2020: The Year in Translation from Korean

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A round-up of reviews of fiction in translation from Korean, including two graphic novels, short stories and a rare novel from North Korea.

 

Moms, Yeong-shin Ma (Drawn & Quarterly, August 2020)
Moms, Yeong-shin Ma (Drawn & Quarterly, August 2020)

Moms by Yeong-shin Ma, translated by Janet Hong

 

Graphic novels, which less generous souls might call comic books, rarely feature middle-aged women and certainly not as the main characters. Not until, that is, Yeong-shin Ma wrote Moms, a graphic novel based on his mother and her friends. First published in Korea in 2015, it’s now available in an English translation by Janet Hong, whose name will be familiar to those in the know.

 

The Law of Lines, Hye-young Pyun, Sora Kim-Russell (trans) (Arcade, May 2020)
The Law of Lines, Hye-young Pyun, Sora Kim-Russell (trans) (Arcade, May 2020)

The Law of Lines by Hye-Young Pyun, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

 

Hye-Young Pyun’s fourth novel, The Law of Lines, is a story of alienation and loss against the backdrop of a city intent on constant reinvention. Under the guise of a thriller, the novel gradually reveals the real crime—the way that capitalism has robbed people of their own humanity.

 

One Left: A Novel, Kim Soom, Bruce Fulton (trans), Ju-Chan Fulton (trans)
One Left: A Novel, Kim Soom, Bruce Fulton (trans), Ju-Chan Fulton (trans)

One Left: A Novel by Kim Soom,  translated by Bruce Fulton and Ju-Chan Fulton

 

A Korean nonagenarian learns on the news that the last remaining “comfort woman” is on her deathbed. The narrator, unnamed until the end of the book, is determined to meet this last victim: she wants to know if she knew the woman from 70 years earlier. She also wants to assure her that she’s not in fact the last one left. The narrator has never told anyone about her past—not even her siblings and their children; it’s finally a chance to talk about it.Kim Soom’s One Left is, as surprising as it may seem given the enduring topicality of the subject matter, reportedly the first Korean novel published centered around the girls and women forced into sex slavery during World War II.

 

Bluebeard's First Wife, Ha Seong-nan, Janet Hong (trans) (Open Letter, June 2020)
Bluebeard’s First Wife, Ha Seong-nan, Janet Hong (trans) (Open Letter, June 2020)

Bluebeard’s First Wife, stories by Ha Seong-Nan, translated by Janet Hong

 

Tragedy finds its ideal form when a good character is partially responsible for her own downfall, which should unfold with the slow and inexorable force of a moral sentencing. Or so said Aristotle. Likewise, an irresistible blend of pity, horror, and satisfaction emerges through each of Ha Seong-nan’s short stories in this new collection.

 

Grass, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, Janet Hong (trans) (Drawn & Quarterly, August 2019)
Grass, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, Janet Hong (trans) (Drawn & Quarterly, August 2019)

Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, translated by Janet Hong

 

Some years back, graphic novelist Keum Suk Gendry-Kim interviewed an elderly Korean woman named Lee Ok-sun. Gendry-Kim hoped to learn about social class and gender disparity during World War II and write a book about this subject. But after several interviews, Gendry-Kim realized Lee’s personal story warranted a book of its own. The result is Grass, a graphic novel now out in an English translation by Janet Hong.

 

The Disaster Tourist, Yun Ko-Eun, Lizzie Buehler (trans) (Counterpoint, August 2020; Serpent's Tail, July 2020)
The Disaster Tourist, Yun Ko-Eun, Lizzie Buehler (trans) (Counterpoint, August 2020; Serpent’s Tail, July 2020)

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun, translated by Lizzie Beuhler

 

Tourism, especially package tourism, has long been an easy subject of satire. English-language readers may however be aware of an irony perhaps missing in the Korean original: those once considered an exotic destination and subject to some of the less than benign forms of international tourism are now themselves inflicting it upon others.

 

Seven Years of Darkness, Jeong You-jeong, Chi-Young Kim (trans) (Little, Brown, May 2020; Penguin, June 2020)
Seven Years of Darkness, Jeong You-jeong, Chi-Young Kim (trans) (Little, Brown, May 2020; Penguin, June 2020)

Seven Years of Darkness by Jeong You-jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim

 

Jeong You-jeong’s Seven Years of Darkness opens in 2011 with young Choi Sowon living in Lighthouse Village, South Korea. The place is so remote GPS can’t locate it and so out of date that the president of its youth-club is sixty-one years old. Sowon resides off the grid on purpose. In the years since the horrible events referred to as the “Seryong Lake Disaster”, he has been shunted house to house, school to school. When people find out he’s the offspring of Choi Hyonsu, the man imprisoned for the disaster, he has to skip town. All his attempts to remain unknown are curiously foiled.

 

Friend: A Novel from North Korea, Paek Nam-nyong, Immanuel Kim (trans) (Columbia University Press, May 2020)
Friend: A Novel from North Korea, Paek Nam-nyong, Immanuel Kim (trans) (Columbia University Press, May 2020)

Friend: A Novel from North Korea by Paek Nam-nyong, translated by Immanuel Kim

 

There must be a temptation to approach Paek Nam-nyong’s Friend, presumably the first “state-sanctioned” North Korean novel available in English, much as Samuel Johnson did “a dog’s walking on his hind legs: It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Skeptics will rapidly be disabused.

 

Untold Night and Day: A Novel, Bae Suah, Deborah Smith (trans) (Overlook Press, May 2020; Jonathan Cape, January 2020)
Untold Night and Day: A Novel, Bae Suah, Deborah Smith (trans) (Overlook Press, May 2020; Jonathan Cape, January 2020)

Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah, translated by Deborah Smith

 

The somewhat overused adjective “Lynchian” has been used more than once by reviewers to describe Bae Suah’s writing, a reference to the American filmmaker David Lynch, who is celebrated for his nightmarish visions of reality, which one writer described as “being dropped into the middle of someone else’s dream.” Objects are often familiar or recognizable, but they are transformed into something strange and different, as if one were looking at a cinematic version of a Salvador Dali painting. Boundaries are blurred, different levels of “reality” are posited, and events unravel.

 

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982: A Novel, Cho Nam-Joo, Jamie Chang (trans) (Liveright, April 2020; Scribner, February 2020)
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982: A Novel, Cho Nam-Joo, Jamie Chang (trans) (Liveright, April 2020; Scribner, February 2020)

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, translated by Jamie Chang

 

When Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was published in South Korea several years ago, it took the country by storm, selling more than a million copies and becoming the most popular book in over a decade. Applauded by many women, those who do not support feminism have spoken out against it. Last year, the film version again caused controversy between those who want South Korean sexism to change and those who think the status quo is just fine. Now available in an English translation by Jamie Chang, English-language readers get a chance to understand this divide firsthand.

 

Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River, Jung Young Moon, Yewon Jung (trans) (Deep Vellum, December 2019)
Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River, Jung Young Moon, Yewon Jung (trans) (Deep Vellum, December 2019)

Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River by Jung Young Moon, translated by Yewon Jung

 

There are many novels by Western authors sojourning in Asia. Stories that go the other way around are as rare as hens’ teeth. The unnamed narrator in Jung Young Moon’s newly translated novel explains that the novel is “written by someone who doesn’t know much about Texas because he doesn’t know about Texas…”. Jung is well-known in South Korea, especially for his quirky stories and characters. Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River is a perfect example of this.