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.
Ready for your Friday World Tour? We touch down in Iran just in time for the New Year celebrations—for which thousands of books are exchanged! Then off to the States, where writers of all backgrounds are reacting to the political tumult of the times. Finally in Morocco, we’ll catch the National Conference on the Arabic Language. Let’s get going!
Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-at-Large for Iran, updates on the New Year celebrations:
The Persian year of 1395 (SH for solar Hijri calendar) will come to an end and give way to the year 1396 on Monday March 21st, the day of the spring equinox, at exactly 13:58:40 Iran’s local time. The arrival of the New Year and spring is celebrated with various Nowruz (literally meaning “new day”) traditions such as haft sin, the special table spreading that consists of seven different items all starting with the Persian letter س [sin or the “s” letter], each symbolizing one thing or another. The International Nowruz Day was inscribed on the list of UN’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
To welcome the New Year, the Iranian literary community, like the previous year, has set up a campaign entitled Eydane ye Ketab [Nowruz gifts of book]. It began on March 5th and will run for a month, aiming to promote buying books as eydi (gifts for the Persian New Year) for friends and family instead of offering money or other gifts, or even as replacements for the calendars that companies widely give out as promotional year-end gifts. More than four thousand publishers around the country are part of this campaign and offer more than one million titles with special prices. In the first seven days of the campaign, more than 190,000 books were sold.
Some of the translation titles on the bestsellers list of the Eydane, have included: The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi by Elif Şafak; Me Before You by Jojo Moyes; A Fraction of a Whole by Steve Totlz; After You by Jojo Moyes; Asshole No More, The Original Self-Help Guide for Recovering Assholes and Their Victims by Xavier Crement; The 52-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton; One Plus One by Jojo Moyes; and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.