A round-up of reviews of works in translation from Korean, including fiction, story collections, poetry and non-fiction. Click on the title for the review.
Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin, translated by Jamie Chang
The narrator of Kim Hye-jin’s Concerning My Daughter believes that “some things aren’t spoken out loud.” As she ages, she doesn’t want to discuss the lack of facilities willing to care for the elderly. And as a mother, she doesn’t want to talk about her adult daughter, who doesn’t have stable employment and is involved in a long-term relationship with a woman. She keeps quiet, ignoring the messiness of reality and guarding these thoughts in her head.
Broken Summer by JM Lee, translated by An Seon Jae
On the morning of his 43rd birthday, celebrated artist Lee Hanjo wakes up hungover and alone. His loving devoted wife is gone, only leaving behind the draft of a novel. To Hanjo’s horror, the book tells the story of an artist in his early 40s and his affair with a possibly underage girl. This manuscript will ruin him, but his mind is drawn back to a summer years before when the death of another girl changed his life.
Saha by Cho Nam-Joo, translated by Jamie Chang
Set in a disturbing dystopia, Saha, Korean author Cho Nam-joo’s latest work following the wildly successful Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, tells the story of the bottom rung of a dark society. The story is set in a city-state only known as “Town” which 30 years previous had declared its independence after being purchased by a mysterious if not unfamiliar Chaebol-esque mega-corporation. The city has seen unprecedented economic growth and now claims to be the richest nation on earth. The Town is run by totally anonymous ministers whose draconian rule maintains a strict social order, though with the promise of constant progress and unmatched social stability.
The Old Woman With the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo, translated by Chi-Young Kim
Gu Byeong-mo’s The Old Woman with the Knife is ostensibly a violent slasher novel about an aging assassin, known in the novel as a “Disease Controller” trying to end her storied career on her own terms. But wrapped in this visceral package, the book dives into the reality of an aging woman in a society apathetic to her plight, and indeed to her in general.
The Picture Bride by Lee Geum-yi, translated by An Seonjae
Lee Geum-yi has published more than fifty books in her native South Korea, many of which have been adapted to film and stage, as well as into a number of languages. But it’s only now that one has been translated into English. That book is The Picture Bride, a story set mainly in a Korean enclave on Hawai’i in the 1910s. Lee’s stories often involve little-told pieces of history and The Picture Bride is no exception.
Korean Teachers by Seo Su-jin, translated by Elizabeth Buehler
Had it been set in an English-speaking country, Seo Su-Jin’s story about Korean language teachers in her home country of South Korea might be considered an addition to the campus novel genre. But in Korean Teachers, Seo’s debut novel translated into English by Elizabeth Buehler, education is portrayed as a service industry—with customer satisfaction as the main objective. While it may well resonate with certain segments of Western academia, it also echoes such other East Asian novels like Convenience Store Woman about everyday people going about their everyday lives.
The Age of Doubt by Pak Kyongni, multiple translators
One of Korea’s most renowned 20th century authors, Pak Kyongni often wrote stories set in the aftermath of the war and during the several military dictatorships. Pak passed away in 2008, but her work has been revived in English with a recent collection in translation, The Age of Doubt. These seven stories are all set in the 1950s and ’60s, a far cry from the glitz and glamor of modern-day Seoul. Each of the seven stories, furthermore, is translated by a different translator. While the stories differ, and not just in translator, a similar sense of darkness pervades all of them.
The contemporary Korean poet Yi Won (born 1968), is described by her translators as an “avant-garde modernist”, a poet interested in “freeing distinctions” often taking a feminist point of view. They explain that her poetry “is appreciated for its paradigm shifts about the information age and digital civilization,” which seems to suggest that in a digital world, anything and everything is possible.
Gwangju Uprising: The Rebellion for Democracy in South Korea, Hwang Sok-yong, Jeon Yong-ho and Lee Jae-eui, translated by Slin Jung
A moving work of exceptional scholarship, Gwangju Uprising: The Rebellion for Democracy in South Korea was commissioned in an era of rising fake news to combat false narratives that had become popular on the internet, not the least of which was the idea that the events of the Gwangju Uprising were sparked by North Korean spies and agents provocateurs.