Foundered in Translation: The odd case of Hyun Jin-Geon’s Fire

Hyun Jin-geon

Hyun Jin-geon

About three weeks ago Dongguk gave me a remarkable opportunity – I will be teaching a new class in reading translated Korean literature. The opportunity is remarkable in that I get to write a brand new class, but also remarkable in that I have to write it by September 1st (and with a vacation in Thailand coming up soon).

I’ve been panicked.

To relax, this evening I did some work on a Wikipedia entry for Hyun Jin-geon (as usual, your Romanization will no doubt vary) In doing so I pulled down a couple of books from my shelf and looked for biographical info. As it happened, both books had anthologized Hyun’s work, Fire.

This is a super-short but intense story, and as I read through both versions I realized that these two versions could replace the much longer Buckwheat Season as my example of how translation styles change how you read a story and how a translator can crank up the intensity.

In Fire, Suni is a 15 year old “bride,” in a miserable marriage in which her husband is her “enemy” and rapist. In Korean traditional fashion, she is also at the beck and call of her evil step-mother. Suni is crushed by this life, and Hyun displays this in a minor but horrifying scene in which Suni kills a minnow at the stream. Everything is horrific, and even when her husband expresses compassion, Suni is too terrorized to recognize it. Suni characterizes the problem as her “room” in the house. So she burns her house down to get rid of the room.

Now there’s a nice compact story.

How does translation affect this story? I’ll just look at two examples until I can print these both out (they are DRASTICALLY different, but until I have them flat in front of me I can’t judge if the differences are systematic, or idiosyncratic)

From the outset…

If Suni is a 15 year old bride in the Lee edition, she is a 14 year old in the Chung version. Just one year, but as you have sexual content and lower the age of the female ‘participant,’ things just seem that much worse.

Likely this is just an editorial decision to use western age in one translation and eastern in the other, but still, the difference is important from the outset. In Lee she is “half-awake,” in Chung “drowned in sleep.” In Chung “Soonie’s waist and hip ached as if they were being chopped off, torn into shreds, and smashed into pieces,” while Lee has it, “Her hips throbbed and twinged.” Chung tightly focuses on specific elements of Suni’s physical condition, and that makes her ordeal that much more vivid for a reader. Lee seems a bit dilatory.

At the conclusion (jumping far ahead), Chung has Soonie nearly insane, “There was life in her face as she jumped to the right and skipped to the left with joy,” while Lee has, “Her heart bursting with delight, she stamped and jumped with joy.” Again, Chung is more directly physical (note that he focuses on an externally discernable feature, her face, versus Lee’s more internal – and metaphorical, consequently at one remove – heart). As I noted at the outset, I’m going to have to go through these line by line, but Chun seems more intensely physical, among other differences – a difference that makes Chun’s translation seem more natural, less a ‘removed’ character study.

2 thoughts on “Foundered in Translation: The odd case of Hyun Jin-Geon’s Fire

  1. Very cool Charles. You’re doing some great work for the field of Korean literature translation and helping open up Korean history and culture to the rest of the world. Keep up the good work!

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