A book review by Brother Anthony of Taizé first published in the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, (2011),  pages 95 – 101.


John HOLSTEIN. A Moment’s Grace: Stories from Korea in Translation. Cornell East Asia Series 148. Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell University. 2009. 408 pages. ISBN: 1933947187 (Hardcover). 52.00 USD.


It is now more than thirty years since John Holstein first gained recognition as a translator of Korean fiction by winning the Korea Times Translation Award in 1978 for his translation of Kim Tong-ni’s 어떤 상봉 (Ottŏ n Sangbong) (then titled “A Meeting” but called “The Visit” in this volume). He went on to win the same award for “The Gulls” in 1979, “House of the Idols” in 1981 and “River” in 1986, all of them now published here for the first time (I think). It therefore comes as something of a shock to realize that the 215 pages containing the twelve stories included in this collection represent (apparently) the sum total of Professor Holstein’s work as a literary translator of Korean. Of course, he also deserves recognition for his translation of Things Korean by the former minister of culture, Lee O-Young, which was also not a very long text. His main activity as a professor of English at Sungkyunkwan University seems to have taken the bulk of his time and energies.

             The present volume is a composite, beginning with a brief Preface stressing the relationship between the works selected and the period of Korean history (roughly from Liberation in 1945 until the Olympics in 1988) in which they were written, a note about pronunciation, and a list of people who gave help in the acknowledgments. This is followed by a 12-page Introduction by Professor Bruce Fulton, locating the works translated in their literary-historical context. After the twelve stories, there is a 35-page set of notes, “Stumbling Across a Language Barrier,” in which the translator discusses in detail some of the issues arising in translating from Korean, justifying his own options. Then come no less than 102 pages devoted to “The Stories’ Background” in which the social evolution of modern Korea is presented with constant reference back to the stories. This is completed by a set of 369 endnotes, eleven pages of “References” and a 2-3 page list of books or articles as “Recommended Reading.” Clearly, this all indicates an expectation that the book will be used in a classroom setting, as a textbook for students of Korean literature and history.

             The stories are mostly well-known in Korea, widely recognized as “representative works” by their authors. Kim Tong-ni’s “The Shaman Painting” symbolizes the conflict between tradition and modernity by the tragic encounter between a shaman mother and her Christian son, which ends in the death of both. “Loess Valley,” also by Kim, relates the strangely violent relationship between two rural strongmen who are friends yet rivals in a remote, premodern village setting. Hwang Sun-wŏn’s “The Game Beaters” evokes the poverty of Seoul in the post-liberation years, relating an incident in which a waif is spotted entering a sewage pipe, clearly intent on gaining access to the house of a foreigner. A group of citizens gathers and they wait for him to come out so they can catch him, but finally his dead body comes floating down. Another story by Kim Tong-ni, “The Visit,” depicts the journey of a poor peasant to visit his son who is a soldier during the Korean War, and their extremely limited conversation before they part, suggesting that poverty is not only material but also emotional.

             O Sang-wŏn’s “A Moment’s Grace,” another war story, focuses on a southern soldier who has been captured by the communists; the events leading up to his capture are evoked in flashback while he lies in a freezing pit waiting to be taken out and executed. Yi Pŏm-sŏn’s “The Gulls” is set on a tiny island several years after the war, in a warm, human community where a family from the North have settled, the man teaching in the school. Small incidents, sad and happy, occur and at the end the man realizes he might one day have to go back into the wider world. Ch’oe In-hun’s “House of Idols” is by contrast a melodramatic piece set in a literary milieu, about the growth and destruction of the relationship between the narrator and a young man who claims to have experienced a terrible loss during the war but who turns out to be a pathological liar. By the same author, “End of the Road” is the account of a bus moving through the Korean countryside; everything it encounters stresses the dominating, corrupting presence of the American military. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about “River” by Sŏ Chŏng-in is why it never mentions a river. It too follows a small group of men and a girl on a bus journey into the countryside.

             The last three stories are far removed in time from the others. For some unexplained reason, there is no story in the volume that was written in the 1970s or the 1980s; “River” dates from 1968, the next story, “First Love” by Sŏng Sŏk-che, was published in 1995. The reason for the inclusion of these more recent stories, if there is a reason, is presumably the way in which they evoke memories of earlier times. “First Love” is said by Bruce Fulton in his introduction to treat of “male same-sex desire” but that seems completely wrong, since the tale merely shows an older tough adolescent initiating a younger, softer boy into the world of sex with women, offering him a form of male-bonding friendship that the younger boy only responds to at the very end. In Kong Chi-yŏng’s “What’s to be Done” (1992) a woman standing at a crosswalk remembers at great length her relationship with a man whom she knew when they were activists in the years of dictatorship. This is the first story written by a woman in the collection. Finally, O Chŏng-hŭi’s “The Face” (1999) happens in the mind of a paralyzed, hallucinating and presumably dying man whose wife goes out, saying she is going to meet a long-lost friend, and has not returned by the end of the story.

             It is hard to know how to review this book. It is obviously intended to be useful for teachers of Korean studies outside of Korea, as well as their students. It is constructed on the premise that its readers will be as interested in the social history as in the literature of this period of Korean history, that works of Korean literature can be studied as social documents, and that the readers will also be interested in the details of the translator’s struggles to put the tales into English. The essentially literary quality of the stories is not addressed, since even Professor Fulton’s introduction views them as items in an ongoing academic process known as the “history of Korean literature,” which at times degenerates into lists of dates, authors and works. The danger is that the intrinsic nature of the stories is displaced from their status as works of literature to their ability to show “what life was like then” or “what writers wrote then.”

             There are two important issues that might be discussed in an extended review. One is the way the stories are translated, the other is the question of their actual literary interest. Yet in the end, neither is necessarily a useful topic. Translators translate as best they can, and writers write as they do. Readers are free to go on reading or not. What more is there to say? John Holstein gives quite a lengthy account of his approach to issues that arise in translating and the solutions he has selected. Like many North American translators, he feels that part of his work involves stylistic revision to make the text feel “natural” to English-speakers. In part this is obviously justified, in terms of “readability,” but he is probably not aware of recent discussions in translation theory about the demerits of “domestication.” He includes in his notes on translation a series of quotations about translating, but they are all from less than contemporary (twenty-first century) sources.

             He is certainly aware of the demands of “faithfulness” but he confesses that he tends to move away from the original as he revises, as though that were natural and acceptable. It is sometimes argued that, just as the great Russian writers first became popular in English thanks to Constance Garnett’s very free (inaccurate) versions that made them sound like genteel nineteenth century English writers, so too Korean works need to be made accessible by eliminating a lot of their specific Korean-ness. But modern theory sees that kind of domestication as a colonizing approach, eliminating or veiling essential cultural differences and aspects of original cultural identity. One key issue involves the translation of slang, idiom and dialect, where the Korean obviously has no direct equivalent in English. This overlaps with the issues arising from humorous word-play, puns perhaps being the most untranslatable of all. However, the most important point to be made here is that, this being so clearly a text-book for class use rather than an edition destined for general readers, the translator should be careful to keep as close as possible to what the Korean says. It is almost too easy for an American translator to make Koreans speaking to Koreans sound like regular North American guys when, precisely, they are not.

             Of course, as Professor Holstein points out, there are impossibilities at every step. Koreans very often use “relationship markers” (older brother, younger sister, school senior etc) when addressing one another, very rarely given names, and this is very “foreignizing” for an English reader. Even when we try to be very “faithful” we cannot help dropping most such words, in order to maintain a reasonable flow of English discourse. Obviously, if a text is meant as a “crib” for bilingual study, it might at times need to include even such words. I wonder about one detailed example of an idiom he mentions, where the Korean has “Where do you think this is anyway, a Chinese restaurant?” addressed to a bus-girl who keeps giving the same reply. The translator has replaced the (certainly very unclear) joke about waiters always giving the same reply, with, “What are you, a broken record or something?” The problem here is not the departure from the Korean, so much, as the use of an idiom that is no longer current in a world of download-files and iPod. No young reader today has ever heard what happens when the needle of a gramophone gets stuck in one grove of a scratched record. The only contemporary use of “broken record” is a new athletic record.

             There is one unfortunate omission in this volume and that is a list of the original, Korean titles of the stories. Such information would be very helpful to any reader trying to trace the originals. I am especially puzzled by the title “Loess Valley” for “Hwangt’o-gi.” It is true that the Chinese characters “hwangt’o” (yellow earth) are used to designate the loess deposits in Northern China that give birth to the “hwangsa” dust-storms. But there is no loess in Korea that I know of. Especially, the opening lines of the story make it clear that the main characteristic of this substance is its blood-red color. In Korea, “hwangt’o” is a red loam or clay that, when it dries, turns an ocher color. It was used, mixed with straw, for making the walls of houses and is now popular in the hot rooms of bathhouses. The translated title does not represent the ‘gi’ (diary etc) at all.

             The approach employed by Professor Holstein is on the whole one that appeals to North American translators, who feel that their translation should sound natural to North Americans, and strongly upsets Koreans who feel that it takes far too many liberties with what the original author wrote, for no reason that they can see. A few examples will have to do. Near the start of “Loess Valley” Holstein has: “So the general drew his sword and cut through the mountain to its heart. Torrents of blood coursed throughout the entire region for a hundred days, and gave the earth the color it has today.” This sounds fine, certainly, but the Korean actually says: “이에 혈을 지 르니, 산골 에석달 열흘 동안 붉은 피가 흘러 내리고이로 말미 암아 일대 가황토 지대로변하 니라.” This means: “Then he pierced a pulse-point in the ground, at which for three months and ten days blood poured down the valley, as a result of which the ground of the whole area turned into red clay.” The style of the passage is deliberately archaic and the geomantic notion of “pulse-point” is integral to that. Holstein’s “heart” is probably meant to preserve the image in a more accessible form, but the implication would seem to be that he killed the mountain. The other variations are in themselves each minor but they accumulate to the point where the text is a paraphrase rather than a translation.

             The same excessively free approach is found at the end of the story: “One of these days we’re both going all the way and finish this farce for good,” is Professor Holstein’s rendering of “ 놈이 초상 치르 고자빠 질 아나.” Now unless we are looking at different versions of the text, that has very little in common with, “Lout, don’t imagine you can croak before you take care of my funeral,” which is what I believe the Korean means. The concluding lines in his version after this are:


 Tŭkbo had recently sworn, spitting out his bitterness with his phlegm. This and the thought of the gleaming dagger which Tŭkbo had slammed on the table plunged Ŏkswae into a deep reverie and stopped him in his tracks. He imagined Tŭkbo plunging the eight-inch dagger into the middle of his chest and he could feel it gouging around in there, scraping out down to their roots the burning and itching liver and lungs of his tempest. His body thrilled at the thought.

             When he lifted his head again, a gossamer sun was already hanging low over Loess heights. There, maybe a li ahead, Tŭkbo plodded on alone toward Dragon Creek.


My own options are different, starting with the identity of the speaker of the strange phrase, that I assume to be spoken by the older Ŏksoe who is saying he does not wish or intend to kill Tŭkbo. I have underlined the words in Professor Holstein’s text that have no obvious equivalent in the Korean (“and stopped him in his tracks” is placed significantly earlier in his text than in the Korean). I would write:


Ŏksoe suddenly recalled the knife with its sharp blade that Tŭkbo had laid on the table, spitting as he did so, a while before. Suppose Tŭkbo’s knife blade, more than a span long, slashed through the middle of his breast, slicing through his madly fretting, itching liver and lungs, he thought, and shuddered once; he stopped abruptly and looked up, and there the sun was, already setting over Red Clay Ridge, while some way ahead of him Tŭkbo was plodding on alone down toward Dragon Stream.


             There is a constant pattern of inaccuracy in the details of Professor Holstein’s translation, clearly at times produced by a wish to render the events more vivid or dramatic. The “liver and lungs of his tempest” is meaningless and “thrilled” is hardly the best word in the context. The degree to which a translator of a text destined to serve as an accurate record of the original for classroom or study use (as opposed to publication for a general readership, perhaps) is allowed to rewrite the original should be limited. There is no explanation as to why the MR Romanization of Ŏksoe is changed to Ŏkswae in this story, or Puni to Buni.

             A Korean colleague who read Professor Holstein’s translation of “The Shaman Painting” noted with considerable exasperation a similar, overall lack of precision, a tendency “to omit awkward details and to add things unnecessarily.” The first sentences (15), “Low hills slumbering on night’s distant horizon. Broad river winding black across the plain. Sky spangled with stars about to rain on hills, river, and plain as this night approaches its climax,” sound magnificent in English, but the original says something more like: “In the background, dusky hills lying remote; in the foreground, a river flowing wide; blue stars all seeming about to come raining down on ridges, meadows, black river; it is now deepest night, utterly breathless.” It is not at all self-evident that a translator should rewrite to the extent Professor Holstein has done, “improving on the original” in this way. A few phrases later, the women watching the shaman, he says, have “sadness and hope in their faces” but the Korean says that their faces are impregnated with a “sorrowful agitation (슬픈 흥 분).”

             A little later, (16-17) Professor Holstein relates that “father and daughter stayed on for over a month, daughter painting and her father recounting to Grandfather the sad details of the girl’s hard life.” The Korean says: “그들 아비 딸은 달포 동안 이나머물 러있으 며그림 도그리 고자기 네의지난 이야 기도자세 히하소 연했다고한다.” which means that the father and daughter stayed for about a month, painting and lamenting as they gave Grandfather a detailed account of their past. No precise division of their activities or tales is indicated.

             Later still, (21) telling the origins of Ugi (wrongly romanized as Woogi), we read: “Even when Woogi was still very young everybody around remarked what a precocious one he was, but Mohwa was so poor she could not send him to the classics primer school that most of the children in the village went to” where the original says: “그는 어릴 때 부터무척 총명 하여신동 이란소문 까지났으 나근본 이워낙 미천 하여마을 에서는순조 롭게공부 를시킬 수가 없어.” The misunderstanding here is deeper, the translation quite wrong. “From early childhood he was so bright there were even reports he was a prodigy, but their social status was so low that he could not easily (smoothly) be sent to study in the village.” All the rest is added and inaccurate.

             Professor Holstein gives some indications about the reasons for these failings in his translator’s notes. First, he has been translating without a reliable Korean guide / editor, someone who is capable of reading his drafts carefully and telling him where he has missed the point of the Korean. We easily recognize incomprehensible phrases; it is when we think that we understand everything that the trouble starts. Second, he has been ‘revising’ his versions stylistically for much too long, and often, he says, without reference to the original. Too much tweaking can be dangerous for the health of a text.

             A more fundamental question is what literary qualities these stories have, in particular when they are read in translation in an English-speaking context. It is an impossible question to answer, of course. But as noted before, the format of this book buries the actual stories under thick layers of documentation, suggesting that they will mainly be read either for information about Korean social history or as representative works in Korean literary history, and that they can only be read at all if you know an awful lot about Korea. There is a huge emphasis on “contextualization” whereas “a good story” is usually perfectly comprehensible without much secondary information. The question of whether these stories are worth reading “as works of fiction” in themselves is never raised.

This leads me to wonder how much training in fundamental literary analysis and appreciation students in Korean Studies programs receive. Narratorial strategies, setting, characterization, tone, plot structure, ambiguities . . . these are the initial topics for any reading of a work of fiction in any language. And the starting point for any approach to a work of fiction would normally be a question such as, “What does this story say? What is the point of it? What is its theme?”

             Looking at the twelve tales in this collection, we of course note at once their shared liking for familiar, “realistic” episodes, their lack of fantasy, suspense or irony, their limited point-of-view. Even when we are given access to the thoughts of a character, those thoughts are mostly restricted to immediate probabilities or prospects and rarely if ever turn to deeper self-analysis and introspection, there is no true inwardness. Many foreign readers of this kind of Korean fiction are disturbed by what they call its “dark, depressing” side, with death, separation, division, alienation, lack of communication on every page.

             This leads to the most serious indictment of all. There is no humor, not a moment of joyful laughter to be found anywhere in any of these stories, whether among the characters, or in the way of narrating, or in the reader’s response. For the western reader, accustomed to seeing humor as a redemption, an expression of the triumph of the human spirit amidst the direst tribulations, this absence is more than troubling, it renders the stories inhuman and discredits the writers. The readers are right, and since Koreans have plenty of spirit and humor, there would be every reason to reject this selection of stories. These tales are utterly pretentious in their pseudo-seriousness, devoid as they are of the vivacity that characterizes the Korean life-experience.

             Perhaps the reply would be to say that they are records of lives almost completely deprived of free choice. What happens to the people in virtually every case has nothing to do with them, their wishes or choices; the only explanation as to why a person does this or that seems often to be that they had no other choice. It is not quite the same as fatalism, perhaps, but the processes of life and death are undergone with far less questioning or resistance than would be normal in the West. Revolt is not an option; preserving one’s essential dignity through thick and thin is the most important value. Austere stuff in austere style. But I do not think it is convincing. The writers wrote as they did in order to be admired by academic critics, who affirmed that “serious” literature had to be intensely “serious.” They were wrong, and it is time we found some happy stories for our students to read, instead of boring them to death.