Conveying Cultural Nuance in the Chinese Translation of Gwanchon Essays

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Vol.23 Spring 2014
  • byLee Mun Ku

Lee Mun Ku’s Gwanchon Essays, a serialized novel published between 1972 and 1977, is the story of a hometown that lives on in the memory of the protagonist. The hometown exists only in the main character’s memory; in reality, it has completely changed. Through the author’s memories, the reader can understand the scars of the Korean War, the abuses of industrialization, the collapse of traditional society, how relationships change over time, and the loss of hometown.

The Chinese version of this novel was published in November 2012 by the People’s Literature Publishing House in China and began to attract Chinese readers’ attention. When I was translating this novel, I spent a lot of time deciding how to translate its content and form. As a result, I focused on two key points. The first key point was the “individual’s experience.” The serial novels written by other authors such as Choi In-hun, Suh Ki-Won, and Yun Heunggil are similar in that most of them reflect on the essence of life, profound human suffering, and other social mechanisms.

While reading Gwanchon Essays, I could sympathize deeply with the concerns of Korean intellectuals and wondered how Chinese readers would understand and respond to such concerns and specifically Korean sentiments. The narrator of this story returns to his hometown Gwanchon after being away for 20 years. Feeling the profound loss of home, he portrays the fall of rural society and the collapse of traditional society, that is, the feeling of community that Koreans used to share. Painful memories of the war and personal thoughts on the subsequent social changes are the central themes of the novel.

Chinese readers have responded to the book by asking themselves, “Are we not also experiencing a similar sadness now?”

Since the Chinese economic reforms that began in earnest in the early 1980s, industrialization has steadily intensified and brought about dramatic changes to Chinese society. In particular, the New Rural Reconstruction Movement, which has been a topic of discussion since the late 1990s, has changed China’s rural society, similar to the way the New Community Movement changed rural communities in Korea. Though such changes are now part of the past for Koreans, they are just beginning for the Chinese. A newspaper article reported that Chinese people made about three billion trips during the 40 days before and after Lunar New Year’s Day, which shows just how much affection they still have for their hometowns. Literature about finding one’s roots and nativist literature, which were popular in the 1980s, also represent the tenacious Chinese attachment to tradition.

How will Chinese people understand and respond to the themes of the collapse of traditional rural society, the loss of a spiritual home, lamentations on changes in human relationships, and the sadness regarding such social changes? I am reminded of a review of Lee’s book that stated, “No matter what kind of terrifying skills and techniques we employ to live a wonderful life, I have a sense that the substance of our life doesn’t differ much at the end of the day.” Though industrialization cannot be and does not need to be stopped, critical reflections about the effects of industrialization by intellectuals may very well be the voice of reason that those facing the realities of industrialization are waiting for. It seems that this book is popular with Chinese readers because by using Korean literature and history as a mirror, they can imagine their own future and empathize with the happiness and sadness felt by Koreans during such social changes.



"It seems that this book is popular with Chinese readers because ...
they can imagine their own future and empathize with the
happiness and sadness felt by Koreans during such social changes."


李文求, 人民文学出版社
(People’s Literature Publishing House)
2012, 281pp., ISBN 9787020094882

The second key point was the “taste of Korea.” Since the book is essay-like in form, Lee Mun Ku employs a somewhat loose and simple inner monologue style of writing, a dialect distinct to the South Chungcheong Province, and Korean sensibilities in his characters. Above all, the author’s beautiful use of the Korean language, using words that transcend the realm of language and thought, leaves a lasting impression.

How, then, could I maintain this taste of Korea, one that is full of local color? How could I translate it so that Chinese readers would be able to enjoy and understand it properly? When I first read the book, my concerns as a translator were enormous. Written Chinese characters and some references to texts, including Confucian texts, would undoubtedly be familiar to Chinese people. The Thousand Character Classic taught by Grandfather in the first story, “Sunset on West Mountain,” and the titles of the other stories show the author’s profound knowledge in Classical Chinese. While Chinese readers would easily be able to understand these parts without much difficulty, vocabulary that is unfamiliar even to Koreans, or dialect and puns that readers accustomed to city life would find hard to understand, created a communication obstacle. As I felt a great responsibility as the translator to overcome such obstacles and facilitate readers’ understanding, I attempted to find the words and expressions that produced similar effects to Chinese readers. This was the hardest and the most challenging part of th translation.

I think in translation, the best method is to attempt to convey a similar effect, rather than a similar word or a direct translation, to offer some room for the readers of a translated version to imagine, and to break down the barrier of language. This was my desire for the translation of this novel.


Jin Hezhe is a professor in the Department of Korean Language at the Harbin Institute of Technology. He has published Your ParadisePale Shadows of Old LoveAnthology of Modern Korean Fiction, and Ichido, the Fugitive.