Translation and context – (I originally wrote this entry on Friday, but then a construction truck clipped a low-hanging wire and knocked out both the phone and ADSL lines for the entire neighborhood. Because we live out in the sticks and not in Seoul, the phone company dragged their feet in repairing the line—the technician that showed up on Friday not only told us he couldn’t fix it, he actually said, “Stop calling us; it’s annoying.” Now that’s what I call customer service. At any rate, somebody somewhere in the neighborhood must have some pull with someone, because when we came home from church on Sunday they were fixing the line. Not that anyone reading this will actually care that this entry is a few days late as a result—I just needed to vent.)
Last Thursday I gave my last presentation of my last semester of my doctoral coursework. The semester isn’t quite over yet—I still have quite a bit of work to do on my final papers—but class is over, and that puts me one step closer to finishing. Two weeks from tomorrow we will be flying to Taiwan for That David Guy’s wedding, and we’ll be spending about a week there after the wedding. It will be a nice break after finishing my final semester and will hopefully give me an opportunity to clear my head before diving head first into my dissertation. I still have a lot of things to do before we leave for Taiwan, so it is likely that the next two weeks (less than two weeks now, actually) will be as busy as the last two have been (that is, very). But I wanted to take a little time out to write something for the journal here.
I won’t bore you with a recounting of my semester or a tedious to-do list for the next two weeks. Actually, I’d like to write about something that I haven’t written about in a while: translation. But first I want to back up a bit and set the stage.
Today’s story began almost twelve years ago, in the summer of 1995. I was taking summer classes at SUNY Binghamton to finish up my undergraduate work so I could leave for Korea in the fall. The lurid details are all in my background story, so I won’t rehash them here, but I do want to elaborate on something that got only cursory mention the first time around. The following paragraph can be found near the end of part 2 of my background story:
I also tried to find out something about Korean culture. Being a Lit major, I naturally decided to start with Korean literature. Unfortunately, the only books I could find were two poorly translated collections of short stories. This was odd, considering the wide selection of Chinese and Japanese literature in translation that our library contained. Being rather naïve, I simply concluded that Korean literature was not as developed as Chinese or Japanese literature, and that was why it wasn’t as thoroughly represented. I still chuckle whenever I think of that.
I remember very little about those two “poorly translated collections of short stories.” I remember neither the titles of the short stories nor the authors, let alone what they were about—except for one short story that stuck with me for some reason. My recollections of the story are fragmentary at best, but it had something to with a boy and a girl who drowned in a bog. I guess it stuck with me because of how surprised I was by their sudden deaths at the end. I couldn’t begin to fathom why they died (not physically, of course, but narratively), and it stuck in my subconscious like a thorn.
Fast forward a decade and change. One of the classes I took this semester was a class in modern novels, and our professor told us we would be focusing on novels from the 50s and 60s. I had no idea where to start, since my major is classical literature and the only modern literature I had ever studied was from the Japanese colonial period. I decided to go with Kim Dongni (his Korean name is actually “Dong-ri,” but it is pronounced “Dong-ni”) both because he is a very well-known author and he had an affinity for oral literature and traditional culture. As I was reading through his short stories from the 50s and 60s (there are several dozen), I came across a short one titled Neup, which means “swamp.”
For some reason the story looked familiar, and as I read it I got the feeling that I had already read it once before. That in itself was not particularly surprising. Even though my major is classical literature, I’ve dipped into modern literature on a number of occasions, so it was possible that I had read it and then forgotten about it. But that wasn’t it. It seemed older—older than anything I could remember from the time I’ve spent in Korea. Halfway through it hit me, and a jumble of memories came flooding back into my conscious mind.
It’s a summer day in Binghamton, and the sun is shining outside. It’s a rare thing for me, to be in the library on a day this beautiful, but I’m on a mission: I’m going to read some Korean literature if it kills me. I manage to find two thin volumes of translated fiction and flip through them. The translation is unimpressive, but there is this one story that baffles me... and it stays with me until twelve years later, when I finally read it in the original. And I finally get it. I get why the boy has to die.
The story, in a nutshell, goes like this. Seok lives near a swamp with his father, his step-mother, and his older step-sister. The swamp is said to be infested with snakes and bugs and other horrible creatures, but Seok often stands by it and stares at its algae-covered waters. Then he lifts up his eyes to look at the forest on the other side of the swamp. Somewhere in that forest lives his grandfather, his mother’s father. He only visited his grandfather once, years ago, when his mother took him across the river to the southeast and into the forest. They spent three or four days at his grandfather’s house, and Seok ate strange and delicious fruits, saw beautiful birds, and most of all enjoyed being with his mother and grandfather.
But when they returned from the forest his father was furious at his mother and beat her. A few days later she left and never returned. Three years later his father remarried, but his step-mother hated Seok and made his life miserable. His step-sister Bun was kind to him and treated him like her own brother, but this was little comfort. And so Seok often went to stand by the swamp and gaze across it at the forest and the memory of his mother.
Buni, though, having heard that Seok’s mother had drowned in the swamp, feared for her step-brother’s life. She tried to stop him from going, but to no avail. One day she followed him to the swamp’s edge and tried to bring him back, but as she tugged at his arm the ground collapsed beneath his feet and he fell into the bog. Buni reached down to try to pull him out, but she was pulled in herself and they drowned together.
It is true that I was not impressed with the English translation I had read. I don’t really remember anything specific about it, but I remember thinking that it felt stilted and unnatural. And although I may not have done so consciously, I attributed my inability to understand the story to the poor translation. After I read the original, though, I realized that the translation was only part of the problem.
Why did Seok have to die? When I read the English translation, I read it more or less in a vacuum—with no knowledge of the author of any of his other works. This time around, though, I read Swamp as one of several dozen stories, and I began to notice a trend in several of the stories: the death of young children. Another of Kim Dongni’s short stories, Flowers, tells of a young boy who goes into the mountains to pick azalea flowers. He brings them back to an older girl in his village and basks in the warmth of her smile. He enjoys this girl’s attention so much, in fact, that even after he has picked all the azalea flowers in easily accessible locations he refuses to give up. There is a cliff in the mountains, and the top of the cliff is a brilliant blaze of purple azalea flowers. His friend takes him to the cliff and tells him that it is unscalable, but the boy comes back by himself later and begins to climb. Soon he reaches a point where he cannot go any further, but he is too tired to climb back down. Eventually he loses his grip and falls to his death.
Sound familiar? It’s pretty much a different version of Swamp: the protagonist, a young boy, desires something that is within sight, but he is separated from this thing by an insurmountable barrier. Yet he cannot abandon the object of his desire, and this obstacle eventually claims his life. There are, of course, a lot of differences between the two stories, but thematically there are a number of similarities. Having already read Flowers (and Kim Dongni’s other stories), I was more prepared for what was to happen in Swamp. To Seok, the forest represents his mother and his grandfather and the only happy memories he has of life. The swamp is a frightful place of snakes and insects and foul water, but it also happens to be teeming with living creatures—it is a place of death, but also of life. It is a barrier, and yet at the same time it is also a passageway. But a passageway to what? To a time of myth that is now lost to Seok, a time that he will never be able to regain in this life. His death is inevitable because he is unwilling to forget the myth of his mother and accept harsh reality. If the ground had not crumbled beneath his feet that day, it would have done so on another day—it was just a matter of time.
This may seem rather fatalistic, and in a way it is, but it also owes a lot to Korean shamanism and the idea that death is not an end but a beginning. Many of Kim Dongni’s other stories deal with spirits who return from the dead, and these stories are noteworthy because they are not simply fairy tales or horror stories. They are stories of modern, rational individuals coming into contact with things that are beyond their understanding. Take all this together and we can see that Seok’s death is not the real tragedy in Swamp. The real tragedy happened years ago, and Seok’s death was only an inevitable attempt to escape from reality and return to the time of myth.
Much more could be said, but I will stop here. My intention in today’s entry is not to write an academic treatise on Kim Dongni’s Swamp (I’m probably not the right person for that anyway). Rather, I wanted to share this realization: my failure to understand this short story when I read it in translation twelve years ago had very little to do with the quality of the translation. The quality of the translation no doubt affected my ability to enjoy it as a work of literature, and as a result I probably paid less attention to the story, but I don’t think the translation was the main culprit in my failure to understand it. The real reason that Swamp so baffled me is that I read it out of context—I knew nothing about the author, nothing about the way he thought, nothing about his other works, nothing about the culture in which he was raised, nothing about the belief systems that influenced him. In retrospect, it would have been a small miracle if I had been able to grasp the story in full.
Now, I can’t speak for all translators. I am not a policy-maker when it comes to translation. I am just one man who happens to study Korean literature and do some translation as well. So the conclusions I draw from this experience are primarily for me. Not everyone is in the same situation that I am in, so my conclusions might not apply to everyone equally.
With that little disclaimer out of the way, the conclusion I have come to is that piecemeal translation is not a very effective way of introducing Korean literature to foreign audiences. By “piecemeal translation” I mean the translation of single short works devoid of context. Translating single short stories piecemeal is like building a machine that looks nothing like anything the end users have ever seen before and shipping it off a piece at a time without any manual or instructions on how to put it together. This is not to say that piecemeal translation is inherently bad, of course. For one, it is easier to translate single short stories than longer novels or collections of short stories. Translators who are just starting out would probably be better off trying their hand at short stories first, and they might want to pick and choose from different authors. But for me at this point in time, I don’t think it would be responsible to translate randomly or piecemeal. I would rather produce translations that stand a better chance of being understood by a foreign reader than translations that are going to collect dust on a shelf somewhere.
There are two things that I think can be done to help make translations more accessible to foreign readers. One is to translate entire collections of short stories, or to organize an author’s work into thematically consistent collections. The latter would require some knowledge of Korean literary history and a deep familiarity with an author’s work, but I think this is only natural. The important thing is to move the focus away from the translator’s tastes and likings and toward the literature itself. In the past I have been guilty of selecting stories for translation more or less at random, with no goal in mind beyond the translation of those single works. I see now that this is not the most efficient way to translate. I need to have a specific goal in mind. What aspect of this author’s work am I trying to convey? What characteristic of Korean literature am I trying to portray?
Everything in the previous paragraph was about internal context—context within the literary environment. The second thing that I believe will make translations more accessible is external context—context within the critical and cultural environment. When I first started reading Korean literature I noticed something interesting. For one, short stories are a favorite form of Korean authors. And whenever I picked up a collection of short stories, nine times out of ten there was a critical essay at the end that offered a scholar’s interpretation of the author’s work. At first this struck me as a bit odd. After all, I was interested in reading literature, not lit crit essays. But the more I read the more I began to appreciate these essays. They helped me grasp some of the finer points that I might have missed on my own.
So I think having something similar in translated collections would be a good idea. As helpful as they are to Korean readers, can you imagine how much more helpful an analogue would be to a foreign reader? The key word here, of course, is “analogue”—a translation of a Korean critical essay would not be nearly as useful as an essay crafted specifically for the foreign reader. The writing of such an essay would require extensive reading and study, but again I think that this is only natural. This essay needs to provide the literary, cultural, and philosophical background necessary for understanding the work—writing the essay might end up being more difficult than translating the literature.
Some years back I did a year-long program with the Korea Literature Translation Institute. I translated a novella that I had studied in one of my classes during my MA coursework. I thought then and still think now that it is a very important work, and I hope to come back to it after I finish my dissertation. Back when I was toying with the idea of trying to get this translation published, I thought about maybe including some information on the author and maybe a summary of Korean critical opinion on the work. Now I realize how critical this material is. To borrow an analogy used by my wife, think of it as a commentary on a DVD. Why do people buy DVDs these days? If you’re anything like me, the commentaries and special features are a big draw. The Lord of the Rings DVDs are my favorite of all time, not simply because I love the films themselves, but because of the oodles and oodles of special features that let you get into every nook and cranny of those films. When I do get around to publishing this novella, it will have plenty of special features to help the reader understand the work and the author better.
Translation is going to be an important part of my career in the future. I learn more and more about it every day. As usual, I learned a lot this semester, but of all the lessons I learned I think I will take this one most to heart. Even though it will still be some time before I can work on that novella, I’m excited about the prospect of producing an edition complete with commentaries and special features. And when I’m done with that, maybe I’ll tackle a collection of Kim Dongni’s stories. I know a lot of his short stories have been translated piecemeal, but I’m not sure if there has ever been a collection of his stories published in translation (I’ll have to check on this)—and I’m certain that there hasn’t been a collection published with commentaries and special features. So I’ll be looking forward to that.
In the meantime, it’s going to be a very busy two weeks (eleven days, oy), and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to write again before we leave for Taiwan. I do hope to get something up—a set of photos that I’ve been sitting on forever and have been talking about putting up for almost as long. Other than that, a journal entry may have to wait until we return. I’ll have to see how it goes.