No Sex Please, We’re Korean

Keep It In Your Trousers!

An interesting article about a Korean play being re-envisaged for US audiences. The article amplifies a point I had just recently thought of with respect to Korean literature and what works in translation and why. I had been focusing on agency, plots, themes and symbols, and how they differ across the cultures, but it had also recently occurred to me that other than an alarming amount of rape, their is very little sex in Korean fiction.

Kyoung H. Park, Dean’s Fellow at Columbia University’s MFA program in Playwriting is presenting Walkabout Yeolha, an adaptation of contemporary Korean playwright Samshik Pai’s award winning Inching Towards Yeolha, first performed in Korea in 2007. As he talks about the cross-cultural issues he notes:

There is never sex in Korean literature. So when the translator translated the original script, which had sex in it, he would not be explicit about the nature of the sex. I think here, for the content to translate, it needs to be shown.

With the exception of a few modern writers (Kim Young-ha, as always, leaps to mind), this observation is true, and this means that translations from Korean will not seem “natural” to western readers who expect bodices to be heaving and trousers (and panties) to be dropping.

Obviously, all literature need not be D.H Lawrencian, but this is another basic difference in approach that certainly influences how translations will be taken and, as a result, what should/might be chosen to translate. The implications are varied – but think for example about western expectations of what a “romantic” novel might be and how those expectations will be subverted by a Korean romance in which the sweaty evidence of romance is missing.

4 thoughts on “No Sex Please, We’re Korean

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