[Dyad] Line by Line, Again and Again — by Ha Seong-nan

  • onDecember 22, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • byHa Seong-nan

Photographs Copyright ⓒ choemore


Writing is often said to be solitary and lonely; the same can be said of translation. The actual translator-author relationship may be fraught, challenging, distant, or even non-existent. But in this case, translator Janet Hong and writer Ha Seong-nan formed a bond that bloomed into one of friendship, one that grew in affection and closeness over the years. The following exchange reveals the precious, serendipitous experience of words not only reaching across geography and culture, but also intertwining lives together. —Ed.



Janet says the first time we spoke on the phone was in March 2007. She says she was shocked to hear me shout in the middle of our conversation

 and that I apologized to her immediately, explaining that I was watching a soccer game. Me? Shout? Had someone just scored a goal?

 I remember that first call with Janet. Over the characteristic echo of an international call, I heard the voice of a young woman say demurely, “I’m sorry, my Korean isn’t very good.” But her Korean was good. I was nervous, as she must’ve been, at the sudden phone call from a stranger. I strained my ears and tried not to miss a word. But to think I cried out during that call. Except for Janet’s voice, I’ve completely forgotten the soccer game, let alone the fact that I’d shouted.

 Janet recently reminded me of the phone call. I’ve revisited my memories since then, and each time, strangely enough, I go back to when I lived on the twenty-fourth floor of an apartment, the very top floor. It’s probably because of the word “soccer.” After all, no Korean can forget the Korea–Japan World Cup of 2002 where young and old alike swarmed to the games in matching Red Devil T-shirts and cheered for Korea in synchronized clapping; that 3-3-7 beat used to ring in my head all day long. Despite knowing my memory is wrong, despite knowing it would actually be another five years before she calls, when Janet calls I’m in the living room of the twenty-fourth-floor apartment where I lived in the year of the Korea–Japan World Cup.

 No matter how many times I search online, I can’t find the soccer game I was watching in March 2007. Most of all, I mull over why I, a person who’s not given much to excitable shouting, had cried out that day. What sort of game would cause me to be so rude on the phone with a stranger from Vancouver, Canada? If it was an important game, I should be able to find it quickly enough. More importantly, it was only a month after I’d given birth to my second child. The whole family moved around carefully lest we wake the baby. The baby would’ve started wailing at any loud noise.

 Janet and I also started emailing each other in March 2007. The kitchen smells of miyeok-guk that has reduced down from being heated again and again, and only the newborn baby and I are in the living room. I’m hanging freshly washed clothes on the drying rack and the baby is sleeping. Suddenly, it grows dark outside the window, and rain and hail start to pour down. The weather forecast didn’t mention rain. I wait for the rain to stop, but it doesn’t look like it will anytime soon. If this keeps up, my eldest who went to school without an umbrella will get soaked. The thought of bringing her an umbrella is foremost in my mind, but I can’t simply leave. What if the sleeping baby wakes and starts crying? In the end, I change and find an umbrella. It’s my first time going out since the delivery, except to get OB/GYN checkups and vaccinations for the baby. The street is slippery and the temperature has dropped. I totter along.

 I’m practically running. Children in school uniforms are starting to pour out of the school gate. Since I can hardly see in the rain, it’s difficult to spot my child in the crowd of identical uniforms. I even go to her classroom, but she’s not there. Did she go a different way? Or maybe I walked past her without recognizing her? I make my way home somehow. Fortunately, the baby is still asleep. A little later, my eldest walks in, shaking off the rain. While I was scrambling to find her, she’d been on her way home, getting soaked to the skin.



 I wrote about that day in an email to Janet that I wrote in response to a couple of emails she sent me following her initial phone call. I hadn’t even seen her face yet, and all I knew about her was what she’d told me in her email. I didn’t write that I felt like crying on my way home, but I did mention how I’d hurried back so quickly that my legs were sore for two days. I also wrote that I’d wanted to see my daughter smile when I showed up at her school with an umbrella.

 Why did I tell Janet about that day, when I hadn’t shared it with anybody else?

 A few days after our first phone call in March 2007, Janet sent me a long email. It started off with the sentence: “Please excuse me—I’m not very good at writing in Korean.” Surprisingly, the entire email was in Korean. Except for a few words that were spelled as they sounded, her writing was perfect, contrary to her concern in the last sentence: “Please let me know if you couldn’t understand any parts of this email because of my Korean. I’ll write in English next time.”

  Korean name: Hong Jeemyung. Moved from Korea to Seattle, USA, at age two, then to Vancouver, Canada. Took a Korean language class at university to improve her Korean and had to translate a Korean short story as the final assignment. She found the story the professor had assigned to her tedious, so she decided instead to translate a story her mother recommended: “The Woman Next Door” . . . She’d already translated five of my short stories and was planning to submit them to journals, hoping to catch the eyes of publishers in Canada.

 I liked this part the most: “I’ve dreamed of becoming a writer since I was a child.” That had been my dream, too. “I work through the translation line by line, going over it again and again. Maybe that’s why even when I write in English, my sentences sometimes sound like yours. Isn’t that funny?”

 I don’t know what caused me to share my troubles with her. Isn’t that funny? Sometimes I say this line to myself in her voice—the voice I know now. Isn’t that funny?

 I never shared with anyone the hardships of writing while parenting. I didn’t want to. Even if I did, I knew nothing would change, and stubbornly, I didn’t want to admit my struggles. But I’d ended up confessing these struggles to Janet who was then in her late twenties.

 My email ended with an apology for not replying sooner. It was an excuse, if anything. I had a baby recently so I’ve been slow with everything. I’m sorry.

 “I didn’t know you just had a baby,” Janet wrote in her reply. And so began our emails, which have continued to this day.

 In that time, Janet got married and became a mother to two children. She said she translated in her spare time after dropping off and picking up her kids from school. Not once did she grumble or complain. Then one day she told me about the novel she was writing. It was the story of the haenyeo. She was planning to stay a few days on a small island close to Jeju island for research.

 Janet is still writing her story. I know all about writing in the bits and pieces of time left over from your day, the hours after your children fall asleep. The situation in Canada in 2020 isn’t much different from here. But Janet doesn’t complain. Line by line, she writes her story. Most of our emails are about this very thing. After all, that’s all we can do—put down one line at a time. Eagerly, I await her book.

 I’ve forgotten many things. My memory is like a small cup, so when fresh water is poured into it, the water inside escapes. I don’t remember even half of what Janet remembers of that day. In the living room of the twenty-fourth-floor apartment where I lived in 2002, I still hear the voice of a young Janet from 2007 saying, “I’m sorry, my Korean isn’t very good.” With all my heart I want to cheer on that young woman. Neither of us knows that The Woman Next Door will be published many years later, in 2019. Over the phone, she asks me many questions. If I did cheer, it must have been because of that. The past mixes with the present, and the wait that had felt so long feels too short now. But in my jumbled memory, her words “Isn’t that funny?” ring out as clearly as if I’d just heard Janet utter them, and the line she wrote in her email a long time ago—“If you don’t mind, I’d like to keep translating you for as long as I can”—still feels new. We both write without complaining. We write line by line, going over it again and again. In fact, the most recent email we exchanged was about this very thing.


Translated by Agnel Joseph

Ha Seong-nan has published five short story collections, four novels, and two essay collections. Her short story collection The Woman Next Door was published in English as Flowers of Mold (Open Letter, 2019) and was a finalist for the 2020 Firecracker Award in Fiction and longlisted for the 2020 PEN Translation Prize. Bluebeard’s First Wife (Open Letter, 2020) was her second book to be published in English translation and was one of Publishers Weekly’s Top Ten Books of 2020. She has won the Dongin Literary Award, the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, the Isu Literary Award, the Hyundae Literary Award, and the Hwang Sun-won Literary Award.