In Review: Sweet Potato by Kim Tong-in

Translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure.

Korean literature in translation has enjoyed newfound popularity in the English-speaking world over the past few years, but most recent publications have been—unsurprisingly—of contemporary literature. With a trend towards temporal and geographic diversity amongst Korean literature available in English (North Korean writer Bandi’s The Accusation being the most well-known divergence from South Korean voices), it is worth taking a look at British publisher Honford Star’s recent collection of the short stories of twentieth-century writer Kim Tong-in. In this anthology, Sweet Potato, translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure in the retranslation of a historical text.  

Sweet Potato takes its name from its most well-known story, also titled “Sweet Potato,” or “Kamja” in Korean. First published in 1925 by the Japanese colonial-era journal Joseon Mundan, the story is one of the seminal texts of twentieth-century Korean literature. In fewer than ten pages, it recounts the life of Pong-nyŏ, a young Pyongyang woman of low social status who is sold to a much older and similarly impoverished widower. When Pong-nyŏ’s husband fails to support the couple financially, Pong-nyŏ turns to prostitution in the slums of Pyongyang in order to earn a living. She is overcome with anger upon learning that the Chinese Mr. Wang, her most frequent customer, plans to marry, but her attempts to kill Wang backfire, ending instead in her own death. The work is emblematic of Kim’s literary realism and has been interpreted to demonstrate that moral “choices” are situational, resulting from external circumstance rather than character flaws. Three quarters of a century after its initial publication, “Sweet Potato” remains popular, with new editions of the story released in 2000 and 2005 by publishers Ch’ŏngmoksa and Ch’angbi, respectively.

Although some stories in the collection make their English language debut, “Sweet Potato” has been translated into English at least three times, including once by prolific Korean translator Kevin O’Rourke (titles for prior translations include “Potatoes” and “The Potatoes”). Unlike publishers of other anthologies that have included Kim’s work, Honford Star holds no university affiliations. Jung’s identity as a translator diverges from tradition as well: she is not a Koreanist, like the historical majority of Korean literary translators, but a filmmaker and PhD student in cinema studies. Sweet Potato’s target audience differs from that of prior English renditions of Kim Tong-in’s writing, overlapping more clearly with readers of popular contemporary Korean fiction by writers such as Han Kang and Bae Suah than with an academic readership. With its unique profile as a historical collection intended for a popular audience and (in the case of the story “Sweet Potato”) as the most recent addition to a legacy of translations, the anthology invites consideration of the process by which it was translated and a comparison to historical translations of Kim Tong-in’s body of work.

Specifically, Jung uses her translation as a way to interpret and comment on the notions of female purity that Kim espouses in “Sweet Potato.” In her foreword to the collection, she states that although Kim has a gift for “weaving melodrama” into his work, “Sweet Potato” is still like Kim’s other writing in its embodiment of the “misogynistic trope of punishing the woman who isn’t ‘virtuous’”—in this case, Pong-nyŏ dying a violent and early death after she becomes a prostitute. Before the reader has even turned to the first page of “Sweet Potato,” his or her interpretation is already resituated by Jung’s own critical understanding of the text as an imperfect and misogynistic piece of writing. Jung channels her own intentions in order to exert her ownership of the text.

Jung further exerts her ownership as translator by footnoting and leaving words throughout in transliterated Korean. Both of these actions draw attention to the process of translation, and footnotes allow the translator to clarify meaning in the work in her own voice. Jung notably leaves the titles of characters, proper names, and exclamations in Korean in her translation. Beginning on the first page, when Kim details the fall of Pong-nyŏ’s family into poverty, she refers to the educated class with the word sŏnbi rather than the patriarchal “gentleman-scholar” class that O’Rourke uses in his translation. By leaving words in Korean, Jung is able to both correct the choices of prior translators that serve to erase feminine presence in the text and to impress upon the reader the fact that he or she is reading a translation. Both functions tie together, as to read an assertively translated work is to read a piece of writing that does not bend to the traditionally gendered relation between source and translation pointed out by scholars like Sherry Simon. Reading titles like sŏnbi and Pong-nyŏ’s exasperated exclamation of “Hŭng!” upon learning that Wang has married, readers are surrounded by words with which they are unfamiliar. They take part in the continued process of translation by deducing on their own the meanings of words that the translator has chosen to leave unclear to the English reader.

When Jung uses footnotes, it is not to clarify the meaning of the Korean, but to emphasize the feminine aspects of certain words that have been hidden in prior translations. She footnotes her first mention of Pong-nyŏ’s name to point out that the name means “lucky girl,” giving readers the opportunity to understand the inherent irony of Pong-nyŏ’s demise—and to ruminate upon Kim’s choice to frame Pong-nyŏ as a pure and virginal woman who has fallen from grace. Later, when Pong-nyŏ refers to her female coworkers as hyŏngnim, Jung footnotes this word as well to explain that although hyŏngnim is now used for men, it was at the time a phrase that applied to women as well. While O’Rourke translates the word as “sister,” Jung takes the opportunity to reclaim the femininity of a phrase that has in modern times been relegated to a masculine realm. What could be a crutch to the reader and a way to make the text comfortable for him or her becomes a mark of the translator’s power over the text.

A secondary—and unusual—element of Jung’s translation is the use of colloquial language, uncommon in translations of historical texts which oftentimes attempt to mimic historical English. While changing the text in this way does make the translation more familiar to readers and could be construed as masquerading it as a “pure,” originally English piece of writing, Jung’s choice to colloquialize a historical text emphasizes the misogyny of the original. Towards the beginning of the story, O’Rourke uses the odd and rather dated exclamation “Cheeky hussy!” to convey an insult that Pong-nyŏ’s husband hurls at her during a domestic dispute. In Jung’s version, Pong-nyŏ’s husband is much more direct and yells, “Why, you little bitch!” “Cheeky hussy” indicates that Pong-nyŏ is being impudent in her role as a housewife, but “bitch” is a more vulgar attack on her identity as a woman. Later in O’Rourke’s translation, Pong-nyŏ swings her “bum” around as she follows her client Wang, while in Jung’s translation, she swings her “ass” around. Instead of adjusting her translation to make it readable in polite company, Jung actively inserts cursing and negative language to draw attention to Pong-nyŏ’s objectification by the men around her. Pong-nyŏ is expected to be a perfect wife to her husband, but also a perfect prostitute to Wang, devoid of any agency of her own. Jung makes this clear with her choice of “supplementary” words that add emphasis and a vulgarity which, while not completely necessary for the reader’s comprehension, does allow Jung to situate the text’s misogyny for her readers. In doing so, Jung foregrounds the female presence in the text. Unlike O’Rourke, she uses her translation as an opportunity to criticize the text by highlighting its disconnect from her own convictions about female empowerment.

As a retranslation, Jung’s “Sweet Potato” exists alongside prior versions of the work, and only through comparison to these translations can the reader understand Jung’s actions as a feminist translator. The keen modern reader of literary translation, quick to respect the agency of the translator, would be wise to take into account the agency of the retranslator as well. Jung aptly shows us the power that the retranslator can hold.

(Image credit: Sweet Potato cover art by Jee-ook Choi)

Lizzie Buehler is an Assistant Editor at Asymptote. She graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Comparative Literature and is currently based in New York as a freelance Korean translator. She is currently at work translating a book of short stories by the writer Yun Ko-eun.


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