Biting Observation Meets Sharp Satire: The Amusing Life by Song Sokze
- onJanuary 4, 2017
- Vol.34 Winter 2016
- byJ.C. Sutcliffe
- The Amusing Life
Tr. Kim Se-un 2016170pp.
One of the hardest tasks for a translator is conveying information that goes without saying to a reader of the source text, but without which the reader of the translated version would be left baffled. What to do when the readership of a translation might not share the assumed social, political, and cultural knowledge that makes satire funny? This is one of the daunting challenges facing Kim Se-un, the translator of Song Sokze’s collection of short-short stories, The Amusing Life.
The Amusing Life is made up of more than forty short-short stories. Each story takes a moment from life and examines it under a comic lens. Song exaggerates the ridiculous and pokes fun at characteristics a reader will easily recognize, either because the situation transcends national and regional boundaries or because the way a character reacts to the pains and frustrations of navigating a complex social structure will be familiar to a non-Korean reader even if the context itself is not.
Some of these situations are global in familiarity, such as the micro story “Surveillance.” The walls of a public toilet are covered with “everything from simple philosophical musings to jokes, but the majority consisted of descriptions of sexual experiences, curses condemning the immorality of the scribbling, objections to those curses, and criticism regarding those objections.” Biggest of all, naturally, is the manager’s sign forbidding graffiti.
Others are more distinctly Korean, of which “I Don’t Do This Crap for Money” is a perfect example, beginning as it does: “In Korea it isn’t difficult to see a certain kind of person that’s rare in other parts of the world.” As the narrator approaches a tollbooth on the road, it takes him a few seconds longer to hand over his cash than is deemed acceptable by the toll collector, who criticizes him for his slowness, leaving him humiliated. Over the course of the day he encounters several more members of the “I Don’t Do This Crap for Money” clan. Irony bites hard when, on his return journey, determined not to be slow at the tollbooth, the narrator concentrates so intently on burrowing in his pockets for the correct change that he rear-ends the car in front of him.
Another Korea-specific story is “How Old Are You?” This features a narrator embittered with life after spending years studying for (and failing) exams that would allow him to apply for senior government positions, which has ended up putting him behind other people his age. This is an interesting story because it reveals to a non-Korean reader the importance of the social structures of respecting one’s elders and using appropriate honorifics—as well as how this man perceives such customs as simultaneously essential and foreboding to his rightful position.
One of the funniest stories is “The Hangover Remedy,” in which a character called Ryu sets off for work thirty minutes early. Feeling pleased with himself, he lets the first bus go past while he finishes his cigarette in a leisurely manner. But the next one is full, as are the next few. Ryu starts to get pickier—why should he be crushed in with the workers who still smell of last night’s alcohol when he so virtuously got up early? Eventually he ends up taking a taxi, but since he has no change he needs to stop at the pharmacy to buy something to break a large note. Out of habit, Ryu downs the medicine, only realizing later, as he’s starting to get into gear at work, that the medicine was his preferred hangover remedy.
Humor is the most demanding of translations—it has high expectations of not only the translator but also the target language and the reader. Occasionally the translation—through no fault of Kim Se-un—fails to live up to the promise of the original; given the interest inherent in and provoked by Song’s writing, this occasional gap in understanding becomes an invitation for the reader to learn more about Korean society and customs through further experience of literature.
Recurring characters include Kyu and a writer named Song Okze, as well as a cast of slightly preposterous but entirely plausible Everymen. Song’s writing is occasionally reminiscent of Milan Kundera’s work, with its focus on the absurd, and often unintentional uniformity, of our supposedly individualistic lives. More overtly comic than Kundera, though, with a stronger emphasis on punch lines and sometimes explicit fable-like morals, Song Sokze’s work is an intriguing introduction to Korean satire.
by J.C. Sutcliffe
Translator, writer, and book reviewer