Regular readers know that I have puzzled over the lack of translated Korean humor in the past, attempting to determine what the reasons for it might be (as in here where I talk about examples of it and here where I discuss why it might be difficult to translate).
The one thing I have not discussed, because it turns to tend into a thicket of accusations of orientalization and cultural imperialism, is whether or not there is a “different” Korean sense of humor (“The Korean sense of humor is often very direct”) or, as some posit it, (NOTE- LINK ROT, OR A NOTEABLE LACK OF SENSE OF HUMOR HAS TAKEN THIS LINK DOWN)
a lack of sense of humor based on Korean cultural constructs. Obviously, this kind of claim is just as fraught with danger as the claim that Koreans are culturally incapable on taking criticism (or giving it properly) based on the Confucian nature of Korean society (an issue Ask A Korean takes on here).
And yet, there clearly are cultural differences, from the reaction to parody and satire (see the official reaction to 나는꼼수다 for one example) to the rather obvious implications of social structure and self-conception differences that are largely accepted by sociologists (These two graphics from Chinese-born German designer Yang Liu):
So, if we carefully step a toe into this minefield, what better way to deflect any possible criticism than to examine the stances others have taken?^^
The first cut is by R. H. Blyth who, perhaps unfortunately, begins by titling his rather hefty work, “Oriental Humor.” A secondary problem is that in a book addressing China, Korea, and Japan (you know, the “Orient!”), Korea gets fewer than 40 pages in a book that nearly stretches to 400.
Early evidence, perhaps, that the Koreans just aren’t that funny? (I keeed, I keeeeed!)
Actually, Blyth apologizes for the paucity of his Korean coverage, a paucity that seems odd when in the introduction he reveals that he lived in Korea for 14 years.
Blyth begins by discussing the Korean character, an approach that might seem a bit exceptionalist except, well, that Koreans themselves insist on this character exceptionalism (han, nunchi, kibun, homogeniety, etc.) so it seems like a good place to start. Blyth, in general, identifies cultural characteristics in terms of opposites, and for Korea he identifies these as vehemence and placidity, which seems like a reasonable take on a self-described “tin pot” culture. This plays out as humor that
lies in the collision between the violence of their desires and the cold, immovable facts of life. The Koreans are hardly capable of the loftiest, philosophical, super-natural humour; where they score is in their feelings of the common life of men and women and tigers and dogs and bed-bugs. (166)
This certainly seems accurate from the translated side of the literature, although that doesn’t prove much; certainly the lofty and super-natural would be much harder to to translate than the more prosaic humor of bedpans upended on heads. And yet, Blyth notes, even that kind of humor is oddly missing. Blyth mentions the extreme structure of Korean society, from the effects of social inflexibility to the extremely mannered nature of the language. In Korean humour this apparently did not result in the kind of humor in which circumstances are reversed, or the mighty are brought to a fall. This does not mean that coarseness is absent, in fact Blythe claims that most humorous proverbs in Korea have come from China and been made more prosaic and earthly by the Korean. Unfortunately, Blyth intentionally excludes the most “outspoken” of the proverbs, so it is difficult to judge his claim. This claim pops up again when Blyth moves to Korean short stories, with Blyth claiming, a great many Korean stories, and some of the best, are not printable..”(183) One or two stories related to sex pass through Blyth’s internal censor, and they are amusing.
Blyth makes several other claims I will pass over quickly
- The stupidity of women is more interesting (to men) thatn the folly of men and thus there are more stories focused on the folly of men than on that of women.
- Koreans have an inordinate interest in defecation.
- Many stories focus on fanciful explanations of common things, such as the story of why men have two testicles (basically, an amusing metaphor that argues it is one testicle for each hand of a human)
- Koreans are (were, as I type this) extremely interested in vermin (the actual bugs, not the idea)
- There are many stories of clever children.
And with that, Blyth leaves Korean humor.
I should note that Blyth has a habit of saying the most alarming things in a deadpan fashion: “The Koreans, like the Japanese, cannot or rather will not think”; “There is no Korean, as there is no Japanese philosophy.”
This tendency makes it easier, for a skeptical reader, to believe that Blyth is looking at “Oriental” humour through his own particular and Orientalist take on the cultures.
Still, Blyth does present an interesting take on Korean humor, and one that I will shortly contrast with a more native take on the same issues from Humor in Korean Literature from the Korean Culture Series I.
Finally, I leave with a quote from Bruce Fulton (from the Seattle Times), that explains one of the additional institutional problems with the translation of Korean Humor
Korean writers are expected to be “cognizant of the modern tragedy of Korean history,” Bruce says. “Until recently, if you wrote out of imagination, with a sense of humor or playfulness, you were considered a lightweight, not to be taken seriously.”