[Draft II] The Law of Translated Lines — by Sora Kim-Russell
- onDecember 22, 2020
- Vol.50 Winter 2020
- bySora Kim-Russell
What goes into writing a book and translating it? A writer and translator reveal their behind-the-scenes experiences from both sides of their computer screens.—Ed.
The Law of Lines
How to Translate Pyun Hye-young
First, you have to hear voices. Within the opening pages of the book, the story should start to narrate itself to you, the characters should start walking around inside your head. You have no idea what’s going to happen, but something has begun, with you in it.
Next, panic. Because she almost always slips in some maddeningly difficult wordplay that almost entirely doesn’t work in English no matter how feverishly you tilt and shake the page.
Then, reassure yourself that, no matter how challenging her wordplay gets, you usually manage to find a solution, even if it basically amounts to saying, Dear Reader, here comes some wordplay.
Ideally, you should be moving from the big picture (plot, character, voice) down to the smaller items (word choices, tricky sentences), but with Pyun you find yourself swimming in words for a while. Remind yourself that you will find a solution for them now only to have to change all of it again in the future (read: five minutes before the book is about to go to press) when you will have a sudden epiphany. Fun!
That problem shelved, you move on to panicking about her use of narrative distance. Pyun is notoriously tricky to translate because her narrators maintain a distance from the characters that is third-person omniscient—if said omniscient being low-key hated everyone and everything with a kind of cool, sociopathic reserve. She writes about contagion, rot, corruption. Things that lose their form and ooze. But her prose is controlled and reserved, as if the narrator is watching everything fall apart from above, from some sort of sterile observation deck. This gives her prose a flat affect, and it is very, very tempting to stuff it full of more words and to string her knife-chopped sentences together to make it all warm and smooth. But that’s not her, nor is it you. Do you translate stories, or do you translate stories by very particular authors?
When you get lost here, go back to the voices in your head. Let them guide you.
Women in Translation
The Law of Lines was an interesting change from City of Ash and Red and The Hole, which focused on the plights of two rather toxic men. It was tempting to sympathize with those men simply because they were the protagonists, but they were so shady!
In Lines, the main characters are all women. Almost all. Can’t forget Su-ho. This book felt warmer to me, and I wondered if that was why. Or maybe it was because all of the main characters were victims and thus more sympathetic? In The Hole, Oghi was a victim who turned out to be something of a villain. In Lines, Se-oh wants to be a vigilante but may have misidentified her villain. If I were to assign an essay based on this book, the topic question would be: Who are the true villains in this novel?
Wrestling with Titles
One of the biggest challenges of translating Pyun Hye-young is the pressure of coming up with a title before I’ve finished translating the book. If I had it my way, the title would always be the very last thing I come up with. Realistically though, you need at least a good working title to get the publicity machine rolling.
Pyun’s titles very often contain hidden meanings. With Seon-ui beopchik, I immediately read it as the law of lines, like the law of gravity, or the law of entropy. It had a clean, mathematical sound to it. What do lines do? But then I thought better of it and asked the author.
I’d fallen into this trap before with “Tokki-ui myo,” which looks like you’ll be reading about a leporine burial site, only to learn she meant ÙÖ, i.e., “myo as in rabbit.” Which isn’t to say that it can’t also mean a grave or a tomb. But that meaning is meant to be buried (har har). In my own translation of the title, I went with “O. Cuniculus,” the Latin name for one common species of rabbit. I lucked out, as “cuniculus” comes from a Latin word meaning “a small conduit or burrow, as an underground drain or rabbit hole; or a low tunnel, as to a burial chamber” (emphasis mine). When this kind of serendipity occurs, one must run many, many victory laps around one’s neighborhood.
The Hole also contained a double meaning. Literal, physical holes appear throughout the book, but hol- is also a Korean prefix meaning alone or widowed, like Oghi and his mother-in-law. Likewise, in City of Ash and Red, the mystery character’s name Mol means “to not exist.” The name of the character that the protagonist is so desperate to find is a cipher, a clue to the reader that he can never be found. I considered translating the name using a Latin equivalent, like Nil, but the editor voted for keeping the Korean. Pyun, too, wanted the character’s name to sonically echo the word “mall,” as in shopping mall.
When I asked Pyun about the seon in Seon-ui beopchik, she explained that it had multiple meanings: lines, good/opposite of evil, interconnectedness. The editor, agent and I racked our brains for something that might convey all three dimensions of significance. “The Golden Rule” was a promising suggestion made by the editor, but the sales team said no. I suggested anything starting with “The Geometry of —” but the sales team said it sounded too much like nonfiction. Variations on Good or Goodness were deemed too abstract. Ultimately, the sales team turned down so many of our suggestions that we just kept returning to “The Law of Lines.” And in the end, it did seem the most fitting.
Lines abound throughout the novel. Points, lines, planes. Triangles, pyramids. Gas lines. Hierarchies. Crossed paths. And other dangerous lines, like those that shouldn’t be crossed. The law of lines was abstract, but it also felt like the title of a hypothesis whose proof was laid out in the novel.
“She’s not a very Korean writer, is she? Who lives in a townhouse? That’s not a Korean-style house.”
“On page 86, you used the idiom, ‘to play possum,’ but possums aren’t native to Korea. What did the original say?”
These are interesting questions I’ve fielded from readers in the past year. What makes a novel Korean? Are some Korean writers more Korean than others? Should translations of Korean books only contain that which can be found in Korea? Is “piece of cake” acceptable, thanks to Paris Baguette, while “playing possum” is verboten?
Pyun is Korean and writes in Korean, but does that necessarily mean her work must represent Korea? Arguably, the most “Korean” thing about her work is the wordplay, because it is so inseparable from the language. (Though with hole/hol, she used a bilingual pun, so even there it can’t be called specifically Korean.) Foreign elements appear in her work because those things are familiar to her domestic readers—even townhouses, which do exist here but perhaps only for a certain class or lifestyle. Meanwhile, her foreign readers sometimes remark that her books could have been set in their country instead.
When I shared the question about Pyun’s “Koreanness” with Jenny Wang Medina, a friend and scholar of Korean literature, she asked, “Why is it Pyun’s responsibility to ‘represent Korea’ at all?” It’s a good point. Her job is to be a writer, not a national brand ambassador. If her work is not bound by cultural purity, should translations of her work be?
At the same time, maybe it is weird for a Korean character to talk about possums. When I looked up the line from the original again, I remembered why I had translated it that way. The original sentence read like a Korean explanation of the American idiom. I thought it might be too tedious for readers if I spelled it all out in English. Also, I thought “playing possum” suited the scene better. But I know this question will stay with me for a while, and the next time around maybe I won’t include a non-indigenous animal. (Unless you count that possum who lives in a café in Seoul . . .)
And Speaking of “Purity”
As far as I can tell from my critics, I am always either too literal or too liberal, usually within the same book. Why did I translate this word this way and not that way? Why didn’t I make this writer sound more like that other writer? Why didn’t I include the characters’ titles, and why did I spell the author’s name like that? (Hint: I didn’t. The author did. It’s their name.)
If it’s not already obvious, I gave up on trying to please everyone a long time ago. In fact, I’m not sure I ever tried. My fidelity is to the text-in-translation and what it’s telling me to do. In that respect, it’s not so different from writing. I don’t know of many writers who write in order to please readers. Editors, maybe. But even then, not without a fight. I think we’re all just trying to satisfy the voice of the book, of the characters, of the prose that demands to be brought to life in some such a way, and you simply do the best you can to not ruin it.
Is it true that Pyun Hye-young’s stories could take place anywhere? Yes and no. There is still a “Korean-ness”—if by that we mean the specific textures of daily life taking place at a particular location and moment in history—that must be contended with. In The Law of Lines, I fretted over small details, like how Ki-jeong wears slippers at work, or how to explain the different types of banks where one might apply for loans, or what that exposed gas line next to the kitchen stove looks like. Not to mention the pyramid scheme itself. There’s nothing inherently Korean about multilevel marketing schemes. They’re found everywhere; only the particulars vary. The one in the book happened to be based on an actual and very predatory multilevel marketing scheme from about ten years back in which college students were lured in by desperate friends or misleading job ads, coerced into taking out loans to fund their entry into the scheme, and physically trapped inside “dorms” with dozens of other victims where they were all but starved and prevented from escaping.
Is this, then, a problem of tradition? Or is it a permutation of capitalism? Some readers might interpret The Law of Lines as a takedown of Confucianism, but if anything, it’s a portrayal of how traditional relationships that were once informed by Confucianism are being overturned by the pressure to make money. If this were truly a Confucian book, then presumably Ki-jeong would be a wise, caring teacher whose students respect her—or conversely a domineering taskmaster whose students fear her (depending on your take on Confucianism). But instead, she views teaching as a job she’s stuck in, compares her students to vermin, and ends up framed by a wealthy student for a petty crime. Su-ho longs for any job that isn’t manual labor while wishing his mother were dead and his burden of filial piety gone. College students sell out their friends for a vague promise of wealth. The pyramid is a metaphor for what capitalism, not Confucianism, demands of us: make a profit no matter what, even if it means selling off your dearest relationships.
Houses and Homes
The first line of The Law of Lines was the last line that I changed. Specifically, I changed “the house” to “their house,” because I remembered at the last second how jip conveys both a physical house and an emotional home, whereas Cartesian English separates them. I hoped that little change would warm the story up, if only by a degree.
The most touching scene for me in Lines was when Se-oh tries to sleep in her and her father’s burned-out house. The description of the ruined house was reminiscent of other things Pyun has written, in which “home” is a treacherous thing. The characters in Lines struggle to feel at home anywhere. Se-oh thinks she has been successfully hiding in the wreck without anyone’s knowledge, but the night she decides to leave, she realizes that her neighbors have known all along and have been doing little things (collecting her mail for her, not letting their kids run wild through the ruins, etc.) to help her stay. She ends up in a low-rent gosiwon, having realized all too late that home was not just a point in space but the daily life she’d shared with her father.
Su-ho, too, is facing the loss of his house/home to urban redevelopment, a scheme which overwhelmingly favors the rich and injures the poor. He didn’t think he could sink any lower than the current rundown apartment he shares with his mother, but now he is faced with the same fate as his debt-ridden clients. For him, the lesson of home comes too late.
What Happens After We Die?
“I know the ones who love us will miss us.”
– Keanu Reeves
The biggest mystery to me in The Law of Lines was the story of Ha-jeong, Ki-jeong’s half-sister by her father’s mistress. I felt a whole-body ache when I learned her back story and imagined what it would be like for a child to lose her mother (for reasons never explained) and have to grow up in a house where she is unwanted and unloved. Ki-jeong’s mother went through the motions of raising Ha-jeong, but without love Ha-jeong was not much better off than a weed growing in a garden. By the end, Ki-jeong realizes that investigating her sister’s final days was the wrong response to her death. Too late, she understands that to love someone is to miss them when they’re gone, and that she owed her sister love.
People like to ask me: of all the books you’ve translated, which was your favorite? I answer them honestly when I say that I cannot pick a favorite. What might elicit an answer, though, is if they were to ask instead which books continue to haunt me long after the work is done.
Writer Pyun Hye-young (left) & Translator Sora Kim-Russell (right)
Sora Kim-Russell is a literary translator based in Seoul. Her recent publications include Pyun Hye-young’s City of Ash and Red, The Hole, which won the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award for best novel, and The Law of Lines; Kim Un-su’s The Plotters; and Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk, which was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International. Her full list of publications can be found at www.sorakimrussell.com.