Some of the highlights of my Year of Reading the World were the unpublished translations of literature from countries with few or no books commercially available in English that people around the planet sent me. These included my Turkmen and Panamanian reads (both of which, I’m pleased to report, have since made it into commercially available English versions, although the Panamanian book is not currently on sale) and a collection of short stories by the Santomean writer Olinda Beja, which was translated especially for me by a team of volunteers.
Reading these works was an enormous privilege. It introduced me to some great writers whose works were off-limits to English speakers and gave me a taste of some of the many wonders that exist outside the anglophone literary sphere. It also filled me with gratitude to the many people who had prepared these manuscripts in their own time purely to share stories that they loved.
So last year when I got a message from Juwon Lee, the vice president of T.I. Time translation club at Gimhae Foreign Language High School (GIMFL) in Jangyu, South Korea, offering to prepare another translation for me, I was intrigued. The students were keen to introduce me to two Korean writers they admired, Kim Yujeong and Hyun Jin-geon. If they translated three short stories, would I be prepared to give them a read?
Of course, I said yes. Duly, towards the end of last year, the manuscripts arrived. And last weekend, I finally sat down with them.
I can certainly see why the GIMFL students are fans of Kim, an early-20th-century Korean writer, who made a lasting impression in his short 29 years of life. Bold and audacious, the writing in the stories feels very fresh and direct.
Both of his works deal with power and powerlessness. In ‘Camellia Flowers’, a 17-year-old faces a dilemma when the daughter of the land manager who oversees his family’s farm persists in making his rooster fight her stronger bird. Meanwhile, in ‘Bombom’, the protagonist grows increasingly resentful of the servitude he has been lured into by a man who has promised him he can marry his daughter when she is grown up (needless to say, every time the prospective son-in-law brings up the possibility of setting a date for the ceremony, her father claims she is not yet tall enough).
My favourite of the three pieces, however, was Hyun’s sardonically titled ‘A Lucky Day’, follows rickshaw man Kim Cheomji as he secures some handsome fares after a spell of getting little work. Yet, as his elation grows at the money he is earning, we learn gradually that his wife is seriously ill. In a very subtle and finely balanced piece of writing, the author shows us how denial and hope conspire within the old man to make him postpone returning home until it is tragically too late.
A passion for exposing injustice and hypocrisy runs through both authors’ writing, making the stories urgent and compelling. These are by no means po-faced rants against the system, however. There is humour and playfulness too. The characters are a vibrant and idiosyncratic bunch, not afraid to express their opinions in language that is often direct, earthy and packed with colloquialisms.
Here, I have to congratulate the T.I Time club members. It is no mean feat to translate into a language that is not your mother tongue. Indeed, most professional translators only work into their first language because of the difficulty of catching nuance precisely in a language that you have not grown up with, no matter how fluent you may be in it.
As such, it is impressive that the students have managed to achieve such consistency of tone and ingenious language use in their renderings of Kim and Hyun’s work. They have certainly achieved their objective of introducing me to his writing and showing me why they like it.
And the good news is that, although the stories by Kim that they prepared for me are not available in English, some of the writer’s other works do seem to have been translated (at least according to Wikipedia). Meanwhile, the online encyclopedia also suggests that some of Hyun’s work has been translated, including a version of ‘A Lucky Day’. So, if you’re interested to sample their work too, you can.*
Thanks very much to all the members of T.I. Time at GIMFL. I wish you great success in everything you go on to do.
* UPDATE: T.I. Time has made its translations available online, free for anyone to view. Thanks again to the students.
Amended on 31/01/2017 to reflect the fact that ‘A Lucky Day’ is by Hyun Jin-geon and not Kim Yujeong.
Your enthusiasm is a constant. It permeates those of us who have taken an interest in your work. I continue to be inspired by your work and that of your dedicated readers.
Ah, thanks Scott!
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I was just watching your TED speech and found this is so great and visited your blog even before finishing the video and found your article about Kim, Yujeong and it’s even translated by students in my hometown, Gimhae! Writing great stories and poems are great but what you’re doing here is another great idea and gift to the entire world readers! Thank you, Ann. Now I’ll finish watching your TED speech. Uno from Seoul, S. Korea.
Thanks to Internet I could find this blog!
(and Uno!ㅎㅎ you’ve had just same experience of me now on.)
I’m a 20 years old Korean student studying Korean literature.
Inspired by your work, I’ll list up the books I’ve read all around the world.
Let’s walk along together.
+) I’m glad to hear that you enjoy the piece of Hyeon ‘The Lucky Day’
(It’s one of my, and typical Koreans’ favourite too,
there’s a lot of parody of the last sentence ‘Why don’t you eat…*.*’)
Great – thanks Phrinee. That’s good to know. Happy reading!