In an article titled Award-Winning Korean Translators Show Why “A Petal Silently Falls,” (Talking about There a Petal Silently Falls: Three Stories by Ch’oe Yun) Bruce Fulton addresses what I consider the main flaw of his translations – that they are often works that no one would read for fun. He admits and then kind of backhands the idea:
We had translated the title story back in the 1990s, captivated by this novella of trauma. One of the challenges we face as translators and teachers of Korean literature is that many readers of modern Korean fiction, whether in Korean or in translation, find the literature depressing. We have found in turn that this reaction is often linked to traumatic historical events appearing in the foreground or background of many stories, such as the occupation of Korea by imperial Japan (1910-1945), the Korean War and the division of the Korean peninsula into the two Koreas, and the Kwangu Massacre of 1980. We felt it was important to translate a story of trauma, hoping that readers might come away from it with a greater capacity for the empathy that is so important in the healing of trauma, and that this same capacity might enhance their reading of future translations of Korean fiction.
The problem here is that empathy is, to some extent, based on understanding, and very few western readers have ANY understanding of what has happened in Korea. I hate (love?) to keep bashing the same drum, but the translation of There a Petal Silently Falls is along the same lines as The Red Room (translated by guess who?) which is nothing but trauma.
On the positive side, Fulton goes on to say:
We selected the remaining two stories, Whisper Yet (which was suggested to us, and co-translated, by friend and colleague Kichung Kim) and The Thirteen-Scent Flower, because they are very different in tone and showcase the variety of Ch’oe Yun’s writing, her control of her craft, and her considerable intelligence and sophistication as a writer.
So perhaps the Fultons will slowly move towards literature that is more generally interesting. The Thirteen-Scent Flower, for instance, is a great story with appeal to nearly anyone, and if more of this kind of story were translated, more Korean literature might magically be read.
More trauma, I’m afraid, means more failure.