Friday, June 14, 2013

LTI Korea - "Encountering Korean Literature: A Personal Journey"

The Literature Translation Institute of Korea recently requested a brief article from me for the Afterword section of their magazine List: Books from Korea, and my piece, "Encountering Korean Literature: A Personal Journey," has been published in the Summer issue (Volume 20, page 28), though it's not yet available online. For now, one needs the hard copy, excepting my readers, who can find the article here below:
Encountering Korean Literature: A Personal Journey

Horace J. Hodges

My first encounter with Korean literature came through a roundabout process that started in 1992. I was sitting on a train in Germany discussing literature with a Korean woman whom I had just happened to meet, having by chance sat down beside her. Specifically, we were talking about The Man without Qualities, the famous novel by the Austrian writer Robert Musil, and our discussion was so fascinating, we decided to get married and continue the conversation. Of course, I didn't tell her about 'our' decision for another year and a half.

She lived in Munich and I in Tübingen, but we took turns visiting nearly every weekend, and for three years in Germany, our conversation continued, as it had begun, in German, a second language for us both. However, I determined to become acquainted with Korean literature in English translation, so I asked her for a book to read. She managed to obtain a copy of Ch'oe In-hun's early novel, A Grey Man, which I read slowly in an attempt to gain as much insight as possible into Korean culture. Ironically, the protagonist was a man 'without qualities' wavering in the 1950s between Christianity and Communism, which I took to mean the choice between right or left, South or North, and I suppose I was correct. I attributed that political issue to the temporal setting of Korea in the fifties. Little did I realize that South Koreans would still be stuck on this dilemma in 2013.

In 1995, we married and spent two semesters in Korea teaching before leaving again for nearly five years on postdoctoral grants, returning to Korea shortly before the millennial celebrations at the onset of 2000. Only slowly did I get back into Korean literature, and that was when I was solicited to serve as a referee, later a judge, for the Daesan Foundation. As a referee, I evaluated sample English translations of Korean stories and plays, as well as poetry, and began developing a sense of what, in literary terms, Korea had to offer. I was especially taken with Park Wan-suh's autobiographical novel, Who Ate Up All the Shinga?, translated by Yu Young-nan and Stephen Epstein, who appreciated my close proofreading of their manuscript and invited me to dinner with them and the author herself. Later, as a judge for the Daesan Foundation's 2009 Translation Prize, I participated in choosing Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton's translation of Ch'oe Yun's story selection There a Petal Silently Falls: Three Stories by Ch'oe Yun, and I was privileged to meet the author and translators at the awards ceremony. As for the writings of Park Wan-suh and Ch'oe Yun, while these works were more complex than Ch'oe In-hun's Grey Man, I observed a similar concern with the right and the left in the struggle over the qualities of the Korean soul.

Meanwhile, my wife and I had gotten into translation work ourselves, at times sponsored by grants from the KLTI. For instance, we translated Jang Jung-il's selection of stories When Adam's Eyes Opened and Yi Gwang-su's novel The Soil, both supported by the KLTI and slated for publication this coming fall, if all goes according to schedule. These two works have been our greatest challenges thus far, but also thereby the most fulfilling, for we learned a great deal about translating literary texts through the endeavor itself, and the process has improved my own writing and conferred greater confidence upon me as a writer. In terms of themes, the two works are very different, of course. Jang Jung-il's stories touch upon Korea's political division, which was obviously not an issue for Yi Gwang-su, whose works were written under the Japanese occupation, but the latter was similarly obsessed with a search for authentic Korean qualities, and his literary legacy has been vigorously contested between right and left.

We can see this same search for genuine Korean qualities in the works of Hwang Sok-young, particularly his novel The Guest, where he attempts an exorcism of Christian right and Communist left in favor of traditional Korean shamanism as that which best informs the truest qualities of the Korean soul. Although my engagement with Korean literature continues in a roundabout fashion, I see that the first Korean literary work I read, about a grey man preoccupied with Korea's division, offered paradoxical insight into Korean culture as a culture caught upon a dilemma. That same divided Korea yet remains. Highlighting that division, Hwang Sok-young attempts a third way. In contrast, much recent Korean literature by younger writers appears to ignore the division and its ripple effects in the Korean soul, but I can't help wondering if this division is merely being studiously ignored in works such as Kim Young-ha's I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, and is thus present in its absence.

Horace J. Hodges is a professor of the EPO and DIS at Ewha Womans University, where he teaches composition and research methods, occasionally also history and theology. He has a doctorate in history from UC Berkeley and has published articles on history, political science, religious studies, and literary criticism. He is also a published writer and poet.
That's what I wrote, including the bio, except for one thing: my name. I wrote "Horace Jeffery Hodges." You see what happened to "Jeffery." It became "J." But I only use "J." with "H." As in "H. J. Hodges." If I have to use "Horace," I always write "Horace Jeffery," even if the rigid bureaucratic form specifies first name and middle initial.

Since my wife and I will be recognized as translators this autumn, when our translations of a couple of Korean books are scheduled for publication, I'd better get this 'nominal' issue straightened out.

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