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Translating Korean Feminisms

  • onMarch 29, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byDeborah Smith

A friend asked me recently: why are you a feminist? Or, given that most of us can answer for the obvious reasons that we're against patriarchy and misogyny: what brought feminism home to you? Of the three things that occurred to me, one was becoming a translator.

Historically, literary translation has been a feminized practice—seen as “women’s work,” associated with values that are coded female, regardless of the gender of the one performing it, and therefore devalued both in terms of cultural capital and actual remuneration.

Proposition: a society that doesn’t value women won’t value translation either.

Right now, many translators and translation scholars around the world are working to change literary translation from a feminized to a feminist profession in three main ways:

· redressing patriarchal canons through what we choose to translate

· exposing the patriarchal norms behind demands that translators be faithful, humble, invisible (the same words which used to describe a virtuous wife . . . )

· dismantling (NOT reversing) gendered hierarchies that subordinate translation to the original

The two authors I have chosen to translate, Han Kang and Bae Suah, are both women, and the press that I run, Tilted Axis, mainly publishes women—part of a joint intervention, a collaborative project with many other translators and publishers I know, in a landscape where twice as many men than women get translated into English.

Of course, not every woman is a feminist, either self-described or in fact. There are many ways to be a woman, many ways to be feminist, many ways to be a translator. This embrace of multiplicity, plurality, the fact that there is never only one “right” or “best” way to do or be something is itself a feminist insight—and a translationist one. There are many ways of translating any given word, or sentence, or poem, or novel. And these alternatives can be meaningfully contrasted without always having to decide that one is “better” than the other. The idea that to praise the translation is to denigrate the source, to make the translator visible is to occlude the author, is a deformation of everything the practice itself invites.

I've heard both Han Kang and Bae Suah described as “not really Korean writers”—women can never represent the nation, when that nation is coded masculine. Women are always minor, aberrant in some way. And especially women who contest both the idea of the nation and the reality of patriarchy. And both Han and Bae have had their work dismissed as too “extreme and bizarre” to be taken entirely seriously.

As Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate Odyssey into English, puts it: gender identity is something every translator should think about consciously if they are not to simply reinforce unconsidered echoings of dominant cultural ideology which in fact we want to change. “Unconsidered” is the key word for me. It's a feminist act to question everything. To recognise that every utterance has a context, every speaker has a perspective and a position. To pay attention to these things and make them seen, whether in translating a text, in the discourse around translation, or in daily life.

“Extreme and bizarre” from whose perspective? Not that of the many Korean women who tell me that they see In-hye, the elder daughter in The Vegetarian who had always done what was expected of her, not so much putting the needs of others first as neglecting even to wonder what her own might be, as a kind of Everywoman. Just as the husband of her younger sister Yeong-hye is a kind of Everyman—a man every woman knows. We also know men like In-hye’s husband, artists who scorn old-fashioned patriarchy and might even self-identify as feminist (especially to women they want to sleep with). Both men rape their wives.

Recently, Jack Halberstam,s book The Queer Art of Failure made me read The Vegetarian as a manifesto for queer failure, which replaces uncomplicated positivity with ambivalence, critique, nonconformity, and asks us to question everything, especially what we are told is “natural,” whether in the sense of logically axiomatic or biologically essentialist. Because I'd always experienced social conventions as a kind of violence, that was what I recognized in Han Kang,s book—the darkly compelling pull of refusal, silence, withdrawal.

When In-hye has her sister committed to a psychiatric institution, saying she,s crazy to believe that she's becoming a plant, that she,ll die if she doesn,t eat, Yeong-hye questions even the ultimate taboo: “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

Of course she says this, my friend said. Look at her life before. She was already dead.

Bae Suah’s recent fiction offers a defiantly alternative way of perceiving and representing the world, privileging simultaneity and defamiliarization over linearity and rationality. Like that of poet Kim Hyesoon, I think of hers as a shaman logic—distinctly female in its aberrancy, and dismissed due to that gendered association. Just as shamanism itself was suppressed on the Korean peninsula by/due to an association with the female—and thanks to the women who have kept it alive, both women and literature have an alternative inheritance of irrationality, darkness, madness, to draw strength from.

Revision: a society that does not value women will not value what is feminist in translation; will value translation only insofar as it conforms to masculine values.

In February, Tilted Axis will publish a chapbook anthologizing seven female Korean poets, as part of our Translating Feminisms series. Korean American poet Emily Jungmin Yoon translated and edited the chapbook for us, and explained her decision to title it Against Healing: “These women are, in my opinion, not interested in the function of poetry to heal. It is to hurt. They write to acknowledge and declare their pain. They are not trying to nurture the pains of the world. They are not asking for pity or remedy, either.”

Getting more women translated into English can introduce a diversity of mature, nuanced feminisms to new readerships and linguistic-cultural ecosystems. And it's when the focus is on broader landscapes rather than exceptional individuals that we can bring about structural change.

Scholar Sara Ahmed notes that feminists are often characterised as “killjoys” because they ask awkward questions about the world. We have to risk being seen as “translation killjoys” and ask awkward questions about translation too. When prizes and media coverage spotlight a handful of translators/translations, what is going unseen? The pitiful pay, routine humiliations, and white privilege and colonialist assumptions that still characterize our profession?

As Claudia da Lima Costa says, “The question is not anymore to make [female writers] visible, but to make visible the (canonical) mechanisms that silenced them in the first place, so that the canon as a perverse system of discrimination and valuation is revealed.”

Paying attention to what has been ignored, denigrated, lied about, and making it seen. Literally re-visioning, as Adrienne Rich has it. And as Muriel Rukeyser wrote in “Kathe Kollwitz”: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.” As Han Kang had Yeong-hye do, through silence, through her body, through questioning and refusal.

How to tell the truth about translation, avoiding monoliths, platitudes, and binary jostling? Rather than immutable truths or all-encompassing theories, my thoughts on translation are simply that: thoughts and feelings that have been produced in my body, in my MAEUM. A personal response, just like any translation.

by Deborah Smith
Co-publisher at Tilted Axis Press
Literary Translator