
  • “That Last Winter,” by Yi Mun-yol, tr. Brother Anthony


  • “Injeolmi Rice Cakes,” by Kim Sa-in, tr. Brother Anthony and Susan Hwang
  • “Gamak Valley,” by Ko Un, tr. Brother Anthony and Lee Sang-Wha
  • “My Wife’s Magic,” by Shim Bo-Seon, tr. Brother Anthony
  • “Earning My Keep,” by Jeong Ho-Seung, tr. Brother Anthony and Eun-Gwi Chung
  • “Mud Flats,” by Kim Soo-Bok, tr. Brother Anthony


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 Translating Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time

I was asked to write a little piece for Bookanista on the process of translating Gong Ji-young’s novel Our Happy Time.

“Translating Between The Lines”

Here’s Jenny’s favorite bit*:

For a translator who deals in words on the page, silence baffles. Distracted by the literal, I fell for Yujeong’s sarcasm and was misled by her excuses. Somewhere behind those layers of dialogue, monologue and imagined conversation, Yujeong was itching to speak but was too accustomed to being silenced and spoken over. This was reflected not just in her sarcastic asides but in all the things she left out, even on the sentence level. In a scene with her older brother, she speaks out passionately against the death penalty only to be met with a patronising, “When did you study all of that?” Instead of responding, she retreats into her head: “I wanted to yell, Why do you think so little of me?” The original Korean literally reads: “Why do you think only that of a person?” The line is loaded, bristling with tension, and yet at the same time it’s vague, evasive and unspoken. It remains inside her head.

And here’s a link to a longer excerpt from the novel:

“Not Old Enough to Die”

And… a little bit from that bit*:

“Okay, I believe you,” she said. “But listen, Yujeong. I saw your uncle, Dr Choi, right before I came here. He said this is already your third suicide attempt. He told me you have to stay in the hospital for a month for treatment, but I said I would take care of you instead. He wasn’t sure at first, but then he said if I really wanted to, it would be okay with him. It’s technically against the rules, but he trusts me. So, what do you want to do? Stay in here for a month and go through therapy again? Or help me with something?”

I could tell from the tone of her voice that she wasn’t joking. There was no reason for a nun in her seventies to joke with a niece who has just attempted suicide, but I laughed anyway. I always laughed when I wanted to get out of doing something difficult. But when I heard the firmness in my aunt’s voice as she said the words third suicide attempt, I couldn’t help but think that I, too, was a cliché. I wanted a cigarette.

“What kind of help would I be to you? I drink and smoke and cuss, so other than making people uncomfortable, I’m not good at anything.”

“So you’re aware of that,” she said drily. “There’s someone who wants to meet you. They want to hear you sing.”

“Aunt Monica – excuse me, Sister Monica! You’re not asking me to sing in a nightclub, are you? Did the convent run out of funds and now you need a has-been to perform at your café?”

I laughed. I knew I was overacting, but the habit was so ingrained in me, as if I had become a method actor, that it could have fooled someone more naïve. Aunt

Monica usually did me the favor of pretending to fall for it, even while being shocked at my behavior. But this time, she didn’t laugh.

“Someone wants to hear you sing the national anthem,” she said slowly.

“What? The national anthem?”

“Yes, the national anthem.”

I laughed again. This sounded like it might be fun.

I just got my own copy of the book in the mail recently, and I must say, it was quite the strange sensation to finally see it in print. I was afraid to even open it for fear of seeing something I would want to change but couldn’t. So there it sat on my shelf for several long days until I finally had to take it down in order to write this essay. In fact, it wasn’t until I opened it far enough to crack the spine oh so slightly that it finally sank in. My first translated novel in print. 


*Double yikes! Can’t wait to read it! —ed

Translations of Korean Lit in The American Reader now available online

ImageSora’s translation of “Castella,” the title story of Park Min-gyu’s first short story collection is now available online at The American Reader‘s website. Read it here.

I hadn’t read the editor’s note before, but it really made me read the story in a completely new light.

Editor’s note: The refrigerator plays a central part in Park Min-gyu’s fin de siècle “Castella.” Yet the word refrigerator proves to be a poor actor for the role. In Korean, naengjang (“refrigeration”) echoes naengjeon, or Cold War, a state of permanent tension and, not coincidentally, the ongoing situation on the Korean peninsula. “Cold storage” provides a closer slant rhyme but doesn’t bear repetition. And there is a further secret hidden in naengjanggo (“refrigerator”): when the syllables are reversed, gojangnaeng, they read as “broken down”—gojangnan (intransitive), gojangnaen (transitive). Thus, inside Park’s irreparable refrigerator, we find a cold world, a broken down world, thrown into suspended animation to await the next transformative cycle/siècle.

They’ve made the poetry section of the Korean translation portfolio in vol. 5/6 with works by Hwang Byeong-seung and Moon Tae-jun (tr. by Chae-Pyong Song and Darcy L. Brandel) available online as well. Read them here.

For the rest of the translation portfolio, which includes a story by Kim Aeran (tr. by Jamie) and an essay by me, you can purchase the back issue here. It’s an SOV pajama jammy jam!

Chi-young Kim on translations getting in the mood

Chi-young Kim, translator of The Hen Who Could Fly by Hwang Sun-mi (the featured author at the London Book Fair), writes about how she prepares to get into a character’s head, even when it’s a chicken:

I’ve translated many novels with alienated, lonely male characters, who often express their disillusion with life through destructive behavior I don’t relate to or talk in ways that feel foreign to me. In these cases, I pay particular attention to the way men of a certain age and epoch speak in movies, novels, and in life. Dialogue is revised and edited again, as I poll acquaintances, friends, and colleagues to craft an authentic voice.

For example, in one project, a character is a middle-aged former baseball player, and to properly render the way he thinks about his past career and talks shop with a buddy, I read articles and blog posts about baseball to get a feel for the way people discuss the game, and asked baseball fanatics around me for their opinions on how they would talk about certain aspects of the sport. Little touches like these go unnoticed when done well, but are glaring when done poorly; they contribute greatly to the overall tone of the book.

Using these methods, I have embodied the voice of a middle-aged North Korean spy, a guilt-ridden writer despairing at the loss of her mother, a 1940s Japanese prison guard, a coddled but neglected ten-year-old girl who feels like an outsider, a murderous sociopath, and an autistic math whiz.

The most challenging, however, wasn’t any of these characters, but a hen named Sprout. In The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, recently published in both the US and the UK, the feisty, spunky, independent-minded hen, yearning to leave the battery cage to lay and hatch an egg, charts her own course, refusing to settle for anything less than the life she has in mind for herself. The author’s writing is spare and charged with emotion, and I wanted to convey that while keeping the prose elegant.

Full text here, and SOV’s interviews with Chi-young after the publication of Please Look After Mother are here and here

via @EnglishPen