I suppose it is a general credit to the level of translation of Korean literature into English that I have read quite a few works and have just now come upon my second example of atrocious translation.
This case is particularly unfortunate as the story is a classic one – Both classically Korean in that it involves the psychic amputation of part of a people (Dae Han Min Guk is a principle evoked, in this work, to justify the mass murder of Koreans) and also classically global in that it explores the contexts and mechanisms by which massacres become an almost inevitable outcome of political warfare (both intellectual and physical).
The work is Hyun Ki Young’s Aunt Suni, and it is a testament to the story that if a reader perseveres through the bad translation, internal inconsistency, and horrifying typography, that reader is rewarded with a glimpse of Korean history with international meaning and better, is privy to the kinds of psychological accommodations and examinations that follow tragedy.
The story is brilliant on a technical level. The narrator is putatively coming back to Jeju (from Seoul) to attend the funeral rites of his grandfather.
When he arrives he discovers he is also “attending” the death of his Aunt Suni.
As we hear Aunt Suni’s horrific story, we realize that she, tragic, insane, a suicide, is a mangled relic and symbol of historical crimes. She returns, some 30 years later, to commit suicide in the killing field from which she once, ‘luckily,’ escaped.
Suni’s story is revealed in a series of conversations between her one-time confederates, and by structuring the story this way, Hyun allows the multiple narrators to also inject their understandings of the mechanisms of the tragedy as well as of the multiple approaches to the understanding of and/or forgetting of it. Hyun weaves a clever mix of showing and telling in which each ‘speaker’ reveals some aspect or interpretation of the time, the crime, and the aftermath.
A sub plot brings Aunt Suni to Seoul and here, in the smallest things – accent, rice consumption, burned fish – Hyun reveal Aunt Suni’s psychic trauma. The rest is well-written exposition presented as discussion.
Where the original writing can be discerned, it is brilliant. The narrator muses, as he returns to Jeju, that a 50 minute flight seems too quick a return to a land he has left some 8 years ago and constructs a powerful fantasy of how his return should have been affected.
When he lands, we see why he might well have wanted his journey extended and his destination avoided. Where the bones of plot and the muscles and ligaments of story-telling can be perceived, Hyun’s strength as a writer shines through.
There is a powerful story here.
Unfortunately that story is buried under poor translation. The name of the story is rendered three different ways. Phrases with no English meaning crop up. At one point Aunt Suni “picks a crow” with someone, and later a family is “slain to death.” Each apostrophe is followed by an extra space, and that same extra space regularly shows up between words. Personal pronouns are used without antecedent; articles are used randomly, and modifying clauses are place with daring disregard for the words they are supposed to modify. Grammatical errors are everywhere (e.g. “My hometown was something I had shun from”).
This is an extremely difficult book to read.
The translator, who I will not name, thanks two English speakers for proofreading the text.
If I had not read those lines I would have strongly argued that no native speaker of English had seen this work prior to its publication. The translator was done no favors by his English speaking… well.. the correct word is “accomplices.”
This bothers me because, as I mentioned, Hyun has (to the extent a reader can play literary archeologist and see past the wreckage left to view) done a brilliant job of creating a blessed (survives the massacre) and doomed (in some ways does not survive the massacre) character in Aunt Suni. Aunt Suni’s story is compelling enough that, after cursing the translation out, I ran to the internet to find the historical background of the Jeju revolt. It is a tangled and horrible story and wikipedia has an adequate summary of it.
After digging through the story and the history, I have a feeling that Hyun’s story, retranslated, or merely edited, would be an outstanding read.
For now, it is so difficult to navigate the text, just as text, that I wouldn’t pass this book along to anyone.
The good news is that my research turned up another book, apparently not available in Korea, titled “Dead Silence” which is 8 short stories about the Jeju imbroglio. And Amazon has it. 😉