How I Lost Your Mother

I am a fairly placid sort of blogger, one unwilling to lay into novels in the way some reviewers do, but there are some books which, for some reason or other, just annoy me.  Let’s leave it there for a while…

Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mother (translated by Chi-Young Kim) is a Korean million-selling novel, due to be published in twenty-three countries and short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize.  It’s a story in five parts, told from the points of view of the titular mother’s family members after her disappearance on a visit to Seoul to see her family.  She becomes separated from her husband at the city’s main train station and, despite the family’s best efforts, cannot be found.

However, the novel is less about the search for the mother than a reevaluation of her life, seen through the eyes of the people who have taken her for granted for so long.  As they begin to share stories, they realise that the picture they had of her is deeply flawed, and each of them realises just how much she meant to them – if only too late.  It’s also an allegory for the situation of the nation as a whole, one which may have sacrificed its past in order to ensure a prosperous future.

Before you start thinking that this is a wonderfully heart-warming story though, one you might want to look for on your local library database, let me give you a piece of advice – don’t bother.  Please Look After Mother is a piece of trashy kitsch, a giant guilt-trip of a book which has probably sold its million copies simply by virtue of making middle-class Koreans uncomfortable about not having called Mum much recently.  I am amazed that it made it onto the Man Asian short-list (ahead of Murakami’s 1Q84!), and I am crossing my fingers that the panel aren’t short-sighted enough to actually give it the prize.

So what’s wrong with it?  To be honest, there isn’t much right with it, but I’ll list a few of my concerns.  The way the book is structured, using first-, second- and third-person viewpoints, is gimmicky and pointless – the idea adds nothing to the story being told.  The actual story itself is repetitive: once you get past the first section, it’s the same old story of whining, sibling squabbles and hand-wringing.  The characters are wooden and unlikeable, especially the men (which could be a cultural thing or merely bad writing), and shout at each other at the drop of a hat.  I think you’ve got the idea by now that I’m not a huge fan.

What was probably a very average novel in the original though has undoubtedly been made worse by a sub-par translation.  Please Look After Mother reads like a clichéd translated novel, clumsy, with unnatural sentence structure and over-formal language (meant to reflect the original Korean, no doubt, but out of place in a translation).  There were also several errors with pronouns, forcing me to go back and find out who exactly was supposed to be talking to whom, and an obsession with repeated relative clauses, which just looked strange in English.

It’s sad because the idea behind the novel is a good one.  The premise of an old woman’s disappearance serving as a reflection on the price paid for the rapid societal progress South Korea has made over the past few decades is a very interesting one.  We get to see how Seoul has developed in the space of a generation, and the way in which the population has shifted from a rural to a mainly urban one in a matter of decades.  However, Shin’s treatment of these issues is superficial and fleeting, as is her attempt to portray the effect of the mother’s disappearance on her family.  Sadly, I really didn’t care about any of them.

As I am nothing but fair though, I’ll finish by pointing you in the direction of a few more reviews.  The team behind the Shadow Man Asian Prize have nearly all reviewed this book, so why not have a look at what they had to say?  I’m sure it’ll be more entertaining than the book itself…

14 thoughts on “How I Lost Your Mother

  1. “What was probably a very average novel in the original though has undoubtedly been made worse by a sub-par translation.” – Want to hear something that will make your blood freeze? The Hebrew edition is translated from this English translation.

    Now yes, I know that there are no Korean to Hebrew translators in existence, but good god the translation… is awful. The problems with the elevated language and the second person narrative is just completely exponentially worse in the double translation. It actually made my appreciation of Please Look After Mom (or Mother, depending on your edition…) dip, and it wasn't all that high to begin with. While maybe I'm not so passionate in my dislike of the novel, I completely understand where you're coming from…


  2. I'm wondering whether the original is just as clichéd and clumsy and that the translator made it a point to avoid smoothing out the English version. If that's the case, the bestselling status says something about reader preference for sentimental content over execution.


  3. I liked part I because of the use of the second person point of view which I like but the moment I started part II I couldn't go on reading. I have a problem calling this a bad translation as I have no knowledge of Korean plus it is a non-European language which makes it even more difficult to assess.
    In any case I'm not that keen on finishing it.


  4. That bad, huh? I'm getting a little tired of bad translations. Seems to be a bit of it going around, especially with books originally written in Asian languages. I wonder what the problem is?


  5. Biblibio – This translation-of-a-translation concept is one I only became aware of recently, and it doesn't sound like a good one! Having said that, I really don't want to think about this book being rendered even worse than it was…

    Rise – I think that the fault must be shared between writer and translator equally – it would have taken some fantastic rewriting to bring this up to scratch.

    Lisa – But I see that your fellow judges don't agree (especially Fay!)…

    Caroline – I didn't really like that point-of-view, but I did enjoy the first section – once we changed narrator, the book just lost me though. My Korean (as you can guess) is non-existent: the examples I pulled out were based on a knowledge of Japanese, especially the more formal nature of the language of entering and leaving a house.

    Violet – Bad translators, I would imagine 😉 Criticising translators is tricky as you're never really sure whether they're at fault, but it does come up a lot in Japanese books too. Perhaps the competition is simply fiercer in European languages, and this drives up the quality? Or I could just be talking rubbish…


  6. Yes, I'm baffled, but hey, when all's said and done, it's a matter of personal taste, I guess. But some of the criticism of the reviewer at that NPR site is vitriolic…


  7. I followed Fay's link, and it is a very nasty piece. There are a couple of valid points, but they are drowned out by the bile. It's the first negative review I've seen which concentrates on the story and not the actual writing, and that's a mistake. I admit that the idea of the novel is a good one but…


  8. Well, I'm one of those who liked it. I liked the mix of voices and, as I said in my review, felt it added to the “meaning” of the novel” and it also gave the novel more interest for me as a reader.

    I don't think the characters were totally unlikeable — I think they were fairly typical young people getting on with their lives and forgetting about the needs of their parents, particularly their mother. I think that generation gap is probably exaggerated in a society going through great social change – where the young find their parents out of step and embarrassing. And, even if they are unlikeable, does that make it a bad book?

    I didn't think they were whinging … but genuinely reflecting on their lives and relationship with their mother. There was some repetetion but usually from different angles I thought.

    I can't really comment on the translation as I don't know how the original was … I find reviewing translations tricky for this reason. I'd love though if you could give some examples of the poor writing/translation?


  9. A mix of voices is good, but I don't think it worked well here. As for the characters, I disagree. I found them shallow, one-dimensional and very badly-drawn. If a non-Korean had written this, we would probably be accusing them of simplistic stereotyping…

    As for the writing, I can't give any examples as I took the book back to the library as quickly as I could 😉

    I'd like to stress that I found the idea good – if another, more accomplished, writer had taken this as a draft and used it as the basis for a book, it might have been a really outstanding novel.

    But I don't think either of us is going to persuade the other on this one…


  10. Clearly not Tony! But then again one rarely does change another person's mind, it's such a personal thing, isn't it? I would love though to have had some examples … speaking generally, I think it makes it easier to see where a reviewer is coming from, to see if there's something those of us who feel differently missed because that can happen if you are focused on something else.


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