The Golden Phoenix: Seven Contemporary Korean Short Stories (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998). Translated by Su Ji-mu with an introduction.
In the preface to The Golden Pheonix, Professor Su Ji-moon describes herself as a "fool." This is not a usual way to inspire confidence, so she gives an explanation. Every time she finishes a project of translation, she decides it is her last; but every time she finds a story that is worthy of her efforts, she forgets her vow and plunges into the agonizing and time-consuming work of translation. The only explanation she can give for this capitulation is her folly; she is a "fool" because she forgets what it takes to make a worthy Korean short story readable in English. Surveying the contents of The Golden Phoenix, I cannot but concur with her. Some of the short stories she has chosen to translate must have elicited from her almost Herculean labors; only a "fool" enamored by "the fascination of what's difficult" would dare to tackle, for example, Lee Mun-yeol's "The Golden Phoenix" and Yun Heung-gil's "The Rainy Spell." I make a point of the difficulties involved because English readers will not readily recognize them. A good translation cannot but be a thankless job; the time and efforts Professor Su has invested in the process does not show in the product. It becomes the duty of a reviewer who knows the original to appreciate the difficulties confronted and surmounted by the translator. Lee Mun-yeol, the most popular and the most translated Korean author, has published a collection of short stories and novellas in 5 volumes. In other words, Professor Su, with approximately 50 short stories and novellas to choose from, has chosen to translate "The Golden Phoenix," I should say, the most difficult one. Translation is always already difficult; a seemingly simple text poses unexpected problem once the chore of tranlsation begins. With "The Golden Phoenix," however, the difficulties involved in translation is painfully apparent from the beginning. The story is about a master of brush painting and calligraphy whose love-hate relationship with his teacher turns out to be a conflict between traditional/Oriental view of art and the more modern view of art. Not surprisingly, it abounds with Oriental objects which have no counterpart in English. The difficulty that Professor Su confronts is twofold: she must make the English readers without the first hand experience of Oriental life feel the cultural ambience as much as possible. Without resorting to explanation, she must let them feel, say, the light that comes through a papered screen door or smell the fragrance of India ink. What is also difficult to convey is the concepts and terms from Oriental philosophy and aesthetics that assume quite an extensive understanding of Oriental classics and art. Considering the difficulties enumerated, one can easily imagine the struggles that Professor Su might have had in translating this story. She must surely have castigated herself for a fool as she tried to translate quotations from Chinese classics. (Yes! the story contains quite a number of them!) What makes the story more difficult to translate is that it is a kunstlerroman, but not what English readers will expect it to be. I will give a short summary of "The Golden Phoenix" to illustrate my point. Nearing death, the protagonist goes back to his teacher's first lesson that he should be able to see the flight of the "golden phoenix" in his works. Reviewing the works of a lifetime, he realizes that he has failed to do so. On putting them to fire, however, he sees the golden phoenix rise from the flames before he breathes his last. In a bare outline, the story seemed to depict a failed artist; that is, there is a danger for the English reader to interpret the conclusion as ironical. But Professor Suh's translation is subtly modulated to prepare the reader for the poignant paradox of the conclusion; in accepting failure, the protagonist succeeds. The story as a whole is beautifully rendered, striking a balance between faithful translation and graceful flow. It was a lesson in itself to follow at what point she makes a compromise to make the story more readable for English read
ers. Yoon Heung-gil's "The Rainy Spell" is one of the best works to deal with the Korean War, but again, a wise person would have second thoughts about translating it. Koreans have an elaborate kinship system with different names for every kind of relative imaginable. We have different names, for example, for father's/mother's, older/younger, (and in some cases married/unmarried) brother/sister. So it becomes a nightmare for a translator when a story features relatives on the mother's side as well as on the father's side. "The Rainy Spell" is such a story; the in-laws' come to live under the same roof because of the war, and what's more, the ideological conflict that brought about the war gets enacted between the in-laws. The conflict is exemplified in the maternal grandmother's question to the boy-narrator: "Do you like your maternal uncle, or your paternal uncle?" In translation, the question sounds awkward, but that is about the only way to render it. I believe that Professor Suh minimizes the awkwardness with her usual poise, and the words paternal and maternal are not so obtrusive as to clutter the narrative. "The Rainy Spell" was included in Professor Suh's earlier collection of Korean short stories, The Rainy Spell and Other Korean Stories, which got the Republic of Korea Literature Award (translation division) in 1984. She, however, revised it carefully and conscientiously before including it in this collection. I've compared the two versions and I dare say the revised version is much better than the already good first version. I have just one suggestion to make, hoping that Professor Suh will make further revision when this book gets to the second edition. The story is narrated by an adult remembering the events that took place one summer in his boyhood, but sometimes he blends into the past and speaks as a boy. The subtle shift in tone as the narrator momentarily relives the past experience, I feel, is not conveyed. There are moments when the narrator is at a loss, not able to understand what's going on around him. Professor Suh's fluent and correct English does not quite catch his confusion. I think shorter sentences in a more conversational tone will suit better. "The Golden Phoenix" and "The Rainy Spell" are the more difficult ones, but I do not mean that the rest of the stories in this collection are easy to translate. I've always thought Yi Mun-ku's Kwanch'on Essays untranslatable, but Professor Suh has rendered the first story in the collection, "The Sunset over My Hometown," with the right mixture of remorse, sense of loss, and helplessness. The complex of feelings is called Han in Korean, for which Professor Suh provides a succinct explanation in the introduction. Giving an explanation of Han is one thing; translating Han embodied in fiction is another. I should say it is next to impossible to translate. For it is not what happened to you but the accumulated residue of what had happened which you contain not as an individual but as a part of collective Korean identity. That is why the narrator of "The Sunset over My Hometown" does not give in lurid detail his family tragedy-the lynching and murder of his father and elder brother by anti-communist mobs. The tragic event is not stated but implied in the narrator's Han because the complex of feelings is shared and understood by Korean readers. Professor Suh has to translate what is not said or half said to those who do not share the collective identity. This is as difficult as it could get. Considering the daunting difficulties involved, one may argue that Professor Suh did not choose to translate these stories but was chosen by them. That is, having fallen in love with the stories, she could not help translating them regardless of the time and efforts she had to put into it. Only a fool, as she admits in her preface, would have given herself so generously to give life to the stories in English. I've checked "The Rainy Spell" almost word by word with the original, and I was amazed by the unflagging spirit of fidelity she evinces in every line. B
ecause the stories have chosen Professor Su rather than the other way round, I found the selection of stories a little unbalanced. Four stories in this collection are told by a first-person male narrator who goes back to his boyhood at least in some part of his narration. This, in a way, is a characteristic Korean narrative structure because many writers still struggle with the trauma of the Japanese colonial rule and/or the Korean war. But more than half, I think is too many, even though I don't deny that they are subtly different from one another and that Professor Su renders the subtle difference in style. Both Yun Hu-myong's "The Girl from the Wind-Whipped Story" and O Chong-hui's "The Monument Intersection" share the same narrative structure, but they delve into the past with a difference.
Maybe I should rephrase my objection as follows: I wish Professor Su had included a couple of stories like Choe Yun's "The Flower with Thirteen Fragrances." It is a charming story, tender as well as biting, and shows that narrative experiments do take place in the Korean literary scene. Kim Yong-hyeon's "The Mural" could have served that purpose, but it fails to. I guess it was included to give the feel of what it was like to live in the 1980s, in the dark years of military dictatorship. But it is far inferior to the other stories. For myself, it was the least satisfactory story in the collection. I should even venture to say that it is not worthy of Professor Su's efforts, the more so because she is a "fool" who gives more time than it takes.
I have come back to the title of a "fool" because I find it necessary to explicate the word in the Oriental context. Being a "fool" in the Oriental sense is not so much a weakness as a virtue which enables you to do what you have to do without calculating in advance what you have to pay or what you'll get in return. That is why it is recommended by no other person than Confucius himself. Professor Su is a "fool" in that particular sense. She is someone who is willing to be fooled into doing something that should be done. I hope she will continue to "crave for folly," to cite the title of her collection of essays in Korean, for the enjoyment and edification of English readers.
Ryu Myung-sook Seoul National University