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Novel about the First Korean Woman in Paris

‘The Court Dancer’

By Kyung-Sook Shin, Translated by Anton Hur, 336 pages, $25.95, New York: Pegasus Books [2018]

“The Court Dancer,” the latest of Shin Kyung-sook’s novels to appear in English translation (she is probably best known to English-language readers for “Please Look After Mom”), tells the story of Yi Jin, a court dancer at the end of the 19th century who steals the heart of the French legate in Korea, Victor Collin de Plancy. She travels back to France with him in 1891, becoming the first Korean woman to visit the country. The novel is, according to the dust jacket, “based on a remarkable true story,” but what is truly remarkable is how Shin has managed to weave such a compelling tale from a single, brief mention of a Korean court dancer in a turn-of-the-century French text.

The end of the 19th century was a tumultuous time in Korean history, as the newly opened nation found itself caught between world powers vying for dominance in East Asia. The king and especially the queen attempted to play these powers off each other in order to preserve the nation’s sovereignty, but their plans ultimately came to naught when Japan annexed the country in 1910, leading to 35 years of colonial rule. Shin’s novel both brings to life the desperation of Korea and dissects the optimism of Belle Époque Paris, but history here is not just background scenery for Jin’s story; Jin is shaped as a person by the role she plays in that history. In a way, Shin tells the story of Korea at that time through the story of Jin.

Shin employs various stylistic techniques to give the story a classic yet timeless feel, such as bits of ageless wisdom that are sprinkled throughout in the authorial voice. In this regard, the aphorisms that deal with the characteristics of water have a particular resonance.

When the woman who raised Jin draws water from a well, the author notes: “Its basic nature is immutable, which is what gives water its power.” Later, as the French legate Victor passes by a stream in the royal palace, we are told: “Water flows when it is free, and pools when it is stopped.”

These words may at first seem banal, but they foreshadow how Jin will adapt to her new world in France. Always a quick learner, she soon becomes fluent in French, and she does not hesitate to discard her Korean court attire for the latest French fashions. Like water, she adopts the shape of her surroundings. Yet she is still a spectacle to those around her. Even those who accept her into their lives still treat her as some exotic thing, like one of the celadon vases collected by Victor and brought back to France.

On the other hand, Hong, the only other Korean in Paris at the time, scorns and mocks her for abandoning her culture. Jin finds herself questioning her identity, something to which she never gave a second thought while living in the royal palace in Seoul. Any reader who has lived for a significant amount of time in a foreign land will be able to relate; moving to a different culture can be incredibly freeing, but at the same time one can also feel incredibly lost and unmoored.

This is only one thread of many that Shin weaves to tell the story of Jin and the story of a Korea on the brink of oblivion. The tapestry that results is rich and variegated, and it will reward the reader who lingers over it.

Poetry for Sensual Experience beyond Interpretation

‘We, Day by Day’

By Jin Eun-young, Translated by Daniel Parker and Ji Young-shil, 108 pages, $16.00, New York: White Pine Press [2018]

It seems futile, perhaps even absurd, to attempt to write a typical review of “We, Day by Day,” a collection of poetry by Jin Eun-young. Just as one might be at a loss to describe the feeling one has when looking at a beautiful sunset, so it seems a hopeless task to say something about this collection by setting down calm, reasonable words in well-ordered fashion.

The translators’ introduction does provide the reader with some inkling of what lies ahead, noting that Jin’s poems are “always challenging for the reader seeking complete comprehension.” After all, the goal of her poetry is not to give the reader something that may be easily unpacked and understood, but instead “to present new sensual experiences.” This may be frustrating for some. If you have ever stood in front of a Jackson Pollock painting (and I mean the actual painting, not an image on the internet) and wondered what all the fuss was about, this collection may not be for you. If you can see beauty in incongruity, though, it just might be.

The introduction notes that Jin has published three books of philosophy in addition to three books of poetry, but I would argue that the line between the two is not so distinct - that, in fact, “We, Day by Day” is both poetry and philosophy. What Jin attempts here is in the spirit of Duchamp when he decided to attach a bicycle wheel to a stool, or indeed Pollock when he dripped and poured paint on the floor. But I hesitate to apply labels to her work, as that would in its own way be an attempt to impose meaning on it. Jin’s poetry isn’t interpreted, and it isn’t even really read. It is, in the end, simply experienced.

Website Brings Modern Korean Literature to the World

KoreanLit (www.koreanlit.com)

Run by the Korean Cultural Service of Massachusetts

Some would say that translating poetry is the most difficult task a translator can face. Others have argued that true translation of poetry isn’t even possible, that the art is so deeply rooted in the language in which it is written that any attempt to express it in a different language is doomed to failure. This has not stopped the people behind the KoreanLit website, a project under the direction of the Korean Cultural Service of Massachusetts, from striving to bring translations of modern Korean literature to English-speaking readers.

In what is currently the only critical essay on the site, Professor Yu Jin Ko notes that poetry is not only about what is lost in translation, but also about what is found. That is, while there are certainly elements of Korean poetry that cannot be replicated in English, a translation can find and reveal new aspects of a work.

Such a broader view of poetry translation is one way to overcome the paralyzing idea that poetry is in fact untranslatable.

In addition to some 100 works of poetry, both for adults and children, the website also looks at poetry as it intersects with other forms of art, such as painting or popular music. Although these works are relatively few in comparison to translations of pure poetry, hopefully there will be more such efforts in the future, further broadening the understanding of the role that poetry plays in the Korean arts. More essays on poetry and the art of poetry translation would also be welcome, considering that the essay mentioned above by Professor Ko is quite interesting and insightful. This is a website worth watching to see what this remarkable team might continue to bring to the world of Korean poetry - and Korean literature - in translation.

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University

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