Saturday, April 30, 2011

Author Shin Kyung-sook: "meaning . . . lost or misconstrued"?

Shin Kyung-sook
(Image from JoongAng Daily)

I've recently drawn attention to Shin Kyung-sook's novel Please Look after Mom, which has enjoyed such a popular reception in the US, and I've made something of an effort to read every newspaper article coming to my attention that appears in an English version here in Korea about her and her novel in its English translation.

I therefore read with interest an interview by Shin Joon-bong, "Korean author finds stardom in U.S." (JoongAng Daily, April 27, 2011, page 9), particularly its words on the issue of translation and 'translatability', only to find myself dismayed by this remark, reportedly uttered by Shin with reference to her role in the translation of her novel from Korean to English:
While I was involved [in the translation project], I've come to realize Korean is the best form of language from a literary point of view.
I did a double take. I stopped reading. I read again. I thought, "Surely, I've misread that." But multiple re-readings offered the same inescapable hermeneutic: Korean literary chauvinism of the worst sort.

The translation, however, sounded odd in its grammatical structure, conjoining the past passive conjugation of the temporal clause with the present perfect conjugation of the main clause in an impossible combination, but grammar aside, I couldn't bring myself to believe that Shin could be so ignorant as to utter such an arrogant assertion in the original Korean. I therefore inquired of my wife as to what the writer had actually stated in her native Korean. Here's what my wife found in the Korean original at the same site:
이번에 다시 한번 우리말이 정말 아름답다, 많은 것을 포용한다는 생각을 하게 됐다. 문학적 표현에 더없이 좋은 언어다.
This translates as follows:
While I was involved [in the translation project], I again came to realize that Korean is a beautiful language -- even for encompassing many things. It is of the highest capacity for literary expression.
Far more acceptable. The other translation -- in the JoongAng Daily -- is dreadful and inadvertently presents Shin in a exceedingly negative light. This translation offered by my wife has Shin merely affirming that Korean can handle literary expression just as well as the best of literary languages. In other words, Korean is not inferior in this respect. Such a reading fits better with Shin's immediately following statement:
Many of my American readers tell me that the sentences are beautiful and they even linger in their mind. Although some words are replaced or changed, the translation still keeps the original beauty of Korean words, I believe.
If the "translation . . . keeps the original beauty," then English cannot be inferior "from a literary point of view."

Whoever translated the JoongAng Daily version was not quite competent enough to express the Korean meaning in English -- and lacked even competence sufficient enough to provide a grammatically correct complex sentence. Or at the very least, there's surely an editing error behind that clunky sentence.

Whatever the explanation, this is embarrassing -- for the JoongAng Daily, of course, but potentially even more so for Shin Kyung-sook, since it attributes to her a chauvinistic literary view that she does not hold!

The error is also hugely ironic, particularly for an interview that makes such an issue of 'translatability'.

Labels: , , , ,


At 3:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your wife's accurate translation is not blatantly chauvinist like the Joongang version, but I wonder how Shin Kyung-sook would be able to make that judgment. As a Korean author, she knows how to bring out the beauty of the Korean language, but so do authors of other languages. I've learned two European and three Asian languages in addition to my native language of English. I've read original literature in all of them, and I would have a hard time evaluating each language on its suitability as a literary language. I love each language for what it is - I really do! Colorful and creative names of Chinese dishes make Chinese menus literary masterpieces. I love the simplicity of Chinese, exemplified in the thousands of 4-character proverbs, many of which have been adopted into the Korean language. I love the way Japanese and Spanish CVCVCVC syllable patterns roll off the tongue. German feels heavy and sturdy like a steel-girder frame. Among the languages I've learned, German is my least favorite but that's just my opinion and not based on any objective analysis.

Americans are a proud people, but my fellow Americans generally do not boast about English. Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish speakers, on the other hand, often state the opinion that their language is beautiful and expressive. Perhaps these languages really are so beautiful and expressive that native speakers can't help but gush about them or perhaps children from countries where these languages are widely spoken develop pride in their languages through the school curriculum, TV programs, and conversations with adults. Anytime most or nearly members of a group share an opinion, I'm inclined to think that the opinion was formed more through verbal interaction than through experience and reflection.


At 4:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree with you, Sonagi. Even Shin Kyung-sook's more measured meaning in the original Korean would be a difficult opinion to justify. How would one go about grounding such an opinion? What are the criteria? I think that the topic is so complex that people ought to avoid boasting of how beautiful their native language is. Bilingual individuals might be able to speak of preferences for one language or the other, but they, too, ought to acknowledge subjectivity.

I sent the JoongAng reporter an email on this point but have heard nothing so far.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Something else just occurred to me. Literature is one field in which Korean women have excelled for what they can do, rather than how they look, fitting, I suppose, given the historical signficance of The Memoirs of Lady Haegyeong as the first major work of literature written in Hangeul and by a woman.


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

That's why I use a different image than my own for profile -- to avoid prejudicing blog readers against me on the basis of my appearance.

Not that I'm female . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home