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?

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By Dolonchampa Chakraborty

 

Saubhik De Sarkar.jpg
Saubhik De Sarkar

Saubhik De Sarkar, is a Bengali poet based in Alipurduar, West Bengal, a major district in the eastern Himalayan foothills of India. He has six books of poems of which the first one Sheet O Bayosandhir Haspatal was published in 1995. Other collections include Ekti Mridu Laal Rekha (2005), Jatrabari (2011), Dokholsutra (2013), Anugato Buffer (2015) and Punorbashoner Chil (2016). He is also a prolific translator. His most significant translation projects include but are not limited to the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Roberto Bolano, Federico Garcia Lorca, Julio Cortázar, Namdeo Dhasal and Rudhramoorthy Cheran. His translation of the much discoursed Dalit chronicle My Father Baliah by Y.B. Satyanarayana into Bengali is set to be published in 2018. His selected poems translated into English, The Evening Gnome is also scheduled to be published from Authorspress in 2018. He is the recipient of Kabita Pakshik Award (2005) and Mallar Award (2017).

Dolonchampa: What encouraged you to be a poet? Can you think of a particular set of moments that still haunt your memory as the initial spark?

Saubhik: I grew up in the cultural and literary ambience of Alipurduar which had some artistic and traditional inheritance. The Little Magazine Movement also played a significant role in shaping and sharpening me up as it has had tremendous impact over the progression of Bengali literature. Since a young age I got to know the avant garde litterateur and poets of North Bengal who were involved in little magazine movements and an experimental writing process. Taking part in the movement provided the opportunity to access different avenues of literature and I chose poetry as the medium to express myself. Not any special incident or spark, but as a whole many features of poetry enticed me toward it. I found the essential freedom and a sense of unrestricted liberation within the realm of poetry.

Dolonchampa: Tell us about your literary influences.

Saubhik: A poet is indebted to many other travellers of the labyrinth of poetry. According to my recollection, Jibananda Das, Utpal Kumar Basu, Manindra Gupta, Swadesh Sen, Bhashkar Chakraborty, Nitya Malakar, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Sajal Bandyopadhyay, Shyamal Kanti Das, Samar Roy Choudhury, Shyamal Singha, Jahar Sen Majumder and Rahul Purkayastha are those few Bengali poets who had initially impacted my nous of poetry. Among the ones who wrote in other languages, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ana Akhmatova, Frank O’Hara, Julio Cortázar, Charles Simic, A.K. Mehrotra, Namdeo Dhasal, Agha Shahid Ali, Mahmud Darwish, Martin Espada and Kim Hyesoon influenced me a lot.

Dolonchampa: The unique elements of North Bengal—the landscape, languages, folk tales, myths, music have influenced your already rich linguistic inheritance. How do they shape your poems?

Saubhik: North Bengal, where I have lived so far has some particularly distinctive features. Located amid lustrous natural landscape within the range of three international borders, it is a unique multicultural, multilingual and multi-ethnic confluence. Populations hailing from separate ethnic clusters native to this place present themselves in different forms of myths, folktales, customs and rituals, and music different from each other. In congruence with the changing dynamics of the rivers flowing through the mountain range of North Bengal, the disposition of the people here also changes its form. People constantly move in and out of North Bengal. A larger phase of history has been a witness to this shifting identity and its restlessness for a rather consistent period of time. When I try to capture that particular identity in my poems, it appears with all its restlessness.

Political and economic contexts are not the same either. They are altering at a rather slower pace, but the transformation is indeed visible. Against the backdrop of the marginal and rural practices transforming towards a pro-urban formation, the decadence in the local colonial set-ups primarily established through the railways and tea-gardens become more prominent. The conservatively rural and marginal folk elements are developing themselves in an innovative manner, which to certain extent is definitely and more inevitably contributing to the degeneration of an old customary set-up.

All these shifts and changes, anomalies and transformations present themselves subtly in my poems. Although I feel the limitation of the standard lingua franca in expressing these conflicts, struggles and the confluences of the beauty, silence and serenity of North Bengal which appear in my poems. Hence, it is only reasonable that I should use words from the dialects, sub-dialects and other languages of North Bengal in my writing.

The other and more significant reason for me to use the elements of North Bengal is the responsibility to represent an aware and alert society which registers a systematic and sensible resistance in favour of the liberation of a language no matter how apparently insignificant and distant it is from the power hub of the premier language. Every language practises a kind of monopoly over its dialects and sub-dialects. So when I use a local word in my poem I do not want it to carry its local flavour only. I enable it to stand strong against the monopoly and aggression of the premier language.

MantoOne of the great risks in reviewing a translated work is the tendency to believe that one is reading the author in his or her original language. I forget too often how much is lost in translation and if what I am reading is the author’s voice or the translator’s (or both). This, however, is not an issue with Bombay Stories, the forthcoming, translated collection of Urdu short stories by the late Saadat Hasan Manto.