Translating Cultural Subtext in Modern Korean Fiction
Bruce Fulton
University of British Columbia

Translation as an Act of Bridging Two Cultures

Literary translation can be described in many ways.  In the first place we can think of it as retelling, in that we take a Korean story and tell it in English.  In retelling the story we make it public.  This means we have an audience, either readers of our translation or listeners of a public reading of that translation.  Public readings are an important way of disseminating a translation.  And in the case of Korea, readings have a special relevance.  In premodern times improvised poems were often shared during gatherings of literati.  Even today poetry readings are not uncommon in Korea (though readings of fiction are rare--a vestige of the greater esteem traditionally attached to poetry by Koreans?).  Retelling is an especially apt approach to translation when we translate an author such as Pak Wan-sô, whose narrators often sound as if they are speaking directly to the reader.

     Second, we can think of translating as an act of re-creating, in the sense that translators produce something that is recognized as literature (whatever that is--anyone who has read the first chapter of Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory will realize how difficult it is to precisely define literature).

     Translation can also be thought of as reenacting.  Here I draw on the Lacanian notion of retrieving a lost narrative of our life.  Translators may be thought of as taking part as a silent observer, or, to borrow the title of a Joseph Conrad story, as a “secret sharer,” in the stories they reenact.

     Finally, translation is a joint enterprise between translator and author.  As such, it is desirable to have a good match between author and translator.  Such a match often manifests itself as a similarity of aesthetic outlook and a shared commitment to the author’s works.  In this joint enterprise the translator is a kind of medium.  JaHyun Kim Haboush reports, for example, that the voice of Lady Hong rang in her head for years as she translated that princess’s memoirs, the Hanjungnok.  Other translators have described this phenomenon as a merging of themselves with the persona of their author.  The late Marshall R. Pihl reported having such an experience while translating stories by O Yông-su; I myself have had a similar experience in translating stories by Hwang Sun-wôn and O Chông-hûi.  Over a period of years and in the course of many translations of the same author, translators become the voice of that author in their own language.  Perhaps, therefore, it is not so far-fetched for French scholar-translator Patrick Maurus to say, in reference to a prominent Korean novelist, “I am Yi Mun-yôl in French.”

     Each of these ways of understanding translation involves a crossing from one literature and culture to another.

Translating Cultural Subtext

In some nations, culture is deeply embedded in literature.  Korea is an example.  Korea is a nation with a rich cultural heritage that even today continues to manifests itself strongly in Korean society.  This heritage differs in several important respects from the Western cultural heritage.  These cultural differences present challenges to those who translate Korean literature into a Western language such as English.  Two particularly difficult challenges are posed by the great amount of cultural information in Korean literature.  First of all, much of that information is implicit: it is taken for granted by Korean readers and does not have to be made explicit in the text.  The reader of a translation, though, usually does not have access to that cultural information, and the result is the common criticism that “something is lost in translation.”

     Second, a Korean story that contains much cultural information--what we might call a “Korea-specific story”--may not be appropriate for those Western readers who are easily intimidated by story material--cultural, historical, or othewise--that is unfamiliar to them.  This means that the Western translator must exercise great care in deciding which literary works to translate.  In this paper I would like to focus on these two issues.  I will discuss cultural subtext first.

     Translation of Korean literature into English, like translation of Japanese literature into English, is generally a much more difficult task than translation of a Western literature, and especially a Romance Language literature, into English.  One reason for this, of course, is that the English language shares many word roots with other languages in the Indo-European language family.  This eases the lexical component of translation.  A second and perhaps no less important reason is that much of Korean literature is what we might call highly culturally specific.

     For example, try to imagine yourself sitting down to a meal in a traditional Korean home.  You would be seated on a square cushion on a floor heated by flues radiating from a firebox in the kitchen.  Of course you have taken off your shoes before entering the living quarters of the house.  A low dining table is brought in from the kitchen, perhaps with several dishes already arranged on it.  The rice is then served, one bowl per person, and the soup--also one bowl per person--is placed to the right of it.  You may be offered an alcoholic beverage in a small glass or porcelain cup.  You insist in vain that the beverage be offered first to the elders.  Your hostess will then apologize for the "poor fare" she has prepared for you; in fact she and the other womenfolk in the host's extended family may have spent the better part of the day preparing this feast for you, the honored guest.

     Most of this cultural information will be understood and taken for granted by the Korean reader of any story in which a meal is prepared for a guest.  But if we are to accept as one of the ideal goals of literary translation that the cultural information held by the reader of the original text should be available as well to the reader of the translation, then what is the translator to do if none of this information is explicit in the Korean text (and most likely it is not)?

     Let us consider two other examples.  Among Korean men there is a long-established drinking etiquette.  For instance, one rarely pours one’s own glass but instead offers the empty vessel to another person and fills it; the favor is eventually returned.  Second, shamanism figures in several Korean stories.  Shamanism is a rich tradition that has long been a powerful force in Korean folk culture, but it is little known among Western readers outside of a small group of scholars.  Many other examples of cultural information in Korean literature could be cited.  Because drinking, shamanism, and other cultural subjects frequently appear in Korean literature, and because the references to these subjects are sometimes quite subtle, the translator must be sensitive to how all of this cultural information is to be handled.

     How is the uninitiated reader of Korean literature in translation to have access to any of this information--what we might call the cultural subtext of the original work?

Because Korean culture has decidedly fewer referents in American culture than is the case, say, with European cultures, a slavish translation of a Korean story poses greater dangers than a similar translation of a European story.  For one thing, the reader of the translation, lacking the cultural background enjoyed by the reader of the Korean text, may have difficulty re-creating the cultural setting of the story or may simply be puzzled by certain aspects of Korean culture that appear in it.  More important for the translator who wishes to make a living from his or her work, publishers will recognize the constraints that too little, or too much, cultural information may exert on the marketability of a translation.

     What the translator of Korean literature must do is walk an aesthetic tightrope between unswerving loyalty to the Korean text and egregious embroidering.  Experience suggests that it will never be possible to re-create in a translation all the cultural information enjoyed by the Korean reader.  Yet it seems justifiable, as long as the integrity of the target language is observed, to make explicit in the translation--but as unobtrusively as possible--at least some of what is implicit in the original.

     Consider, for example, a sentence from O Chông-hûi's story "The Bronze Mirror," translated by myself and Ju-Chan Fulton:

One spring day Yôngno had flown out of the house like a nighthawk, his crewcut not quite grown out and sticking up indignantly in all directions.
An American friend who read this initial, literal translation of the sentence asked why Yôngno's hair was sticking out.  Only then did we realize that our literal translation was depriving potential readers of meaningful cultural information.  We therefore emended the sentence as follows:
One spring day Yôngno, fresh out of high school, had flown out of the house like a nighthawk, his schoolboy crewcut not quite grown out and sticking up indignantly in all directions.1
The underscored words, though implicit in the original text, do not appear there; they are part of the cultural subtext.

     Interpolation, then, if subtle, is one approach to the problem of translating cultural subtext.  Other examples of its application follow:

One terribly cold day, I had stoked the firebox....
One terribly cold day, I had stoked the firebox that heated the floors of our living quarters....2
...if a girl touched her forehead with an ornamental silver knife, then looked into a round mirror on a moonless night, the face of her future husband would surely appear.
...if a girl touched her forehead with one of the ornamental silver knives that women used to carry to protect their virtue, then looked into a round mirror on a moonless night, the face of her future husband would surely appear.3
Elsewhere I have seen the Korean word for such a knife, ûnjangdo, translated simply as "chastity knife," but an understanding of this expression would require too much guesswork by the reader.
"Won’t you be my first customer of the day?”
"Won't you be my first customer of the day--for good luck?"4

I realized then that Mother was singing the song from the chinogwi ritual that she used to perform.
I realized then that Mother was singing the song from the chinogwi ritual--the ceremony for the restless dead--which she used to perform.5

It was then that they heard Kang’s clanging shears.
It was then that they had heard the clanging shears heralding the approach of a junk dealer.6

     Interpolation is not without its pitfalls, however. Consider the following passage from Japanese author Inoue Yasushi's story "The Counterfeiter":
Watashi wa noragi no mama no Onoe Senzo no annai de mura de kashite mo ii to iu seinenshukaiju.7
Here is how the passage appears in an English translation of the story:
Escorted by Senzo Onoe, who was wearing the kind of farmer's field smock that we Japanese call noragi, I was shown a place in the hamlet that might be leased--the Youth Assembly Hall.8
As Martin Holman, an American specialist on the works of Inoue, has noted, the underscored words, interpolated by translator Leon Picon, give the odd impression that Inoue is addressing a non-Japanese audience.9

     If such dangers can be avoided, interpolation of cultural subtext can considerably enhance the fidelity of a translation, especially in the case of a longer work.  Consider Ahn Junghyo's novel Silver Stallion.  Ahn originally wrote the novel in his native Korean.  But instead of translating the Korean version, he rewrote it in English.  Moreover, Ahn professes to write for an American audience.  The result of this approach--a translation in which the sights, smells, and sounds of the Korean countryside come to life for the reader--are apparent to anyone with a passing acquaintance with Korean literature in translation.  Here is a passage from the very first page of the English version.  I would bet that at least some of the underscored words have no equivalents in the Korean version.

Old Hwang...took a bush-clover broom from the rice barn and started sweeping the courtyard.  By the time he reached the stepping stones outside the gate, white streaks of smoke rose gently from the low earthen chimneys of the huts in the fields.  The women inside were cooking the breakfast rice.  Farmers trickled out of their homes one after another, each slinging a shovel or a long-handled hoe over his shoulder, to do some work before the first meal.  This was the tranquil landscape the old man had watched from his gate at this early hour on summer days all his life.10
This attentiveness to cultural detail, if sustained over the course of a novel (as it is in the case of Silver Stallion), can do much to help re-create for the reader of the translation the aesthetic experience enjoyed by the reader of the Korean version.

     If there are situations where interpolation may be helpful, there are also situations where it is probably best left undone.  Take the case of a modest traditional Korean house.  The living quarters in such a house may consist of just one heated room.  Under the same roof would be an unheated kitchen, which in cold weather would also serve as a washroom; bodily functions are attended to in an outhouse.  In translations of Korean stories one will sometimes read that so-and-so "entered the room," a literal translation of the Korean pang ûro tûrôgatta.  This English expression, “entered the room,” is problematic because of the article the.  Here, the is not idiomatic, as it is in the case of, say, "went to the bathroom."  Nor is it necessarily referential, for the room in question may very likely not have been previously mentioned.  Because of the amount of cultural subtext involved in references to such houses, it is perhaps better to avoid interpolation in favor of something like "went inside" or "went in the house."

     In deciding whether interpolation is a viable option, translators should also consider the currency of Korean words in English.  For example, kimch'i--the spicy pickled cabbage for which Korean cuisine is famous--is included in the current (third) edition of Webster's unabridged dictionary (where it is spelled without an apostrophe)--one indication that it may no longer need clarification by the translator.11  Likewise, the Korean alcoholic beverages makkôlli and soju may eventually be well enough known to American readers that they, like sake, will need no explanation.  In other words, translators, while being sensitive to the need to reproduce cultural information, should be careful not to produce a translation that will soon be dated.

     There are, of course, alternatives to incorporating cultural subtext directly in the text of a translation.  If the translation is published in a book (rather than a journal or newspaper), a note on culture may be added in an introduction or appendix.  Footnotes serve a similar purpose, but may smack of academia and intimidate the general reader; a glossary might be preferable.

     Problems of cultural subtext are often presented by the nomenclature of rooms in a traditional Korean house.  Korean-English dictionaries tell us, for instance, that kônnônbang means "an opposite room," "a room on the opposite side," or "the room opposite the main living room."  The last of these definitions is closest to the mark; better would be "the room across the veranda from the main room."  (The veranda--maru, taech'ông, or taech'ông maru in Korean--is an unheated room with a wooden floor that is opened onto the courtyard in clement weather.  Conveying this information poses another recurring challenge to the translator of Korean.)  But such an expression may be unwieldy in a translation.  Ideally, the main room (not the "main living room," which may elicit an image of an American living room; the Korean main room is used for eating and sleeping as well as entertaining) will already have been mentioned and can thus serve as a point of reference by the time the room across the veranda is mentioned.  To be avoided is a vague translation such as "the room opposite."

     Likewise, "the upper room," a literal translation of the Korean utpang, is both vague and ambiguous.  Of two adjoining rooms, the utpang is the one to the rear; it is "upper" in the sense of being closer to the (usually) more elevated terrain behind the house or village (more on this in the following paragraph).  It is perhaps better in translation to identify this room in terms of who inhabits it or what function it serves (in farming areas it may be used as a storeroom).

     Another Korean expression whose cultural significance is often left untranslated is twissan, literally "rear mountain."  More often a gentle hill than a precipitous mountain, this is the incline against which a Korean village, dwelling, or other building is often nestled.  Since most villages are situated near at least one of these, Korean authors usually take no pains to locate them specifically.  As a result, the novice translator may simply render the term literally, with no geographical anchor.  A less awkward rendering would be "the hill behind the village," "the rise behind the school," or something similar.

Cultural Factors to Consider in Selecting Works for Translation

Even before translators attempt to come to grips with the challenge of handling cultural information when translating a work, they must try to decide which works will have the best chance of succeeding in translation.  Two of the most important cultural factors that enter into this decision are cultural receptiveness and translatability.  Cultural receptiveness involves the readiness of the target audience to appreciate a translated work.  In the case of English translations of modern Korean fiction, those that have been somewhat successful in the U.S--that is, those that have been received by American readers with relative ease--are usually translations of stories that have some connection with the U.S.  For example, Ahn Junghyo’s novels White Badge and Silver Stallion concern historical events that are somewhat familiar to an American audience.  White Badge is set partly during the Vietnam War.  That war created deep divisions in American society.  It also inspired a succession of fine American novels about the war.  White Badge, though it concerns Koreans rather than Americans in the Vietnam War, therefore has a subject that is intensely familiar to many American readers.  Silver Stallion, for its part, describes the catastrophic effects of the sudden appearance of UN soldiers in a small Korean village early in the Korean War.  The rape of a Korean woman by two such soldiers almost destroys the centuries-old social fabric of the village.  Americans, of course, made up the great majority of UN troops in the Korean War, and by reading Silver Stallion Americans were able to learn more about the effects of the presence of their countrymen on Korean soil.

     Another example of a modern Korean fictional work that has gained modest visibility in translation in the U.S. is Kim Chi-wôn’s story “A Certain Beginning.”12  The story is set in the New York City metropolitan area and concerns a marriage of convenience, or “green card marriage,” between a Korean student and an older Korean divorcee.  The green card theme is familiar to Americans, and this particular translation, after its appearance in Words of Farewell, was anthologized several times and even adapted for a radio performance.  Reports from university instructors of Korean literature in translation tend to confirm the popularity among students of Korean stories that have an American connection, whether an American setting, as in “A Certain Beginning,” or the effects of an American presence on Korean soil, as in kijich’on stories, that is, stories that take place in or near the area around American military bases in Korea.

     In this respect, a comparison with modern Japanese fiction in English translation may be useful.  Although there are English translations of Japanese kijich’on stories and novels, such as Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami and “American Hijiki” by Nosaka Akiyuki, the American connection seems to be overshadowed in importance by a certain exoticism that appears in translations of premodern Japanese literature and also in modern fiction by such authors as Kawabata Yasunari (Snow Country and Thousand Cranes) and Mishima Yukio (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion).  Exoticism can be both advantageous and disadvantageous as a factor in the translation and marketing of a work.  It can be advantageous where it has a demonstrated appeal, as in the case of English translations of Japanese literature, but it may also be disadvantageous in that it offers a rather narrow view of Japanese culture.  In any event, exoticism has thus far been unimportant as a consideration in the English translation of modern Korean fiction, perhaps because the aestheticism that is often directly manifested in Japanese literature tends in the case of Korea to be manifested not so much in literary works themselves but in literary criticism.

     Translatability involves such elements as the style and mood of a literary work.  Some Korean authors are stylistically easier than others to translate into English.  Hwang Sun-wôn is an excellent example.  Hwang, whom I consider to be Korea’s most accomplished short story writer, writes in a compact style with few wasted words, and his command of Korean is excellent.  His fictional style is sometimes compared with that of Hemingway.  Not surprisingly, his stories are well represented in English translation, and Hwang enjoys relatively high visibility among readers of Korean literature in English translation.  Some Korean authors, on the other hand, are verbose, tendentious, and repetitive.  Although these qualities are considered acceptable by many Korean readers, they pose difficulties for both the prospective translator and many English-language readers.

     As for mood, it is important to realize that much of modern Korean fiction concerns the tumultuous modern history of the country--colonization by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945, the Soviet and American military presence following World War II, the establishment of separate governments in northern and southern Korea, the Korean War and the subsequent enforced separation of millions of family members, a succession of autocratic governments, and the social ills produced by rapid industrialization beginning in the 1960s.  While literature dealing with these historical events is considered very relevant to the Korean literature establishment, it is often very serious in tone, even gloomy, and American readers of translations of such works often find them depressing.  It is likely that less serious works will have a greater appeal to an American audience.  Such works, though, are often considered inconsequential by the Korean literary world.  This situation suggests an important point: literary works that are successful in Korean are not necessarily successful in English translation.


Cultural differences make literary translation from Korean to English very different from translation from, say, French or Spanish to English.  Korean literature is a highly culturally specific literature: it contains a great deal of cultural information.  This wealth of cultural detail is one of the major reasons we translate meaning and not just words.  As a well-known Latin American author is said to have instructed his translator: “Don’t translate what I said; translate what I meant to say.”

     The extent to which cultural subtext may feasibly be reproduced in a translation is something that should concern any translator of Korean literature.  In this paper I have illustrated some of the options the translator may wish to consider in attempting to bridge the gap between two cultures as different as those of Korea and America.  Interpolation, one of these options, is in essence a way of making explicit in the translation what is implicit in the original text.  (On the other hand, it is often desirable for the sake of economy in English to make implicit in the translation what is explicit in the original.)

     The culture of Korea is ancient and deeply rooted.  As a result, few Korean stories--even among those being written today--are culturally neutral, so to speak.  It is therefore one of the salient challenges to the translator of Korean literature to re-create as much as is aesthetically feasible the cultural richness of the Korean text.  As one reviewer of Korean literature in translation has noted, "sometimes cultural information is more important to understanding than is language proficiency."13


1. O Chông-hûi, "The Bronze Mirror," trans. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, in Land of Exile: Contemporary Korean Fiction, ed. and trans. Marshall R. Pihl and Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1993), p. 261.

2. Kim Tong-ni, "A Descendant of the Hwarang," in A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction, trans. Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), pp. 112-13.

3. O Chông-hûi, "Words of Farewell," in Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers, trans. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (Seattle: Seal Press, 1989), p. 254.

4. O Yông-su, "Migratory Birds," in The Good People, trans. Marshall R. Pihl (Hong Kong: Heinemann, 1985), p. 94.

5. O Chông-hûi, "A Portrait of Magnolias," trans. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, The World & I, October 1990, p. 446.

6. Hwang Sôk-yông, "A Dream of Good Fortune," trans. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, in Land of Exile, pp. 118-19.

7. Chikume gendai bungaku taikei, vol. 70: Inoue Yasushi Tokyo: 1975), p. 447.

8. Yasushi Inoue, "The Counterfeiter," in The Counterfeiter and Other Stories, trans. Leon Picon (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1965), p. 35.  I am indebted to Martin Holman for confirming my hunch that the translator had interpolated the underscored words.

9. The need for subtlety in the use of interpolation is suggested by the following tongue-in-cheek example, created by Martin Holman from the first paragraph of Yun Heung-gil's "The House of Twilight":

 The moment we were about to cross the road, which we Koreans call kil, I let go of the girl's hand, known to Koreans as son, when I heard the blaring of what you Americans call a horn, but which is commonly referred to in Korea as a kyôngjôk.  An ox cart, which is not the Korean word for it, loaded with sheaves of rice--called pyô if unhulled, as it is in this case; ssal if hulled but uncooked; and pap if it is hot and ready to eat--that was lumbering noisily along the road, again kil in Korean, barely had time to pull over to the side before a convoy of army trucks, or lorries if you are in England, came speeding down the road, which is still kil in our Korean language, with their headlights, known to us Koreans as ssangbul, glaring yellow.  A flock of baby chicks--which speak the same language as American chicks, I suppose, but in Korea we call them pyongari--had been following the ox cart pecking at the grains--narak in Korean (see ssal and pap above)--that fell on the kil (I'm sorry, I mean road, but by now you know enough Korean to realize that anyway), but they scattered.  The trucks, which the Japanese call toraku, carried a battalion that had finished fighting the communist partisans--which we call kongbi, but which Jesse Helms refers to as "pinkos"--in Naejang Mountain, known to us Koreans as Naejang-san, but I suppose we could call it Mount Naejang if we were speaking English--which we no longer seem to be doing in this story.
For Holman's translation of this paragraph, see Yun Heung-gil, The House of Twilight, ed. Holman (London: Readers International, 1989), p. 205.  For the original text, see Yun Heung-gil, Hwanghon ûi chip (Seoul: Munhak kwa chisông sa, 1976), p. 7.

10. Ahn Junghyo, Silver Stallion (New York: Soho Press, 1990), p. 3.

11. Translators take note: kimch'i, wôn (the unit of Korean currency), and other Korean words appearing in English dictionaries may be treated in translations either as English loan words from Korean, or as Korean words.  In the former case, the word is to appear in roman (rather than italic) and should follow the English dictionary spelling--for example, “kimchi.”  In the latter case, the word appears in italics and is spelled according to the McCune-Reischauer system for the romanization of Korean words--”kimch'i.”

12. Translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton in Words of Farewell.

13. Edgar C. Knowlton, Jr., review of The House of Twilight, by Yun Heung-gil, ed. J. Martin Holman, World Literature Today, Spring 1990, p. 365.