October 30, 2009
Since early October, Horace Jeffery Hodges—the “Gypsy Scholar”—has been putting out a series of posts about the characterization of smallpox as a “western” (or “Western”) disease in Hwang Sok-yong’s The Guest. The most recent of his articles on Hwang’s wordplay and his sense of what it means to be “traditionally, exclusively, and authentically Korean” is here, and his article about some potential translation issues in The Guest can be found here:
The translators provide “the Guest,” but Big Grandma uses the expression “the Guest Mama” (손님마마: sonnim mama, guest lord), and where they supply “Western disease,” Big Grandma says “westward disease” (서쪽 병: seojok byeong), indicating the direction west. The translators then have Big Grandma as saying that the disease came from “the Western country,” but the original Korean says a “westward country” (서쪽 나라: seojok nara). Big Grandma is apparently using traditional terminology that did not refer to “The West.” However, when she refers to the “Western spirit,” she uses the Korean expression yanggushin (양구신 [양 (洋) + 구신]), where yang (양 [洋]) is an abbreviation of seoyang, “The West” (서양) — and gushin (구신), as already noted above, is dialect for guishin (귀신), meaning “spirit” or “ghost.”
Big Grandma is thus making a connection between two words, seo and yang, both indicating “west,” to link the smallpox spirit, which came from a direction to the west, with the Christian Holy Spirit, which came from The West. I would thus translate the longer passage slightly differently:
“Ever since we were children we have known that the Guest is a western disease. A barbarian disease, they call it, from a country to the west, so it’s certain that it came from the land where they believe in the Western Spirit, you see? I had to send away two sons, your grandpa’s two older brothers, with the Guest. So would I be overjoyed, would I be ready to believe in the Western Spirit like my one surviving son — or would I be angry at it — angry forever?”
Translated in this manner, the passage would retain the original Korean’s ambiguity that Big Grandma is playing upon in identifying the Guest with the Holy Spirit. But I’m no expert in Korean language or Korean folk beliefs, so I stand ready to stand corrected.
Although it’s probably Seven Stories who must, somewhat embarrassingly, stand corrected on this point of the translation, Mr. Hodges’ series of posts about The Guest (starting here) really are thoughtful and excellent, covering ground from Hwang Sok-yong’s politics to the finer points of his prose, and should be taken a look at—if for no other reason than to whet your appetite for The Guest, or for Mr. Hwang’s new book, The Old Garden (which you can read a free and ongoing serial excerpt of here at our site.) This is one of the first serious, detailed academic looks in English, that we know of, for Mr. Hwang’s work; it should not be the last.