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An interview with Yewon Jung

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In 2015, Deborah Smith – translator of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian – set up Tilted Axis Press, a publishing house dedicated to translated fiction. Tilted Axis is unique; unlike most other publishing houses, it gives and encourages equal recognition to and of its authors and translators. Yewon Jung is translator of their second release, One Hundred Shadows by South Korean author, Jungeun Hwang. This is a strange and quiet novel. Straddling the border between fantasy and realism, it details a phenomenon in a slum in central Seoul – people’s shadows ‘rise’ (literally peeling off the ground) and coax the people away from reality – and follows two protagonists, Eungyo and Mujae, as they slowly, almost noticeably, fall in love. I speak to Jung at the end of summer. She is unwell and, since, has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer; our conversation unfurls slowly, starting and stopping between long sleeps she calls hibernations and spanning across a few weeks.

One Hundred Shadows could easily be classified as fantasy; however, the supernatural elements – the ‘rising’ shadows – can also be read as metaphors for very real issues. The shadows, for me, make corporeal the otherwise invisible dangers of living in poverty/on the edges of society. They come to represent depression, anxiety, disillusionment, anger, illness and so on. Our world and the world of this book then overlap; the characters and their fears become relatable to. This drew me to the book. Did this draw you in? Could you relate to the characters in this way?

Yes, this drew me to the book. If ever in my life my shadow could have risen, it would have been sometime while I have been unwell. I could easily see myself on the edge of tipping into a void. Working on the translation at a painstakingly slow rate, I formed a stronger attachment to these people, too. Their conversations would play out in my mind with added meaning and intensity. Despite the bleak reality depicted in the book, I felt comfortable visiting and revisiting their world because the people in it seemed always to be doing things at their own pace: Eungyo and Mujae falling behind the others in the woods (and falling in love at a snail’s pace); Yugon, who just seems slow in general – getting a cup of water, a simple enough task for many, somehow demands enormous effort and thought on his part; and of course, the endearing old man at Omusa. They made me feel at ease, because I’ve always liked to do things at my own pace (The main reason I became a freelancer is because I wanted to take my time waking up in the morning, and set my own work hours). And after my health began to spiral out of control, that pace became even slower. When I was on medication, which made me sleep like a kitten (I’m not trying to make myself sound cute; they sleep tons, and fall asleep even while eating sometimes), getting a cup of water did require, I learned, tremendous effort. I came to sympathise more with people who seemed to fumble and come across obstacles no matter what they did; to understand in a very real way that it wasn’t their fault.

Good translation is notoriously difficult to describe. To someone just starting out, it’s unclear what is needed in order to be a good translator, and reviewers (probably including myself) I’ve noticed often use similar words to describe good translation (“sensitively translated by” etc). It’s as though there isn’t a language yet to talk about translation and to talk about what makes individual translators unique as individual writers are. How do you define what makes good translation and/or what the skills of translation are?

Translating is a strange and mysterious form of art. I’m not sure if the skills of translation are something that can be discussed with clarity. I took classes in translation (though not literature translation), but even then, it wasn’t as though we had this set of skills to learn and master. We learned by doing the work itself, translating a piece of text and critiquing each other’s work. But who’s really to say what’s right and wrong, or rather, what’s good and better? And if something was good, and something else better, how, in what ways specifically? I don’t feel that talking about translation, or trying to discuss the skills of translation, gets me anywhere. Translating is something I just do. I do believe, though, that the more you translate, the better you get. I guess translation skills are something you do acquire, as much as any other skill, but they accumulate so gradually over time that you can’t do just any one thing to suddenly become a good translator. For me, constant reading, an interest in all sorts of miscellany, and a passion for certain pieces of work have kept me going as a translator and loving what I do.

Can you tell me a little about the process of translating One Hundred Shadows? Was there anything you were sad to see lost in the translation?

In my first draft, I adhered as closely as I could to the author’s own words, or the essence of what I sensed she was saying. I felt there was nothing to be left out in Hwang’s prose, so poetic and precise is her language. (Maupassant said, of music, “A strange art . . . the most poetic and precise of all the arts, vague as a dream and precise as algebra.” He could have been talking about One Hundred Shadows, I thought.) Was there anything lost in translation? Yes, to be sure–the entire text in Korean. I was almost sad that I couldn’t just have people learn Korean and read this book in the original. But I also believe that every language has its own beauty. In the subsequent drafts, my aim was to have the work read as if it were originally written in English, with its own rich vocabulary, rhythm, and cadence, while maintaining the beauty and integrity of the original text.

A note on a Korean word opens the book: yeowoo-bi, literally fox rain, more commonly sunshower. You explain its folkloric connections: “Koreans refer to a sunshower using this lovely epithet – the metrological phenomenon of rain while the sun shines apparently indicating the wedding of a fox”; this note felt like an overture, like in an opera. The idea of fox rain, for me, sets the scene…

I feel that the mythical quality of this word added to the otherworldly tone of the book. And the image of misty rain, “slender as spider’s silk,” is something that has stayed with me as I read, translated, and reread the book, with the ambience of a dream it spun.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the support the government gives to authors, publishers and translators in South Korea; the government’s efforts in literature seem fixated on the hope that a South Korean author will one day win the Nobel Prize in Literature. This support for literature, no matter what the reason, is something that, to me, is really incredible; something that is quite rare elsewhere in the world. Do you think it is a good thing?

I have benefited from the Korean government’s support in translating literature – I’ve been able to pick out books I loved and wanted to translate, and after applying for and winning grants, receive financial support for doing something I feel passionate about. I have truly appreciated this support; though my aim in translating literature has never been to promote Korea, or Korean literature, even. What I want to do, in the end, is share some good literature that I’ve been lucky enough to come across because I happen to be able to read and understand Korean. The preoccupation in Korea with the Nobel Prize is something that eludes me. I’ve never picked up a book and started reading it just because its author won the Nobel. I’m sure I’d be excited if the author of a book I loved won the prize, but I wouldn’t think any more highly of the book or the author than I always had because of the fact. I’ve had people ask me why I thought Ko Un, the esteemed poet, has “failed to receive” the Nobel Prize; yet they themselves failed to supply me with a clear reason as to why he should receive the prize. Why do they believe he should, when they don’t even love him enough to know one of his poems by heart? It seemed more as if they thought Korea as a nation should win the Nobel Prize, so that it may join the ranks of “culturally superior” nations, and saw the poet as a means through which that may be achieved. I think Korea has a rich enough culture, including its language and literature, to feel secure and to take pride in – and more importantly, to enjoy and appreciate – without having to seek approval or confirmation from the outside world. When people come to genuinely understand and appreciate what they have, instead of being so concerned as to how it compares to what’s out there and how it will be received by others, I think they’ll be less anxious for a certain author to win a prize and more eager to further explore the wealth of literature here by myriads of laudable authors, for the sheer joy of the act; and maybe some will even go on to write something themselves, which will add to the wealth of literature, which will naturally add to the interest from within and without.

 By Claire Kohda Hazelton


9781911284024

One Hundred Shadows by Jungeun Hwang
Translated by Yewon Jung
Tilted Axis Press
£8.99

 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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The outer layer of your skin, the epidermis, replaces itself every 35 days. Become a vegetarian, better yet a vegan, and soon enough your body will be formed almost completely from plant matter. This beguiling conceit lies at the heart of Han Kang’s extraordinary novel The Vegetarian, where a seemingly trivial change in the life of a young woman results in a terrifying transformation.

Split into three parts, Kang’s narrative dances tantalisingly around her central character, the too-often silent Yeong-hye. We see her through every perspective but her own, first through the eyes of her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. As a character she appears the twisted product of the multitude of watchful eyes, the switching preoccupations, and the opinions of those around her. She herself remains mysteriously elusive, her own thoughts only ever revealed in sparing flashes interspersed throughout the narrative.

The first of these begins with a dream, a subconscious cry, the trigger that will initiate the many changes in her life to come. It is a grotesque scene, one that reemerges again and again in the book, bestowing Yeong-hye with Lady-Macbeth-like ‘bloody hands’ and ‘bloody mouth’. The vivid nightmare sees ‘those eyes, rising up from the pit of my stomach’, leaving her assaulted body in the midst of a deep and terrifying transformation as the fear of change inevitably turns itself inward: ‘Why are my edges all sharpening? What am I going to gouge?’

Food has always held a central place in how we connect and communicate with those around us, to sit around a table and ‘break bread’ is one of the oldest and most traditional acts we have. What Kang artfully shows is how the rejection of such conventions and traditions can create unpredictable and often fatal ramifications. The act of rejecting meat soon becomes one of rejecting flesh in any form, the sex life of the couple disintegrates as their bodies become different entities. When Yeong-hye rejects her husband’s advances he asks why: ‘The meat smell,’ she replies, ‘Your body smells of meat.’ Fed on different food, the two lose understanding of each other – if there was even any to begin with. This develops with a strange ferocity in the following chapter in which we see Yeong-hye openly welcome the advances of other suitors based purely on the floral paintings that adorn their bodies. She becomes not merely opposed to meat, she becomes enamoured by its opposite, ensnared by the botanical potential plants offer her, the relative seclusion and safety from a world of flesh beyond her control. The flora and fauna she clings to begin to grow in significance, becoming not just fuel for her body, but fuel for her mind, and just as her new obsession changes her body, it changes her mind as well.

Our vegetarian becomes ‘deflated from within’; her husband’s narrative is overwhelmed by his own inability to accept his wife as she challenges the conventional cage he has built for her. One of the most overused words in his segment of narrative is ‘normal’. He celebrates what he views as his wife’s ordinariness, the mundane and unthreatening shell that he had perceived her to be – any consideration for her in any manner that does not relate to his immediate needs is cast aside. She is a cook first, an object for sex second, a companion? Hardly. Yet when this definition of her ‘normalness’ is threatened, so too is the life that her husband leads. It is only when he begins to finally acknowledge that he has no power over his wife that he admits to himself: ‘I really didn’t have a clue when it came to this woman’. The simple act of choosing what to eat, casts all Yeong-hye’s relationships into disarray – no one can fathom why or how she would make such a decision without a logical explanation, because of a dream. Rather than enquiring into the cause they dismiss it.

In her isolation Yeong-hye becomes ‘utterly unknowable’ – it is not so much that she is vegetarian but that she is unlike those that surround her. She remains immobile, a fixed point careering towards a seemingly inevitable end as her family collides around her in their attempts to connect. What is most disturbing in Kang’s narrative is the manner in which the changing female body is shown as a central concern for the family at large. When her relatives hear of her vegetarianism they respond with astonishment and apologies to her husband. It’s made clear from the start that what Yeong-hye choses to do with her own body preoccupies all members of her family, and that whatever choices she may make her body remains governed by those around her – something that comes to a climax at the end of the first section when her father attempts to force-feed her meat in suffragette fashion, and she retaliates with an equally violent act.

In the following narrative the perspective is immediately and refreshingly reversed, in stark contrast to the selfish and abrasive tone of her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law sees the events of the past section with fresh eyes, and his response is deeply empathetic. When he witnesses her hurt herself he hears ‘a sound like something snapping inside his own body’, and he preserves his shirt stained by her blood as an eerie souvenir. This bloody offering begins an obsession with Yeong-hye’s changing body.

Yet, just like her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law becomes captivated by the idea of her rather than the woman herself. In this instance rather than her ‘normalness’ he is drawn to her transformation. Unlike her husband who recoils from change, this man is inspired by it, made curious by what he sees as a creature so like and yet unlike his own wife. This obsession soon gravitates around a blue mongolian mark, ‘petal-like’ on the small of Yeong-hye’s back. The point becomes fetisized, yet once uncovered it is revealed as ‘more vegetal than sexual … perhaps a mark of photosynthesis’. The mark, like many other points, signals a deeper and more surreal evaluation of a changing state. When finally faced with her naked body, rather than being aroused, the brother-in-law instead discovers ‘a feeling that simulated something deep in his very core, passing through him like a continuous electric shock’. Like the mark itself, Yeong-hye’s transformation begins to lose its seductive appeal. Her body becomes alien rather than alluring, weakened, its human core threatened.

As the tale progresses it becomes clear that Yeong-hye’s rejection of meat is less about gaining control than it is about releasing it. Rather than appearing to take a hold of her life with the new rules she has drawn up for herself, Yeong-hye becomes a woman plagued by demons, but demons that she never truly articulates and ones that no one ever enquires about. Soon food is entirely dismissed, as is sleep. Instead of becoming more seductive when freed from the constrictions of her oppressive husband, as she loses weight and her marriage, she vegetates, day by day her own body growing more like the plants she consumes. Ironically throughout her book her actions only enhance the human characteristics of those around her. She inspires every emotion, from grief and anger to lust and joy. Her own rejection of humanity inspires constant expressions of it in those around her.

Yet the motive behind the transformation is never fully explained, the elusive ‘dream’ that plagues Yeong-hye, the one that sits in her chest, and forces her into hospital again and again, continues unexplored. Anorexia nervosa combined with schizophrenia is the doctor’s tentative diagnosis but the delusion runs much deeper than this, and what is most arresting about Kang’s prose is that she never gives the game away; we’re never sure whose side to take. Teetering between explanations both ‘ordinary’ and ‘extra-ordinary’, she leaves no room for certainty, constantly teasing the reader, and the ambiguity that remains both torments and delights.

This masterpiece of Korean fiction is finally made available to English readers in Deborah Smith’s achingly elegant prose, the first of Han Kang’s novels to be translated. Thankfully I am certain it will not be the last.

Deborah Smith has gone on to translate Kang’s novel Human Acts for Portobello Books (2016). The Vegetarian is shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize 2016.

By Thea Hawlin

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