Where would we be without translators like Susan Sontag? I think translating is one of the most difficult professions with a lot of responsibility that only a true academia and culturaist can get right.
Kyung-sook Shin’s Please look after mom is a landmark in Korean literature in the global society. More specifically, it is a bridge between often overlooked Korean culture and Western culture. It is particularly a good bridge compared to other Korean and Asian-American novels out there because it is simply a good book, capturing what we would all feel in our hearts if our mothers were lost. In her eloquent prose with layering of voices of the concerned family members deliberates the deepest feeling we have toward family, despite our distant modern relation these days.
I have a lot to say about this book for its content and for what it represents. As one of the better translated books in Korean, thanks to very readable translation by Chi-Young Kim, the foreign readers are not alienated as translated books often feel, gathering millions of readers around the globe from Norway to the United States. It has even risen to top 10 books sold on Amazon. But since it is so approachable, I first wondered, were there any deliberate distortions in the translation (e.g. calling kimchi “fermented-traditional-cabbage”) alleviating the cultural gap? Surprising, there was not. I was able to confirm the authenticity from my own mother’s experience with this book, which I found most interesting. As the first generation immigrant, the culture she described was so familiar and close even in the English version. The direct translations of the food that is presented in the book (there are plenty of these as the Mothers’ domain is the kitchen—thus, a lot of Shins memories link her mother to the food she is having) for example, the traditional side dish is not translated to the Western equivalent, but written as ‘panchan’, which is really a hybrid between a side dish and a main dish which a regular Korean meal consists. The audacity perhaps fueled by cultural pride allows this kind of in-your-face translation we might not have seen a decade ago is what I love about this book. It would be very suitable to write about my own mother’s input here. My mother, as a late learner of the English language is a great lover of books. She is quite a bibliophile (I get it from her,) reading everything from English classics (she loves Dickens) to more modern art history fiction (the Judgement of Paris). She often regrets that her fellow Koreans are not reading as much these days. This lack of culture of reading goes beyond this generation, down to the young Koreans—a phenomenon often blamed on the fierce competition for time between reading and for Hagwon. Her feedback of reading this book was that she felt like she was reading in Korean when she really wasn’t. I think this says a lot about language learning. Culture should always be a part of language learning.
In an interview by Shin, she was asked to talk about the different kinds of response she received in different country about her book. She replied that she was quite surprised at the kinds of interpretations that existed out there, in the different cities and countries. Compare that to my mother’s feedback “I don’t think people (meaning you and me) who haven’t lived through the post-Korean war era in Korea would understand the message Shin is delivering.” Well, of course we wouldn’t. This is why this book is quiet necessary in the world. To at least touch the people who haven’t lived through the hunger stricken, security deprived time and place in the world through the universal connection that is feeling, the feeling for our loved ones.
But we would in the postmodernist view by Barthes (see Death of the Author). It reminded me of the time I was studying Theresa Cha’s Dictee. There was a picture on the front of what I think was a tablet with scribbles of Korean, which I could read, but what I had to translate for my classmates, for I was the only person who could read Korean there. I thought that moment in the seminar, all twelve students sitting around the table talking about a work that made absolutely no sense, (even to me) trying to make sense of it. And because it was not logically coherent (read—coherent in the same way), it was even more full of meaning. Suddenly I realized deconstructionism even without reading about it.
Even the students who were unsure where Korea was on the map were able to say something about the book. They weren’t just glib English majors, but they were able to reminisce about something form their past, or something they read because the text evoked the subtle feelings. I never felt more understood and included than during that hour of the seminar where no one was talking about anything in common but completely different things that meant something for them, but from the same source—the text.
Cultural anthropology suggests that race and ethnicity are a man made ways of identification, and not inherent. Eating pizza doesn’t make you more Italian. Most people blame cultural boundaries for their reason for not interacting with people different from them in cultural practices, belief and religion. But if a text such as Dictee could bring people together, doesn’t that just mean that we’re not trying hard enough to find common ground? That we’re trying to be too different from each other? Maybe this artificial group making is for our survival since we’re social animals.