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MerwinAsia Emerges on the Translation Scene

  • onNovember 21, 2014
  • Vol.11 Spring 2011
  • byKim Insuk

I’m pleased to report that MerwinAsia published two volumes of Korean literature in translation in 2010. They are The Long Road, a novel by Kim Insuk, translated by Stephen Epstein, and Until Peonies Bloom, the complete poems of Kim Yeongrang, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé. I have been in touch with Professor Epstein over the years, and of course knew of him by reputation, but have never met him. A chance e-mail conversation led to the publication of his translation of The Long Road. I met and got to know Brother Anthony at a conference held by the University of British Columbia in the mid-2000s. He kindly submitted his translation of Kim Yeongrang’s poetry to MerwinAsia, a new and barely known publisher, for which I am extremely grateful. Although I no longer read Korean, I am comfortable making my publication decisions for translations based on the literary merit in English. Without question, these two volumes meet that standard. It is the goal of MerwinAsia to publish at least one volume of translated Korean literature every year.

The two books are: 

          

           

The Long Road: A Novel
Kim Insuk
Translated by Stephen J. Epstein
       
Until Peonies Bloom: The Complete Poems of Kim Yeong-nang
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé (bilingual text)

Kim Insuk is a famous author of the so-called 386 generation (writers who were born in the 1960s, went to university in the 1980s, and were in their 30s in the 1990s when the term was coined), as well as one of the most prominent of the new wave of female writers who were born in the early 60s along with Shin Kyung-sook and Gong Jiyoung. Kim is one of the few writers to deal extensively with the Korean expatriate experience. She has written fiction that draws on her time living in Australia in the 1990s, as well as in China in this decade; she is currently living in Dalian with her daughter.

The Long Road is a moving, elegiac novella that examines the processes that caused idealistic young Koreans to go overseas during the 1990s in the wake of Korea’s darker days of military dictatorship in the 1980s. The story centers on a trio of men: Han-Yeong, who although initially attracted to the freedom that Australia seems to promise, comes to feel increasingly ambivalent about his life there; his brother Han-Rim, a former minor star who fell afoul of the authorities in Korea for a song seen as critical of the government; and Myeong-U, who had been a student activist in Korea and developed psychological difficulties during his time in custody for protesting.

Invited by Han-Rim to take a fishing trip on the boat that he now operates, the three set off for a day on the open sea in ominous weather. As a storm arises, the novel follows the thoughts of Han-Yeong, leading from flashback to ultimate epiphany, as he reflects on his relationship with Australia, his brother, Myeong-U’s troubled history, and his anguished memories of Seo-Yeon, the woman he left behind in Korea. Winner of the 1995 Hanguk Ilbo Literary prize, The Long Road is the sole work of Korean literature in English that treats the Korean diaspora experience in Australia.

Kim Yeongrang (1903–1950) is highly reputed in Korea for the delicate lyricism of his poems. Yet in many ways he has remained little known, even in Korea, limited to a small number of often anthologized poems. He was a resolute opponent of Japanese colonial rule, but since he did not suffer frequent imprisonment, or death, his role as a champion of Korean independence has largely been ignored. Killed in a bombing near the start of the Korean War, he had no time to participate in the development of a new Korean poetry.

Many of his earlier poems clearly express opposition to Japanese rule; after the country’s liberation in 1945, he wrote to express his agony at the looming conflict between leftists and rightists that he saw threatening to tear Korea apart. At the same time, most of his poems are bold experiments in forms of modernism; his use of images and symbols as well as his exploration of native Korean rhythms make him one of the most rewarding and challenging poets of his time. He spent most of his life in his native Gangjin, far removed from the literary world of Seoul, and the beauty of the Jeollanam-do (province) landscapes, as well as its dialect’s vocabulary, underlie his poetry. Kim was a noted performer of traditional Korean music, loved classical Western music, and was one of the rare poets of his time who could read and appreciate English language poetry, Keats and Yeats being among his favorites. All of this makes a translation of his complete poetic works a compelling project, allowing a unique voice to speak out in other times and spaces. 

 

* Doug Merwin is owner of MerwinAsia Publishing.