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.”
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.