Jung Young Su

Illustration by Florinda Pamungkas

I was going to quit teaching as soon as the semester was done. I’d known for a while I wasn’t cut out for it. I was fed up with blabbering in medieval Spanish to students who couldn’t even grasp the conditional tense, explaining Lope de Vega’s plays for undergrads who hated books, marking their criminally mediocre papers, and dealing with their inane emails come grading time. I’d clung on, hoping for tenure, but gave up when I realized that aside from a slightly higher salary and some job stability, a professor wasn’t much better than an adjunct. And since you’d be stuck for the rest of your life doing the things I just mentioned, you might say it could even be worse.

Translation, on the other hand, was far better than instructing idiot students. Translating Spanish literature on the side these past few years made me realize how well-suited I was for it. I was a pretty good translator, or at least my editor thought so. He said there was no one in Korea better for translating Lope de Vega’s work. So I planned to ditch academia, fly to Spain, find a second-floor apartment looking down at a festive street in Granada or somewhere, and translate. Every morning I’d take a walk in the old city, sip espresso at a café, sit at a desk with a fresh breeze from an open window, and slowly translate Vega’s plays, maybe twenty pages a day . . . perfect, right? Not forever, obviously, but maybe for a year or two.

The plan even seemed close to coming true. My editor, over dinner, mentioned the possibility of a 1,200-page selection of Lope de Vega translations. He “doubted he could find a translator better” than me. In the parlance of the publishing world, this meant I was hired, as good as if I had signed a contract. My mouth replied, Oh really, but my feet wanted to jump for joy. The project would mean a year in Granada, two if I could find more work, meaning goodbye students forever. All I could think about was Lope de Vega and the sunny Granada room on the second floor. Which is why I felt nothing, really, when I heard Oh Younghan was made professor.

The news came to me at the after-party for the Understanding Modern Spanish Literature course. I only attended because our department had a tradition of sorts where all the lecturers gathered at the last departmental after-party of the semester. Oh Younghan was there, as well as a master’s student named Cho Hyunsu, and a new lecturer from a different school. And others, but I only knew those three. I meant to show up a bit late, but overdid it; a few people had gone home. And there was something odd in the air . . . there was just too much focus on Oh Younghan. I discreetly queried the new lecturer and he replied, making a big fuss, that Oh Younghan was appointed an assistant professor. It wasn’t announced yet, but it was decided, and he could begin taking in graduate students next semester. It all meant nothing to me, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit surprised. Korean humanities programs may bend over backwards for foreign credentials, but to actually give this pipsqueak, who started teaching only three years ago and wasn’t even thirty-five yet, a professorship was just too ridiculous to contemplate.

And now that I was in possession of the facts, the scene before me just about took my breath away. Starry-eyed students surrounded Oh Younghan, ooh-ing and aah-ing at his every word. Cho Hyunsu was especially obsequious. It was embarrassing. Not only did the little bastard take my class for three semesters—one on audit, no less—he came to me for mentoring and dating advice. Once, he wanted me to look at an article he was thinking of submitting. I wondered where he’d been this semester. Apparently he’d been taking Oh Younghan’s class.

I had to go over and congratulate Oh Younghan. He said, with false modesty, that it was no big deal. I responded, Are you kidding, lots of people would kill for this job, and I suddenly realized I sounded like one of them. I didn’t correct myself because it would only be further misconstrued. There was nothing more to say because he was playing it so modest. In the ensuing awkwardness, I returned to my seat and my beer. I tried to have a conversation with the new lecturer, but we didn’t have much in common. He had no sense of humor, just an endless store of trite pep talk (everything happens for a reason, there’s a light at the end of every tunnel, everyone has it hard nowadays). It soon went nowhere, and I ended up drinking in silence, listening to the laughter at the next table.

Who knows why, but I followed the group to the next bar. We were completely drunk, Cho Hyunsu most of all. Without provocation, and gesticulating wildly, he began to expand on his literary views, ranting about Borges and Octavio Paz, listing authors that had a hint of the Third World to their names—Alberto Fuguet, Horatio Quiroga and what not—but having familiarized myself with his pretentions over the years, he was probably more interested in dropping their showy names than actually reading what they wrote. Soon, he was the only one talking. He had exhausted us all, me included.

Then the new instructor (what is his name?), as if trying to lift the mood, proposed yet another congratulatory toast to Oh Younghan, as if we hadn’t already toasted him several times. But then, he had to call out my name and say, You’re next! Everyone looked at me. I wondered why he brought that up when I’d told him I had other plans. The students were watching so I was about to let it pass, but Cho Hyunsu said, his voice slurred, that I had better get my behind in gear. I was overcome with sudden rage. I even surprised myself with what happened next. Rough language erupted from my mouth as I ripped into his rudeness and his fake, dishonest attitude, and went on to expose his non-existent sense of reality. I said he was only name-dropping authors just to look clever, authors whose books he’d never read, went on about how crappy the papers he’d written for my classes were, and breathlessly detailed how the article he’d shown me was worthless and a torture to read. Cho Hyunsu looked stricken. My anger intensified as I moved on to saying things I couldn’t remember later on. I was soon tripping over my own tongue and getting out of breath. I let it all out, sat down again before my beer, and the rest is blank.

When I woke up the next day, I had six unanswered calls. Two were from the publishing house, and the rest were from Eunyoung. I wondered why they had called so early in the morning, but I realized it was actually 3 p.m. Considering my pounding head and the aching throughout my body, I must’ve drunk an awful lot. The room was hot and humid, and I was sweaty. I whipped open the curtains and saw it was bright outside. Two text messages read, “Where are you? Pick up!” and “Are you crazy? Call me now,” both from Eunyoung. I then remembered we had a lunch date. Nothing important, just her wanting to buy me a new couch. I thought my couch was fine, and spending money on that kind of thing seemed wasteful, but she insisted. She said she couldn’t bear the smell of aging faux leather, and how I could read through its fumes was beyond her. There did seem to be a smell when she mentioned it. But nothing I would’ve noticed on my own.

Eunyoung needed to be resolved before I left for Granada. She wasn’t aware of my plans. She’d tell me not to go, or—worse still—ask to tag along. Our relationship had been tepid these past six months, but I couldn’t find the right time to end it. I wasn’t in a hurry. We still went out occasionally and spent the night in each other’s places. I suppose I used to like her, but now I wasn’t sure. What I didn’t want was this lukewarm state of affairs to continue to the point where she moved in by default. I decided to call her when her anger died down; she would be amenable by evening. Rage doesn’t last without fuel.

Speaking of which. I immediately regretted the night before. How could I have spewed such rancor? Never in my life had I hit anyone, or said something just to be hurtful; I’m just not that brave. I knew Cho Hyunsu was more literary than I had said, and while his article was rough in patches, it was still viable; I was almost looking forward to reading what he would come up with next (although no news was forthcoming on that front). The more I thought about it, the guiltier I felt. I had to apologize.

I got up, showered, and sipped some coffee. My feelings lifted. I checked to see if my editor emailed, but nada. He probably called because of the deadline, and wanted reassuring. There were two calls; his boss must’ve prodded him this morning. My new editor did not inspire much confidence. He was slow to respond and would forget to attach files on emails, but it was more his liberal use of emoticons that gave me a rookie impression (established editors would never stoop to using emoticons). Maybe he line-edited like a fiend, but I wasn’t holding my breath. I didn’t call back, figuring he would call again if it were really important.

The coffee restored my sanity, so I sat down and clicked open the manuscript. I’d neglected it because of end-of-semester grading. Scrolling through, I figured I could finish the whole thing in three to four industrious days. I was translating Lope de Vega’s The Shepherds of Bethlehem, and aside from the medieval Spanish, it wasn’t too hard. I found a modern Spanish text version on the Gutenberg website, and also several Korean translations, although each and every one of them was garbage. The one published in the late 1980s was passable in sections, but it, too, was garbage on the whole. But I didn’t throw them out. I kept them next to me, comparing their sentences to my own. There’s good in everything, and this technique enabling my own translation to be more complete was, for what it’s worth, a reason to thank the subpar translations of yore. Some translators never look at other editions as a rule, thinking this protects the uniqueness of their work. This is ludicrous. The belief a translator’s essence can enter into the text is to be ignorant of the very fundamentals of translation. Only the original work is essentially meaningful, and regardless of the language being used to build up that meaning, it’s obvious there can only be one meaning in the end. Therefore, the most important thing in translation, really the only important thing, is “accuracy.” Others might argue for diversity, quoting Ricœur: “It is always possible to say the same thing in different ways.” His point there, however, is not “different ways” but “the same thing,” and the idea itself is just a repetition of what structuralists say, that languages may be different but the essence they point to is the same. Even if they’re in different languages, words as units of meaning can only have one vector, and while the languages of the world resemble tangles of lines and curves, these tangles, like a spider web, lead towards a singular point of meaning, and the duty of the translator is to set the bearing of the lines in the proper direction, and all other talk of essence or whatever is utter blather. This is why, contrary to what academics like Harold Bloom say, that “translation is impossible” or “all translation is mistranslation,” translation is actually possible, and, in fact, is always possible.

Academics say other things, too. Like, in order to study Spanish literature one must speak Spanish perfectly (perhaps), to speak perfect Spanish one must obtain a degree from a Spanish university (wait a second), and one must converse in Spanish and eat Spanish food and write one’s thesis in Spanish and publish it in a Spanish journal. So if you want to say you’ve made a complete reading of, say, Borges, you have to read him in the original language that bears the fingerprints of his soul (awful expression, but anyway) to understand his aesthetics, meaning, values, whatever. This is nonsense, because a Spanish sentence like “vamos a casa” being changed into “let’s go home” does not necessitate any real aesthetic or semantic loss. In the end there will always be one sentence that most precisely expresses the meaning and nuance of the original text, and finding this sentence is the translator’s sole objective. Nevertheless, there still persist beliefs close to a kind of language fundamentalism, a religion that proponents stop at nothing to strengthen and perpetuate. Take Professor Gong Sangyoung, who is the main reason why the university appointed Oh Younghan, that empty-headed pipsqueak, just because Oh Younghan has a University of Barcelona Ph.D. and published in some second-rate village drugstore of an academic journal in Spain. When I was an undergrad, doctoral students composed their theses in Korean, but these days even master’s candidates are writing them in Spanish. So much for our department’s original objective of exploring literary truth. If it’s not your mother tongue, you’re just better off using a primary text that’s translated through the blood, sweat, and tears of an experienced translator. Professor Gong to think Oh Younghan clever just for—rather strategically—writing his thesis in Spanish is moronic thinking; the single most important quality in a scholar is to have a deep understanding of literature, and in that sense, Oh Younghan wasn’t even a Cho Hyunsu.

I easily found Cho Hyunsu’s phone number. The student affairs office gave it to me without even questioning who I was. I messaged him. I thought of apologizing in the SMS, but only asked to see him. He replied twenty minutes later (not enough time to discern whether he was feeling better about the whole thing), saying he was working at the circulation desk in the school library, and that his shift ended at 10 p.m. I set off with the intent to briefly drop by and apologize.

Of course, at the Japanese restaurant I had popped into for a quick bite, I just had to bump into Professor Gong. And it figures, the person he was having lunch with was Oh Younghan. I’d avoided the school cafeteria in the hopes of this not happening (not that I honestly care). I wanted to pretend I hadn’t seen them, but as soon as I stepped through the door the entrance bell rang loudly, and both Oh Younghan and the professor looked up; I was stuck with having to at least say hello. Professor Gong marveled verbosely at the serendipity of this meeting—never mind that the restaurant was only about fifty meters from school—and said they were just talking about me. I could imagine what. Oh Younghan had clearly gossiped to the professor about what I’d done to Cho Hyunsu. I realized why I was avoiding them; nowhere does word spread faster than at a school. Professor Gong invited me to sit, but having not the tiniest intention of doing so, I said I had to go. Nothing is as absurd as walking in somewhere and saying you have to leave, but Professor Gong didn’t try to stop me. Instead, his voice became concerned as he suggested I leave off translating for a while and concentrate on writing articles. He wanted to nominate me for a professorship, but his hands were tied because I didn’t have enough publications. What he meant by publications was to crank out a tediously redundant paper for some second-rate journal in Spain. I knew he didn’t have the slightest intention of nominating me either way, so I adequately responded, Yes I shall, I most certainly shall. He said if I rested for a couple of weeks I might feel better. I had no idea why he’d presume to know how I felt, but again I only said, Sure, I’ll do that, exactly that, made the appropriate farewells, and quickly left. The last thing he said to me was that I should attend the congratulatory party scheduled next week for Professor Oh’s appointment.

“Of course I will. It’s not just anyone, but Younghan we’re talking about.”

Of course I wouldn’t go. I was only thinking of how they were calling him “Professor Oh” when his appointment wasn’t even public yet, the fools.

When Oh Younghan announced he was headed for Spain, I didn’t expect him to return with a degree. I thought he’d come back after a year or two with some excuse, and put on airs having “studied overseas.” When I first met Oh Younghan, or when I was a junior and he a freshman up from the boondocks, he was a stereotypical overachiever who knew nothing outside of cramming for exams, and was so gawky he couldn’t move a desk on his own. He hadn’t read a single novel due to a lifetime of cramming, and was totally ignorant of literature. It’s incredible to think about, but he didn’t know who Borges was. When a classmate of mine, God knows what he’s doing now, said, Hey, this one doesn’t even know Borges! I genuinely took that to mean Oh Younghan wasn’t read up on Borges’s works. But what my classmate had meant was that Oh Younghan had never even heard of Borges. He did say he had heard of Márquez. So I told Oh Younghan that he should read Borges, and maybe Márquez, too. He then seemed to have done something over the break, because when he was back the next semester, he was spouting the names of Latin American writers left and right. That was strange enough, but then something happened that decidedly compromised our relationship. Oh Younghan and I were taking an elective together, and I asked him for a copy of something, some article or past exams. He said they were in his bag and I should take them out myself, but when I did, a notebook came out with the papers. In it were the names of dozens of Latin American writers, with their dates of birth and death and their major works and styles, arranged in small, neat handwriting. Like a cheat sheet put together for cramming. I immediately put it back. It was embarrassing. I never told Oh Younghan or anyone what I saw. But I think he knew, because he became self-conscious around me. Whenever I passed him as he recited author names, he would pause and change the subject. Eventually he avoided me altogether, and didn’t invite me to his going-away party for Spain.

The next time I saw him, I had finished my Ph.D. and was teaching at my alma mater. I was surprised to learn that he had obtained his doctorate in Spain and was teaching in my department; I’d assumed he had nothing to do with literature anymore, that he was a stockbroker, or, if he were to actually use his major, at some trading company for South American lumber. Oh Younghan, whom I hadn’t seen in eight years, had a funny attitude. He looked at me as if we’d never met before in his life. When I threw him an informal Hi, he looked like he was trying to remember who I was. I didn’t care to be friendly myself, so I let it go. I never saw Oh Younghan teach, or had a conversation with him since his return, so I had no idea how knowledgeable or passionate he was now about Spanish literature. I knew how difficult it was to get a Ph.D., so I thought I should try seeing him in a better light. But I couldn’t help remembering that notebook.

Compared to Oh Younghan, Cho Hyunsu was clever. At least he was serious about literature. I’d forgotten about him because I hadn’t seen him this semester, but it was kind of fun talking to Cho Hyunsu. There wasn’t anyone else in the school, much less any other student, that I’d talked to more. He came from a different university, and apparently majored in business or economics as an undergrad. Maybe this was why he was obsessed with the larger issues of literature as an art. He never stopped questioning, and sometimes directed these questions at me. Why study seventeenth-century Spanish literature? What’s the point of researching Vega or Quevedo, when we live in twenty-first century Seoul? It’s meaningless. Would they be interested in what we wrote? If a Ukrainian wrote a doctoral thesis on Park Ji-won, would we care? I don’t remember my answers. I might have said uselessness was the very essence of literature, or whatever. Maybe literature is a desire to pass the time doing something that appears meaningful. It’s questionable whether a thesis with a title like, “The Post-intellectualist Aspects and Limitations of Francisco de Quevedo’s Poetry” is meaningful. In contrast, translation is indisputably crucial. Only translation can bring meaning of a certain era and language into a different era and language, giving the original work universal value. Only translation is essential for sharing literature; the rest is just window dressing. So the questions Cho Hyunsu was asking pretty much hit the mark. When I thought about this, I realized my friendship with Cho Hyunsu was deeper than I had previously assumed. I regretted last night even more, but then thought, maybe he wasn’t that angry. Many of our previous conversations were somewhat heated, and since I was drunk that night (I didn’t recall everything that clearly), maybe I remembered wrong and my tone was the usual. His text message could’ve been late because he was shelving books. I felt better already, and entered the library with a light heart.

Cho Hyunsu wasn’t at the circulation desk. There was a female student with orange hair parted down the middle into pigtails. When I approached, she quickly put away her smartphone (she must’ve been playing a game) and looked up. I asked for the male student who worked there. Apparently, he left two hours ago. He texted for a bit, said something urgent came up, and split. She complained she had to cancel her own plans because of him. I stood there as she went on whining. Two hours ago was when I’d texted him. He had made a run for it.

I called Eunyoung. We met at a café near her home. I thought she’d be angry, but she looked happy. She had forgotten about the sofa. She had news. When I asked, Does it have anything to do with me, she said, It might, so I knew it couldn’t have anything to do with me in the slightest.

After some modest hesitation, she said, I’ve been offered a part-time teaching job at a provincial university. It’s just an elective course, and the bus fare will eat up the pay, but it’s good for my career. It didn’t seem like a bad deal at all, so I congratulated her. She was unable to write her thesis for some years now and was feeling guilty, not from her lack of employment necessarily, but from the thought that she was over thirty and still financially dependent. Teaching a course wasn’t going to make her rich, but I figured it would help her morale.

I told her Oh Younghan was made professor. She wasn’t surprised. Ever since he got a doctorate in Spain and published his thesis in Los Papeles (that second-rate journal I mentioned), nothing he did surprised her. You know, I kind of understand why he treated you like a stranger. If I were Oh Younghan, I’d want to forget about the person who saw that list. I bet he feels more uncomfortable about it than you do. I don’t know why you’re so obsessed with him, she said. She had a point. But I didn’t think I was obsessed with him. It was just so ridiculous, the things that went on at school. Suddenly, I felt truly fed up with everything. My classes were over, and once I tied up some loose ends, there would be no reason for me to remain. So while I thought it was probably not the best time to end it, now was better than never.

“I think we should take some time to think things over.”

“Think what over? I’ve already told them I’m doing it.”

“Not that. I meant we should think about our relationship.”

She looked confused.

“What brought that up all of a sudden?”

“I feel we need to rethink everything.”

“Are you breaking up with me?”

“No, I’m saying we should think. To take a little more time.”

She said nothing. I’d thought she’d be livid. But she was quiet for a while, then picked up her bag, and left. I sat there for about ten minutes, paid the bill, then went home. I soon received a text message. “I’ve thought about it. Never call me again.”

I moved up my plans for Granada. I focused solely on translation for the next four days. I had to finish The Shepherds of Bethlehem if I wanted to move on with my life. Cho Hyunsu did not contact me, and I didn’t call Eunyoung, either. Nobody tried to reach me. I was relieved. I felt I could start anything once I finished The Shepherds of Bethlehem. And maybe this was why the translating was more fun than usual, and as silly as it sounds, it even felt meaningful. I didn’t give Oh Younghan another thought. He had nothing to do with me anymore. Not that he ever did, I realized.

I was almost done when the publishing house called me. It wasn’t the new editor, but the head of the editorial division. He was in the neighborhood, and invited me to come out for some coffee. I was almost finished with the translation, and this being the chief editor calling, I felt this was about the Lope de Vega collection my old editor had mentioned. I gladly accepted.

At the café was a middle-aged man I assumed was the chief editor, and another man who looked a little under thirty. I knew him only through emails, but this younger man had to be the rookie editor. The chief editor started making small talk, just some nonsense about the weather, publishing trends. I listened to him ramble, waiting for him to mention the new selected edition. Then, he placed a book on the table. It was Lope de Vega’s The Dog in the Manger, an old translation of mine. Hesitant, he pushed it towards me. I gave a little shrug, and opened it. The random page was heavily highlighted; the page was so yellow I thought I’d go blind. Flicking through, I saw about half of the lines on each page were highlighted. The chief editor, looking embarrassed, said they discovered something while comparing my translation with others that were published. The sentences underlined were word-for-word the same as lines in other translations. He said, matter-of-factly, that he immediately pulled my book from the market, but out of professional courtesy for the work I’d done for them over the years, the publishing house would not press for damages.

I was incensed. The rookie editor looked uncomfortable, and I realized he was the one responsible for the comparison work. What the hell did he know about literature? But more than that, really, the chief editor? How could book editors be so ignorant of the act of translation? The highlighted lines needed no further improvement. Changing them would only distort the original text. Around five hundred sentences from the previous translations were perfect. The remaining three hundred were absolute mistranslations. I’d replaced them with perfect sentences, and this was why my translation of The Dog in the Manger was perfect. Should I have changed the perfect sentences as well, just because they had appeared in previous translations?

“Those sentences were perfect. There was no reason to fix them.”

The chief editor kept saying he was sorry. I wasn’t sure what he felt sorry about. All I knew was that the Lope de Vega project wasn’t going to happen.

I picked up the glowing copy of The Dog in the Manger and headed home. I was soaked in sweat from taking the long way back. I took a cold shower and was about to make myself some coffee when I discovered I had run out of coffee beans. I ordered some beans over the Internet. I called the departmental office and asked for the date of Oh Younghan’s congratulatory party. It was next Wednesday.

translated from the Korean by Anton Hur