Monday night at the KCC was part celebration, part education: the launch of an English translation of a major portion of one of Korea’s best-loved modern epics: Park Kyung-ni’s Land. The evening was fronted by the translation’s publisher, Global Oriental (now part of the 300 year old Brill publishing house), but the three speakers were hard to beat in giving the audience a flavour of the work: novellist Margaret Drabble (whose interests in Korea have manifested themselves in her novel The Red Queen); Sowon Park, a lecturer in English literature at Corpus Christi College Oxford; and the translator herself, Agnita Tennant (née Hong).
Margaret Drabble introduced herself as part of Park Kyung-ni’s new readership: having little or no background in Korean literature. To her, as for most of us, this translation is “a major addition to world literature”. Fortunately, we don’t need a background in Korean history and literature to appreciate it. Park Kyung-ni was familiar with the western literary traditions through novels in Japanese translations. The novel displays an “extraordinarily rich human panorama” with a wealth of “fully rounded characters”. Her narrative technique is “subtle and oblique”, in the way that news from outside reaches the small rural community in Gyeongsangnam-do where Part 1 of the novel is set – sometimes not in chronological sequence: a device used by Conrad. Other Western authors were used as comparisons, not least Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but most of all Hardy, and Drabble ended her all-too-brief talk by reading Hardy’s In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’ – which focuses on the lives of country dwellers when the outside world around them is changing climactically.
Sowon Park reminded us that Land was 25 years in the making (1969-1994), extending over 5 parts and some 6 million words. It is unusual in being highly esteemed in critical and acadamic circles as well as being hugely popular. It is truly a “national epic”, dealing with “big themes, extraordinary events and unforgettable characters”. Its method of publication was weekly or sometimes monthly serialisation. This clearly impacts the style of writing, with the story-telling structured in mini episodes, starting with a narrative hook and ending with suspense. This means that readers are very easily drawn in – and means the work easily travels across cultural and linguistic barriers.
Over the course of the serialisation, Park Kyung-ni changed publishers nine times. This also meant nine changes of editor and editorial style; also over the period, official linguistic standards changed. Accordingly there is no definitive edition of Land: in some versions, the Gyeongsangnam-do dialect in which the characters speak is ironed out; in others the deliberately nuanced nature of some of the personalities (Park Kyung-ni likes to see some good traits even in the bad characters) is changed, with additional editorial text inserted to make characters more black or white.
Agnita Tennant gave the story of her own encounter with Land and its author. It was not until 1981 that Tennant “discovered” Land, though by that time the first three parts had been published. She was immediately captivated by its big themes of human decency and dignity, and of women’s sorrow (widows and women locked in unhappy marriages feature prominently), and she was determined to translate it in order to share the joy of reading it with an English-speaking audience.
The author was married at 20 and widowed with two children aged 24 (in 1950). Her son died aged 8 in 1956. When her daughter grew up she married the dissident poet Kim Chi-ha, who was often in prison thanks to his political views, and Park ended up having to support her daughter, her grandson and even Kim’s mother. It was a time of tense relations with the North, and a time when censorship in the name of national security was the norm. It was therefore perhaps natural that when Tennant met Park for the first time she had a frosty reception. Park gave grudging permission for her work to be translated, but insisted that “the author’s rights must be respected at all costs” and that nothing should be changed. This was in 1981, and later meetings had little more warmth. By the time of their third meeting, Park was a national figure. The “T’oji Cultural Centre” had opened on her former vegetable plot in 1996, and Kim Dae-jung had been present at its opening. Park was polite, but not warm. It was not until their fourth meeting that things changed – Park ran down the hill where she had been tending her vegetables to embrace her. Their fifth and final meeting as in 2005. Park died aged 82 in 2008.
Given the strong female characters in the book the question arose as to whether Park could be considered a feminist. Sowon Park responded that in an interview Park Kyung-ni had talked about how her own birth had almost been an accident, and how her father had been full of “active animosity” to her mother. She herself had “resolved never to kneel in front of any man”
Park’s earlier works all seemed to be in preparation for her epic. According to Tennant, Park wrote without notes: the thoughts came out from her head faster than she could write them down. Sowon Park suggested that the author had originally conceived the work in five parts to mark the five elements; but for Tennant finishing after part three would have preserved her best work.
Now in her 80s, Tennant herself will not be taking on the challenge of translating the remaining four parts of Land. Fortunately, we are assured that part one can be read on its own without the later parts.
Copies of the Global Oriental translation, which was financially supported by the Korean Literature Translation Institute, were on sale for the bargain price of £50. The price on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com is over twice that.
The translation was launched at the Korean Cultural Centre UK on 23 May 2011. Thanks to Michael Rank for the photo of the panel. My own is far too grainy.