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Notable Korean Fiction in Translation

A perspective on literary fiction that only takes work being done in one language into account is, by its very nature, going to be incomplete. The process of translation into English–that which does and does not get translated, from specific writers to specific languages– remains a frequently discussed subject in literary circles. Recently, fiction translated from Korean into English has received a fair share of attention. Most notably, Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian has earned abundant acclaim in its English translation: it won the Man Booker International Prize, was named as one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review, and ended up on the shortlist for The Morning News’s Tournament of Books.

Han Kang isn’t the only writer to have a higher profile among English-language readers in recent year. The respected independent press Dalkey Archive Press debuted a new series of fiction in translation. In 2015, The New Yorker ran a great overview of contemporary Korean fiction by Ed Park, with a focus on the Dalkey Archive Press series. And more recently, advocates like translator Deborah Smith (who’s recently worked on novels by Han Kang and Bae Suah) have also helped raise the profile of Korean authors in the Anglophone literary world.

In recent years, even more highly-received books have appeared in translation from Korean, including Han Yujoo’s surreal, metafictional The Impossible Fairy Tale; Bae Suah’s new novel Recitation; and The Accusation, a collection of short fiction by the North Korean author Bandi. Here’s a look at some recently-translated fiction from Korea–maybe you’ll find your next literary obsession in here.

Human Acts by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian offered three different perspectives on a central character who slowly became alienated from the people and society around her. Human Acts takes a very different approach, showing the reverberations over time of an act of violence that occurs as part of a larger moment in history. In this case, it’s the killing of a student during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, and the way in which his death echoes in the years and decades that follow. The story of Human Acts is told by focusing on a series of interconnected perspectives, from the grief-stricken to the restless dead. The result is a powerful, politically resonant novel that encompasses a host of voices and perspectives on a singular event.

At Least We Can Apologize by Lee Ki-ho (translated by Christopher J. Dykas)

A quick description of this short novel, in which two socially awkward men hire themselves out to deliver apologies on behalf of people who have wronged others, makes it sound comedic. And while there’s certainly an abundance of deadpan humor to be found here, At Least We Can Apologize is a deeply strange and sometimes disturbing read. The two men’s awkwardness stems from their time in a surreal and often violent institution; the man dispatching them on their assignments doesn’t seem to have their welfare in mind; and the apologies themselves occasionally play out in strange and violent ways. It’s an unpredictable, mesmerizing narrative, akin to the novels of Magnus Mills in how it blends physical humor and unsettling philosophical questions.

One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun (translated by Yewon Jung)

In One Hundred Shadows, quiet moments between characters coexist with surreal scenes that defy explanation. On the one hand, this short novel tells of the tentative romance developing between two co-workers at an electronics repair shop in a run-down neighborhood; on the other hand, the shadows around them periodically take on new and sinister properties, making this something more complex than simply a story of young love in a changing urban landscape. In the end, it’s a haunting novel that refuses easy categorization.

Rina by Kang Young-sook (translated by Kim Boram)

The landscape in which the title character of Rina crosses is a fraught one, abounding with border checkpoints, corrupt authority figures, and dangerous industrial structures. As the novel opens, she is a young woman looking to escape her country for a better life elsewhere; the events that follow take her on a roundabout path, sometimes harrowing and sometimes satirical. Much of the imagery in Rina is hard to shake, whether it’s one of the acts of violence that punctuates the book or a surreal moment of body horror later on.

Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon (translated by Yewon Jung)

Readers of Vaseline Buddha will find a number of references to Samuel Beckett’s experimental novel Molloy, which act as a reminder: this is not a conventional novel, and those expecting traditional arcs may be disappointed. Instead, Jung Young Moon opts for a more stream-of-consciousness approach, with the novel’s narrator holding forth on a variety of subjects, including the origins of the Jack Russell terrier, the flight of swallows, and false teeth. Slowly, a kind of pattern emerges, including a series of repeated animal images, including swans and octopi. Over the course of the book, there are also occasional glimpses of the narrator’s life–a reference to a failed relationship, for instance–that place the events and images in a new light.

The Private Life of Plants by Lee Seung-u (translated by Inrae You Vinciguerra and Louis Vinciguerra)

For many novels, one complicated series of romantic entanglements is sufficient. In The Private Life of Plants, they abound across generations, leaving a host of secrets and ambiguous questions in their wake. The narrator of this novel is first glimpsed as he hires a sex worker for his brother, who is in a deep depression after the loss of his legs. It’s a jarring opening for a novel that encompasses questions of guilt, bizarre shared dreams, unpleasant detective work, and musings on the nature of love from a cast of thoroughly flawed characters.

A Greater Music by Bae Suah (translated by Deborah Smith)

Bae Suah’s A Greater Music takes on a host of big themes, including the nature of international borders, the concept of intimacy, and the role of art in everyday life. The narrator is a Korean writer who spends much of the book in Germany, navigating a host of complex emotional attachments, finding her place in the world, and tracking the evolution of her own aesthetic tastes. It’s an novel of ideas that also feels thoroughly lived-in–the rare novel that lets a reader feel the experience of inhabiting the world of its characters.

The Soil by Yi Kwang-su (translated by Hwang Sun-Ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges)

Readers who explore The Soil, which first appeared as a serial in the early 1930s, will find a blend of politically-charged social realism with thoughts on the nature of a Korean national identity. Its author, Yi Kwang-su, is a contentious figure in some circles, given accusations that he collaborated with the Japanese government during wartime. (The recent translation contains a blurb grouping Yi Kwang-su with the likes of Knut Hamsun and Céline, both in terms of literary merit and problematic politics.) Co-translator Horace Jeffery Hodges has explored these questions in more detail on his website.

(Originally published at Signature in 2017.)

Writer of things. Managing editor, Vol.1 Brooklyn. Author of the collection TRANSITORY and the novel REEL.

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