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

Letters from the Lost City of Crocodopolis

Kind of random, but this item reminded me of my old stomping grounds (Berkeley, not Tebtunis).

A newly deciphered letter home dating back around 1,800 years reveals the pleas of a young Egyptian soldier named Aurelius Polion who was serving, probably as a volunteer, in a Roman legion in Europe.

He wrote:

“I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind.”

“I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you …” (Part of the letter hasn’t survived.)

Polion says he has written six letters to his family without response, suggesting some sort of family tensions.

“While away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger,” he writes. “I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother …”

(Link to the full article)

The letter itself tells a sad and apparently timeless story of family strife, but what’s more incredible is that this papyrus was used as packing material for a crocodile mummy.

Crocodile mummies, papyrus-mached with sad letters (image from Egypt Exploration Society, via The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri)

When I was a student assistant in the library at Berkeley, I was allowed to see some of the rare holdings at the Bancroft library. My librarian boss told me the great story of the discovery of the Tebtunis papyri, found in what he jokingly called “the lost city of Crocodopolis.” I reproduce it here from the library’s website, which spins the yarn better than I could:


The saga of the Tebtunis papyri commenced on 3 December 1899, when Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt descended on the remains of what soon would prove to be Tebtunis. They had been hired by George A. Reisner to excavate for the University of California with funds generously provided by Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst.


Grenfell and Hunt’s first objective was the town of Tebtunis itself. In the course of a few weeks they rummaged through the remains of the town and through the remains of a temple complex, which would turn out to be the temple of the crocodile god Soknebtunis (“Sobek, lord of Tebtunis”). In both locations they found a wealth of papyrus, allowing George Reisner to report to Mrs. Hearst on 2 January 1900, that he was “very happy to report extraordinary success on the part of Grenfell and Hunt in the Fayum,” having found “nearly as much as in any ordinary year.”


In early January 1900, Grenfell and Hunt moved to the huge necropolis in the desert south of Tebtunis. Here they sought human mummies, in particular the cartonnage covering these mummies. A few years earlier, this cartonnage had been proven to be a possible source of texts, when Sir Flinders Petrie discovered that discarded papyri were sometimes employed in its manufacture (think “papyrus mâché”), especially during the later periods. Grenfell and Hunt unearthed more than fifty mummies in whose cartonnage discarded papyri had been used.

While searching for papyrus-laden mummy heads and pectorals, Grenfell and Hunt discovered a cemetery of mummified crocodiles that appeared to border the necropolis with the human mummies. At that time crocodiles were considered to be objects without any archaeological worth whatsoever. This assessment soon changed, however, when on January 16, 1900, one of Grenfell and Hunt’s workmen, “disgusted at finding a row of crocodiles where he expected sarcophagi, broke one of them in pieces and disclosed the surprising fact that the creature was wrapped in sheets of papyrus.” After this discovery, Grenfell and Hunt devoted the remainder of the season to clearing out part of the crocodile cemetery [emphasis added]. Although they unearthed more than 1,000 of these mummified reptiles, only 31 appeared to have been mummified with the help of discarded papyri. Grenfell and Hunt’s assistant definitely had had a lucky hand.

I was told that the thousand crocodile mummies were piled up inside the Campanile, also the rumored home of a collection of dinosaur bones. I love that the iconic sentinel of Berkeley is basically a giant storage locker.
Go Bears!

Ah, Campanile, what secrets do you hold? (image from

KLTI Announces New Rules For Translation Grants EFFECTIVE MARCH 2014

Hey Korean-to-non-Korean translators,

Exactly what the title says. Here are the new rules on the KLTI website.

Here’s the gist of it, if you can’t (be bothered to) read it yourself:

The application process is more or less the same, except:

1. Applicants who have previously received grants from KLTI must notify KLTI (i.e., Has your translation been published?).

2. The excerpt must be from the very beginning of the main text. So no more choosing your own excerpts for the application.

3. (Sora brought this to my attention) “Applications will not be accepted for works that have received the LTI Korea’s Book Proposal Translation Service.” Be sure to contact KLTI and ask if the book you’ve selected is eligible.

Major changes have been made in the process AFTER winning the grant–you don’t really win until you get a book contract:

1. Sign contract with KLTI.

2. Consult author and copyright holders to choose additional excerpt to translate. The excerpt is then sent to agencies and overseas publishers who may be interested in publishing the book. Excerpt must be 40 pages long, and translator has 6-9 months to provide this sample. Translator will be compensated 2.5 million won for the sample.

3. If the translator gets a book contract and the rest of the book is translated and recognized by the publisher as a publishable manuscript, the translator will receive the rest of the grant. The total amount of the translation grant has not changed.

So basically, you’ll get paid much later, and only if you get a book contract.

I guess this is KLTI’s way of gently discouraging you from applying unless you are absolutely sure someone will want to publish the book you’re translating. I can see how this is a more efficient use of taxpayer money, but for those of you bummed out by this news, here’s a cute cat video.

New Nerd on the Block

I’m happy to announce that SOV has added a new blogger to its ranks: Jamie Chang.

Jamie is a friend and fellow translator, avid bicycle rider/crasher, former radio personality, and language/literature nerd extraordinaire. She will be writing from gloomy, overcast Copenhagen, thus rounding out our global domination of the time zones.

She’s a clever little badger with a lot to say about Korean literature (especially of the as-yet-untranslated variety, so we’re looking forward to her highly opinionated book reviews) and the Korean diasporic scene in Europe.

She’s also prone to really bad trilingual puns and has a particular hard-on for Danish these days, so please bear with her.

And with that, I give you… Jamie Chang!

jamie badger