Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hwang Sok-Yong: "the Guest is a Western disease"

Sonnim
황석영

I'm still trying to understand the meaning of smallpox as a 'Western' disease in Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West's translation of Hwang Sok-Yong's novel The Guest. I express myself in this awkward manner because I am doubtful that the translators have adequately captured the ambiguity in Hwang's original text.

I've already established in yesterday's post that Hwang recognizes that smallpox was already in Korea prior to Westerners and even before Catholicism was brought to Korea from China by Koreans themselves. In fact, as indicated in two earlier posts, Koreans identified the smallpox demon as having its home in southern China.

Hwang has one character in his novel, "Big Grandma," vaguely allude to this origin in calming her grandson's fear of the scary image of an indigenous Korean spirit:
"Ah, that -- that's to scare away the Guest, the barbarian spirit from the faraway lands south of the sea." (page 41 of English translation)
My wife, Sun-Ae, helped me with the original Korean, which reads:
"응, 그건 저어 먼 나라 강남에서 오넌 손님 오랑캐 구신한테 무섭게 보일라구 그런다. 얼런 절해여." (page 40 of original Korean text)
The Korean text is even more vague, for rather than "south of the sea," it reads "south of the river" (강남: gangnam, "south of the river"). This is rather odd, unless it refers to south of the Yangtze River, which serves as the dividing line between southern and northern China, for it certainly doesn't mean south of the Han River since "the Guest" is from outside Korea. As for Big Grandma's reference to "the Guest" as a "barbarian spirit" (오랑캐 구신: orangke gushin [구신: a dialect for 귀신, guishin, spirit, ghost]), Sun-Ae tells me that the term "barbarian" was used to refer to the Manchus (also called Jurchen, 여진족), who founded China's Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). But the term "barbarian" could also mean any foreigner, and this leads Big Grandma into identifying the smallpox spirit with Christianity, which she calls the "Western spirit," in describing her son's conversion to Christianity:
"Ever since we were children we have known that the Guest is a Western disease. A barbarian disease, they call it, from the Western country, so it's certain that it came from the land where they believe in the Western spirit, you see? I had to send away two sons, your grandpa's two older brothers, with the Guest. So would I be overjoyed, would I be ready to believe in the Western spirit like my one surviving son -- or would I be angry at it -- angry forever?" (page 44 of English translation)
My wife supplies the original Korean:
"우리가 어려서부텀 어런들께 들었지마는 손님마마란 거의 원래가 서쪽 병이라구 하댔다. 서쪽 나라 오랑캐 병이라구 허니 양구신 믿넌 나라서 온 게 분명티 않으냐. 내가 너이 하래비 우로 아덜을 둘씩이나 손님마마에 보내고 났시니 양구신에 부아가 나겄거냐 좋다구 믿겄너냐." (page 43 of original Korean text)
The translators provide "the Guest," but Big Grandma uses the expression "the Guest Mama" (손님마마: sonnim mama, guest lord), and where they supply "Western disease," Big Grandma says "westward disease" (서쪽 병: seojok byeong), indicating the direction west. The translators then have Big Grandma as saying that the disease came from "the Western country," but the original Korean says a "westward country" (서쪽 나라: seojok nara). Big Grandma is apparently using traditional terminology that did not refer to "The West." However, when she refers to the "Western spirit," she uses the Korean expression yanggushin (양구신 [양 (洋) + 구신]), where yang (양 [洋]) is an abbreviation of seoyang, "The West" (서양) -- and gushin (구신), as already noted above, is dialect for guishin (귀신), meaning "spirit" or "ghost."

Big Grandma is thus making a connection between two words, seo and yang, both indicating "west," to link the smallpox spirit, which came from a direction to the west, with the Christian Holy Spirit, which came from The West. I would thus translate the longer passage slightly differently:
"Ever since we were children we have known that the Guest is a western disease. A barbarian disease, they call it, from a country to the west, so it's certain that it came from the land where they believe in the Western Spirit, you see? I had to send away two sons, your grandpa's two older brothers, with the Guest. So would I be overjoyed, would I be ready to believe in the Western Spirit like my one surviving son -- or would I be angry at it -- angry forever?"
Translated in this manner, the passage would retain the original Korean's ambiguity that Big Grandma is playing upon in identifying the Guest with the Holy Spirit.

But I'm no expert in Korean language or Korean folk beliefs, so I stand ready to stand corrected.

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7 Comments:

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Didn't Camus also write a story titled "The Guest"? Can't remeber any more about it now, though.

 
At 11:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, he did, and I ran across it while Googling for Hwang's book.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:34 AM, OpenID sonagi92 said...

You correctly noted that in the original Korean text, "west" refers to the cardinal direction, not a geocultural region, but "western ghost" is of the Western Hemisphere. I have a copy of the book in Korean but haven't gotten around to reading it yet.

 
At 12:15 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

<<"western ghost" is of the Western Hemisphere>>

Not necessarily; for the Chinese it also, and before Chinese contact with the "West" it certainly always, meant a "barbarian" from beyond the western borders of China.

 
At 2:55 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, I may have been too verbose and convoluted in my post, but I actually meant that Big Grandma identifies the Western Spirit with The West, specifically with the Holy Spirit of Christianity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sperwer, you may be correct about that point, but Big Grandma is clearly talking about the Western Spirit as the Holy Spirit from The West -- in the context of the previous pages, which tell of her son receiving the Western Spirit in church.

In her reasoning, the Western Spirit is the Guest, i.e., the Smallpox Demon who has returned in a different guise to take her third son, much as he took her other two sons as children when they died of smallpox.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Greetings to those visiting from Seven Stories Press.

I should again acknowledge that I'm no Korean expert, but merely a literary critic (of sorts) who was called upon by the Daesan Foundation here in Korea to evaluate the literary quality of various translations from Korean into English.

In the course of my reading, I grew puzzled by the smallpox issue noted in this blog entry and thus sought assistance from my wife. I hope that my analysis has been of some use even to the experts.

Incidentally, and just for the record, my middle name is "Jeffery," for I see that it was misspelled as "Jeffrey" at the Seven Stories Press site (a common error with my name).

Jeffery Hodges

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