Shin Kyung-sook in Seoul Magazine

Please Look After Mom, by Shin Kyung-sook

Please Look After Mom, by Shin Kyung-sook

Seoul Magazine (a publication of the Seoul City Government and Seoul Selectiong Bookstore) has gotten around to covering Shin Kyung-sook and the success of Please Look After Mom.Seoul Magazine may grind slow, but it does grind fine. Interviewer Jae Won Chung only asks a few fluffy questions and instead focuses on more important issues.

One amusing revelation (that is likely an issue of translation) is  Shin accidentally taking a shot at the UK translation of the title, arguing that “mom” is the word Shin prefers to the too-formal “mother”:

Before the first line, “It’s been one week since Mom went missing” came to me, I was writing her as “Mother,” and it just didn’t work. So I kept putting it down, because it didn’t feel right. Now that I think about it, it could’ve been that my mother was changing while I was writing it, so that there was a tension there—I wanted to create my mother’s portrait, but I kept wondering, was it even necessary? As time passed, my mother would change, and there was a gap between who she was and my own portrayal of her. But when the line, “It’s been one week since Mom went missing” came to me, I was totally floored. It had never occurred to me to write it from the point of view of already having lost her, but once I had that sentence, everything flowed. It was like I’d never gotten stuck. I think it was the word “Mom” that did it. I’d set it up as having lost her, so that the writing became a process of recovery, remembrance. With “Mother” there was a certain decorum that had to be observed, even in my writing of her, but the word “Mom” did away with all that, with its familiarity, and opened her up in a way. “Mom” had a powerfully evocative effect.

After another great question focused on how translated literature has to deal with a general lack of overseas knowledge of Korean culture, Shin responds:

People have said a part of what they enjoyed about the book was those glimpses into Korean society. There are very Korean-specific parts, about Korean society, like the march, or the Korean mothers cooking, or the Korean traditional holidays—the rituals involved—these are Korean elements that made the narrative new to some readers. Korea is a very small country, and it’s unique in being the only divided nation in the world, so a lot’s always happening. People want to bring about change within civil society, and I think you can get a sense of that in the book—the desire to transform the society, a strong sense of civic identity. I think that’s in the novel though it might just be the backdrop.

Which is a really great argument that I hope translating institutions and translators completely understand: If you make Korean culture palatable to foreign readers; if you present Korean culture in the context of a story that foreigners understand?

Then foreigners will automatically digest aspects of Korean culture. Shin doesn’t make the claim explicitly, but it seems obvious to me that once some culture is understood, it forms the basis for additional understanding of even more Korean culture.

It’s a nice interview, and everyone should check it out.