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The Implicit I: Contesting Ambiguity in Korean Literature

How the blurring of a relationship may point to a more fertile ground lying between the lines, in which multiple desires can co-exist.

The following essay by Sora Kim-Russell is the first installment in The Pronoun folio of the Transpacific Literary Project and an excerpt from a talk given at the 2018 Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. Find the rest of the folio here.

Dahn sounded like he was making a pledge.
— We have to go to college.
— . . .
— I’m going to be an artist.
— . . .
It was the mood of something overflowing.

It would be easy to mistake the dialogue above, excerpted from Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There, as a monologue. Only one person appears to be speaking. But there is a second person, the narrator herself, implicitly present in the original Korean text and rendered invisible in the above literal translation into English. In the version below, which was revised and edited for publication, this second person is made explicit through the narrativization of silence and the addition of a pronoun:

“We have to go to college.” Dahn sounded like he was making a pledge.
I was too surprised to respond.
“I’m going to be an artist,” he said.
I felt like I was going to burst.

This type of revision—making explicit the implicit—is common for Korean to English translation, but it requires that the translator intervene to make a decision for the reader.

This type of intervention has led Korean literature, and more broadly the language itself, to be described as vague in order to explain why it can seem difficult to translate, or perhaps why certain works don’t have the same impact in English. I admit that I have fallen back on this explanation myself. But lately I find myself questioning this description, particularly as I see “vague” being applied across the board to all Korean literature, regardless of the styles of individual writers.

That said, it’s not entirely inaccurate. As seen in the example above, Korean grammar can be impressively elliptical. Like many other languages, the passive voice is used liberally, without the implications of passivity that are often read into its usage in English, and pronouns can be dropped when they are apparent from context. Other parts of the sentence can be dropped as well, including the verb, and it’s not uncommon to find entire lines of dialogue embodied by an ellipsis, indicating a literal silence in a conversation. As well, social hierarchy is grammatically encoded in the language—we don’t conjugate for case, we conjugate for age and status. This means there is one set of verb endings and special vocabulary for people older than you, and a simpler, abbreviated set for people younger than you, which are used even when talking about people who are not present for the conversation.

This creates issues with continuously shifting pronouns: “you” and “I” change depending on who you are speaking to, and even calling people by their given name can have a demeaning or overly familiar quality. Outside of friends and family, the surname and given name + a respectful suffix is often used, or else a title takes the place of the name. And suffixes and titles aren’t just reserved for those conferred with status or profession, either. Nurse, Doctor, and Professor are used the same way as in English, but virtually any social role can become a title: Teacher, Customer, Patient, Student, etc. Extended family members, as well, each get their own title, which can change depending on who is addressing whom—family trees are known to be so byzantine that even native Koreans have trouble keeping track. There are also a number of cases where the first-person singular is replaced altogether with the first-person plural: our country, our family, our child, our feelings, our language, our literature.

Viewed from outside, it can seem sometimes as if there is no I or you at all, only the collective we, which might lend the assumption that the lack of an I means the lack of an individual, autonomous subject. But if everyone knows the I is there even when it isn’t made explicit, then what’s the difference between voicing it and not voicing it? Aren’t novels by their very nature about the development of the individual and the construction of an internal world?

Given the penchant for full names and titles, and the grammatical encoding of relationships, one could argue that written Korean dialogue is often less ambiguous than English dialogue. You can usually tell from just a line or two of unattributed dialogue who is speaking to whom. And because of how Korean sentence endings work, you don’t even need to add quotation marks—in fact, punctuation itself only came into use after encounter with Western literature. The final syllables of a Korean sentence can reveal whether it is declarative or interrogative, whether the speaker is surprised or unsurprised, whether they’re upset with you or feeling affectionate.

The following is an excerpt from Park Min-gyu’s short story, “Is That So? I’m A Giraffe”:

코치 형이 가게를 찾아온 것은 그 무렵의 새벽이었다. 어떠냐? 좋아요. 편의점의 알바
역시 코치 형의 소개로 얻은 것이므로, 좋다고밖에는 말할 도리가 없었다. 지역의 알
바 정보를 한 손에 쥐었다고 할까. 아무튼 그래서 후배들에게 일자릴 소개하고 요모
조모 코치하길 좋아하는 인물이었다. 이 얼마나 요긴한가. 나는 카프리썬 하나를 꺼
내 그에게 건넸다. 제 돈으로 사는 거예요. 웃으며 말은 했지만 알고나 드세요, 제 인
생의 이십오 분이랍니다.

This is how the passage reads in a “literal” translation without added pronouns:

Was around that time elder brother coach came to store one morning. How? Fine.
Since convenience store part-time job, too, was acquired through elder brother
coach introduction, was no choice but to say fine. Shall I say gripped in one
hand information on all local part-time jobs. Was a person that liked to help
find jobs for and coach juniors on this and that. How convenient. I took out a
Capri Sun and handed it to him. Buying with my money. Said with smile, but
know as you drink, sir, that is twenty-five minutes of my life.

And this is how the same passage appeared in two different publications, the former published in Korea and the latter outside of Korea:

In Asia Publisher’s Bilingual Edition Modern Korean Literature Series #34:

It was around that time that Coach came to the store one morning. How’s it going?
Fine. Since he was the one who got me the gig at the convenience store, I had no
choice but to say I was fine. You could say he had the corner on all the part-time
jobs in the area. He liked helping the younger guys find jobs and coaching them on
this and that. Well, that’s convenient, I thought, taking out a Capri Sun and hand-
ing it to him. It’s on me. I said it with a smile, but as I glanced up at the clock,
I thought to myself, I hope you know that’s worth twenty-five minutes of my life.

In Asia Literary Review (Spring 2012):

It was around that time that Coach came to the store one morning.
How’s it going?
Since he was the one who’d got me the gig in the first place, I had no choice but to
say I was fine. You could say he had the corner on all the part-time jobs in the area.
He liked helping the younger guys find jobs and coaching them on this and that.
Well, that’s convenient, I thought, taking out a Capri Sun and handing it to him.
It’s on me. I said it with a smile, but as I glanced up at the clock, I thought to my-
self, I hope you know that’s worth twenty-five minutes of my life.

With the literal translation into English, sentences appear incomplete, and key markers and clues disappear. The verb endings that distinguish narrative sentences from casual and formal dialogue are untranslatable into English, making it less apparent that someone is speaking, let alone who they are speaking to and what their relationship is. As the passage is edited for different readerships, clarifying pronouns and questions marks are added, sentences are smoothed out, and indentations are added to indicate changes of speaker. We gain clarity as to who is speaking when, but we lose the grammatical shifts that reveal the age and status differences between the characters. This is the sort of detail that can inspire Korean-fluent readers to argue that the nuances of the original text have been lost in translation.

Meanwhile, to Western ears, all of these rules about pronouns and titles and verb endings can seem stifling and difficult. But that’s the view from outside and doesn’t necessarily reflect how it feels to those using the language. In particular, when titles are interpreted too literally into English—Teacher, Mister, Sir, Ma’am, and so on—characters can seem overly distant and obsessed with hierarchy, and it becomes easy to miss out on the subtexts of affection, the ways in which people play with and manipulate titles and hierarchical speech, how an honorific suffix can convey affection along with respect, or how a seemingly respectful term can be delivered with sass and malice, as well as the ways in which those things don’t matter at all. In this passage from Un-su Kim’s The Plotters, one character teases the other, goading him into addressing him with respect.

“Your buddy’s in peril, and here you are crowing about market value…”
“Fine. I’ll do it as long as you call me ‘Elder Brother.’ Because I am far too humane
to abandon a little brother in danger. And, let’s be real, I am two years older
than you.”
Reseng glared at him. When he didn’t look away, Jeongan tapped him on the
shoulder and gave him a look that said, Can’t you take a joke?
“Please, Elder Brother,” Reseng said, his voice flat.
Jeongan looked at him, feigning disgust.
“Holy shit, where’s your pride? What a pushover! You really need to man up.”

In other parts of the novel, Reseng alternates between formal and informal speech, and is scolded for the latter by a nemesis, which immediately clues the Korean reader in to his relationships with other characters—a facet that was much harder to convey in the English translation.

One perhaps surprising side effect of all of this specificity, however, is that gender has a way of disappearing. Korean is, for the most part, an ungendered language. Objects are simply objects, and the third-person pronoun used in fiction—그 (kû)—is status-neutral and ungendered. It’s often translated as “he,” but it can be equally interpreted as “she” or applied to an object, as in “the/that.” The sole gendered pronoun in Korean, 그녀 (kûnyô) wasn’t introduced until the 1900s—one source dates it only as far back as the 1950s—as a solution to translating foreign texts into Korean. Since then it has held an uneasy place in Korean fiction. Some writers use it, while others avoid it and use kû for all sexes and genders. Characters can be referred to repeatedly by name, title, or description without resorting to a pronoun (which also lends itself to Korean being criticized as overly repetitive), and gender can be left either implied or, simply, insignificant. In The Routledge Course in Korean Translation (2018), Jieun Kiaer writes, “Even now, kûnyô is used only in some translated texts or to put some emphasis on the feminine nature of the person under discussion. Hence, ‘she’ should not be translated into kûnyô automatically. Whether it is ‘he’ or ‘she,’ both will be treated equally most of the time in Korean. On the other hand, K-E translators need to meticulously search for the gender of often unsaid and hence implicit people.” This search for gender can take one of three forms: you look for contextual clues, you ask the writer what or who they were picturing, or you pick one at random and hope for the best.

Poets from the colonial era often blurred gender by using the term 님 (nim) as a kind of pronoun. Nim is normally a suffix added to a name to convey respect, comparable to adding Mr. or Ms. to a name, but in poetry, it carries a romantic tone. In this short excerpt from “Nim-eui Chimmuk (沈默)” or “My Lover’s Silence” by Manhae Han Yong-yun, published in 1926, the original Korean contains no explicit reference to gender, but the “nim,” or beloved, has been translated as “she”: “My love is gone. Ah, the one I love is gone. / Crossing the narrow path to the maple grove that shatters the mountain / green, she tore away from me.”

Much of this seemingly romantic poetry from the colonial era has been subjected to fairly conservative interpretations by critics. Love poems addressed to nim have mostly been interpreted as love poems to blood and country, with the feminized nim representing the colonized nation and loss of sovereignty. These readings seem based on the assumption that romance should not be interpreted literally, and that any native speaker of Korean should understand that implicitly. Whether or not that’s true, it results in gender- and hetero-normative readings: the speaker is coded as masculine with the spoken-to love object as feminine, and any selection and arrangement of words that suggest otherwise is normalized through interpretation. This, despite Manhae’s own definition of nim: “‘Nim’ is not only a human lover but everything yearned for. All beings are nim for the Buddha, and philosophy is the nim of Kant. The spring rain is nim for the rose, and Italy is the nim of Mazzini. Nim is what I love, but it also loves me. If romantic love is freedom, then so is my nim.”

Of course, the point here is not to say that interpreting “nim” as the feminine pronoun in the poem above is wrong—it does allow the sense of romantic love to coexist in the poem alongside other readings—but simply to underscore that it is an interpretation, one that adds a layer of meaning while possibly excluding other meanings. These interpretations often rely on “common knowledge,” or on whatever is most mainstream. Which brings me to a subject that particularly fascinates me—the role of the translator in interpreting ambiguously coded relationships in literary texts.

The following excerpt, from Shin Kyung-sook’s short story, “The Strawberry Field,” published in 2000, would seem to explicitly depict a same-sex romantic encounter:

“The woman pulled Yu towards her in an embrace. The red strawberries in Yu’s
basket spilled onto the field. Red juice dripped down Yu’s skirt. The woman
picked up a handful of strawberries from her own basket and mashed them onto
Yu’s clean skirt. Yu did not resist, and just stared at the red juice spread-
ing over her clothes. Yu’s skin was perfect. Her proportions were harmonious.
No aberrations. No oppression. The woman brought her tongue against Yu’s bright
earlobe. Her hand left a red mark on Yu’s neck. The woman fondled the mark
along her neck. Yu was so innocent. She didn’t resist when the woman pushed her
tongue down her throat. Suddenly, Yu pushed her away. “Lie down!” she ordered.
Yu was firm. As if her lack of resistance until now was for the impact of this
order. “You tried to kill me!” Yu turned rough. She threw herself at the woman
and dragged up the woman’s shirt and poured strawberries on her breasts. Yu’s
hands were supple and cunning. Delicious and perfect. The woman closed her eyes.
The sensation of strawberries being crushed on her cheek, her stomach, her thighs
kept her from resisting. Yu’s sugar-sweet fingers, her lips. Not a speck was left.
Everything fell to their desire: the faint scent of sweat and the smell of the
earth that yielded the strawberries, and the loneliness remaining after the act
with the man, gone.”

And yet, in an interview with the author, Gabriel Sylvian, founder of the Korea Gay Literature Project, noted that Shin had claimed the same-sex theme in the story was a matter of “sisterly love,” not homosexuality. Shin explained: “The connection between the two women is not sexual-political. But I think there is a gist there that can be read that way. I don’t pursue just one theme when I write. I choose to keep a door open so that the story will be variously interpreted. It’s similar to my personality, which tends to just want to run and hide when someone tries to persuade me of something. I hope that everyone who reads it will come away with a different story. That’s one of the reasons I choose ambiguity.” Shin is indeed known for employing ambiguity in her narrative voice, and much of her work deals with themes of memory, grief, and absence, which is reflected in the impressionistic quality of her prose and in the way she repeats certain phrases and images while omitting others, like a grief-stricken person returning to a remembered moment again and again.

This ambiguity presented a challenge for me while translating Shin’s novel, I’ll Be Right There. I found myself questioning to what extent my own identity influences how I read, and by extension, how I translate. That is, in addition to the implicit “I” of the narrator in the excerpt that opened this essay, how much am I, the translator, also acting as an implicit subject in the text through my interpretation?

In I’ll Be Right There, two of the female characters, college students Yoon and Miru, seem irresistibly drawn to each other. The first time Yoon sees Miru, she says that her eyes “fill with Miru,” and much of the book is marked by the intensity of Yoon’s gaze. When I was working on early drafts of the translation, one of the editors asked whether Yoon and Miru’s relationship was an unrequited romance. Frankly, I’d had the same assumption. But as with “The Strawberry Field,” the author adamantly insisted that the relationship should be read as homosocial, not homosexual. The particular passage that called this into question is a scene where Yoon and Miru go to a bathhouse together, during which Yoon appears to admire Miru’s body, followed by a scene in which Miru invites Yoon to spend the night.

자고 갈래? 윤미루의 검은 눈이 응? 하고 물었다. 그 무엇도 거절할 수 없게 만드는 눈
빛이었다. 나는 아직도 사과 맛이 맴돌고 있는 입안의 침을 삼키며 응, 하고 대답했다

Initial translation:
Want to sleep over? Yun Miru’s dark eyes were asking, Yes? It was a look that made
it hard to refuse anything. I swallowed the saliva inside my mouth, where the taste
of the apple still lingered, and said, Yes.

Final translation:
“Would you like to spend the night?” Miru asked me. The look in her eyes made it
hard to say no. I swallowed, the taste of apple still on my tongue, and said okay.

In Korean, the moment is so laden with tension: the look in the eyes, the pause before answering, the echoed yes. When you add in the apple—the quintessential “forbidden fruit”—the tension seems to tip over to sexual. But here’s the catch, and it’s a bit of a spoiler: When this scene is being narrated, Miru is already dead. The narrator is grown up and remembering the people she lost during her college days.

Given that framing device, the editor’s questions, and the author’s reticence, I struggled with how to translate this passage. Do I stick with my “literal” translation, which felt the truest to me, or do I change it to suit the author? I found myself feeling exposed while working on this book. Was I, as a bisexual woman, seeing myself in Yoon and thus putting too much of myself into the translation? Considering how strongly the author had insisted that it was not a queer narrative, I had to wonder whether I was unconsciously queering the text. Was I just assuming, as one does, that everyone else was bisexual until proven otherwise?

As I imagined the author’s reaction to my translation, I could feel the specter of the closet looming over me, and I gave in to it. I tried to temper the scene by making Miru sound more polite and changing the “yes” to an “okay.” To an astute reader, the hints of sexual tension are still there. They just aren’t quite as loud.

I don’t think it’s odd, from a psychological point of view, that longing for the deceased—the longing that a grown-up Yoon feels for Miru in reverie—can come to mirror physical or sexual longing. Particularly given that same-sex friendships in Korea can contain a certain amount of physical closeness (straight women really do go to bathhouses together), it’s not necessarily a give-away that Yoon physically yearns for a lost friend and wishes to possess her in more than just memory. But at the same time, is there a way to read this in which we don’t separate the two urges at all, but allow and acknowledge their simultaneity? Grief, especially protracted or chronic grief, after all, is a queer form of desire. It’s a pathologized wanting for what you can’t have.

It’s also critically important to note that much of Shin’s literary work is set during the violence of South Korea’s democratization movement of the 1980s, which was largely led by college students. This was a time of intense political repression—young activists were disappeared by the police, suicide was carried out as a form of public demonstration, young soldiers who questioned their duties were met with unexplained accidents—and no one was supposed to talk about it, let alone mourn for those who died. In Human Acts, Han Kang writes about the aftermath of the Gwangju Massacre in 1980 this way: “after you died, i could not hold a funeral, and so my life became a funeral / these eyes that once beheld you became a shrine / these ears that once heard your voice became a shrine / these lungs that once inhaled your breath became a shrine.” Even grief can become a dangerous political act. And in this way, we find an overlap with queer sexuality in a time of repression: How dare you want what you can’t have. How dare you even breathe a word of it out loud.

At the same time, perhaps the vagueness and ambiguity in scenes like this one in I’ll Be Right There don’t need to be seen as an erasure or a closeting of identity. As Shin herself suggested, the ellipsis can also be viewed as an opening, a place for the reader to step into the text and stake their own interpretation. Given how explicitly Korean grammar tends to define relationships, this ambiguity might offer a certain measure of freedom. Just as the lack of an I doesn’t have to mean the lack of a subject, the blurring of a relationship doesn’t have to mean the lack of desire. It may point instead to a more fertile ground that lies between the lines, in which multiple desires can co-exist.