*My high school English teacher asked me to put together a reading list of mostly contemporary Korean literature. This is what I gave him:

1. <100도씨> 100 Degrees Celsius by Choi Kyu-seok

Genre: Graphic novel (historic fiction)

Every list on contemporary Korean literature should start with this work, which describes the events leading up to the June Democracy Movement of 1987. Readers are given both historical and visual insight into postwar Korea, which is especially helpful for foreign readers for visualizing this key era that crops up again and again in contemporary Korean fiction. The Korea Democracy Foundation has made the entirety of the work available for free online at http://www.kdemo.or.kr/610/100c.html (book version available from Changbi Publishing).

Availability in English: No

If you liked it, try: The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-yong

2. <외딴방> The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung-Sook Shin

Genre: Fiction (autobiographical)

This novel is the most important work of fiction to emerge from postwar Korea. It is set during the peak of Korea’s economic development phase in the late seventies, and is the story of a teenage girl who leaves her home in the provinces to work in the factories by day and attend high school by night. Throughout her traumatic ordeals she holds a secret, seemingly impossible dream of becoming a writer, but even after her dreams come true, her past comes back to haunt her.

Availability in English: Yes

If you liked it, try: I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin, Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

3. <한중록> The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea

Genre: Memoir

Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1815) wrote these memoirs looking back on a life where, among other things, her father-in-law the King murdered her husband, the Crown Prince of the Joseon Dynasty at the time. I strongly recommend reading them in modernized Korean or in English, the latter of which an excellent translation exists courtesy of the late Professor JaHyun Kim Haboush. This is the book that inspired The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble, a cross-cultural work of historic fiction.

Availability in English: Yes

If you liked it, try: The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin, Jewel in the Palace (TV drama)

4. <입 속의 검은 잎> A Song of Melancholy Youth: Black Leaf in My Mouth by Ki Hyongdo

Genre: Poetry

Black Leaf in My Mouth is Korea’s bestselling collection of poetry by a single author. An industrialization-era poet of magnetic lyricism, the collection continues to enthrall readers decades after the poet’s early death in 1989. There is also quite a lot of discussion surrounding the poet’s autobiographical background; all is not as it seems.

Availability in English: No (only in bits and pieces)

If you liked it, try: A Dictionary Composed of Seven Words by Jin Eun-Young, Sky, Wind and Stars by Yun Dong-ju

5. <채식주의자> The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Genre: Fiction

Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Award, this critically acclaimed novel is the story of a woman who decides to become a vegetarian and how she is victimized for her decision (and for more than her decision). Relevant: according to the UNODC, Korea has one of the highest proportion of female victims of violent crimes in the world.

Availability in English: Yes

If you liked it, try: The White Book by Han Kang, Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-yong

* A student asked me about how to critique other people’s writing. The following is an excerpt from my answer.

It begins with you. You have to have a “reading” of the work. Something within you will tell you that something is bothering you about the work, or really engaging your attention. Try to enter a mental space where only you and the work exist and listen closely to what you’re feeling when you’re reading.

Criticism and reading is a huge part of writing. Being a critic is about being sensitive to your own reading, more so than it is about being a scholar (many people confuse “being a critic” and “being a scholar” as being the same thing; they are not the same thing). In Korea, unlike the Anglosphere, criticism (평론) is considered a genre of literature. I agree with this stance. Critics, like poets, need to be very sensitive to their own reading, to their own thoughts. Most Koreans are not trained or encouraged to do this. We’re mostly taught to do what the teacher tells us to do.

I can’t tell you what to feel. Only you can feel what you feel. Explore what you feel, even if it seems small or insignificant; God may be hiding in that detail. Listen to yourself, and ask yourself on paper: why do I feel this way about this sentence? About this paragraph? About this work? Always remember that criticism is as much about you as it is about the work you are critiquing. You are trying to discover something about the writing and the author, of course. But you are also discovering something about yourself.

*Disclaimer: I am not responsible for what happens to your skin.

Have good genes. If you don’t, rest assured there’s only so much you can do anyway, so don’t waste too much time and money on skin care.

You can’t really “make skin look younger.” You can only hold on to young skin for as long as possible. In short: sunscreen.

Always wear sunscreen during the day. (If you only want one rule, this is it. Just cleanse properly before bed.)

Never expose your skin to direct sunlight, even with sunscreen on. Never means never.

The toner-essence-emulsion routine is a cosmetics industry scam. Those three products are the same thing with different textures.

You don’t need fifty products, just five: facial cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen, tea-tree oil, and retinol. You only use the first three every day.

This is the only routine you need: 1) Cleanse. 2) Moisturize. 3) Sunscreen (morning, every day) or retinol (evening, once in a while).

Cleanse with warm water but rinse with cold water at the end to close your pores. It doesn’t have to be freezing, just colder than your cleanse.

Many people with bad skin don’t cleanse properly. Unless you have an actual disease, no. Your skin is not special. Cleanse your face properly.

If you get a blemish, apply tea-tree oil after moisturizer. And don’t touch it, even (especially) if it tickles.

Whitening is a scam. Darker skin is better skin: your flaws are masked and you wrinkle dramatically less. And freckles are so lovable!

There are a lot of scams in skin care. Their claims are not regulated like pharmaceuticals are. Rule of thumb: retinol is the only thing that really works.

Retinol is the only thing that reduces wrinkles and aging, except Retin-A, which should be taken only when retinol stops working when you’re older (if at all).

The point is not to eliminate or be ashamed of aging but to not look older than you actually are. You know who you are.

Don’t use expensive products (or retinol) when young. Start with the cheaper stuff and work your way up as you age. If you use Sulhwasoo at 30, nothing will work on your skin at 50.

That said, OH MY GOD, SULHWASOO.

You will never look 23 forever, unless you have the genes. But with proper care, you can look youthful and vibrant at any age. That’s the goal.

But the real secret to Korean skin care is our culture of relentless casual judgment of each other’s appearances. If you don’t have that, you’ll never have what we have.

The following is the translation of a speech I gave this December, representing the graduating LTI Korea Academy Ateliers of 2017. It was originally delivered in Korean.

First, I would like to thank the tireless people at the LTI Korea Academy who do so much work on our behalf, from coordinating the demands of all of the graduates you see here to staying up at work until late at night to collect our attendance sheets. Thank you so much for everything you do for us.

2017 was an amazing year for the English-language Atelier program. Sung Ryu, Slin Jung, and I won LTI grants. Sophie Bowman and I also won PEN grants, and our professor Sora Kim-Russell and I both won Daesan Foundation grants for fiction this year. Unfortunately, our very own Agnel Joseph snatched up the biggest prize of the year, the GKL Grand Prize, leaving the rest of us rather bereft. Lastly, I was also asked to teach at the Ewha University Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation beginning this fall.

The reason why I’m telling you this is to make a point: this summer, I had quit literary translation. There was no progress, no future, and I was even almost ripped off by a malicious fraudster. Plus, I had just graduated from a coding boot camp and was working as a programmer in a tech company, and was tying up the loose ends of my translation career.

But I’m standing here today because just after I had retired from the profession, almost all the good things I told you that happened to me this year had come in a rush in the space of a week. Do bear in mind that I started at the LTI Academy in 2009, and it’s only next year, in 2018, that my first translated books will be published.

I don’t believe in what we Koreans call “hope-torture.” I only wanted to give you my personal perspective of this industry. To be honest, not all of you will become literary translators. In fact, some of you shouldn’t be literary translators. And that’s fine. You can learn JavaScript and make lots of money. I can even recommend a good boot camp.

But for those of you who must become literary translators: know that you have to have long-term perspective. Don’t just pick any project at random, pick something you feel really passionate about, because you’ll be stuck with it for a long time. And if something bad happens, which it will, shake it off as quickly as possible. Cultivate a far-seeing perspective.

Because translating one book and getting it published is almost easy. Most translators do just one book and disappear forever. It’s only after your second book that you can really call yourself a literary translator. Be in it for the long run.

It’s a long game. Fair play to those who stick around. “Good luck. And don’t. Fuck it up.”

Thank you.

The translator of a certain bestselling science-fiction novel once said that he did not aim to normalize his work into English, that he wanted his translation to read a little weird, that he felt he was contributing to the English language by introducing Chinese translationese.

This translator,  an award-winning writer in his own right, is Chinese-American. An important point. He grew up in America, lives in America, and, well, is American. His experience of language imperialism is going to be very different from mine: I grew up mostly in Korea, spent my entire adult life in Seoul, and am a Korean citizen with no other nationality. To him, English is part of the means for his survival as an immigrant, an imposition. To me, English is an escape, an extraneous, alternate plane of existence I can slip in and out of. No one exactly forced me to read Jane Eyre (quite the opposite, but that’s another story).

My point is, no one would take me seriously as a translator if I wrote translationese. As a non-native speaker of the target language, I do not have the privilege of being seen as “original.” Immigrants and their children are, of course, exposed to similar prejudice, but at least they can say they have literal rights to their language. Whereas I have to take extortionist exams like the TOEIC or IELTS to “prove” that I speak English. I simply don’t have the wherewithal to withstand language imperialism. For now, I have to speak the language of the Empire.

And when my students here in Seoul mention Spivak etc. and the diverse forms of colonialism that are still alive in this world, I don’t know what to tell them. That they are guests in this language, and it is not our place to move the furniture? Or that they owe it to this language to give it new life through new permutations?

I tell them that it’s up to them. Who am I to decide what their contributions will be? I can’t protect them, I can only show them how to protect themselves. As dissatisfying as it is, it’s the only way of letting go of a problem I can’t solve.

A vastness of mind is set to heart

Of narratives placed in distant stars

The space of space, a door ajar

A noun a portal into art. 

Giants teased from micro parts

Dinosaurs bloom from drops of tar

A species in a single scar

A universe’s end writ in its start.

The alpha and omega in a line

Each line decides the ending yet to come

And blind are we to words but touch is fine

We trace the path in darkness back to one. 

*This problem isn’t exclusive to perfect bilinguals, but I’ve found that perfect bilinguals are the most susceptible to it.

The Perfect Bilingual Problem is when a translator is so thoroughly aware of each nuance of the source text, and is so adept in the target language that they end up carrying over every semantic unit of the source into their translation.

Which may sound like a good thing at first. But what you really end up with is a verbose mess: a short story that’s fifteen pages in Korean and 9,000 words in English, paragraphs that are thickets of rhetorical flourishes, sentences that take ten words to say what could be said in three.

“But it’s in the original!” “But you’re corrupting the sacredness of the source text!” “But that’s what it means!”

Well.

At some point, the Sacred Cow Approach to Literary Translation just becomes an excuse.

An excuse to blame the author instead of taking responsibility for the ugliness of your translation and doing something about it.

An excuse to coast through the work instead of engaging with the original text and struggling with it.

An excuse to run the original text through some mindless machine of preset rhetorical cognates and call it a day.

But translation is so easy for perfect bilinguals!

Except, it shouldn’t be.

“He’s unfathomable.”

“Of course he is.” He made as if to light a cigarette, remembered the new anti-smoking law, and tossed his lighter back on the café table. “He’s another human being, of course he’s unfathomable.”

“Is this what being in a relationship is like?”

“What is it like, then?”

“It’s like we’re both planets and we’re merging. Merging oceans. Slowly, not colliding into each other, just his oceans merging into mine. I can see everything from the sky. And all the other people are stars far away. And we are joining ecosystems, becoming one giant ecosystem.”

“It’s not the most elegant description, but yeah. Accurate.” He smiled. He was encouraging, he cheered him on. You won’t need a best friend for long, he thought. I should find something, too, not a man, but maybe men. Or swimming. Or try to be a poet. Or travel. Find my own ecosystem to merge with.

His friend looked at him. Everything seemed further away, everything—ever since the relationship solidified—seemed to be amiably drifting away. There was so much space now.

I’m not a native speaker of English, so as a translator I was obliged to describe my English as “native level” on my résumé and get paid less for it accordingly. I was hired because I could pass for an American, and paid as if I couldn’t.

We do not talk of “native writers,” we talk of native speakers. Perhaps this is to be expected, as speaking is how we’re judged on our Otherness. Native-ness in speaking depends on the speaker’s proximity and time spent with other native speakers, while reading and writing can be learned outside of the natives’ space. The Other can be a reader and a writer, but never a speaker. That is the key distinction between “native speaker” and “native-level speaker”: the latter is an Other who blends in well but never completely. My translation clients were not penalizing me for my English but for my Otherness.

A well-known translator of Korean literature (and native speaker of English) once derided ethnic Korean translators like me, saying Koreans should not be translating into English. Interestingly, I could invert that same argument—non-native speakers of Korean should not translate, as they do not understand the source material well enough to do it justice—but I’m above that kind of self-serving posturing. If one has to say it, it probably isn’t true. Also: racist, much?

I will say this. Racism is not a good attitude for a translator to have. Do find something else to preoccupy yourself.

I like to say, guardedly, that I could define poetry this way: it is that which gets lost out of both prose and verse in translation.

—Robert Frost in Conversations on the Craft of Poetry

 

The above is often misquoted as “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” but the substance of Robert Frost’s idea remains the same: the translation of poetry is impossible.

An idea I disagree with, of course.

I have always contended that if literary translation is impossible, then literature itself is impossible. I’ve had profound experiences in reading Wisława Szymborska, Pablo Neruda, and Rabindranath Tagore—all in translation. Can you prove that what I felt was fake, that what I felt was not what the poets themselves felt when they committed their words to paper?

You can try, but you will never convince me. Reading experiences like these, which made my hair stand on end because of how beautiful and true and moving they were, are sacrosanct. I keep these experiences where other people might keep their religions.

But to give Frost the benefit of the doubt: is the misquote “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” indeed what he meant? Or was he making a point that poetry is not words (the thing that is translated) but is the very thing that carries over as is, regardless of language?

The finger that points to the moon may be a Chinese man’s finger or an Englishman’s finger, but the moon is still the moon. Frost may have meant that poems are not poetry—the finger is not the moon—but it is what the poems point to that is poetry. Poetry is not words but the emotion or thought the poetic configuration of words generate. Poetry is the moon.

Language is beautiful and we all love language, but language is not literature. Words are not literature, books are not literature, and poems are not poetry.

Languages may be very different from one another, and it is very easy to pass the time quibbling over what particular turn of wit is “untranslatable,” but I find it more interesting to see what can be translated. Are there not enough similarities between languages for certain emotions, concepts, and experiences—quite a lot of these, in fact—to be just as effectively carried over in one carriage as well as another?

Some things are not translatable, but such things may be fewer (and less important) than you think.