Anton Hur

Writer, translator

Draft Drawer: “Translating the Korean Diaspora”

* The following is the first draft of a presentation I’d been planning to give, with two other translators, at the 2020 American Literary Translators’ Association conference on the topic of “translating the Korean diaspora.” While the conference itself was moved online instead of being canceled, my fellow panelists and I, in a haze of COVID–19 despair, decided not to go ahead with this particular panel. Bear in mind that this is the first draft; I have included notes and brackets for omissions I’d been planning to fill later and never did.


Is this conference really happening??? Are we really going to have CONFERENCES where we FLY INTERNATIONALLY to attend while a PANDEMIC rages against the flattened curve???? Am I going to get held up in Incheon International Airport when I get back and have to pay for two weeks of quarantine and my own 500-won coins for some communal washing machine the managers haven’t sanitized that month or in thirty cycles whichever comes first???????


The Literary Translation Institute of Korea, under the auspices of its president Kim Sa-in, has launched a new initiative targeting the promotion of Korean diaspora literature and begun projects to fund the translation of works written by non-Korean nationals into English. A significant beneficiary of this new policy are the Zainichi and Joseonjok, two diasporic Korean groups that have managed to cultivate a rich and innovative literary tradition in their “third” space “in-between” their first and second cultures. Translating these works into English creates yet a fourth “in-between” space, and in discussing the dynamics of this space, this panel will focus on three works in particular: Kazuki Kaneshiro’s Go: A Coming of Age Novel translated by Takami Nieda, Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station translated by Morgan Giles, and Kang Kyeong-ae’s The Underground Village: Collected Short Stories translated by Anton Hur.

[Takami’s paragraph]

[Morgan’s paragraph]

“Joseonjok” is an umbrella term we use for the descendants of Koreana displaced into different parts of the Asian continent (mostly China) during the last days of the Korean Empire and throughout the Japanese occupation. Until recently, however, writers in the Korean-Chinese diaspora were rarely considered as part of the mainstream of Korean literary discourse or, indeed, even Korean. Similarly to the Zainichi in Japan, the Chinese-Korean displaced persons and their descendants face discrimination and suspicion in South Korea to this day, and it is interesting to analyze this dynamic using the “danilminjok” racial homogeneity propaganda prevalent on the peninsula as well as McCarthyist anti-Communist paranoia that pervades South Korean society to this day. In this part of the presentation, Anton Hur will use as an example his translation of Kang Kyeong-ae’s The Underground Village: Collected Short Stories to address these issues of defining what, exactly, falls under “Korean diaspora” or “Korean literature,” and how the dynamic is changing in terms of Korean diasporic works being published in English.


Danilminjok (단일민족)” is the Korean word for “single nation” and, in general usage, the word for the whole system of single-race propaganda in Korea. Danilminjok, in everyday usage, assumes two things: 1) Korea is “racially” homogenous and 2) this is something to be proud of. As a child growing up in the Korean public school system, I was always perplexed by this boast of racial purity; how could the school teach hybrid vigor in biology class while brag about being danilminjok in social studies class? It seemed as weird as that other thing Korean propaganda always mentions as an absolute good, that of having “four clear seasons.” I’d lived in Thailand; they basically have one season, and they can harvest rice three times a year! Maybe if Korea had that instead of four distinct seasons, we wouldn’t have starved as much.

And we would probably have a much smaller diaspora than we have now (did you know that there are less than 300,000 Thai Americans but almost two million Korean Americans?). Economic strife, imposed by colonial Japanese stealing all our rice just like the English did to the Irish, is surely the major reason for entire communities making the decision or being forced to move to faraway countries where they are cut off from everything they had ever known. This was certainly true for the people of Korea displaced into China during the Japanese occupation; the majority of Kang Kyeong-ae’s short stories feature characters from this particular branch of the Korean people. [some statistics from foreword of The Underground Village] In the long short story “Salt,” the main character is a woman whose family’s lands were stolen, and her thoughts of this land ache with loss: [quote] This visceral, physical ache is also described in “The Authoress” where these deep feelings of loss for a land one had ties to going back who knows how long are not shared by the bourgeois, condescending literati, no doubt the target audience for this story (*note to self: gesture vigorously towards audience). [read quote].

Despite the stories being set in what is now mainland China, Kang makes pains throughout her stories to point out things that are Chinese as opposed to Korean. The centralizing of the Korean people is so strong in these stories that major characters are assumed Korean until pointed out otherwise. [Examples in “Salt,” “Drugs,” and “The Authoress”] This sense of being Korean and displaced in a foreign land pervades the entire book. Kang made it her mission to write the stories of these people, not only as a fiction writer but a professional journalist, in an era where women in journalism were a rare sight, much less international correspondents.

It may surprise the audience to learn, then, that many of Kang’s works were suppressed for decades after the Korean War. Kang was motivated by her political sympathies to tell the stories of the disenfranchised, but these political sympathies were the C-word in postwar South Korea: Communism. Any association with Communism taints virtually any discourse. To this day, Korea’s National Security Act includes statutes against, quote, “the praising of socialism or Communism” [cite this shit, use the official translation] that are so vague that anyone can be imprisoned for saying anything. For example, [photographer who was imprisoned for retweeting North Korean account sarcastically]. Our supposedly progressive current government, despite promising to strike down this Act, has so far failed to do so, no doubt in deference to conservative Baby Boomers who still believe in the Red Commie boogeyman.

How does this affect Korean-Chinese diasporic literature? For one thing, China is still Communist, and any association with China will have tainted the work red. Note that South Korea normalized relations with China only on [whenever tf it was, the 90s?]. Intriguingly, a team of researchers at Dongguk University managed to use [the technology] to analyze bowdlerized versions of Kang’s long short story “Salt,” revealing passages replete with Communist sympathy and, well, propaganda. Here’s a comparison:

[Communist shouting, sans content]

[Communist shouting]

This part, censored for the original newspaper edition of the story, made the ending of the censored story, which was already nonsensical, evermore completely so. Here is the censored ending published in [whenever] that every published South Korean edition of this story featured since:

[censored ending:]

The policemen knew very well she had no license. ‘You despicable woman! Selling private salt! Get up!’

One of them grabbed her arm.


For decades in South Korea, the ending for this long short story was abrupt and a non sequitur; a policeman grabbed the main protagonist’s arm, and then what happened? After all those words, all those chapters, the story just fades to black? In my translation, we leaned on the previously mentioned work by [researchers at Dongguk University] and the Korean forensics authority to restore the original ending, which I present to you now:

[example of recovered ending. When reading out loud, make it fcking dramatic. Embarrass yourself:]

The policemen knew very well she had no license. ‘You despicable woman! Selling private salt! Get up!’

One of them grabbed her arm. She felt a jolt of electricity run through her as she remembered the words spoken by the voice on the hill, the voice she had listened to with contempt.

You are our comrades! Only when we work as one can we fight against the rich bastards who are our real enemy!

Those words thrown at her from the dark! Her heart was fit to burst. The communists had not taken her salt. She felt that if they were by her side right now, they might even help her. Surely, they would help her! And the real enemy was the rich bastards who were stealing her salt! She was shouting this aloud before she even realized. All the resentment she had harboured until now was blasting from her like flames.

She sprang to her feet.

[“She sprang to her feet.” Then literally spring to your feet and do a RuPaul “And may the best woman, win!” gesture]

What I want to point out in this instance is the fact that if it weren’t for Kang being a diasporic writer, it would’ve been much more difficult for us today to be given this type of insight into the diversity of Korean political thought, especially in that crucial and fertile—almost too fertile, and mind you, fertilizers are often used for bombs—period in Korean history where Koreans ostensibly murdered each other over ideology. Bear in mind that South Koreans do not have access, for the most part, to North Korean writing, and there is no North Korean branch of the Literary Translation Institute of Korea. [Definitely mention, but don’t go into, the Zainichi connection re: North Korea] This more complete picture of ourselves is given to us through our diasporic writers, and this only makes sense, as the Korean diaspora themselves are part of us: [RuPaul gesture again] the Koreans.

I am very happy to have sent this translation out into the Anglosphere, not for any nationalistic pride in Korean literature, but to enrich the access other Korean diaspora will have through an English translation of Korean work: such as the two million Korean Americans I mentioned earlier, many of whom for reasons of their own have not had access to learning the Korean language, but whose own brilliant contributions to the Korean diasporic canon cannot possibly be exaggerated.

About Me

I am a writer and translator working in Seoul. I was born in Stockholm, Sweden, and raised in British Hong Kong, Ethiopia, and Thailand, but mostly in Korea, where I’ve lived for thirty years. I was awarded the title of Person of Distinguished Service to the Nation after serving in the Korean Army. Repped by Jon Wood at RCW.

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