Van Gogh’s Light
The farmhouse in front of our house was demolished and replaced with a two-story building. The elderly couple who owned the building lived on the first floor, and they rented out the basement and the second floor to foreign workers. Late at night or before dawn, I could hear their strange languages and melancholy songs. People who left their poor motherlands behind often gathered in the yard and shared stories in languages only they could understand. It sounded as if people were speaking in tongues from somewhere afar. I kept thinking that Abul the Bangladeshi might be there among them. Or in the usual everyday scenes, or the dark alley, or at the factory.
What used to be alive did not vanish that quickly.
Blocked by the two-story building, the sunlight that used to stream into our house was halved. The wallpaper and the furniture seemed drained of their colors as they were unable to receive any sunlight. The entire house was dark all day long. I placed a narrow, long-necked lamp by the window and kept the light on day and night. When the soft yellow light illumined the walls and the furniture, bringing colors back into them, I felt at peace. One day, I brought back plants that had been left at the dumpster and put them on the windowsill. I took great care of them, changing their positions in the sunlight as the sun moved throughout the day, but soon their leaves turned yellow and withered. The plants I’d put out on the veranda froze to death within days. I couldn’t keep plants at home anymore.
Eight-year-old Jaeyi wanted a hamster, a cat, and even a rabbit. But I couldn’t let her have such pets in this cold house plagued by backflow. I bought her two fish instead. Jaeyi put the blue and rainbow-colored fish in a fishbowl on the windowsill.
“The fish are gone!” Jaeyi shouted in surprise the next morning. The two fish that had been in the fishbowl had vanished without a trace. Jaeyi and I scoured the room. But the fish were nowhere to be found. It was rather eerie.
Jaeyi’s dad came home for the first time in days and held Jaeyi in his arms. Jaeyi told him about the vanished fish.
“They must have eaten each other,” he said. Jaeyi covered her eyes, saying that she was scared. His words sent a chill down my back as well. If that had been the case, shouldn’t there be fins or bones left behind? It was impossible for two living things to devour each other whole without leaving a trace, at least in this world. Unless some god had something to do with it.
He’s just pulling her leg, I thought.
I emptied the fishbowl into the toilet. Gently scolding me for keeping the light on during the day, my husband turned off the lamp. When the light went out, it felt like all the colors in the house had drained. Startled, I turned the lamp back on. My husband looked perplexed as if he didn’t understand what I was doing. I didn’t understand myself either. How could I understand everything around me going black as if the light had taken away all the colors in the house? The wallpaper that had been dangling from the ceiling for days suddenly peeled off. The exposed cement ceiling was damp and covered in fungus.
“Looks like we need to get some wallpaper,” my husband murmured in passing, glancing up at the ceiling. Without the wallpaper, the ceiling looked so grotesque that I couldn’t stand looking at it for a minute. As if it didn’t bother him, my husband sat on the windowsill and clipped his toenails.
“They look like raptor’s claws!”
Jaeyi looked curiously at her dad’s toenails. Not having been clipped for a long time, they did resemble dinosaur claws.
“Could we wallpaper the ceiling ourselves?”
I wondered loudly on purpose so that my husband would hear me.
My husband, Jaeyi, and I went into town to buy wallpaper. My husband suggested grabbing dinner before going home since it was our first outing in a long time. It was a late winter day, and the sunlight was bright and warm. Snow was still piled up along the shady edges of the alley, while the center of the path was slushy. My husband picked Jaeyi up in his arms.
“She’s a big girl now,” I said to Jaeyi’s dad, looking at him sideways.
“Let’s buy wallpaper with flower patterns.”
Jaeyi seemed to be in a good mood.
“Sure, let’s buy floral-pattern wallpaper,” my husband answered, keeping up her spirits.
“Should we eat pork belly?” asked Jaeyi.
I opened up my wallet to count the bills inside. My husband took a couple of ten-dollar bills from his pocket and handed them to me. We bought a roll of floral-pattern wallpaper. We decided to make flour paste glue and wallpaper the ceiling only. One roll didn’t seem enough to cover the entire ceiling, but neither Jaeyi’s dad nor I said we should buy more. It was a little early for dinner, but the winter sun set rather quickly. My husband took the lead with quick steps, and I followed behind at a slower pace as my mind wandered.
The barbecue restaurant had a courtyard in the center, and the tables were laid out in a big circle around the courtyard. Further inside the restaurant there was raised floor seating where people could take their shoes off and sit on the warm floor. Lights lit up the courtyard here and there, allowing plants to grow lush and verdant even though they didn’t receive direct sunlight. My spirits fell for a moment, as they reminded me of the plants that died in my house. There was a small pond in the middle of the courtyard. When a white plaster cherub peed into the pond, music flowed. Smoke rose from the tables. Adults were grilling meat, while children were gathered around ice cream tubs. Jaeyi took off her shoes and stepped onto the raised floor seating. Her dad neatly arranged her shoes and placed them so that they were facing outward. I did the same for his shoes and went to our table.
My husband ordered two portions of pork belly and grilled the meat until it turned golden brown. He cut them up into smaller pieces for Jaeyi and put them on her plate, and even wiped sauce from the corners of her mouth. Jaeyi only ate the meat her dad wrapped in lettuce to give her, not touching the ones I wrapped for her.
“Hon, have some meat,” I said to my husband and pushed some meat and vegetables toward him, but pretending not to have seen them, he kept on spooning rice and soybean paste soup into his mouth. Wondering if he was going to say something, I waited. All four hundred grams of pork belly were on the grill, and some of the pieces began to char.
“They’re getting burnt!”
When I raised my voice, Jaeyi got up discreetly and headed to the ice cream tubs. I spoke to Jaeyi’s dad about Jebu Island.
“My friends went to Jebu Island. They said the sea parted to reveal a walking path to the island around noon. The last path opens around 6:00 p.m. tomorrow. They said they’d wait for us to come. Hon, let’s take Jaeyi to Jebu Island. It’s just for a day. Let’s go and stay somewhere where it’s bright. But um, the lawsuit . . .”
Even before I finished my sentence, my husband nodded. He said he’d come home once the negotiations with the company were finished the next afternoon. He said we should go to Jebu Island afterward.
“And . . .”
Just as he was about to say something more, Jaeyi returned with a bowlful of ice cream. He fell silent. We were almost done eating, and it was growing darker outside. Suddenly the courtyard lit up with light, and streams of water gushed from the fountain. As the cherub statue peed into the pond, music flowed. My husband glanced behind him toward the courtyard, then lowered his head and cautiously said, “They’re the ones siding with the company.”
When I followed his suit and turned around, he signaled me to stop looking.
“Don’t turn around.”
There were two men in gray uniform sitting at a table by the courtyard and grilling meat. They looked familiar. They were wearing the same work uniform as my husband, but theirs looked different.
Well, I suppose they are different.
On my husband’s thirty-seventh birthday, they’d come to our house with a potted money tree as a gift and ate cake together and drank alcohol. When Jaeyi enrolled in school, they’d bought her a backpack, and they’d even prepared documents to submit to the Ministry of Employment and Labor together. The money tree they’d given us as a gift was now dead.
“They’re uncles!” Jaeyi also remembered them.
My husband waited until Jaeyi finished her ice cream and got up from his seat. The uneaten pieces of meat were left to harden on the grill. There were still lettuce, mushrooms, and other vegetables left on the table. Thinking it a shame to leave them uneaten, I walked away begrudgingly. As Jaeyi and her dad were putting on their shoes, the men in gray uniform approached us. They nodded at me in acknowledgment and held their hands out to Jaeyi’s dad. He didn’t shake their hands. The men grinned and patted Jaeyi on the head once each before leaving the restaurant ahead of us. I paid for the meat, got a cup of coffee from the coffee machine and sipped it, grabbed a fistful of candy from the counter and handed them to Jaeyi, and finally headed outside. For that entire time, my husband sat on a chair in the smoking section and burned through his cigarette.
Since the first trial began early last autumn, my husband came home once in two or three days or even a week. It has been six months since. Abul. If only it hadn’t been for Abul. Or actually, if only the two-story building hadn’t been built. Or if only that dumpster hadn’t been overflowing with discarded junk. If only the junk from demolishing, rebuilding, and renovating buildings had not awakened the factory at night. If only Abul’s motherland had not been so poor. If only Jaeyi’s dad hadn’t read a book like Workers, Unite around that time. Goddamn it! I didn’t know what needed to be undone for all of this to not have happened.
As for Abul, he was an honest and quiet young man from Bangladesh. Whenever he had lunch at the restaurant where Jaeyi’s friend Ann’s mother worked as the only server, he helped her serve dishes to other customers. On those days Ann’s mother packed him side dishes to take home behind the restaurant owner’s back. Elderly men and women in town were very fond of Abul, who always said hello to them in awkward Korean. The children weren’t afraid of the dark-skinned foreigner Abul. The recycling factory was thriving. Foreign workers like Abul worked the night shifts at the factory. In the wee hours of the morning, when they were the only ones awake while the entire town slept, Abul’s hand was shredded by an industrial shredder. The company fired Abul. With his one hand wrapped in bandages, the twenty-one-year-old Abul hung himself from the factory shredder. Everyone mourned and lamented his death, but no one could help poor Abul.
Several months after Abul’s death, my husband and other factory workers received a “certificate of the establishment of a labor union” from the Ministry of Employment and Labor. It had to be done before another Abul came along, and of all people at the factory, my husband took the lead. Everyone was excited, and they recalled Abul’s tragic death. They didn’t think anything worse could happen. With the certificate of the establishment of a labor union in their hands, they gathered together in the yard of the two-story building where Abul used to live to grill meat, drink alcohol, and sing together the songs that Abul used to sing with his friends. The melody carried to the far end of the alley, and even to the dirt path above the church that led to the recycling factory.
A month later, nothing happened at the factory, but my husband and the factory workers who created the labor union were all laid off. In a mere month. Since it was wrongful termination, they fought, and while fighting, they broke through the factory gates, and each of them received a document titled “Claim for Obstruction of Business and Damages” issued by a national agency. In the meantime, the company donated money to the elementary school in town for scholarships and built a new community center as part of its efforts to give back to the community and serve its people. The townspeople who had sworn at the company for Abul’s death immediately turned around and said that it was wrong of the workers to break the factory gates, that the town would be ruined if the factory shut down. The workers who had filled out the documents to form the labor union sided with the company. Those who joined the union didn’t last long against the company’s threats and coaxing. They feared that they would receive some threatening claims, blamed Abul for what happened to him, and said that the labor union they wanted wasn’t this aggressive. Soon the only members of the labor union were my husband and five other workers. Together they filed a lawsuit to nullify the termination of their employment contracts and set up tents in front of the broken factory gates. No one supported them, just like no one had supported Abul. Before the end of the autumn, the court ruled in favor of the factory. Jaeyi’s dad and the other laid-off workers appealed the court’s decision and spent the winter in tents. If they didn’t win the suit or folded up their tents and stopped protesting, they would be too ashamed to shed even a tear for future Abuls, for losing a hand in the shredder.
“If we do that, then it’s like cutting off one of our own hands. We have to see this through to the end.”
That was what my husband said on the day they filed the appeal.
That happened three months ago, and the winter was coming to an end.
Translated by Stella Kim
[Draft I] Writer-Translators on Their Craft — Bae Suah
This section features five respected writer-translators who reminisce, reflect, and ruminate on their experiences of writing and translating. Their opinions correspond, but also refract from each other to varying degrees given their unique, personal backgrounds. The section features their abridged answers.—Ed.
How did you first get into translation and was there a specific opportunity that motivated you to get into it?
I remember very clearly what led me to translation: my study of German. I was in Berlin at the time. I went to Germany with no ostensible purpose, as I hadn’t gone there to study, work, or learn the language; instead I yearned to spend a year doing absolutely nothing, to be in a place where no one knew me, to not work, and to not speak. I’d gone in search of a world without language, and in Berlin I found it. I had brought a big box full of Korean books to read, which took all of two months to go through. Then a vast emptiness set in. Only two languages existed for me in the world then, as they do now: everyday language that’s as vital to us as water or air, and literary language, which can only be accessed if one desires it. As time passed, I increasingly thirsted for the latter. I tired of walking past bookshops and only ever catching glimpses of German titles in their windows. That’s when something I hadn’t anticipated or expected even after arriving in the country first occurred to me: the thought that I might learn German simply in order to read. To learn it as a high school student might learn Esperanto—that was precisely the idea. This notion took me by surprise. I had never, in all my life, done anything with the focused intensity that people call diligence or dedication, nor held a fervent life goal in my heart. Everything that occurred to me, from my birth to my becoming a writer, had been happenstance, and I reveled in such chance encounters. Of course, when this thought came to me that early November afternoon, as I stood outside a bookshop in a Berlin street already grown dim with the encroaching German winter, it was as a spontaneous impulse and not some avid goal or persistent desire; even so, having nothing else to do in that moment, I decided to act on the impulse. From the start, my idea was that I would enter this language solely through books—through literature. So despite my rudimentary understanding of the most basic grammar, I ran into the bookshop, giddy with excitement, and picked out a book I believed—erroneously—I would immediately set to reading. The book was Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig. I chose it as the title and author were familiar to me in spite of my general ignorance of German literature, and because I had read it before in Korean; and though this had been years ago, I hoped my rereading of the book in German would be made more manageable by that fact. This hope was soon dashed. As I read I had to look up nearly every word except perhaps the articles in a dictionary, and still there wasn’t a single sentence in the book that failed to shock and astound me. I read every sentence and understood nothing, and in this way I was able to understand what wasn’t being said by the sentences without having read a single sentence. That book was a door. The very first door I encountered in a world of vernacular silence, which I’d entered through the erasure of my natural language; a door that led me back inside language, albeit language not as a means of conversation and communication but as a door in and of itself. I believed I had come upon my own method of reading certain types of books. Casting reading with the dictionary aside, I was attempting to read as translation. That was my first act of translation. And translation itself has since become another way of reading for me, in the way recitation has. These days I continue to translate writing I prefer or have an affinity for just so I can read it (differently), and I also translate the occasional poem. This is translation for myself, effectively.
When we speak of “style,” we often think of it as the representative element of a text that displays the writer’s signature personality, but in the case of translation, the text may inevitably have to be adjusted at times to fit linguistic norms and conventions in the target language. This is sometimes referred to as “the betrayal of translation.” Have you ever agonized over this issue?
It’s not exactly a problem of style, but there is something I’ve had to think through. The majority of my translations are of fiction, and in novels how the characters address one another, especially when honorifics are involved, can sway the overall impression of a work. Watching a French film on a flight recently, I found myself gagging at the Korean subtitles and had to stop watching. In the scene a woman is smoking and talking to a man roughly the same age as her, but the subtitles have the woman addressing the man as doryeonnim, a term of address that is used specifically by women when speaking to or of their husband’s younger, unmarried brother, and in which the woman is explicitly “lowering” herself out of deference to a male family member. In the actual conversation, the characters of course address each other by name.
Korean speech levels and honorifics are so complicated it’s difficult to set clear rules about their use, and unless you are an expert in the matter, being a linguist or an editor, for instance, they can be quite unfathomable. While in Switzerland, I met a Swiss linguist who remarked that Korean has one of the trickiest system of polite speech in the world, and said this was why (though he spoke no Korean) he had chosen to specialize in it. Then there’s the fact that this system very often reflects values that are regressive, so that actual use of and opinions about continued usage of honorifics vary from person to person. Not to mention how this habitual deferring and being deferred to by various means of polite speech tends to decide hierarchies between people, if only on the level of language. (An example would be how, previously, Korean translations of conversations between spouses would have the wife naturally speaking up to the husband and the husband speaking down to the wife.) But of course in the German source text there is no such language hierarchy, meaning the translator has to write this into the translation. Korean translators have to determine for themselves whether and when to employ polite forms of speech and honorifics in dialogues and sentences, which would fall under the category of translating the unspoken.
I had to find solutions to this myself while translating Hermann Hesse’s Narziß und Goldmund (Narcissus and Goldmund). Certain elements of the novel make it tricky to apply Korean forms of address, and the amount of dialogue between the two central characters was significant. The novel is set in what seems medieval times, though the exact period is unspecified. Narziß and Goldmund meet as (assistant) teacher and student at a Catholic cloister school, and become intimate friends. So I wasn’t sure what degree of politeness I should use in rendering their dialogue. Another issue was how to translate the dialogue between Goldmund and the various women (of different statuses and circumstances) he meets. For instance, when the student Goldmund leaves the school and has a chance physical encounter with the wandering Lise, should these two converse in polite form or informal form? If at first meeting they were to use the polite form, should they continue to do so even after having slept together? When Goldmund falls in love with the daughter of a knight, which polite form should these two people of different social rank use when speaking to each other? Should that form be historically accurate or should it reflect modern usage? Or should the emphasis perhaps be on what readers today would find most natural and easy to read? These were some of the questions I had to answer. But of course the choices I made regarding forms of speech only reflect one of many possible ways to translate this novel.
The use of honorifics in translation tends to reflect the general values or conventions of the target culture, in this case Korean culture, but I would like to address a somewhat different aspect. In translation there are several areas where the translator’s individual ethics and beliefs can play a significant role, and the use of polite forms of speech and how one chooses to translate a certain word are, I would say, determined by the individuality of the translator. It goes without saying that translation is an act that can be open to active intervention by the translator. I want to highlight this because translated language, and in particular the translated language of literary works (which encompasses not just diction, but voice, tone, manner of speech, and attitude), is necessarily influenced by the language of Korean literature, and will itself in time suffuse the language of Korean literature.
How do you select the authors or works you translate?
As I see it, choosing what to translate is the moment a translation begins. So for me, asking how is the translation? is fundamentally the same as asking what is it a translation of?
Having said that, when I first started, I had no specific criteria for selecting what to translate. I knew nothing about German writers and literature then, and lacked the knowledge to even select a work. Not only that, I was not at all—and am still not—someone who translates because they are proficient in a language. I dived into translation headfirst, and so in the beginning I failed to choose the right translation projects. As with writing, translation was a slow, roundabout process for me. It took a long time for me to reach a point where I could decide what to translate, and be satisfied with that decision.
Though I still have a strong desire to translate work I’ve discovered myself, I’ve also been fortunate in having editors who have recommended wonderful and captivating authors to me, authors whose work I then went on to translate. These include Fernando Pessoa’s Livro do Desassossego (The Book of Disquiet), W. G. Sebald’s Schwindel. Gefühle (Vertigo), Robert Walser’s Der Spaziergang (The Walk), and Peter Handke’s Die Lehre der Sainte-Victoire (The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire). Pessoa, Sebald, and Walser are all writers I came to know in Germany and then subsequently, almost as if by fate, was asked to translate by Korean publishers. The work I encounter through editors’ recommendations tend to be of world-famous writers, and here I have an advantage in that I can ride on the coattails of these by all accounts excellent and famous authors; still, the translations I’m fondest of and prefer are of relatively unknown writers and works (at least in Korea) that I somehow came across, and went on to introduce to editors and eventually to translate and publish. The Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat’s Boof-e koor (The Blind Owl), the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s A paixão segundo G.H. (The Passion According to G.H.), for instance, and most recently the Swiss writer of Romanian origin I’m set to translate, Aglaja Veteranyi.
The most important element for me in selecting what to translate is whether or not the language of the original chimes with my translated language. Because I seek out literature that is unfamiliar, new, minor, I try to avoid work that has strong popular appeal or is fashionable or has a universal style. I prioritize my own pleasure in the writing as its potential translator. Writing that makes the translator’s heart beat faster to the extent she has to pause in her translation, unable to progress any further from fevered excitement, having become entirely, unseeingly enthralled (quite literally)—this is the kind of work I like to translate. I am the antithesis of the translator as researcher, who analyses the text with measured composure, and of whom there seem to be a fair number among the truly excellent translators).
The sentences I prefer in the original tend to be uncomplicated yet difficult to render distinctly in Korean, simultaneously simple and ambiguous, avant-garde and beautiful. These are sentences that will always be translated differently from one person to the next according to their idiosyncratic language, and this for me is a joy, a challenge, and a pleasure. That there is pleasure in translation is, after all, why I translate. Another criterion is that the work must be something I would want to read in Korean. This is another important reason I translate. If I read a work in German first and it makes me shiver, that frisson arises from an intense desire to read the work in Korean.
Do you think your creative writing impacts your translation or vice versa? If so, in what ways does one influence the other? (In terms of word choice, expressions, sentence structure, narrative structure, way of thinking, and so on.)
As someone who writes and translates, I think they are both one and separate in that one influences the other. I find with time that I experience the divide between the two a lot less acutely. So it’s difficult to say what precedes the other in exerting influence. When I started translating, the Korean publishing world viewed translation a little differently than it does now. I remember an editor telling me that a good translator shouldn’t have style, i.e., their own, and must act as a clear panel of glass that allows the original work to pass through. I didn’t have a single published translation yet, but I did have hopes of doing so, and found the editor’s words disconcerting and disappointing. As I understood it, the editor, realizing my wish to translate, seemed to be hinting that a writer like myself wasn’t suited to translation. What I think now is this: No translator can be without style. It’s only that their style is lesser known (than that of a writer). Style is one’s preferred language, and translation after all is the act of preferring (favoring, choosing) within the bounds permitted by the source text.
Since I started translating I have come to understand writing as a process of translation, of transporting what is nonverbal into the verbal, into words. This understanding has freed up my writing. And through mistranslations which are bound to occur now and then, creativity can forge a new, unexpected path, in the way mutations can present radical change.
Anyone who writes yearns to experience freedom through and from language, while yearning to be free of it. Which is why they destroy, expand, transplant, embrace, and experiment. They take their writing far into the distance, they bring it back, they observe how the language shifts and changes as though it had substance, then they plant this in their own soil. This is one of the ways in which they translate.
To translate literature from another language, it must be necessary to fully understand not just the literary language but also the vernacular language and cultural context. Could you share your own efforts in this regard?
There’s actually not a lot I can do in that regard. I began translating not long after I first started learning German, and I had almost no points of contact with Germany or its culture in my personal life. When I returned to Korea, there was zero opportunity to speak or to hear German. So I did the only thing I could do by myself, which was to read as much literature as possible in German. I wanted to know the German of writers rather than nonwriters, and written rather than spoken German.
Because I learned German not through speech but through writing, this language remains a primarily textual language for me. When I was in Germany, I enjoyed listening to radio dramas at bedtime more than I did conversing with other people. I didn’t understand everything, but what I enjoyed, I think, was listening to the cadences of dialogue, enunciation, voice, and the different ways the actors controlled their emotion as they spoke. I still prefer audio plays to the easily accessible audiobooks. Even when I can’t follow the plot or what is being said, I find the recitation and enunciation of the actors combined with auditory presentation itself stimulating.
It’s become something of a routine for me to travel to Germany when I write. I intend to escape speech and seclude myself in writing, but an unintended consequence is that it’s prompted me to gain some perspective on the local culture. When I am in Germany, I stay at a cottage near Berlin, hardly venturing out and spending most of my time writing or, occasionally, gardening; even so, swapping locations does alter the language environment. The rare times I visit a cafe, I listen to people place their orders. Even the simplest order of half a loaf of rye bread, a cheese sandwich, or a cup of coffee can be so particular to the speaker, I find it thrilling.
More recently, I had the opportunity to recite a German literary text and realized that there was a way to familiarize oneself with a language through recitation. The recitation was for a German art film, and came about because the role required someone who spoke German with a foreign accent. (I don’t think the German audience would have understood every word of what I recited in the film). This experience prompted my more recent forays into recitations and reading performances in Korea.
An Italian friend I know in Germany, who happens to be a theater actor, told me that memorizing dialogue and reciting lines on stage helped her in becoming better acquainted with the language.
Translated by Emily Yae Won