Sunday, November 29, 2009

Meeting Ch'oe Yun

Ch'oe Yun

On Friday evening, I attended the Daesan Foundation's annual literary awards ceremony because I had acted as one of the judges for the best recent English translation of Korean literature. This might sound surprising to those who know me since they also know how dreadful my Korean is. I am also surprised. I can only surmise that the generous Daesan people wanted my participation on the committee of judges as a literary critic who is also a native speaker of English.

At any rate, I was a judge (제프리 하지스) and was given the enjoyable opportunity to read about ten volumes of mostly fine Korean writing in English translation. Selecting a best volume was not easy, but I think that the right choice was made in awarding the Daesan Literary Award for Translation to Bruce Fulton and Ju-Chan Fulton for their translation of Ch'oe Yun's volume of three stories, There a Petal Silently Falls. This volume is published by Columbia University Press, which well describes its contents:
In this collection's title work, There a Petal Silently Falls, Ch'oe explores both the genesis and the aftershocks of historical outrages such as the Kwangju Massacre of 1980, in which a reported 2,000 civilians were killed for protesting government military rule. The novella follows the wanderings of a girl traumatized by her mother's murder and strikes home the injustice of state-sanctioned violence against men and especially women. "Whisper Yet" illuminates the harsh treatment of leftist intellectuals during the years of national division, at the same time offering the hope of reconciliation between ideological enemies. The third story, "The Thirteen-Scent Flower," satirizes consumerism and academic rivalries by focusing on a young man and woman who engender an exotic flower that is coveted far and wide for its various fragrances.
Despite my ardent appreciation of these well-written and well-translated stories, I committed the faux pas of failing to recognize the author herself although she was seated beside me at dinner during the awards ceremony. Actually, my failure is not so surprising in itself. I had never seen a photograph of Ch'oe Yun. The actual false step was in failing to recognize her name when we exchanged cards:
"Only two names?" I remarked. "That's unusual for a Korean. Koreans usually have three, don't they?"

"It's a pen name," she explained.

"Oh," I said. "What have you written?"

"The translation of my book," she explained, smiling, "was awarded this year's literary prize."

"Oh!" I exclaimed. "That's you! I was one of the judges."

"Did you like the book?" she asked, still smiling.

"Very much," I assured her.
The forgiving Ms. Yun and I then had a most interesting conversation, which I probably shouldn't detail here since she is somewhat of a public figure, and our talk was likely considered off the record. Suffice it to say that we spoke of our years in Europe and the changes that we've seen wrought there by immigration and multiculturalism, particularly the widespread disappearance of Christianity's cultural influence in much of Europe.

More important, anyway, is her writing, so here are the opening lines -- translated by the Fultons -- from There a Petal Silently Falls:
As you pass by the grave sites scattered throughout the city, you may encounter her, a girl whose maroon velvet dress barely covers her, a girl who lingers near the burial mounds. Please don't stop if she approaches you, and don't look back once she's passed you by. If your eye should be drawn to the flesh showing between the folds of that torn soiled dress, or drawn to something resembling a wound, walk away with downcast eyes as if you hadn't seen a thing.
If that interests you -- and I do quite like it -- then read more at what the Google Books site offers. With respect to this translation, I should note that I also met the translators, Bruce Fulton and Ju-Chan Fulton, but had little chance to speak with them, as they sat at a different table, though I did manage to express my admiration for their work, which was outstanding.

But you can see for yourself . . .

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At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you happen to se the movie A Petal, based on the novel There a Petal Falls? The movie didn't move me like it did the Korean audience whom the story and movie were created for. The ajosshi who raped and abused the girl softened in the end and came to care for her, but I could not muster one ounce for sympathy for a child rapist. The twisted love story reminded me of the Luke and Laura saga on General Hospital. In case you're unfamiliar with it, Luke raped Laura on the dance floor of a disco, and she ended up falling in love with him and marrying him, forming one of soap's legendary couples. *barf*

I was also annoyed by the overdone childishness of the girl at the beginning of the movie, crawling, crying, and tugging at her mother's sleeve because she didn't want to board the bus or something like that. I never saw a kid over the age of 5 behave that way in Korea. If the pre-massacre childish, pure, innocent girl represented Korea, than she was a strange choice because Korea was never pure or innocent.

Korean literature is interesting in that it shows how Koreans view themselves. Even acclaimed authors seem to buy into the hermitically constructed narrative.

At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

corrections: There a Petal Silently Falls and hermetically

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I've only read the book, Sonagi, and the movie sounds very different to me. Other than that, I can't really comment.

I'd like to read all three stories again without the pressue of having to act as judge, but I won't be able to until the break.

Maybe I'll have more to say after that.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:23 PM, Blogger John B said...

She's a scholar of French literature at Sogang University, isn't she? The only two stories of hers that I read (in translation) were set in Europe.

At 7:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, that's right -- French literature. What were the stories?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:37 AM, Blogger John B said...

I read translations of "The Last of Hanak'o" and "His Father's Keeper" (I can dig up the info for the anthologies they were taken from if you're interested), and I read an essay of hers written in Korean about the changing of seasons as a metaphor for life. Umm, "생생한 일상을 위한 연습" or "Practice for a Vibrant Daily Life", although I have to admit I haven't yet developed an appreciation for Korean essays -- they seem very formulaic.

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, John. I'll Google them.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:54 PM, Anonymous 輝夜姬 said...

I read Ch'oe Yun's 『Winter, Atlantis』several times. Absence was the only something with me at those times and I didn't want to let the novel go from me. The translation you introduce is also interesting.

At 3:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, 輝夜姬 (or Winnie?), for the comment. I've only recently 'discovered' Ch'oe Yun, so I'm happy to hear more about her writing and look forward to reading additional works.

Jeffery Hodges

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