Korean Women in Translation

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August is Women in Translation month (#WiTmonth) and we love it. Most of the really big successes in works translated into English from Korean have been with women writers. From Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom (Man Asian Literary Prize, 2011) to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Man Booker International Prize, 2016) and Pyun Hye-young’s The Hole (Shirley Jackson Award, 2017), writing by women is getting all the love.

How about a couple of the novels, short stories, or works of poetry listed below to help make your WiTmonth complete (compiled by Sophie Bowman).


Bae Suah

A boundary-defying, intensely philosophical writer, Bae Suah has something of a cult status, especially among some of the most talented literary translators working today. Her work can feel very dense and difficult, but the flow of her writing sweeps up everything in its path and leaves nothing unchanged.

Recitation, translated by Deborah Smith (Deep Vellum, 2017)

[Kyung-hee talks about “the reiteration of existence”] … when the being that is a given person crosses countless mountains and rivers and arrives as a temporal and geographic limit of whatever degree, then at that point those countless mountains are already a single world mountain, and the waters of countless rivers are all flowing as a single world river, and I am therefore inside that mountain and that river; inside the temporal totality of this universe, where millions of stars are simultaneously self-annihilating in a great flash of light, this universe which is dying with a mad frenzy… (p. 43)

A Greater Music, translated by Deborah Smith (Open Letter, 2016). Probably the best introduction to Bae Suah, an incredible exploration of love, language and music. 

Nowhere to be Found, translated by Sora Kim-Russell (AmazonCrossing, 2015)

[An intro to the novella from our very own Anton Hur“The protagonist of Nowhere to Be Found is a young woman living in urban Korea, who eventually finds a way, more or less, of being a young woman living in urban Korea. She is marginalized during the 1980s democracy movement and the concurrent economic boom, both events highly mythologized in Korea’s social and literary discourse. This is the personal side of that myth: a story of how one woman navigates her situation and feelings in order to survive this marginalization, abandonment, and loneliness, and how she emerges on the other side as a cold but resilient member of that urban society. I read it as the story of so many of the people you see on the subway in Seoul, the people who politely avoid looking at each other, refrain from wearing loud colors, and go about their business of living, thinking their private thoughts.”

North Station, translated by Deborah Smith (Open Letter, 2017). Bae Suah’s first collection of short stories to be translated into English.


Choi Jin Young

An excerpt from To The Warm Horizon being translated by So J. Lee (with a translation grant from LTI Korea—publishers take note!):

—We have to stay together. That’s the only way we can be safe.
I don’t know if I said that before I fell asleep or while dreaming. I’m not even sure if it’s something I said or something Dori said. When I opened my eyes in the morning, nothing else but those two sentences had stayed with me so vividly. Like a tattoo across my heart, of a maxim that only I could recognize.


Choi Jung-wha

A writer who perceptively examines and dissects anxiety luring within individual interiority, Choi Jung-wha has become one of the most read women writers in Korea. She focuses on motifs of ‘anxiety’ and ‘mistrust in human relations’ in her stories, fraught with ominous presentiment of unfolding events in the most ordinary people’s lives.

Shoes’ translated by our very own Stella Kim:

To this day I regret not turning her away right then and there. How could I have been so stupid, telling her to “Please come in”? And in such a friendly way at that! But then again, it was impossible not to.


Choi Yun

Mannequin, translated by Jung Yewon (Dalkey Archive, 2016), seems to have slipped under the radar, published in the Dalkey Archive ‘Library of Korean Literature,’ but it deserves attention. A young woman, so beautiful she leaves people speechless, is adored and consumed by the strange characters who surround her.


Han Kang

The Fruit of My Woman’ translated by Deborah Smith, was the seed for Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. You will never look at an apartment balcony in the same way again.

Mother, I keep having the same dream. I dream that I’m growing tall as a poplar. I pierce through the roof of the balcony and through that of the floor above, the fifteenth floor, the sixteenth floor, shooting up through concrete and reinforcing rods until I break through the roof at the very top. Flowers like white larvae wriggle into blossom at my tallest extremities.

There are also a couple of poems from Han Kang’s poetry collection I Stowed Evening the Drawer available online, translated by Sophie Bowman. Han Kang made her literary debut as a poet, and her sole poetry collection, written over two decades, remains one of her most precious works.

They said we would fly for an entire day.

Tightly fold twenty-four hours pop it in your mouth and

go into the mirror they said.

—’Winter Through a Mirror’

Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello, 2016)

If you haven’t worked up the courage to read Han Kang’s masterwork yet, this review by Min Jin Lee, another amazing woman writer, should help convince you.


Han Yujoo

The Impossible Fairytale, translated by Janet Hong (Gray Wolf Press, 2017). What does one do when confronted with extraordinary violence, and—more specifically—how does one write about it? A PEN/Heim Translation Fund winner and 2018 PEN Translation Prize nominee. 


Hwang Jung-eun

One Hundred Shadows, translated by Jung Yewon (Tilted Axis Press, 2016). An uncanny allegory of the “shadows” of capitalism as a group of co-workers try to battle against being turned into literal darkness.


Jeon Sam-hye

Jeon Sam-hye has a keen eye for what has never been written before and the often difficult process of growing into the people we are meant to be.

A Spell to Invoke the White Dolphin,’ a warming and quirky love story, is available in full online, translated by Anton Hur

Once a writer in England made it known to the world that such powers as the twins had was actually something called “magic,” the two siblings felt they could breathe a little easier.

Genesis,’ a queer SF short with big heart, translated by Anton Hur:

The sun won’t last forever, but at least I’ll have disappeared before it goes out. It’s sad to disappear. I guess it’s like being an old radio that breaks down one day and goes forever silent. So I won’t count the things that will break down. Actually, I’ve been counting every day. Just to know how long I can continue to survive. But you don’t need to know all that.


Jin Eun Young

Steeped in philosophy and a profound perspective on the utter strangeness of the everyday, Jin Eun Young’s poetry is as powerful as it is exquisite.

We, Day by Day, translated by YoungSil Ji and Daniel Parker (White Pine Press, 2018), is Jin Eun Young’s first collection to be published in English

Those who can read French get to enjoy this ‘greatest hits’ anthology: http://www.editions-brunodoucey.com/des-flocons-de-neige-rouge/

Available online is a compilation of ten poems translated by Sophie Bowman, which received the Korea Times Literature Translation Award:

Today

if you are beautiful

it’s like the empty chimney of seaweed stench rising up

from the green fog draped above a landfill site.

—from Beautiful

 

And ‘Long Finger Poem’ translated by Peter Campion, from  Poetry Magazine:

Rain falls. But I’m working with these farthest stretching

things from me. Along my fingertips bare shoots   

of days then years unfurl in the cold air.


Kim Aeran

Kim Aeran is a big name in Korean fiction and hopefully she will soon be a big name in Korean fiction translated into English. One of her early short stories, ‘I Go to the Convenience Store’ is available in full online, translated by Sophie Bowman for Koreana magazine.

Seoul, 2003, when appointments and chance encounters and disasters disappeared like someone else’s moving boxes. To us, staring vacantly at our empty hands, came the convenience store, like a legend the origin of which was lost in the mists of time.


Kim Boyoung

A giant of Korean speculative fiction, Kim Boyoung’s first translated short story, ‘An Evolutionary Myth,’ translated by Gord Sellar and Jihyun Park, can be found online in Clarkesworld Magazine.

I learned several facts. One cannot gain wings by jumping down from a cliff only once, and one can’t die easily when one’s body is covered with unexpectedly hard reptilian skin.

Keep an eye out for forthcoming translation of Kim Boyoung’s work from Kaya Press.


Kim Hyesoon

Along with her translator, the poet Don Mee Choi, Kim Hyesoon has transformed Korean poetry and poetry in English translation.

Collections available to date include I’m OK, I’m Pig! (Bloodaxe Books, 2014), Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (Action Books, 2011), Poor Love Machine (Action Books, 1997), and All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (Action Books, 2011).

There are three poems from Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream available in Asymptote Journal:

No one’s asking to buy

but I lay out a mat to sell things

A few flabby keys for silence

that look like birds’ tongues

A few bell sounds that get mashed when clutched

A few pages of landscape paintings that quietly melt when your eyes open

Gold, liver, pages of faces, hordes of vagueness

that can be buried in the coffin made from songs

—’My Free Market’

The latest collection, Autobiography of Death, will be out with New Directions in November 2018.


Kim Seong Joong

Known for her magical realist fiction, Kim Seong Joong contemplates on life and social issues, as she takes readers on a delightful journey through colorful worlds, alternating between fantasy and reality. Excerpts from her two short story collections have been translated by Stella Kim (both with translation grants from LTI Korea)

An excerpt from her short fiction ‘The Comedian,’ published in Asia Literary Review is available online:

The man I love is on TV. He is a comedian. Like a professional pool player who carefully plans his shot, he waits for the right moment between sentences and makes people freeze in place.


Kim Yi-deum

No list of Korean women in translation would be complete without Kim Yi-deum, because her poetry, with all its raging power, screams woman.

Three of her poems are available online from Asymptote Journal, translated by Jiyoon Lee.

A waterbed, the billowing sea. A black whale, panting, swallows a mannequin, no, in the black stomach the mannequin is mincing the whale’s heart with her plastic teeth.

—A Sealed Woman

Also check out her poetry collection Cheer Up, Femme Fatale (Action Books, 2016), translated by Jiyoon Lee, Don Mee Choi and Johannes Göransson.


Oh Jung-hee

The Bird, translated by Jenny Wang Medina (Telegram Books, 2007)

Oh Jung-hee’s only full-length novel, and it is as intense and gorgeous and deeply disturbing as her artfully mastered short stories. This excellent translation deserves much more attention and a long overdue reprint.


Park Wan-suh

Who Ate Up All the Shinga, translated by Yu Young-nan and Stephen Epstein (Columbia University Press, 2009), should be compulsory reading for anyone boarding their first flight to Korea or signing up for an introductory course on anything to do with the Korean Peninsula. Beginning in the Japanese colonial era, we follow the female protagonist to Seoul and through the turbulent years of the Korean war.


Pyun Hye Young

The Hole, translated by Sora Kim-Russell (Arcade, 2017), just won the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award which celebrates “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic”:

Oghi slowly opened his eyes. The light was blinding. Something flashed at the center of a grayish haze. He closed his eyes, opened them again. The difficulty of this reassured him. This meant he was alive.

A precursor to The Hole, Pyun’s short story ‘Caring for Plants’ is available online from The New Yorker. Your summer chills are just a click away.


Shin Kyung-Sook

Hottest off the press, The Court Dancer, translated by Anton Hur (Pegasus Books, 2018) will take you to the final years of the Korean Empire and into the life of the beautiful Yi Jin, a dancer in the royal court.