Being one of the luckiest men in Seoul, I am reading an advance copy of Kim Young-ha’s “Your Republic is Calling You.”
I’m about 100 pages in and it is already brilliant (this is the time I get scared that the author will lose steam, or has a cruddy ending in mind. Oh well). It seems partly a meditation on what it means to have a secret self, a reflection of modern anomie and an unusual bit of focus (for translated Kim) on traditional post-war North-South. Really, so far it’s rocking.
But as I read it, as I usually do, I had to make conscious effort to remember the names of the Korean protagonists. Admittedly, even in English I am terrible at remembering names (solipsism, no doubt). But it is difficult for me to get the Korean names down pat, and I’ve lived in Korea for over two years. In my college classes all my students go by their real names, and roll is called (by me!) in Korean. So this is not something new to me.
It made me remember reading translated Russian literature, in which I had the same problem. Until I mentally
translated Pyotr (or whatever) to Peter (or whatever), I was adrift in a sea of alien syllables. In Korean, I think the dashes make internalization even more difficult. Perhaps if I had been born to the English upper class and every second stuttering Duke was named Smythe-Worthington, or the like, I’d be able to handle this, but I really can’t’t.
In this excellent book, everything else is translated. Why don’t we translate the names? What is the specific use of the romanized name in a book in which everything else has been (brilliantly!) translated?
Is the name left to remind us that we aren’t completely in Kansas with Toto?
My students, in what I am told is affection, have changed my name to 찰몽. It has some elements of my name, but isn’t in the slightest an attempt to hangulize it. I don’t have the slightest problem with this, and if it helps them talk to and about me?
Why would I.
So, why not “in translation?”