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This is a Clilstore unit. You can link all words to dictionaries.

Unit 1

1. Answer the pre-text questions:

a) What do you imagine when you hear about the complexity of translations?

b) What difficulties of translations do you know?

c) What is your worst experience ogf translation?


2. Write down the translated novels mentioned in the text.


3, Write down the words with possible double translations.


Han Kang and the Complexity of Translation

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The English-language versions of Han’s work have won wide acclaim. Are they faithful to the original?

By Jiayang Fan


Korean critics have lamented the supposed overreach of Han’s English translator.

How literal must a literary translation be? Nabokov, who was fluent in three languages and wrote in two of them, believed that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” Borges, on the other hand, maintained that a translator should seek not to copy a text but to transform and enrich it. “Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization,” Borges insisted—or, depending on the translation you come across, “a more advanced stage of writing.” (He wrote the line in French, one of several languages he knew.)

In 2016, “The Vegetarian” became the first Korean-language novel to win the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded to both its author, Han Kang, and its translator, Deborah Smith. In the English-speaking world, Smith, at the time a twenty-eight-year-old Ph.D. student who had begun learning Korean just six years earlier, was praised widely for her work. In the Korean media, however, the sense of national pride that attended Han’s win—not to mention the twentyfold spike in printed copies of the book, which was a fairly modest success upon its initial publication, in 2007—was soon overshadowed by charges of mistranslation. Though Han had read and approved the translation, Huffington Post Korea asserted that it was completely “off the mark.” Smith defended herself at the Seoul International Book Fair, saying, “I would only permit myself an infidelity for the sake of a greater fidelity.”

The controversy reached many American readers in September of last year, when the Los Angeles Times published a piece by Charse Yun, a Korean-American who has taught courses in translation in Seoul. (The article extended an argument that Yun had first made, in July, in the online magazine Korea Exposé.) “Smith amplifies Han’s spare, quiet style and embellishes it with adverbs, superlatives and other emphatic word choices that are nowhere in the original,” Yun writes. “This doesn’t just happen once or twice, but on virtually every other page.” It’s as though Raymond Carver had been made to sound like Charles Dickens, he adds. This isn’t, in Yun’s view, a matter merely of accuracy but also of cultural legibility. Korea has a rich and varied literary tradition—and a recent history that is intimately entangled with that of the West, particularly the U.S. But few works of Korean literature have had any success in the English-speaking world, and the country, despite its frequent presence in American headlines, does not register in the popular imagination the way that its larger neighbors China and Japan do. Han Kang seemed to fill that void—or begin to, at least. But if her success depended on mistranslation, how much had really got through?

“The Vegetarian” (Hogarth) is fable-like in structure. It centers on the vivid self-destruction of a single human body. That body belongs to a housewife named Yeong-hye, who is described by her husband, Mr. Cheong, as “completely unremarkable in every way.” For Mr. Cheong, who has “always inclined to the middle course in life,” this is part of her appeal. “The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground,” he says. But there is one thing Mr. Cheong does find remarkable about her: she hates wearing bras—she says they squeeze her breasts. She refuses to wear them, even in public, even in front of her husband’s friends, even though, he says, she doesn’t have the sort of “shapely breasts which might suit the ‘no-bra look.’ ” He considers this shameful.

One morning, Mr. Cheong finds his wife discarding the meat in their refrigerator. She has become a vegetarian, she tells him, because she “had a dream.” Before, he could think of his wife “as a stranger . . . someone who puts food on the table and keeps the house in good order.” Now he feels embarrassed and betrayed. Eventually, he is aroused by her insolence, and he begins to force himself on her. Overpowered, Yeong-hye goes limp. Her muted non-reaction evokes, for him, images from Korea’s past as an occupied nation: it is “as though she were a ‘comfort woman’ dragged in against her will, and I was the Japanese soldier demanding her services.”

Yeong-hye’s decision not to eat meat is received as an appalling rebuke by her entire family, especially her father, a Vietnam War veteran whose violent tendencies suggest the traumas of the battlefield. (More than three hundred thousand Koreans served alongside American soldiers in that conflict.) During a family meal, orchestrated as an intervention of sorts, he attempts to shove a piece of sweet-and-sour pork down his daughter’s throat. In response, Yeong-hye slits her wrist as the entire family watches in horror. Finally, she is institutionalized.

Near the end of the book, Yeong-hye’s more conventional-seeming sister, In-hye, visits her in the hospital. Three years have passed since the family dinner, and In-hye has begun to realize that her role as the “hard-working, self-sacrificing eldest daughter had been a sign not of maturity but of cowardice. It had been a survival tactic.” At the hospital, Yeong-hye has withered to sixty-six pounds. Refusing to speak or to accept food in any form, she has spent much of her time attempting to imitate a tree: doing handstands and basking in the sun. Han Kang has said that the character of Yeong-hye was inspired by a line from Yi Sang, a modernist poet of the early twentieth century who was heavily censored under Japanese rule, and whose work evokes the violence and agitation of imperialism. Yi described catatonic withdrawal as a symptom of oppression. “I believe that humans should be plants,” he wrote.

If Yi was consumed with the collective trauma of colonialism, Han focusses on suffering of a more intimate and personal nature. But her writing, too, is rooted in Korea’s history. This, according to Charse Yun, is what risks getting lost in translation. One of the reasons that “many Western readers find so much contemporary Korean fiction to be unpalatable,” he writes, is the passivity of its narrators. Smith, however, emphasizes “conflict and tension,” making Han’s work more engaging for Western readers than a faithful rendition would be. When Yeong-hye ignores a question from her husband, for instance, he says that it is “as if she hadn’t heard me,” in Yun’s literal translation of the passage. In Smith’s version, her husband asserts that she is “perfectly oblivious to my repeated interrogation.”

Yet what makes Yeong-hye an affecting character isn’t a matter of any heightened aggression or more overt struggle. “The Vegetarian” reads as a parable about quiet resistance and its consequences; it’s also a ruminative probing of Korean culture, in which questions of agency and conformity have particular resonance. These are the questions at the heart of Han’s work.

Han Kang was born in 1970 in Kwangju, a provincial city near the tip of the Korean Peninsula with a population, at the time, of around six hundred thousand. Her father, Han Seung-won, is a noted novelist and the recipient of numerous literary awards. (In the past decade, Han has won many of the same prizes.) Both of Han’s brothers are writers, too. Her father was a teacher as well as a writer, and the family moved frequently for his work. As a child, Han attended five different elementary schools, and she sought constancy in books.

The family left Kwangju, for Seoul, in 1980, when Han was ten, shortly after Chun Doo-hwan, a general nicknamed the Butcher, seized power in a coup and declared martial law. Peaceful student demonstrations in Kwangju were met with violence: soldiers shot, bayonetted, and beat protesters and bystanders. A civilian militia, made up of students and workers, took weapons from local police stations and forced the Army into a temporary retreat in the city’s suburbs. The event, which has been compared to China’s Tiananmen Square massacre, lasted nine days; at least two hundred, if not two thousand, people died (the government estimate is about tenfold fewer than unofficial tallies). Though Han’s family did not suffer personal losses in the massacre, the name of her birth city became, for her, a metonym for “all that has been mutilated beyond repair.”

“Human Acts,” Han’s most recent novel, also translated by Smith, tells the story of the massacre. It begins with a fifteen-year-old boy, Dong-ho, waiting for a rainstorm and for the return of the military, which has filled his city with dead bodies and separated him from his best friend. Dong-ho goes out to look for his friend but is recruited by demonstrators to catalogue corpses housed in a local government building. (The morgue is full.) There the boy encounters death’s methodical attack upon the flesh—the way open wounds are the first to rot and how toes “swelled up like thick tubers of ginger” into the most grisly shade of black.

Strains of South Korea’s national anthem periodically filter into the building; it is sung during the funeral rites being held outside. When Dong-ho asks why the mourners sing the anthem—“As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them”—the others react with surprise. “But the generals are rebels, they seized power unlawfully,” one responds. “The ordinary soldiers were following the orders of their superiors. How can you call them a nation?” Dong-ho realizes that the question he really wants to ask is much larger, and more abstract, or perhaps it is a bundle of questions, about the persistence of cruelty and the meaning of freedom. His epiphany echoes In-hye’s realization, in “The Vegetarian,” that her survival has not been a triumph but its opposite, because it has come at the cost of her dignity.

In the fourth chapter, after the military has retaken Kwangju, Dong-ho, hands raised in surrender, is shot and killed by soldiers. Each of the novel’s chapters focusses on a person affected by his short life: the high-school student who grows up to be an editor tasked with censoring the facts of the massacre; the undergraduate turned political prisoner who ultimately commits suicide; the factory girl who becomes a labor activist; Dong-ho’s mother, who remains haunted, every day, by her son’s death. The book experiments extensively with second-person narration, and Han plays with that “you” throughout it, inscribing the reader and implicating us in the wreckage.

The book’s most striking chapter is “The Boy’s Friend, 1980,” which centers on Jeong-dae, a classmate of Dong-ho’s who was fatally shot when the two boys went out to watch the crowds. Dong-ho crouched in the shadow of a building, watching his friend’s feet twitch as rescue attempts led to the murder of others, and, finally, as soldiers dragged off the dead. The story of Jeong-dae is narrated by his soul, tethered to his corpse as it drains of blood at the base of a growing mountain of bodies, like a wilted balloon caught in the branches of a tree. As Dong-ho teaches us the language of dead bodies, Jeong-dae elucidates the struggles of a soul as it comprehends its body’s death. Souls that touch one another but can’t quite connect are described as “sad flames licking up against a smooth wall of glass only to wordlessly slide away, outdone by whatever barrier was there.”

Unlike Dong-ho, who tries to resist his memories, burying them in shame, Jeong-dae seeks refuge in his past as a way of avoiding the sight of his mangled corpse. In Han’s books, those who distance themselves from their histories are fated to live lives worth barely more than death. The characters who embrace their own horrors at least have the hope of freedom. Unspooling the story of such memories is painful, but there is also relief in the diagnosis of the injury.

In an essay about translating “Human Acts,” published in the online magazine Asymptote, Deborah Smith describes reading Han’s work and being “arrested by razor-sharp images which arise from the text without being directly described there.” She quotes a couple of her “very occasional interpolations,” including the striking phrase “sad flames licking up against a smooth wall of glass.” Charse Yun, in his essay about “The Vegetarian,” declares his admiration for Smith’s work but argues that it is a “new creation.” Smith insists that the phrases she added are images “so powerfully evoked by the Korean that I sometimes find myself searching the original text in vain, convinced that they were in there somewhere, as vividly explicit as they are in my head.”

This isn’t what’s normally meant by translation. One might compare it to the collaborative work of a writer and an editor; Han has said that the process, for her and Smith, involves considerable back-and-forth, “like having a chat endlessly.” The latitude of Robert Lowell’s poetic “imitations” comes to mind. (Yun cites Ezra Pound’s “Cathay.”) And yet what Smith describes is the effect that any writer might hope to coax from her reader: a feeling so visceral that it’s as if she had absorbed the text into her own experience. It also seems deeply in tune with Han’s purpose as a writer. In 2015, Han wrote about a translation workshop that she attended in England, during which Smith and others labored to turn one of her stories from Korean into English. In an essay about the experience, Han describes a dream she had while she was there. “Someone was lying in a white bed, and I was quietly watching them,” she writes. (The essay was also translated by Smith.) Though the sleeping figure’s face was covered by a white sheet, she could hear what the person was saying. “I have to get up now . . . no, that’s too flat.” Then “I really will have to get up now . . . no, that’s too bland.” And: “I have to leave this bed . . . no, that’s awkward.” A good translation, Han’s subconscious seems to suggest, is a living, breathing thing, which must be understood on its own terms, discovered from beneath the great white sheet. Han recalls, “In the session that morning, everyone enjoyed hearing about my dream. (I have come to realise that it is possible for someone’s nightmare to make many people happy.)”

“Human Acts” ends with a chapter titled “The Writer, 2013,” which is about Han. (The book was published in South Korea the following year.) In it, we learn that Dong-ho is a real person, whose life overlapped with Han’s in indelible ways. In an interview in 2016, Han said that writing about Jeong-dae and Dong-ho was so excruciating that she often produced as few as three or four lines in a day. To write about the Kwangju massacre, she explains in the book, she had planned to pore over historical documents, but she found herself unable to continue, “because of the dreams.” In one, she was met with news of a mass execution that she had no power to stop. In another, she was given a time machine, and promptly tried to transport herself to May 18, 1980. Perhaps it is the hope of any writer to have a subconscious so tightly tethered to her work, but Han’s dreams—where characters surface, as if “through the heart of a guttering flame,” as she puts it in the interview, which was also translated by Smith—are sweat-soaked affairs, self-directed interrogations in which she is victim and villain at once. The horrors may differ for Han and Yeong-hye, but they are hewed from the same dark place, where memories of brutality persist, and take on phantasmagoric lives of their own.

In October, Han wrote an Op-Ed for the Times about watching, from Seoul, as North Korea and the United States engaged in a potentially devastating diplomatic disaster. “Now and then, foreigners report that South Koreans have a mysterious attitude toward North Korea,” she writes. “Even as the rest of the world watches the North in fear, South Koreans appear unusually calm.” But that is merely the surface, Han insists: “The tension and terror that have accumulated for decades have burrowed deep inside us and show themselves in brief flashes.” For Han, the project of writing is, like translation, a kind of unearthing: she must exhume these buried feelings, and return a sense of agency both to her fictional characters and to those whose lives inspire them.

In “The White Book,” a new work translated by Smith and published in the U.K. in November, Han reflects on her mother’s pain at losing an infant daughter and meditates on the act of mourning. The color white serves as a symbol of death, grief, birth, and artistic creation; Han leaves several pages in the book blank. (One thinks of her nightmare about translation, in which a white sheet cloaks phrases she is trying to get right.) She wanted her writing to “transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound,” she explains. Most of all, she needed to write about the pain of her sister’s death, because “hiding would be impossible.”

In March, the President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye—whose father, the military strongman Park Chung-hee, was President during the Vietnam War, and was assassinated months before the 1980 coup—was ousted for influence-peddling. The scandal convulsed the country. In Han’s Times Op-Ed, she recalls a series of demonstrations that she took part in last winter, before the younger Park left office. It was one of the largest citizens’ rallies in Korean history. Protesters blew out candles to symbolize descending darkness. “We only wanted to change society through the quiet and peaceful tool of candlelight,” Han writes. It is a gesture that could have been borrowed from Han’s imagination, or from her dreams. A flame is an ephemeral and fragile thing that can serve at once to memorialize the dead and light the way for the living. 



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