‘Left’s Right Right’s Left’ by Han Yujoo & ‘Kong’s Garden’ by Hwang Jungeun (Review)

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally managed to complete the Yeoyu series, a collaboration between Strangers Press and LTI Korea, with today’s post looking at the final two stories.  Both come from writers whose work I’ve tried before, and the authors may even be familiar to many of you out there, with both having books available in the UK.  There’s one final twist in the series, though, as I’ve actually read one of these stories before – or so I thought.  In fact, there are some subtle differences, and that’s what I’ll be focusing on in the second part of today’s reviews 😉

*****
Han Yujoo is best known for her novel The Impossible Fairytale, but I’ve tried a few of her stories, too (including ‘I Ain’t Necessarily So’ in The Future of Silence), and ‘Right’s Left Left’s Right’ (once more translated by Janet Hong) is recognisably Han’s work.  Again, the text abounds with wordplay and swift changes of perspective, in a story that goes in several directions while always returning to the narrator’s current situation.  As we flit between anecdotes about frozen windscreens and throwing a key across Parisian Metro tracks, the speaker expresses her regret, and frustration, at not having written about a friend she once knew, who passed away several years earlier.  But why?

It’s all a little confusing to begin with, but the reason for her regrets, and the dazed manner she expresses them in, soon becomes clear:

Someone has me by the hair.  Not a figure of speech, it’s actually happening.  If only I were a little better at description.  I will try to explain: at the moment my left foot is on the thirteenth step, and my right foot is perched precariously on the edge of the twelfth step.  I’m holding onto the railing with my left hand.  Perhaps it would be better to say I’m clutching the railing.  I’m holding on with all my strength, so that I won’t be dragged by the hair by a rough hand and pitched head-first down the stairs.
p.10 (Strangers Press, 2019)

Little by little, she reveals more about her predicament, abused and attacked by a jealous partner, caught in an attempt to flee.  Here she is, rooted to the spot on the stairway outside her apartment, and the entire story takes place in that split-second of agony…

It’s an impressive piece, perhaps one of the best in the series, and it highlights the dangers women face in (Korean) society, with the narrator recalling all the warning signs she should have heeded.  The reason her friend comes to mind is that there’s a connection between the two strands, with her abusive partner unveiling his true colours at the friend’s funeral service, showing unthinkable selfishness at the worst of times.  Now, all she can do is hold on and hope she makes it through, regretting not having told her friend’s story.

The fragmented scenes, while initially confusing, do make sense, as what comes across strongly in ‘Left’s Right Right’s Left’ is a contrast between two lives.  The time the narrator spent as a language student in Paris is recalled as one of joy and sunshine while the return to Korea is certainly anything but.  Han’s story is less enjoyable than powerful, and by the time you reach the final page, with Hong once again working overtime to bring the writer’s wordplay into a new language, you’ll be wishing the woman had stayed well away.

*****
Hwang Jungeun is another writer with fiction previously translated into English, with both One Hundred Shadows (tr. Jung Yewon) and I’ll Go On (tr. Emily Yae Won), like The Impossible Fairytale, available from Tilted Axis Press.  However, the story in the Yeoyu series, ‘Kong’s Garden’ (translated by Jeon Seung-hee), is also available elsewhere, and having actually reviewed the Asia Publishers bilingual version back in 2017, I wasn’t planning to spend any time on it this time around.

That is, until I had a quick look at the first page and spotted something interesting:

The bookstore was located within an old, fairly dilapidated apartment complex.
It was in the basement of a detached commercial building that was only two stories high and so looked like a simple, flat cake.  The bookstore was spacious, though, since it took up the entire basement floor.  Still, it didn’t receive many customers in the beginning because it was tucked in an out-of-the-way area and the patronage in that building had been on the decline for years.  The bookstore owner had announced its opening by propping an upright signboard next to the stairs leading down to the store and turning on all 200 interior lights.  At night, the light escaped through the stairs, making it clearly visible from afar.  Passersby, who walked under the trees lining the street, would notice the light, venture down to the basement, browse through the selection of books, and buy a couple.  Gradually, the store began to get more customers.
pp.9 & 11 (Asia Publishers, 2015)

The bookstore was located in an old, fairly dilapidated apartment complex in the basement of a detached commercial building, which, at only two stories high, looked like a simple, flat cake.  Though spacious – the bookstore took up the entire basement floor – it didn’t receive many customers in the beginning.  It was tucked in an out-of-the-way area where the patronage had been in decline for years.  The owner had propped an upright signboard next to the stairs leading down to the store and turned on all two hundred interior lights to announce its opening.  At night, the light escaped through the stairway, making it clearly visible from afar.  Passersby walking down the tree-lined street would notice the light, venture down to the basement, browse through the selection of books and buy a couple.  Gradually, the store began to prosper.
p.7 (Strangers Press, 2019)

That’s right.  While it’s the same story, and the same translator, it appears that several changes have been made, and I thought it would be interesting to take a quick look and see what has happened, and why.

In terms of vocabulary changes, there aren’t that many differences between the two versions (on the decline > in decline, bookstore owner > owner, 200 > two hundred, stairs > stairway, get more customers > prosper).  The editors of this British edition have also been happy to stick with the original choices, even when they are taken from American English (bookstore (bookshop), apartment complex (block of flats, tower block), stories (storeys), patronage (business)).  However, the Oxford comma at the end of the penultimate sentence has been removed, which is of particular interest given the recent fuss about a certain new coin!

Yet the paragaphs look very different, and that’s down to the changes made in separating and connecting ideas.  There’s not a great change in the number of sentences (eight to seven, and the removal of the standalone first sentence accounts for that), but if we look at the middle of the paragraphs in more detail, we can see what the new version has focused on:

The bookstore was spacious, though, since it took up the entire basement floor.  Still, it didn’t receive many customers in the beginning because it was tucked in an out-of-the-way area and the patronage in that building had been on the decline for years.

Though spacious – the bookstore took up the entire basement floor – it didn’t receive many customers in the beginning.  It was tucked in an out-of-the-way area where the patronage had been in decline for years.

The earlier version is a little clumsy with its ‘though’ and ‘still’ and the sheer number of conjunctions here seems a little repetitive.  By varying the structure (putting one idea between dashes, changing ‘and.. in that building‘ to ‘where…‘) and moving the sentence boundary, the translator (or editor) has improved the sentences immensely.

Overall, here (and elsewhere) the new translation seems to be better – but how does it compare with the original?  Interestingly, the Korean for the extract above, which is two sentences in both versions of the English, puts everything in one sentence, and you can see where the original English version sticks slightly closer to the Korean in attempting to replicate the use of linking.  On the other hand, the opening sentence of the paragraph comes straight from the Korean version of the text and was obviously intended to make a statement.  Was it a good idea to integrate it into the rest of the paragraph?  I’ll let you be the judge of that…

*****
So there you have it, the same version and yet not the same.  I’m glad I had another quick look at ‘Kong’s Garden’, not least because it’s an interesting story tackling familiar Korean issues (and with more than a few similarities with Han’s piece).  Sadly, though, having made my way through eight great stories, I’m all finshed with the Yeoyu series.  Thanks again to Strangers Press and LTI Korea, and here’s hoping that after the initial sets of Korean and Japanese stories, another series is on its way.  Chinese next time, perhaps?  I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see 😉

2 thoughts on “‘Left’s Right Right’s Left’ by Han Yujoo & ‘Kong’s Garden’ by Hwang Jungeun (Review)

  1. Very interesting changes in the translation. I suppose the first reads more like a first draft, when you are still quite close to the original. The second is more geared towards English language speakers. I tend to prefer the second, even though it might be accused of giving less of the original flavour. I suppose it takes us to our debate about Royall Tyler/ Seidensticker versions of Genji, or the Pevear & Volikhonsky school of translation of Dostoevsky…

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