Writing Matters: In conversation with Hannah Kim

By Mitali Chakravarty

Was that Mountain Really there? by Park Wan-Suh, an award winning and well-known Korean novelist, has recently been translated by Hannah Kim and published by Kitaab. The novel depicts the trauma of partition faced by civilians in a war that reft the country in two, less than a decade after India was sliced into multiple segments. While Indians suffered in the name of religion, Was that Mountain Really There? portrays the suffering caused by a war created by the clash of communist and capitalist ideologies.

Park Wan-Suh was separated from her mother and brother by the border etched by the Korean War (1950-53) and found herself in the South while her family was in the North. Korean critic Kim Byeong-ik states that her writing is ‘the only record of how people survived in Seoul during the Korean War;’ however, her book is equally relevant in the current context of the ravages of war and refugee influx, a worldwide concern to date.

According to Theodore Hughes of Columbia University, ‘Park Wan-Suh is important for the ways in which her writing is at once popular (nearly all her works are best-sellers) and canonical. She is widely discussed in Korean academia and she has become the subject of dissertations. While this is also the case for many male writers, Park Wan-Suh may have combined the two levels more successfully than any other novelist.’

More than half a dozen of her novels have been translated into English, the latest being Was the Mountain Really There? Translating a book of this calibre is undoubtedly a daunting task and one that Hannah Kim performs very well. This translation highlights both the uniqueness of Korean life and culture and the universality of human sufferings and interactions that transcends borders of all kinds.

Hannah Kim is a translator and writer at Arirang TV. She has translated works on a variety of topics including literature, politics, music, visual arts, history and economics. She currently works in conjunction with the Department of Anthropology, Seoul National University. She combines a passion for music along with her passion for words and performs as a classically trained soprano in concerts in Southern California. In this interview, she highlights the challenges of translating and talks of Park Wan-Suh’s contributions to literature and the importance of words that can ‘inform, connect, and change the world’.

Hannah Kim

Mitali: The book is very personal – autobiographical in its historical sweep and    emotional proximity. How did you, as the translator, negotiate this emotional core? Did it involve research?

Hannah: Translating this novel definitely involved research but not so much for its emotional core. I had to study the events of the Korean War, the military tactics, and some period terms. Studying those technical aspects was not difficult. It was the emotional delivery of the text that was challenging. It was important for me as a translator to use the English language to conjure up the same or similar emotional reactions as those who had read the book in Korean. However, there were certainly cultural and linguistic barriers I tried to minimize, as there were words and expressions that could not directly be translated. So trying to get as close to the emotional core of the original language in English was definitely challenging.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh was one of the most remarkable women writers of her times. Can you tell us more about her life and works? What made you choose her and this particular book of hers for translation?

Hannah: She was and still is one of the most beloved and celebrated writers in Korea. What was so remarkable about her was how prolific she was given that she had made her debut as a writer in her 40s. She never received formal training in writing — she had attended only one semester at Seoul National University before dropping out at the outbreak of the Korean War.

I chose Was the Mountain Really There? because I liked her writing style. Her writing is unembellished, frank, piercing, and vulnerable all at the same time. Also, having grown up in the U.S., I was always interested in learning more about Korean history. My father was in middle school when the war broke out and he told us stories of how his family survived when my siblings and I were young. South Korea was destroyed and reduced to rubble when the armistice was signed and the war was suspended in 1953. The miraculous economic development of South Korea since the end of the war was dubbed as the Miracle on the Han River. I wanted to trace its history and see how the war was experienced and narrated by a civilian, not by a second-source historian.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh lived through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. Her first hand experiences are found in her autobiographical novel Who Ate Up All The Shinga, translated in 2009. In her foreword to the sequel, Was The Mountain Really There? she says she ‘wasn’t able to form the pattern (she) truly wanted’. What could have been the pattern, the sense of relentless change or of man taking over and destroying a natural way of life? Do you think the book has been able to convey this ‘pattern’ quite well despite how she felt about it as its writer?

Hannah: When she wrote she ‘wasn’t able to form the pattern [she] truly wanted to create’ because of the ‘relentless weaving of the era’s tapestry,’ I believe she meant she could not build her life the way she had wanted to because the war and the subsequent years of national rehabilitation stripped her of opportunities. She was accepted into Seoul National University, the most prestigious university in Korea, but was forced to drop out after a semester when the war broke out. In the book, she rails against her fate and resents the forces of both North and South Korea for using her and her family as a pawn for political and military leverage.

Mitali: Given the current political climate, would you say that this novel is particularly relevant today?

Hannah: It definitely gives historical context to the current political climate involving the two Koreas and their allies. The main take away from this novel for me was the message that the greed for power and wealth of a few individuals could lead to violence and war at the cost of millions of lives. What’s so compelling about this novel is that it was written by a civilian who experienced the war first-hand. It is not a report from a cold, distant historian recounting events and figures. Her stories are lived-in, channelled by an array of emotions: depleted hope, paralyzing fear, wounded dignity, fiery anger —delivered with words of searing truth. Her story provides a civilian perspective that is often neglected: when war breaks out, it eternally affects innocent civilians and soldiers. It seems to be the lesson humanity repeatedly forgets.

Mitali: Does Korean blend easily into English? Do the dialectics of the languages harmonise? Could you tell us a little about the linguistic challenges you might have faced in translating the book? Would you say it was daunting to translate certain words or expressions that can only be described best by cultural affiliations integral to the original language of the book? Did you feel some of the nuances were lost in translation?

Hannah: Korean does not blend easily into English. English is a crossbreed language. It is Germanic in origin, but has adopted thousands of words from Romance languages. Korean, on the other hand, is a language isolate or may be distantly related to Ural-Altaic languages. Also, the evolution of languages is in large part informed by their culture. Since English and Korean do not share a common linguistic origin or culture, it is very difficult to translate from one language to the other, especially a genre that is rife with cultural and emotional nuance. Some words or expressions are impossible to translate directly because the words or the expressions simply do not exist in the other language. The solution is to describe the meaning of the word or expression without breaking the flow or interrupting the tone. The best we can do as a translator is to find words to convey the emotional nuance and subtext of the original language when direct translation is not possible.

Mitali: Throughout the book, you have capitalized relationships like ‘Brother’, ‘Sister’, ‘Mother’ and used them to refer to people. You do not really focus on the names but the relationships. Is that intrinsic to Korean culture?

Hannah: In Korea, you do not usually call your family members by their name, especially if you are on the lower hierarchical rung. Parents call their children by their name and the older siblings can call their younger siblings by their name but not the other way around. If you are younger, you are defined by your relationship to other members of the family. It is Confucian in nature and intrinsic to Korean culture.

Mitali: Who Ate Up All The Shinga? was translated by Yu Young-nan and Stephen J Epstein and brought out by Columbia Press. Was it challenging to work as the only translator for Was That Mountain Really There, which is a sequel to that first book?

Hannah: Yes, it was difficult translating this book on my own. Many times I was overwhelmed by the challenges this task demanded. Even though the translation was completed and published, I could go back and edit it many times over. It would be a never-ending project if I let it be.

Mitali: What led you to translating books?

Hannah: I was translating academic articles and for TV before I began this project. I wanted to be involved in a more creative and artistic type of writing and I received a grant to translate this novel, so I took it!

Mitali: If you were to write a book of your own, which language would you write in – Korean or English?

Hannah: I am much more comfortable writing in English.

Mitali: Besides being a translator, you are also a performing soprano. How do translating and singing add up for you? Do you prefer one more than the other or do they complement each other in some creatively fulfilling manner?

Hannah: They complement each other. Translating keeps my mind sharp and keeps me plugged into the academic and literary world. Singing helps me embrace vulnerability and connect with people through music.  What translating and singing have in common are the words—the words to inform, connect, and change the world!


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