Place: South Korea

Section Editors’ Highlights: Fall 2018

Don’t know where to start with our Fall 2018 issue? Here are the stand-out pieces, according to our section editors.

The brand new Fall 2018 issue of Asymptote was released last week and we are still enjoying its diverse offerings from 31 countries, including a Special Feature on Catalan fiction. After the blog editors posted their highlights two days ago, the quarterly magazine’s section editors share their favorites from this season’s haul: 

What good is French today? After years of patient apprenticeship, and years of mastery, perhaps writing in French was only a means of escape, or a way of doing battle. These are the questions that Abdellah Taïa battles with, in ‘To Love and to Kill: Why Do I Write In French?’ Beautifully translated by Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Nuernberg, Taïa’s essay attacks the French language, with great vigor and style, and—of course—in French. In a succinct essay, Taïa adroitly sets out the class politics of speaking French in Morocco, and the satisfactions (and oblivions) of conquering a language and a place, and all the complicated forms of hatred (and self-hatred) that come with it.

—Joshua Craze, Nonfiction editor

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The 2018 Man Booker International Shortlist: the Subjective Nature of Literary Merit

"Fiction at its finest”, as the Man Booker tagline describes its self-imposed mission.

“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader,” Vladimir Nabokov reminds us in his article “Good Readers and Good Writers”. There are so many books in this world, and unless your life revolves solely around books, it might be hard to be widely read and an active re-reader. Attaining this level of perfection that Nabokov describes is impossible, but the idea of re-reading as a tool to better understanding the value of a book underpins the philosophy of the Man Booker Prize International’s judging panel since its inception.

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The Man Booker International 2018 Longlist: At the Boundaries of Fiction

"Non-European works included in the longlist come highly recommended by readers and critics alike."

The 2018 Oscars may be over, but the awards season for the literary world has barely begun, with the Man Booker International Prize receiving the most international attention. In the world of translated fiction, the Man Booker International holds a prestige similar to the Oscars, which explains the pomp and excitement surrounding the announcement of this year’s longlist, made public March 12. The longlist includes thirteen books from ten countries in eight languages, from Argentina to Taiwan.

The MBI used to be a career-prize akin to the Nobel, awarded to a non-British author for his or her entire body of work every two years. Since its merger with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize its format has changed. Now the Prize seeks to honor the author and translator of the best book (“in the opinion of the judges”) translated into English and published in the UK for the eligible period. For 2018, all eligible submission were novels or short story collections published between May 1, 2017 and April 30, 2018. Much like its sister prize (known simply as the Man Booker Prize), the winner of the MBI tends to garner much attention and sees a boom in book sales. Its history accounts for its prestige, but just as importantly, the MBI is one of the few prizes out there that splits the monetary value of its prize between the writer and translator.

Part of the MBI’s unofficial mission is to raise the profile of translated fiction and translators in the English-speaking world and provide a fair snapshot of world literature. What does this year’s longlist tell us about the MBI’s ability to achieve that goal? Progress has been made from past years, especially with regard to gender equality: six of the thirteen nominated authors and seven of the fifteen translators are women. Unfortunately, issues arise when taking into account the linguistic and regional diversity of the prize not only this year, but with previous lists as well. For 2018, only four of the thirteen books come from non-European authors, with no titles from North and Central America or Africa. This is an issue that plagued the IFFP before it merged with the MBI and marks even the Nobel Prize for literature, as detailed by Sam Carter in his essay “The Nobel’s Faulty Compass.”

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Translation Tuesday: “Concealed Words” by Sin Yong-Mok

Nobody had stolen the sound of my footsteps.

Today we bring you a poem from a lauded South Korean poet, Sin Yong-Mok, in a translation by Brother Anthony of Taizé that is sensitive to the sonorous aspects of Sin’s lines. If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out the poetry section in the Winter 2018 issue of Asymptote.

Concealed Words

God used up all the summer heat trying to sew the sound of rain inside rain. It was morning when, in order to retrieve one raindrop dropped by mistake, mists roamed the ground.

If there’s a leaky roof the water may be an abraded stone.

I enabled that stone to hear a sound of footsteps.

One day at an estuary I happened to pick up one raindrop. Nobody had stolen the sound of my footsteps.

Translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé

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Announcing the Winter 2018 Issue of Asymptote

Celebrate our 7th anniversary with this new issue, gathering never-before-published work from 30 countries!

We interrupt our regular programming to announce the launch of Asymptote‘s Winter 2018 issue! Here’s a tour of some of the outstanding new work from 30 different countries, which we’ve gathered under the theme of “A Different Light”:

In “Aeschylus, the Lost,” Albania’s Ismail Kadare imagines a “murky light” filtering through oiled window paper in the ancient workroom of the father of Greek tragedy. A conversation with acclaimed translator Daniel Mendelsohn reveals the “Homeric funneling” behind his latest memoir. Polish author Marta Zelwan headlines our Microfiction Special Feature, where meaning gleams through the veil of allegory. Light glows ever brighter in poet Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s “syntactically frenetic” “Arachnid Sun”; and in Erika Kobayashi’s fiction, nuclear devastation blazes from Hiroshima to Fukushima.

The light around us is sometimes blinding, sometimes dim, “like a dream glimpsed through a glass that’s too thick,” as Argentine writer Roberto Arlt puts it, channeling Paul to the Corinthians in The Manufacturer of Ghosts. Something dreamlike indeed shines in César Moro’s Equestrian Turtle, where “the dawn emerges from your lips,” and, as if in echo, Mexican writer Hubert Matiúwàa prophecies for his people’s children “a house made of dawn.” With Matiúwàa’s Mè’phàà and our first works from Amharic and Montenegrin, we’ve now published translations from exactly 100 languages!

We hope you enjoy reading this milestone issue as much as everyone at Asymptote enjoyed putting it together. If you want to see us carry on for years to come, consider becoming a masthead member or a sustaining member today. Spread the word far and wide!

*****

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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.

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In Review: “The Impossible Fairy Tale” by Han Yujoo

Emma Holland reviews a disturbing, brilliant, "oddly riveting" novel from South Korea.

Han Yujoo’s debut novel is chilling and surreal, raising questions about deep-seated human violence, and the nature of art-making. A review by Asymptote Executive Assistant Emma Holland.

The Impossible Fairytale pulls readers into its disorienting and brutal world, spinning a dark narrative of the nameless Child and her classmates. Later the perspective shifts into a meta-narrative—questioning and twisting ideas concerning language and the restraints of the novel as a literary form. Korean author Han Yujoo’s debut novel, translated by Janet Hong, The Impossible Fairytale is a wildly gripping page-turner, and ultimately a powerful yet unsettling read.

Through the narrative, Han explores the notion that violence is an ingrained part of society. Speaking at the Free Word Centre in London on July 10 at an author discussion hosted by the UK publisher, Titled Axis Press, Han talked of how “from a young age we are exposed to violence, it becomes normalized, a part of our everyday life…eating away at our minds.”

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Translation Tuesday: “The Woman in Tula” by Kang Unkyo

"the sunset which used to come running, when she smiled carefully"

Kang Unkyo is a veteran Korean poet whose poetry, like all great art, has evolved in response to the times. From nihilistic political verse to “People’s Poetry” of abstractions, she has refreshed many traditional forms. Known for her lyrical touch, the poet here creates a sensory pastiche of the woman in Tula. 

That woman in Tula who used to blush,
that woman in Tula who used to ask the menu carefully,
that woman who used to put on a red-apple-patterned apron
and make red salad,
the sunset which used to come running, when she smiled carefully,
the woman in Tula who used to turn over and wipe the reddened tables,
that woman, red glasses, red curtains, red calculator

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Kim Haengsook

My nostrils were buried. I had breakfast in a world which didn’t smell at all.

In these two poems, the acclaimed South Korean poet Kim Haengsook focuses on the human face and its excess of meaning in a world where meaning itself is volatile and unstable. The face, always at the center of human relations, can signify the deepest feelings of happiness, loss and confusion, yet its silent vocabulary collides with the world of objects and our desire to communicate with other people. It is a pleasure to feature Haengsook’s thought-provoking work on Asymptote, translated by Lei Kim. 


The Fall of a Face

The face that stayed with me, like a brother-in-arms, ran away like another brother-in-arms into the skin of the infinite, placid night.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Lee Seong-Bok

That day the sun beat down on the blue china shards, all day long, and the blade of grass, slightly wilted, was a blade of grass.

Courtesy of Literature Translation Institute of Korea, we are pleased to showcase the work of Lee Seong-Bok, translated by Yea Jung Park. Wistful for lost opportunity, these urgent, insistent prose poems hark back to a time of youth, and are sure to evoke strong personal memories.


1) Sister, the boat we rode on that day

My love, my sister,
do dream of the sweet happiness
of going there and living, just the two of us!

— Charles Baudelaire, “Invitation to a Voyage”

That year in late spring, one night spent in the bungalow by the reservoir. Tens of thousands of stars whizzing above the campfire. The night-long cuckoo cry engraved a tattoo on my forearm in the shadow-shape of a heaving wooden ship, and sister, in the morning all those day-lily blossoms, I did not know where to find your eyes among them. Eyes with yellow petals hung like the wings of a fan, eyes rolling like iron hoops to the sound of buzzing. Even now, at the cuckoo’s cry my crazed arms will mimic the rowing of a boat, and sister, the boat we rode on that day advances carefully through the buzzing day-lily stars, searching for the eyes you have lost in the night.
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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Byung-rul Lee

The hour hand blankly moves, in spite of the dangling minute hand with a loose screw.

In a society where emotional restraint is prized, interactions can all of a sudden grow stilted or become suffused with a great silence as disappointment sinks in. In these exemplary poems by Korean poet Byung-rul Lee, tone and imagery hint at the emotional tumult hidden underneath the surface.

Great Sadness

Truly, an emotion the size of a single juice pack.

Something is stuck and will not come out.
A woman’s face full of the image of an afternoon garden,
sturdy roots of a tree growing through a wall,
a swarm of ants climbing up a pillar in lines,
that do not fall off or get brushed off, even when shaken.

The waist of a flower has accepted signs of death,
blood and murderous intent,
forearms holding up the breath of love

The hour hand blankly moves,
in spite of the dangling minute hand with a loose screw.
A metaphor hidden in the naked flesh of the picture.

I cannot give up this abyss.
If I wanted to hide it,
I would have to measure to see if I can take it out again.

As molten iron, once welded on, does not fall off,
this sadness, seared by fire, does not fall off.
Since it is my turn to step back a bit,
please, anybody, share some wine with my brothers.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Yoo An-Jin

Now my language is a roaring of waves

It’s not often that poets become household names, but acclaimed Korean poet Yoo An-Jin had help from her contribution to the immensely popular essay collection, “Dreaming of a Beautiful Friendship,” as well as from her first novel, Anemones do not Wither, adapted into a hit television series. In these poems, sensitively translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Yu Chang-Gong, we see the other side of that popularity: the sudden loneliness amid a crowd; the naked dread of age.

Aged Forty

Just as the place where a river ends is the sea,
do we reach the sea of tears
at the age when youth’s tears run dry?

Now my language is a roaring of waves
and if once I shout
ten million words resonate
while my gestures have turned into writhing waves.

Though it unravel ten million times,
it is all a knot of dancing steps
indeed, from forty onwards is an age of tears,
an age of tears
showing nothing but waterways.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Moon Taejun

The things that she called upon spiralled in orderly circles and soared into the glistening winter sky.

As the editor of a world literature journal who’s read submissions across all genres for more than six years now, I’m always on the look-out for a certain cosmic echo when one piece of writing rhymes with another from a different continent, as if confirming our shared humanity. Last week’s poem by Portuguese poet Ana Luísa Amaral, addressed from mother to daughter, is perfectly answered by these elegiac verses by Korean counterpart Moon Taejun mourning a departed mother, and capturing a magnificent stillness. 

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief

My Mother’s Prayer Beads

One day my mother sat blankly as she fingered her cold prayer beads.

My mother lowered her head as though mending some frayed clothes. She mustered the flowers, thunders, grasshoppers, and snowstorms; she also called upon my dead granny, me who was ailing, and my maternal uncle who lived afar. Silently, she bound up small scraps of cloth. Then she called upon the terrifying darkness, the valley fog, the roaring fire, and the stars on high. A faint, lengthy song arose from my mother’s bosom like it did when she used to sing me to sleep. She hummed the simplest song that all – the stag beetle, the puny bird, the eight-year-old child, the ninety-year-old granny, the parched verdure, the flock of sheep and its meadow, and creatures with menacing teeth – would know. The song my mother sang was fettered by her cold prayer beads while the things that she called upon spiralled in orderly circles and soared into the glistening winter sky.

A Faraway Place

Today the air teems with words of goodbye.
A handful, a handful at a time, I breathe the words of goodbye.
A faraway place comes forth.
As it pushes me little by little, a faraway place comes forth.
I would bring with me the first newly sprouted leaf, her lips, her crimson
cheeks, and her beaming eyes that make me shy.
The air raises my heart, like a fragile piece of ice, and passes me by.
The barren tree sheds and sheds its leaves and the rock governs the dim
light of the stone’s shadow.
The bench sits at the same spot all day long with a frame on which nobody
is seated even now.
Hands quivered, eyes damped, and at a loss for words.
When everybody speaks of farewells,
a faraway place comes forth,
somewhere we can hardly fathom.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Kim Ki-taek

Bewildered by the odd familiarity of unfamiliarity, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

The award-winning poet Kim Ki-taek has been described as “an observer of minute and microscopic details” with a rational but compelling style of description that pulls you into his universe, where no encounter is ever mundane. The art critic John Berger, who gave us Ways of Seeing, would have found much to commend about the two poems presented below.

My Eyes Met His

My eyes met his for a moment.

His face was familiar,

but I couldn’t remember who he was.

Bewildered by the odd familiarity of unfamiliarity

I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

He, too, seemed to ponder who I was.

He was rummaging through a garbage bag.

He was inside the skin of a cat.

As if he were used to standing upright,

to walk with four feet appeared awkward.

As if complaining to me, who had disturbed his ransacking,

Meow, he let out with feeling.

But the strange sound like a baby crying unexpectedly

seemed unbearable for him to hear and

immediately he shut his mouth.

He didn’t run away like other cats.

As if angry over his own sad figure being caught,

he lowered his head, turning slowly, back arched,

and moved off into the distance for a long time.

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