This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, Kim Yideum’s novel Blood Sisters, raises profound questions about class dynamics, gender roles, and the power of language to uphold existing hierarchies. In today’s interview, translator Ji Yoon Lee talks with Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone about the challenging process of recreating the tones and nuances of the original Korean in English. They also discuss the parallels between Korean political narratives of the 1980s and the current discourse in the USA, as well as Lee’s innovative use of Spanish to translate Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.”
Jacob Silkstone (JS): Referring to her work as a whole, Kim Yideum has said (in your translation) that “A female writer needs to fight to build her own language against the default system.” It feels to me as though there’s an echo of that statement when the protagonist of Blood Sisters says, “I speak with my own mouth, so I will address others on my own terms. . .”Could you say a little about that “default system” that Kim Yideum’s work struggles against? Are there any aspects of the struggle that feel unique to Korea?
Ji Yoon Lee (JYL): I absolutely see the echo there, too. Specifically, the protagonist, Yeoul, is resisting: in Korea, we often address people by the role that they play in our lives, such as “teacher,” “president of the company,” “older lady,” and so on. Once intimacy develops, there is a shift in the form of address, often towards familial terms, even when you are not related: “older brother,” “older sister,” and so on. That is meant to make people feel a closer connection beyond the societal roles they play for one another.