My feelings for Lee Hyo-seuk’s “The Buckwheat Season” (which you can download a pdf of here) and its relentless translation and re-translation are well known (I had a slash at it here), but when my foodie pal Jennifer Flinn invited Yvonne and I out to eat at a restaurant named for the story, and featuring dishes made from buckwheat? I had no choice but to come along for the ride.
We had an interesting conversation – Jennifer has read the book in Korean and says that it is a much richer work in the original language. We both agreed that it was quintessentially Korean rural nostalgia and thus not likely to say much to an English reader. Jennifer and I need to do a podcast.. alternating between Korean literature, which she knows well, and Korean food, which she knows better than anyone (foreigner) I have met in Korea.
Anyway.. we had 메밀부짐, which is a kind of buckwheat pancake, which was thoroughly delicious and a Kalgaksu (noodle soup) made from buckwheat noodles, that was also quite good.
On the way out of the restaurant I snapped the following shot of the buckwheat plants. They are currently blooming.
That seems unimportant, but in a way it is a very small example of why translation can be so difficult. “The Buckwheat Season” ends with a scene that makes many Koreans sniffle.. It is prefaced with a description:
The whole surface of the hillside was buckwheat fields; clouds of new-born flowers, as serene as sprinkled salt, were suffocating under the warm moonlight.
As I finally recognized what buckwheat was (Hint- it looks nothing like wheat, as the picture demonstrates), and in the wilting humidity of Seoul’s summer, this passage made a lot more sense.
It’s still not a book I would translate, but this just made clear to me the difficulty of translating something in which the cultural content is so deeply embedded that to Koreans it is just .. understood .. and to foreigners it means nothing, or something else entirely..
In the process of looking some of this stuff up, I also came across the Lee Hyo-seok Memorial Hall, whose web page has the classic advice:
The admission for the Lee Hyo-Seok Memorial Hall is 2,000 won. Visitors not interested in Korean language do not need to go there, but should instead visit the birth place of Lee Hyo-Seok, located about 800 meters away.