I first became aware of Bae Suah four years ago, in my first year studying for a Korean literature PhD. I was struggling through a book of Korean criticism when I stumbled across a critic castigating her for “doing violence to the Korean language.” For me, this was catnip, especially as I’d recently discovered the work of the late Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, neglected in her lifetime due to her unconventional spelling and grammar, now heralded for that same autodidactic originality.
The following year I received an LTI Korea grant to translate The Essayist’s Desk, Bae’s semi-autobiographical 2005 novel about a Korean writer living in Berlin. Given that I’d been studying the language for just over two years, Bae’s unconventional syntax and faintly surreal scenarios might have seemed a wildly overambitious choice, but there were other affinities at work. Unlike many so-called avant-garde writers, her books are deeply rooted in socio-economic reality, frequently featuring protagonists whose straitened circumstances restrict their passionate desire for travel, culture, even love. At the time, I was spectacularly broke, so this was something I could appreciate. As I got to know Bae better, I understood her discomfort with being labelled “experimental” – like Lispector, she is an autodidact, and the unconventionality of her writing stems more from her decidedly non-literary background (an undergraduate degree in chemistry followed by a job behind a counter at Gimpo airport) than from a conscious desire to subvert or reject any canon. Everyone who reads Essayist comments first on its extraordinary emotional power, only afterwards praising the ambition and intelligence of the writing.
Secondly, my poor Korean put me in exactly the same position as Essayist’s protagonist, wandering in the nebulous world of a language only partly understood. The aesthetic qualities of vagueness run like a rich seam through Bae’s writing, and in this book, applied specifically to language, words are objects, their contours blurred. It was hypnotic, and I was rapt. Each morning I got up slightly earlier than before, impatient to return to translating, to fall back into Bae Suah’s world.
Most writers would be horrified by a language novice translating them, and Bae might well have had serious misgivings. Instead she was simply happy to have found a new reader who appreciated her work, and at the prospect of translation connecting her with more. Later, when I told her that I wanted to apply for a grant to translate another, more recent, novel, The Low Hills of Seoul, she was pleasantly surprised not only that I wanted to translate such a “difficult” book—one without the strong central “I” of The Essayist’s Desk as coherent character and emotional core—but also that I thought anyone else might want to read it. When you’re convinced of someone’s towering genius, it’s a shock to discover that they absolutely don’t see themselves this way.
In 2014, Bae Suah came to Britain on a writer’s residency, and I finally got the chance to meet my hero. I was expecting Lispector, who famously responded to a visit from a breathless fan by staring at the young woman in stony silence until she eventually fled. This prediction was well and truly quashed by the friendly, quirky woman I met for the first time in a quiet cobbled street in Norwich – and who later that day could be seen walking a mechanical dog on Southwold pier and finding the whole thing hilarious.
Deborah Smith’s translations of The Essayist’s Desk and The Low Hills of Seoul will be published in 2016 by Open Letter and Deep Vellum respectively.
by Deborah Smith
Translator and Publisher of Tilted Axis, UK