Chapters 1 / / 3 / 4/

Almost every English language reader would immediately recognize the words “”Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a giant cockroach.” as the first line of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis, a work that helped define his style and changed literature forever.

Quote to an English reader the line “Mother died today” and they might well immediately recognize it as the first line of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1942).Even if they did not recognize that, one would only need to begin humming “Killing an Arab” by the English band The Cure and the literary allusion would be obvious to most English readers, or even just casual music listeners. The Stranger, though written in French, has been translated and not only read, but incorporated into English-language culture in such a way that it can become a hit in popular music as well as a piece of literature.

To go very much back in time, one can quote the famous line, “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”, translating to “The whole of Gaul is divided into three parts”. and the savvy reader will immediately recognize the first line of Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic wars. Some people mighty even recognize this quote in its original Latin.

“The taxi’s radio was tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Janáček’s Sinfonietta—probably not the ideal music to hear in a taxi caught in traffic.” might be a bit more obscure, but it is the first line from Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 (2009-10) which upon its first day of sales in Japan, completely sold out and has been translated and is recognized into many languages, with first editions published in at least seven countries (Japan, United States, United Kingdom, Hungary, Norway, Turkey, and Greece). You could put the book you are currently reading down on go to your local bookstore and immediately purchase this book, most likely in Engllsh, if not even your native language. Since we are discussing Korean literature here, it is worth noting that it has also been translated into Korean and is sold as a three-volume set. It has also been translated into Persian and Chinese. The list merely goes on.

Along the same principles, an educated person might well recognize “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered far and wide after he had sacked Troy’s sacred city, and saw the towns of many men and knew their mind” as the first line of Homer’s The Odyssey,” or “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.” as from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment.

All of these sentences are first sentences, and they cross time and space, yet are immediately apprehensible to the English speaking reader of English literature, whether that reader knows the original language at all, or in fact even knows that work is from another language..

And yet, ask that same reader of translated literature about the following classic lines

1)“ Why do murders always seem to happen on Sundays?
2) “Perhaps we ought to begin this investigation into the deviations of his life by evoking the problem of memory.”
3) “Fighting, adultery, murder, theft, prison — the shanty area outside the Seven Star Gate was a breeding ground for all that is tragic and violent in this world.”
4) or one of my all-time favorite first lines in Korean literature, “She kicked the pig in the balls and her purple sandal flew off.”å

And it is an almost certainty that the “well-read” reader of translation will not recognize the first line from Kim Young-ha’s brilliant detective novella Photo Shop Murder, the second line, which is nearly Nabokovian in nature as from Yi Mun-yol’s The Poet, or the third line from Kim Dong-in’s translation of the tragic Potatoes, or the latter from the recently released comic translation of Pig on the Grass by Im Tae Yong.

There is, in fact, possibly only one line in Korean literature that many readers of Korean fiction might recognize, and that is:

“It’s been one week since Mom went missing.”

And, yet, ask yourself if you actually did recognize that this line is from the most translated  work of Korean fiction in history, Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom? If you did, you are likely among the few.

Similarly, consider the following plot descriptions:

1)  A young, sexually abused hacker takes revenge, with the help of an older male journalist, on her abusers.
2) A deranged knight on horseback, followed by his loyal companion on burro, tilts ridiculously against windmills.
3) A novel about the adventures, misadventures, and disillusionment of a young man who ends up wanting nothing more than to tend his own garden.
4) A great, but blocked author visits Venice and finds himself obsessed with an extremely attractive young man. While the writer suffers the pangs of unrequited and unattempted love, he dies of cholera.

To many readers many of these plots would be clear as they describe The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005), Don Quixote (1606 & 1615), Candide (1759), and Death in Venice (1924).

And yet, describe the following story to any English-language (or non-Korean speaker). A young boy and a young girl meet while playing by a stream. They meet again and form a kind of friendship. Suddenly, a cloudburst appears out of the sky and the boy and the girl are forced to take shelter in a cramped stack of millet. The story ends with the girl dying, her final request being that she be buried in the same clothes that she always wore when she met the young boy.

Most likely this would ring no bell with a non-Korean reader even though it is Sonagi (Cloudburst) among the most famous stories in Korean fiction. In fact, until quite recently one would be hard-pressed to come up with any plot description of a Korean book that a non-Korean would recognize.

This is beginning to change, and this book is an attempt to take a look at Korean fiction through translation, trace it’s influences and development, and suggest some works that an interested reader might begin with without needing to know any Korean. First, we must discuss some of the historical and social influences that have made Korean fiction what it is, and to some extent helped keep it off the international map.