A Little Something from Kim Young-Ha and Esquire

This is nice on two levels…In the Land of the Blind...

Some time ago I predicted that a Korean author would eventually get recognition from a literary magazine in the US. My reasoning was that an article would come in, and editor would say, “hey, this is from Korea, have we done anything from Korea?”  Then self-same editor would realize no one had ‘done’ anything about Korea. And a piece would be published. It seems to have happened (way back in 2008!) and it couldn’t have happened to a better writer than Kim Young-Ha whose work seems written to resonate with Western audiences.

In this case the work is for Esquire’s “Napkin Project,” in which they publish super-short works by noted authors.

Kim delivers the goods, like an assassin with an ice-pick.  The piece is “Honor Killing” and the title itself is a clever comment on the story, which centers on Korea’s obsession with beauty and the roles to which women are relegated by this obsession as well as Korea’s continuing glass-ceiling for women (a topic discussed by James Turnbull here and  here in the “politics and economics” section). Kim visits acne on a beautiful receptionist, with results that the west might not expect. The  story ends with the sentence, “her skin was so luminous that everyone’s eyes squeezed shut,” which is both ironic and brilliant (you’ll have to read it yourself to see why, as I don’t want to ruin it).

Honor Killing can be found  at Esquire. It is translated, I should note, by Kim Chi-Young, who has also done a brilliant job of translating Lee Dong-Ha’s Toy City.

8 thoughts on “A Little Something from Kim Young-Ha and Esquire

  1. Hi, I’ve been lurking around your blog for a couple months. I like your article and your entire blog! Keep it up!

  2. The story was short and interesting enough to get me started.
    I read the English version once before I started translating
    it on my own. Although a couple of words got stuck in my
    head, hindering my own words, the translation is mostly
    done without peeking at the Esquire version again. For those
    interested in comparing and analyzing the two, here it is:

    *Disclaimer: please use discretion, for my translation needs
    to be edited.

    Honor Killing

    She was a 20-something with fair and beautiful skin. Even when she applied nothing on her face, her complexion was always dewy and radiated vitality. Her flawless skin landed her a receptionist job at a dermatology clinic. Her duty was simple: write down patients’ names, speak “please, take a seat and wait” in a courteous voice, find their medical charts and hand them over to nurses. The look of her gorgeous translucent skin planted faith and expectation in the hearts of the patients who visited the clinic. The number of patients suddenly shot up, and the clinic was always crowded with them.

    One day, however, without even a warning, her skin began showing a problem. Started but a small blemish, her skin trouble gradually became severe and spread over her entire face. No one could figure out why. The young doctor who opened the clinic on a bank loan took on her imperfection light-heartedly at first. Then he hung on to the developing issue as if his life depended on it. More desperate he became, the worse her condition grew. Red spots flowered all over her once fair complexion that, from afar, she looked like a pizza cooked in a wrong way. In despair, the doctor tore at his own hair, and the nurses hated her.

    On one spring day, she committed suicide, leaving behind only a note: “I apologize to everyone.” The clinic soon hired a new receptionist. Her skin was so luminous that everyone shut his eyes.

  3. I really like Chi-Young’s translations of Kim Young Ha (she does a wonderful job with “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself”), but the last line here isn’t working for me in either version (I’m guessing “luminous” is one of the words that stuck). I’m not sure how best to handle “nuneul gamatda” her, but it seems like a strong close is really warranted, which I guess is the intention of “squeezed shut”….I’d try something more like “Her dazzling complexion blinded all onlookers.”

  4. Dear Haerim appa

    Thank you so much for commenting.

    The source text in Korean encourages a simple translation of “Her dazzling complexion blinded all onlookers.”

    But both translators stayed away from that literal interpretation, because in English it sounds passive. The “act” of closing one’s eyes, implies intent rather than merely being affected.


  5. Haerim appa,

    Sorry.. I forgot to say.. I also love Chi-Young’s work.. her “Toy City” buried the previous versions…

  6. Hi Charles,

    Actually, I looked at the source text from Esquire, and I’d turn it around: I think my version runs the risk of being much less literal. But I don’t think you can extract anything about intent vs. effect from the Korean any more than from the English. If e.g. you go out into dazzling sun and it is so bright that you squint/close your eyes (눈부시다), is that a voluntary or involuntary response? That issue may have been what was operating for you but without Chi-young to comment, I’m not sure that is what did it for her.

    Small point in your version–I think I’d go with “all shut their eyes”, rather than everyone everyone shut his eyes, which may be strictly speaking correct (as opp. to “everyone shut their eyes”) but is, at least to me, less idiomatic and has the problem of importing gendered connotations. It was in fact this problem that got me started playing around with a translation.

  7. Hello, Haerim appa,

    What if the author’s intention is to make it that people chose to close their eyes? The author chose his words carefully in the last line. He could have said “모두 눈을 감아야만 했다” or “눈을 감을 수 밖에 없었다” which would be a lot more flowing and as expected in Korean. Instead, the ending is “모두 눈을 감았다.” For me, the ending was intentionally put that way. No one can ever be sure of the author’s intention without his input. However, the ending seems too unsettlingly calm to translate it as “they had to shut their eyes” or “blinded all onlookers”. Voluntary or involuntary reactions may work in describing medical reality. Literature is not reality–no more than a movie is. Your interpretation may be right after all. Who knows? However, I would not run the risk of overriding the possibility that the author might have wanted to implicate the general public as passive accomplice in driving her to her death. This way, the title “honor killing (murder)” works better with the context.

    As for the less idiomatic ending of my translation, I apologize for leaving it that way. As my disclaimer explains, it was done haphazardly during a breaktime at work. I just never got around to it. Now that I read it again, I would even go with “Her skin was so luminous, and all closed their eyes.” No one, of course, needs to agree with it.

  8. I should also add, at this late date, that as this was translated by Kim Chi-young, she almost certainly was working with Kim Young-ha on the translation – in an interview with Kim in Seoul she explained to me that she has only translated living authors and one good thing about this is that she can “get back to them” if she has questions….

    Particularly, she noted that Kim (and other writers as well) was even flexible enough to re-write sections that didn’t quite work in English.

    So in this case I think I’d claim that the TC text is pretty close to the intended effect of the author…

    LOL.. still.. it’s a guess..

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