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From the Translator: Han Yujoo’s “Lament”: Writing Through the Blank Page

By Janet Hong

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If you’re Han Yujoo and life gives you writer’s block, you write about it and create something beautiful in the process.

Let me begin by clarifying: I’m a translator, and I’m also a writer. Or, as I like to say, I’m a translator by day and a writer by night. But who am I kidding? By night, I’m often too tired to write. Which doesn’t mean I don’t try, circling as I do the wasteland of my personal Siberia, feeling more like a failure with each passing month. A fraud. A hack. Like the protagonist in Han Yujoo’s “Lament,” I write sentences. Then erase them. And then rewrite the same sentences. Only to erase them again.          

I have writer’s block. And I’ve had it for almost four years. Sure, I got pregnant and had a baby during that time—that baby who is now a full-blown toddler—but, let’s be honest, it started long before that. Maybe it happened when I suddenly became unmoored from the steady stream of assignments and deadlines that two back-to-back writing programs had meted out. All I know is that on the day I handed in my MFA thesis, I was set adrift to bob along the endless ocean of the blank page, not knowing where I was or where I was heading, or how long it would be before I’d see land.          

This is the state in which Han’s “Lament” found me. While I struggled under mounds of laundry and chased after my increasingly willful son, the request to translate this story came to me with a very short deadline. In my customary neurotic fashion, I began by over-researching, reading extensively on set theory, forcing, columnar jointing, and the Korean poet Choi Hayeon and his poem “The Last Movement of the A Cappella Season,” from which Han quotes a line. Because I was too busy trying simply to meet the deadline, I hardly registered what Han had chosen as her subject: writer’s block.       

When I came to and finally realized what Han had achieved—how she had taken a paralyzing, debilitating process, which was causing me such pain, and managed to produce something so imaginative, thought-provoking, and oddly moving—I was dismayed. No. It would be more correct to say I found the whole thing extremely galling.  How could she write about the very stuff that poisons and stops the writing process? Not only that, how could she have pulled it off so marvelously? Why did the story affect me so deeply? What was causing that strange tug at the heart? That profound sense of grief?          

Which brings me to some of the challenges I faced while translating this story, or any of Han’s work, for that matter. Known as one of the most innovative and imaginative writers in Korea, Han is constantly pushing the boundaries of language and storytelling. Her fiction tends to be poetic and rhythmic, the cadence of her sentences and paragraphs are crucial to the narrative, and she frequently uses repetition, rhyme, and wordplay, which can create quite a headache for the translator. For example, throughout the story Han plays on the word  “눈” (nun), a homonym meaning both “eyes” and “snow” in Korean. She writes: “I want to bury the snow under the ice. I want to bury my eyes under the ice.” Originally, I added a footnote explaining “nun,” because I felt it was important for the reader to follow Han’s line of thought, to see why the narrator would suddenly jump from wanting to bury the snow to wanting to bury her eyes. But I removed the gloss in the end, because my editor pointed out that the similar-sounding ice/eyes seemed to replicate some sense of the original Korean.

Also, near the beginning of “Lament,” there’s a section where Han uses a series of eight similar-sounding adjectives. Because every adjective in the Korean language ends with the syllable “다” (da) and most of these end with the two syllables “하다” (hada), Han’s sequence of adjectives contained a natural rhyme. She also selected words that began with the same consonant, so her entire sequence was built on sound. Obviously, I couldn’t do a straight translation, so I decided to hinge everything on the prefix “in-,” parting with most of Han’s adjectives and selecting my own, which seemed to expand the meaning of the story, in order to preserve the similar sounds. The result: “It’s invasive. It’s insidious. It’s invisible. It’s indelible. It’s inaccurate. It’s inadequate. It’s incoherent. It’s inchoate.”

Translating Han Yujoo’s work is a little like translating poetry, or like trying to solve a difficult riddle. The aim is to get closer and closer to the truth, and when you do, the sense of gratification is immense. 

Published Apr 30, 2014   Copyright 2014 Janet Hong

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