Research conducted within this SEED project comprises altogether five sub-projects


1) Aspects of the never-ending translation wars in South Korea

Andreas Schirmer

Translation has always occupied a major role in Korea’s often-painful process of modernization. In this context, frequent “translation wars” stand out, especially when the zealous debates on mistranslations are not only battled out within the narrow confines of professional circles but also captivate the general public, as occasionally happens.

The fact that public discourse about the quality and reliability of translations is much more common in Korea than anywhere in the West constitutes a phenomenon that appears very telling about Korean society and mindsets in many ways. The cultural anthropological significance of this specific issue in Korean public discourse was, however, never considered a matter deserving academic attention in and of itself.

Public denunciation of translation mistakes is sometimes not only aimed at the immediate culprits but also at very basic mental attitudes, the implicit suggestion or explicit insinuation being that Korean audiences lack self-assurance and tend to meekly accept dubious passages because they are conditioned to suspect themselves of being simply too stupid to understand.

The ongoing research project consists in the first place of a typology and description of examples taken from ongoing translation wars in Korea, starting with those either encyclopedic or idiosyncratic books that always present vast collections of detected mistakes; this is complemented by an analysis of the reactions these books triggered — as most of them received a lot of media coverage — and the various, often multifaceted debates that ensued. Translation wars conducted in newspapers and online fora shall also be covered. The exploration shall extend further to some meta-discourses that search for possible reasons for the very existence of these discourses (i.e., the ongoing translation wars). For example, one regularly recurring motif of the talk on mistranslations is the supposed disgrace and disadvantage occasioned when Koreans are left with imperfect renderings of insights easily gleaned by others in the rest of the world who read, if not the originals, at least perfectly faithful translations.

2) Negotiating the essence of being Korean in South Korean fiction: Literary contributions to the discourses on Koreanness

Andreas Schirmer

Abstract of an article currently a work in progress:

An-na is a simple Korean woman, but when sleeping she could be taken by an outsider as a Chinese, a Japanese, any Southeast Asian, a Mongolian, an American Indian, etc. Such musings when looking at an elderly woman in his neighborhood are mulled over by the protagonist and narrator of one of the most famous examples of South Korea’s damunhwa munhak (multicultural literature): Son Hong-kyu’s The Muslim Butcher, a novel centered on an orphaned Korean teenager who gets adopted by a former Turkish soldier still stranded in Seoul decades after the Korean War.

Exposing the shameless exploitation of foreign workers and the plight of foreign brides—massive discrimination that looks all the more apalling when contrasted with the immense adoration for white Westerners—damunhwa munhak, a genre that developed during the last two decades, can be understood as an attempt by fiction writers to contribute to a better world by inducing readers to feel empathy. While this aim may be a common denominator of all damunhwa munhak, some of these novels have an additional focus: contesting the infamous danil minjok sinhwa, the “myth of the homogenous nation” by contending that “Everybody is a mixed blood” (The Muslim Butcher).

Koreanness is usually conceived of as either as “DNA”, a “software” and a bundle of “codes”, or, alternatively, constructed as a set of skills, beliefs, and habits. However, what the struggling protagonists or figures in these novels are haunted by is not any presumed essence of the homo coreanicus but simply outward appearance. A society wrapped up in surfaces, a “republic of plastic surgery” (seonghyeong susul ui gonghwaguk), South Korea proves unforgiving not only for the “underclass” of the unlovely among their compatriots but most of all to those whose appearance marks them as outsiders in the most literal sense: the low-life underclass from abroad.

Dissecting this motive of “appearance” as dominating damunhwa munhak, the proposed paper dwells specifically on examples of resistance to or subversion of ascribed identity, found both in damunhwa munhak and, as a complementing contrast, in novels about individual Koreans resembling foreigners. Fraud, deception, and camouflage are chosen here to construct and take on an identity of one’s choosing—or at least one that allows a more decent life. Even in cases that expose such identity construction as mere escapist denial, or as leading to total debacle and disaster, these novels voice a powerful dissent, providing impactful and evocative condensed formulas to make an intervention on public discourse.

3) Order of ideas upside down – the neglected role of sequence in translating from and into Korean

Andreas Schirmer

Head or tail? Preserving the original’s sequence as an underrated but crucial task for adequate literary translation from and to Korean

When translating Korean into Western languages and vice versa, reshuffling maneuvers that turn the source text’s sentences upside down are performed routinely all the time. Translating between distant languages inevitably requires the need for head and tail inversion, shifting the order of the phrase’s elements and re-arranging what comes first, next, last — or at least this is the generally accepted truism. Invoked for justification are differences in grammar and the irrefutable fact that rhetorical sensibilities and norms are simply not universal.

What is thus overlooked, however, is the fact that with literary translation, the re-enacting of a carefully crafted sentence is a task that concerns the very essence of narration: sequence. After all, creating a narrative is about consecutive discursive presentation: A story’s events are conveyed in the storyteller’s calculated, often very arbitrary order. Some information may be relayed in advance while other crucial information may be withheld. Some backgrounds are disclosed early while others are purposefully only revealed at the very end. This basic principle applies not only to the narration as a whole but (and this is what tends to be forgotten) also to its constitutive smaller units — as we can see when a novel’s sentences are ingeniously constructed in terms of what is said first and then and last.

The empirical basis for my exploration consists of numerous examples collected over a long period of time. The point of departure is an observation that I could confirm again and again: Korean translations of aphorisms, canned jokes, poems and rhetorically elaborated essays tend to prioritize syntactical, structural fidelity at the expense of a parallel order of ideas. The cognitive surprise-effect of the original punchline is thus squandered for the sake of habitual word order (which should be regarded as the lesser good).

But my main focus is a mirror image or a complementary phenomenon to this first one: Western translations of Korean fiction tend to diminish the role of sequence within a single sentence, thereby sacrificing special effects of suspense and failing, in extreme cases, to convey the chosen narrative strategy. A functional approach would allow the reader to process the given information at a pace that is analogous to that of the original.

The proposed paper argues that sequence deserves more attention as a meaningful layer of speech. Beyond practical consequences for the translation of Korean literature, this insight should also relativize and complement the typological approach that is usually adopted when it comes to the contrasting of Korean with Western languages.

4) IMF crisis mirrored in fiction: Analogies, emblems, symbols and metaphors in Park Min-gyu’s collection of short stories Castella

Andreas Schirmer

For Martians and other aliens, UFOs, Godzillas and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; a giant squid, the extinct dodo and a laboratory mouse on whose back grows a human ear; Hulk Hogan and a hooligan from the Heysel Stadium disaster turned refrigerator when reborn, etc. — a panopticon of popular culture is offered in Castella, that famed collection of ten short stories by Park Min-gyu. These stories were all first published between 2003 and 2005 and, when released as one volume in 2005, immediately made an enormous impact. The collection has been praised not only for its unique humor but also its bitter, satiric representations of reckless capitalism and the consequences of neoliberalism in Korea.

The freakish characters make up a bizarre imagery and serve as intricate metaphors conveying the — overall accusatory, rather than resigned — message that in the current state of affairs, only superhuman and extraterrestrial powers or some deus ex machina can promise salvation. One might argue that this just follows existing and well-known patterns of escapism while, on a more general level, the pathos of lost cases is (along with the joy of grief) anyway much favored in Korean literature and film. But Park Min-gyu’s wealth of imagination is nevertheless unique, and constitutes a case worth revisiting.

If an analogy links an unfamiliar idea with something common, then this author’s heavy use of highly unconventional analogies is certainly due to his unfamiliar ideas. As he constantly uses daring, audacious comparisons and inventive similes that render his style very entertaining even on the most microscopic level, the cornucopian opulence of his imagination deserves a close reading and a proper description of how his comparisons work.

But what this paper is rather after are those metaphors that inform and overarch one whole story on a macroscopic level, e.g., the extinct dodo in the story Yakult Lady. In particular, these emblematic animals (depicted, after a drawing by the author himself, on the iconic cover of the book, in the same unchanged longseller edition) are truly inextricable conceptual integrations, disallowing any paraphrasing or alternative wording — which in the end is something that truly befits literature.

5) The puzzle of Japanese students at Korean schools in Japan

Martin Šturdík

A peculiar characteristic of the relations between Japan and the two Korean states is the existence of schools in Japan which are affiliated to North or South Korea. The North Korean schools openly promote an ideology that portrays the host country as an enemy. Schools affiliated to South Korea are not as radical but still promote an identity and cultural awareness different from the host country’s majority of schools.

While these schools are occasionally the object of research, little is known about students of these schools who are not ethnic Koreans. The overwhelming majority of students at these schools are ethnic Koreans, which comes to no surprise. But the fact that a small, but nevertheless not insignificant number of ethnically Japanese also attends these Korean schools is a true puzzle. Why would Japanese parents send their children to such a school where the majority is ethnically different and where, most of all, the students are educated in a way that sets them apart from most of their peers? Who are these parents and what are their motivations? How do they view the Japanese state and Japanese media in relation to the two Koreas and Koreans?

The research will be carried out by using qualitative methods of data collection and analysis. In the first place, in-depth interviews with the Japanese parents will be conducted, followed by interviews with directors and teachers of those schools. Interviews with the students shall be done as well, provided that permissions can be obtained. The life course history of the interviewees will be given a close look with the aim to identify the moments in their lives that defined the Japanese parents’ attitude to Korea. Several particular categories will be analyzed such as, among others, their view on the contested history.

A foreign (i.e. non-Japanese and non-Korean) researcher will be viewed as impartial and can obtain access to Chongryon, Korean Residents Union in Japan and the various schools. Besides the organizations, there are other routes (personal connections and recommendations) to access the interviewees.