Humor in Translated Korean Modern Literature?

A reader asks about humorous translations of Korean literature (LOL, by which I actually mean translations of Korean humorous literature, not translations that make us laugh). As I make my list of translations of this kind of literature, I note how short it is. My list is complete at only five stories and in all the stories what comes across most is situational humor/irony and not a deeper level of conceptual humor or verbal humor:

Choe Chong-hui’s Chom-nye explores the difficulties of post-war peasants, and features a clever and rapacious shaman who uses the death of a bride to swindle the mourning family out of all the dead women’s goods and the families’ sole remaining chicken.

There is also Chon Kwangyong’s brilliant Kapitan Ri, an excellent summary of the first 50 years of the 20th century in Korea, the main character of which is a highly amusing bad guy. When humor is fused into these meaningful stories, Korean literature becomes more easily accessible.

The Camellias, by Kim Yu-jeong, is a “first-love” story in which a bumpkin-ish boy comes face to face with Jeomsun a rather higher class girl who loves him. The tone is rough and humorous as Jeomsun is only capable of showing her interest through aggression – an aggression she feels is justified by the boy’s complete inability to figure out that the two are actually in love with each other. The young love is complicated, too, by the fact that Jeomsun is the narrator’s social superior, and this causes him to see Jeomsun’s solicitude and aggression as a form of class warfare. Of course it is, in a way, as Jeomsun pulls stunts that would get a social equal smacked on the head, but Kim plays this for broad comedy and the unnamed narrator’s denseness justifies the lengths that Jeomsun feels she has to go to in order to demonstrate her love. The story ends happily, in an ending that might remind English readers of the end of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw with a dazed narrator crawling towards the future: “I had no choice but to crawl away on hands and knees, up along the rocks towards the mountain peak.”

Note – if you buy this book, be prepared for the other two stories included to be resolutely NOT funny, in fact each is harrowing in its way.

Next, and far funnier in language, is My Innocent Uncle by Ch’ae Man-sik, which satirizes idealistic Korean socialists as well as opportunistic Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese colonialists. This is a funny story, with a funny narrator, and it is translated in ways in which the fun comes through. When the befuddled collaborator insists on calling his uncle a “scotchalist” instead of socialist, a modern reader will easily be able to draw parallels to the political climate of today, with such clever names as Repugnicans and Demoncrats standing in the stead of actual argument. Also highly amusing is the narrator’s amazing ability to find viewpoints that agree with his own, regardless of what is actually occurring in the story.

Finally, one of Kim Young-ha’s classic short stories, What Ever Happened to the Guy in the Elevator? (found in the book “Photo Shop Murder) Whatever Happened To The Guy Stuck in the Elevator is an absurdist look at day in which everything goes wrong: People reveal themselves to be self-centered, and technology reveals itself to be untrustworthy. The single businessman who narrates, begins his day by breaking his razor, and things continue to go wrong from there. On his way out of the building he is forced to use the stairs because the elevator is stalled. On the 5th floor he finds the reason, a man is stuck (and perhaps hurt or dying) in the elevator door. The rest of the story focuses on the man’s attempts to notify someone about the man in the elevator and his continually unraveling day. There is an amusing set piece in which the businessman gives an ‘important’ presentation to his colleagues; an argument for increasing toilet-paper efficiency. Predictably, the presentation does not go as he expects. When the narrator finally does reach 911 to report the man in the elevator he is disbelieved and when he returns to his apartment, where the hot water has been turned off, he is still in a state of uncertainty about.. well, basically everything.  Kim carries this off with deadpan humor and situational and verbal irony that masterfully survives translation.

Those three books and two short stories, however, are all that popped into my mind. I wonder if readers have any additions?

In my next post I’ll talk a little bit about why I believe so little humor has been translated, for reasons that have to do with translation in general and Korean modern literature specifically.

14 thoughts on “Humor in Translated Korean Modern Literature?

  1. Does humour writing vary depending on which of the 3 Korean literatures (ROK, DPRK, and other such as Russia,China, Kazakhstan, etc.) it belongs to?

    Is there a different sensibility for each?

    I know that humour writing was quite different between the former West Germany and the former East Germany.

    Moreover, for DPRK writing, what exactly is humour writing? One associates DPRK with an overwhelming sense of earnestness and single-minded conversionary spirit that would seem to leave little room for lightness or humour.

    Moreover, adult humour often has a subversive quality that presumably the DPRK would completely extirpate.

    For Russian Korean literature, is it imbued with the spirit of Russian humour writing?

    And, what types of humour writing are translated into the various Korean literatures?

    For example, are humour works by Il’f & Petrov translated into DPRK Korean literature? They were printed during the Stalin period in the USSR, so presumably they are not completely beyond the pale in DPRK.

    In ROK, are non-ROK Korean literatures available? Or are they proscribed, like certain websites are proscribed?

    I am not speaking of the dull political tracts published by DPRK in endless quantities, but rather actual literature, albeit doubtlessly coloured by the milieu in which they are written.

    Again, in the former West Germany, East German literature was readily available, although much of it was little read due to its heavy-handed politics.

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  4. Charles (The Other),

    I can’t tell if you are also the person who sent me an email with an example of North Korean Humor, but if that was you, thanks!

    Yeah, the humor is going to be cultural – there is certainly a long history of shamanic humor (judging from the abstract of an article I’m attempting to track down), although this may turn out to be along the conventional “trickster” line, which seems to be evident in all cultures (e.g. in the Soviet Bloc there were trickster characters outwitting the authorities).

    I imagine the DPRK official humor is, well, humorless, but also imagine that on the ground, there is a different kind of folk humor indeed.

    (LOL, note how much I am imagining here).

    I would love to get my hands on some North Korean humorous literature, but most research is blocked here, by the South Korean govt.

  5. I know that in the USSR during the Stalin period, there was a limited amount of adult humour, which tended to be satiric towards “safe” targets of satire (slothful mid-level bureaucrats, women (playing off stereotypes about women), and teenage fads).

    I assume that there are similar safe targets for satire in DPRK.

    In Stalin’s Russia there was also unofficial humour, which tended to be either highly sexual, highly anti-minority, or [VERY rarely] anti-Soviet.

    The latter was common but generally only shared by 1 or 2 people during the entire era.

  6. (Other) Charles.. as for the DPRK, there was just this article:

    N.Korean Political Jokes:

    I remember similar things reported in the 70’s and 80’s about the Eastern Bloc… but always wonder how anecdotal they are… And I’m sure they rarely get into anything published, certainly not into anything published with a name on it! ^^

  7. I am not named Charles, is it okay if I comment?

    Um, hahaha.

    Ahem, so I don’t have much to add except to note that you already discussed the three funniest tales in the Portable series. My Innocent Uncle was practically the first Korean lit I read, and it definitely contributed to my interest in reading more.

    Wordplay and play with culturally-familiar objects (Snowman walks into a bar, says, “Smells like carrots in here!”) are the most common types of humor you’ll see, I guess. Then you have situational stuff like the Elevator guy–he has to do more research on toilet paper usage.

    Mr Bean is popular all over the world because he uses slapstick, situational humor, and hardly ever speaks (or needs to). Incidentally, I heard recently that the slapstick slipping on a banana peel–who ever slipped on a banana peel?–arose because the peel was a stand-in for horse manure that so littered the streets of nineteenth century cities. Horse manure would be in bad taste in early films, so they substituted banana peels. Kind of non sequitur, but interesting, I thought.


  8. Regarding Eastern European jokes, there were such jokes even in print in the USSR, and even during the Stalin period.

    They would have been modified slightly.

    For example, this:

    Move over, comrade!

    Two men are talking on a Pyongyang subway train:
    “How are you, comrade?”
    “Fine, how are you doing?”
    “Comrade, by any chance, do you work for the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party?”
    “No, I don’t.”
    “Have you worked for the Central Committee before?”
    “No, I haven’t.”
    “Then, are any of your family members working for the Central Committee?”
    “Then, get away from me! You’re standing on my foot!”

    would have been changed from “Central Committee of the Workers’ Party” to “Regional Local Committee of the Workers’ Party”

    While very high-level personalities and organisations were officially beyond reproach, mid-level organisations were at times the object of criticism, in part as a means to deflect criticism of the very top.

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