A Foray into Korean Literature


During the beginning of this month, I went to a store and bought a book. The book turned out to be Weathered Blossom (마른 꽃), one of Park Wan-suh’s novellas, but at the time I didn’t know that. I only wanted a thin and pretty book with depth, so that’s what I picked. I didn’t read any descriptions or reviews or anything else besides the title. My concern didn’t extend that far.

I told myself that if it were thin, I would read it. Even if the plot and characters were horrid, the work, as a whole, was bound to be fascinating because it represented a genre I’d never experienced: Korean literature in Korean. An English translation even came with it, which meant that I would keep dictionaries far away from me.

Weathered Blossom is told from an often ignored perspective. Its protagonist is a grandmother. Teenagers saving the world, 20 year olds coming into their own, Prince Charmings marrying poor young girls–none of that overdone stuff has anything to do with this.

Still, when I was about 27 percent into Weathered Blossom, I decided that it was going to be a “love story.” I confirmed my suspicions by finally reading the description on the back cover: this was a “love story.”

Mere moments before I finished the “love story,” all of my conviction about it being a “love story” disappeared. I didn’t even know what conviction was. I only had my blank reaction that had been caused by confusion and a buffering brain trying to find sense in the scanty information the protagonist gave me. Basically, I had no idea about what it was that I had just read and I didn’t like that I didn’t get it because I get stories—I don’t blank out in confusion—but this one had been different from beginning to end and it insisted on being difficult too.

Determined to get something, I read the analysis of the story and even a translation, but the translation didn’t have any meaning. It contained words, of course, but their arrangement was so awkward and foreign that despite them being in English and grammatically correct—in the context of the story, it was hopeless. Phrases like “sensible politeness,” “charming facade,” and “sentimentality” were too vague. They meant nothing.

But then I saw this:

Even with careful thought while reading, it’s difficult to know what’s truly going on inside the elderly woman’s mind.

(작물을 읽는 동안 내내 눈치를 살펴도 그 진정한 속마음을 읽어낼 수는 없었던 것 같다.)

I had been trolled. Ironically, what I didn’t get was that there wasn’t something to get. People are complicated. They have baseless fears and strange motivations. Sometimes, things end reasonlessly, abruptly.

At any rate, reading about Korean characters in Korean is fun because Korean characters have a tendency to dwell on things that Americans have trouble simply conceptualizing and it turns into an awkward bloody mess when translators go after them (family terms, I’m looking at you).

I already picked up another book. I went with the same method, except I switched “pretty” for “interesting.”

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  • Reply Trisha March 20, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Hmm. Quite interesting~ One of my wishlists for this year is to buy myself a Korean book for “practice” or learning. Perhaps I should look for synopsis or reviews about this book. Haha! The cover is pretty, though.^^

    I hope you share with us your next Korean book as well!^^

  • Reply Manda March 20, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    I often wonder about things getting lost in translation in literature. I know even conversationally, there’s never really a direct translation for some terms, so logically that would affect literature too. I’ve never read a book in Chinese, although I hope to change that one day. My first foray into reading Chinese will be reading the translated text of Little House on the Prairie! My copy has English on the right side and the translated Chinese text on the left. Once I get through that then maybe I can get started with (easy) Chinese stories.

    • Reply chantelle March 21, 2013 at 2:31 am

      Dual-language books are second to none. :)
      It’d be great if you could find an original Chinese story with English on one page and Chinese on the other. Good luck for whenever you get around to it in your busy life. I owe you a letter by the way. I shall write it. 😀

    • Reply Amanda March 21, 2013 at 7:02 am

      Lu Xun’s short stories are a really easy way of getting into reading Chinese if you’re so inclined. It’s hard to find a good English translation though.

  • Reply Stephanie March 22, 2013 at 3:18 am

    Even in daily life, I find that there are just some things that are easier for me to express in Chinese, as a Chinese-American with only a basic grasp (but with fluency) of the language. In manga, there are just some words that aren’t translated from Japanese to English, and paragraphs of explanation from the translator appear in the back of the book.

    Personally, I think that I’d love to try to read a book like that! It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything from a old person’s perspective. But the choppy English would probably be a turn-off.

    • Reply chantelle March 22, 2013 at 7:33 pm

      Yeah, I feel uncomfortable recommending the English version of the book. The translation isn’t terrible, but the author’s intended audience is Korean. The protagonist thinks, says, and does a lot of things that probably resonate with many Koreans, but I can’t imagine it making much sense to those who’ve grown up without knowledge of Korean culture.

      Imagine a story about a child who’s upset because he didn’t get a Christmas present – and then pretend that you (or others) don’t know what Christmas is or why or even if a child should expect a Christmas present. Then, the story becomes weird and hard to understand. I think Weathered Blossom would be like that for many without knowledge of Korean stuff and the slight awkwardness of the English translation makes everything worse. But that’s not to say that I think people shouldn’t read it or about different cultures or try to translate things–it just might be hard.

      Sometimes, I think translators, especially those in the Japanese community, get carried with not translating things and opting for the huge explanatory paragraphs. Now, I hate doing translations and so I don’t, but when to explain and when to just delete things or make approximations is always interesting to consider. Most professional Japanese-English translations (not manga, but with novels like Murakami’s) get rid of titles (-kun, -sama, -chan …). They use English approximations or just ignore them. There’s no explanation or anything because they feel their job is to translate, not to teach Japanese (which is basically what those explanations do). I don’t know how I feel about that.

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