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Interview with Bae Suah

The Essayist’s Desk, published in 2003 and written when its author Bae Suah had just returned from an 11-month stint in Germany, was the first book I ever translated, staying in my friend Sophie’s spare room during the freezing Seoul winter of 2012. I first heard of Bae during initial reading for a PhD in contemporary Korean literature; she was described as ‘doing violence to the Korean language’, which I think was intended as a criticism, but which sent me on an immediate search for fiction by this author who sounded thrillingly like Clarice Lispector (whose Complete Short Stories are currently being translated into Korean, via the German translation, by none other than Bae Suah herself).

 

But the book for whose publication Bae Suah and I are currently on a bookshop tour of the States is not called The Essayist’s Desk but A Greater Music. ‘A greater music’ are in fact the novel’s first words. The entire first passage, which stretches over three pages, circles through a discussion of why that phrase, ‘greater music’, is both ungrammatical and inappropriate in the situation, making it fiendishly difficult to translate (a recurrent theme with Bae Suah’s work). It was this book in particular that garnered the criticism of linguistic violence, its Korean apparently sounding as though it had been translated from German – precisely what its protagonist, a young Korean writer staying in Berlin, is attempting in her language classes, writing about Schubert, statelessness, and the teacher with whom she has fallen in love.

 

The second of Bae’s books which I’ve translated in full is known to its Korean readers as The Low Hills of Seoul, but the book that came out from Deep Vellum in early 2017 is titled Recitation. Initially, I toyed with combining these two as The Low Hills of Seoul: A Recitation. It’s a stretch to call a disembodied voice a protagonist, but former ‘recitation actor’ Kyung-hee is the closest this novel has to one. But while the book features instances of recitations given on stage and heard as recordings, the more significant and indeed revolutionary thing is that it is written as a recitation. The first six chapters consist almost entirely of reported speech, as a group of people unspecified in both number and gender recall the stories told them by Kyung-hee, the young woman they encounter at a train station and invite back to their apartment, convinced that she also hails from the country they left long ago. Technically speaking, then, the book is narrated by this ‘we’, but it isn’t until the final chapter that their collective voice takes over as they travel to Seoul in search of Kyung-hee, only to be met with claims that there is no such job as ‘recitation actor’, and that ‘there is no Kyung-hee’. Emotion burns through A Greater Music, which has one of the most devastating  breakup scenes I’ve ever read, while Recitation burns with ambition, an eclectic synthesis of ideas, images, scenes. Reading it is like boarding a caravanserai travelling through Vienna, Mongolia, and Seoul, with cameos from Elfriede Jelinek, Placido Domingo, and the Dalai Lama, and references to shamanism, Egyptian mythology, and Total Recall. Both, for me, are masterpieces.

 

—D. S.

 

Q

The White Review

— Central to A Greater Music is the experience of learning a foreign language, of living somewhere which is foreign to you, where you understand the language only imperfectly – an experience that you yourself had in Berlin, which is also where this book is set. How did that feed into your writing?

A

Bae Suah

— The protagonist of this novel shares many points in common with me. I did not know a word of German when I arrived, and tried as far as possible to approach the new language through literature. My impressions of that initial period do not match up completely with the actual life that I led there; I misperceived many things because of my imperfect German.  Some of these misunderstandings made their way into the novel, in particular through my descriptions of Germans. I hope that readers do not assume that all of the details in this novel are factually accurate.

 

Q

The White Review

— From at least A Greater Music onwards, your main characters often share certain similarities – they’re travelling, romantically unattached, financially precarious. What attracts you to this kind of character? What’s important about them for the kind of works you want to write?

A

Bae Suah

— In most instances I have a clear intention when I choose a female protagonist. They are women who refuse or cannot have their own place in traditional society. I love such women. Women who cannot be guaranteed social status through marriage, or women who refuse to marry in order to obtain it; women who do not suppress themselves for the sake of their parents or siblings; women who, as a result of their independent personalities, are lonely and financially precarious. Women who go their own way in accordance with their own stubbornness, and who are not afraid to do so. I am very interested in such lives. And so I plan to write about these women in the future as well. I wish to endow them with an aesthetic status through my fiction. And I want to make them cross a certain border that I myself could not cross because my bravery was insufficient. I wish them to be stronger than I am.

 

Q

The White Review

— The original Korean title of A Greater Music, literally translated, is ‘The Essayist’s Desk’. In The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil defined ‘essayism’ as an aversion to the axiomatic, a deliberated provisionality, an acceptance of uncertainty, an openness to the possibilities of intellectual adventure – all of which seems to fit your work wonderfully. Do you see an affinity there?

 

A

Bae Suah

— Musil’s book The Man Without Qualities has been translated into Korean. I’ve read it, but only the Korean translation. And so I wasn’t able to get a proper feel for the atmosphere of the original. Musil said that the characteristics of essayistic writing were provisionality, uncertainty, the possibility of intellectual adventure. I write novels, but cannot make any prescriptions about what the form should be. A story is like a universe. I think that it is unlimited, simultaneous and open. No one theory is able to explain the universe entire, and it is the same for literature.

 

I gave this novel the title The Essayist’s Desk because I wanted a slightly freer form, one that would give me greater distance from the melodramatic excitement that fiction can generate. Although this novel deals with incidents of intense emotion, I wanted to enclose them in a form that would nevertheless escape the romantic melody.

 

Q

The White Review

— In an interview, you described A Greater Music as one of the novels that are less representative of your style, and one of your most political books. I also know that you have little desire to see your writing interpreted as tracts about or against certain social issues. Is there a way to discuss the politics of A Greater Music – sexual, social or otherwise — that isn’t reductive?

 

A

Bae Suah

— I think that I made several experiments in style and technique. Perhaps I deliberately started to use very long sentences from writing A Greater Music onwards. In Korean literature, people do not much like to write long sentences. It is not uncommon to believe that the shorter a sentence is, the better. And that the only reason for writing otherwise is ineptitude. But I think a little differently. Perhaps because I am attracted to German writers whose sentences are long and strictly precise, while also well-tuned and beautiful. When I wrote A Greater Music, I thought of it as a story of an unequal love. And isn’t that a strange situation? Could love really come about if human beings were equal? Such questions came to me as I was writing it. These days I am often writing sentences that are a little more concise and have many echoes. They are short stories on the theme of childhood.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your writing is stylistically and linguistically unconventional – critics have described it, particularly in A Greater Music, as ‘sounding as though it had been translated’, and many of your novels feature inconsistent chronology. But it’s also different from much of what we might think of as ‘experimental’ or ‘avant garde’ writing in that it has such a strong emotional core. What’s your relationship to the idea of experimentalism?

 

A

Bae Suah

— Yes, I have heard many people say that my writings share this ‘translation style’. In Korea, it is a criticism often used to mean ‘Korean that cannot be good’.

 

I think non-chronological narrative is one of the techniques that all writers use. I am very interested in things like time’s simultaneity, a story that flows in reverse order. Like you, I don’t think of my writing as avant garde. I tend to rely in many parts on narrative, plot, story. And I even struggle with the method of communicating such things. Though I enjoy experimental attempts, I don’t think of that as a characteristic running through my work as a whole. I’m very interested in techniques for communicating a story in a new way.

 

I consider A Greater Music a love story; but there seem to be many more instances of people reading it as about language or music. Perhaps this is because they have read critics’ writings? I like intense emotions. Feelings are the protagonists of my fiction. But when I express them in writing, that creates a little more distance. I like investigating them through a specific perspective, at a remove.

 

Q

The White Review

— In common with so much of your writing, Recitation involves a particular kind of travel – ad hoc, avowedly ‘aimless’, accomplished by unattached women without much money, who are originally from South Korea. Travelling on foot, which the protagonist Kyung-hee decides is ‘the purest imaginable form’ of travel, nomadic tribes and nebulous identities are held up as ideals, consistently frustrated by national borders, ID cards and immigration officials, alongside the bureaucracy of the European modern nation state and its discrimination against people from Asia.

 

A

Bae Suah

— For South Korean citizens, travelling on foot has long been a symbol of impossibility. South Korea is surrounded by sea, and travelling to North Korea is something unimaginable. For the sake of comparison, it was something more improbable than Jesus walking on water. Of course Kyung-hee cannot travel this way. But the very first thought that comes to her is this grand symbol: ‘to go on foot’. And the inability to do so means having to entrust oneself to the bureaucratic apparatus of passports and visas, and the necessity of obtaining such things. Human beings, born free, should be able to travel to all places on their feet, but really everyone is in a state of confinement, imprisoned in their homeland (or, perhaps, in their mother tongue).

 

Q

The White Review

Recitation involves a lot of references to shamanist practices, specifically central Asian, though shamanism is also indigenous to the Korean peninsula. Then there’s the online community known as ‘Karakorum’, and the various cities of Asian Mesopotamia that are referenced both here and, in passing, in A Greater Music. I also know that you wrote a non-fiction book based on your own travels in Mongolia. What attracts you to Central Asia?

 

A

Bae Suah

— Though shaman faith developed in Korea too and has been passed down quite well-preserved, Korean shamanism has been pushed to the fringes of society over the course of the country’s modernisation. Though in reality, the traces of shamanist belief remain in the unconscious, in a syncretic form with religion, with Buddhism. In Korea, the position of shamans – who are all women – is not a respected one. It’s not the work of intellectuals, but dismissed as something undertaken by uneducated women. Though shaman traditions can be the subject of academic research, it is not explored as a serious form of belief: a shaman can be confused with a fortune teller. In Mongolia it’s different. Shamans are seen as intellectuals and healers, those who supervise communion with nature. They’re also musicians and poets. Galsan Tschinag, a shaman I met in the Altai mountains, is a novelist who writes in German. I think that the most significant part of shamanism is seeing human beings, not as liberated from nature, but as part of one universe.

 

Karakorum is the name of an ancient city in Mongolia, but I use it in place of ‘couch surfing’, where travellers share their living space with each other. I wanted to discuss travel that bridges the east and west, like Marco Polo, which is why I replaced the modern term with the medieval.

 

When I first went to Mongolia, the nature landscape, of course, made the greatest impression on me. Once I went to the Altai, there was the true Mongolia. Altai is in the north-western region of Mongolia, near the borders with Russia and Kazakhstan. I stayed in a ger along with twenty German-speaking Europeans. In the Altai, nature was oppressive from the day I arrived. It didn’t conform in a single way to the idea I had of ‘nature’ – green vegetation, fresh woods, fruit-bearing trees, grass, sea, beautiful refreshing scenery. In one of the books I read in order to go to Mongolia were the words ‘stone mother iron father’, and earth of the Altai was precisely that. The landscape called ‘steppe’ had no grass, and the river flowed grey. The wind always raged. There was no electricity, no telephone, no coffee, no salad. It was truly isolated. I came to believe that at some point mothers had formed out of stone, fathers out of iron. And I came to believe that fire probably would have been the first human god. In that place, nature wore its original face.

 

The second greatest impression were from the nomadic people themselves. Particularly their faces, their ‘expressionlessness’. It was the expression of the Koreans I had known as a child. If you look at photographs from the old days, Korean people have faces that are sullen, stiff, and hard, as though angry. But it is not that they are angry, nor displeased. They’re simply facing unfamiliar people or an unfamiliar object, and so look awkward and embarrassed. But, now, due to Western influences, Koreans – or at least city dwellers – are not expressionless as in the past. In the Altai, looking at the nomadic faces, it was as though I had time travelled. Our guide, a Swiss woman, said to me: ‘looking at you, who have walked here from far away, I thought you were a nomadic woman I’d never seen before, carrying a shepherd’s crook, wearing a woollen skirt, who’d come to our ger…’ At the time I was carrying several branches that I’d picked up in the course of my walk, you see. I did not forget those words. I came back from my trip and wrote a travel essay, and that book’s title became ‘A Nomadic Woman Who I’d Never Seen Before’.

 

Q

The White Review

— For a book narrated by a disembodied voice, Recitation has an extraordinarily intense physicality, with repeated references to obscure body parts and ailments. In all this, the body is further specified as the female body – an anatomical diagram of the vocal chords resembling the female reproductive system, in a woman with her legs spread. This, and the passage describing the myth of the Egyptian goddess Nut, insinuates the female body as that which takes into itself and produces from itself, ‘mutually penetrating and acting’, as in A Greater Music. Could this be another reason for your choice of female protagonists – subverting the idea of the body as something which roots us in concrete reality and provides a solid sense of our own identity?

 

A

Bae Suah

— I wanted this book to be read with the whole body; with the flesh. This novel is a voice, and the voice is an inherently physical entity. Individual voices differ according to the shape of the vocal chords, creating a characteristic through which we distinguish one other. It can neither be faked nor falsified. Through the ear of the one (reader) hears the voice of another (the novel). I wanted that voice to flow materially into the body, to reside at each region of the body. I tried especially to make the description of physical sensation and relations come alive: re-presenting images and symbols through repetition. For example, the passage which describes Mr Nobody giving Kyung-hee an eye kiss, licking her eyeball, whilst at the same time hinting doubly at sexual conjunction. The word ‘mucous membrane’ would be the core of that. Human beings enter into others through regions of mucous membrane: eyes, mouth, throat, genitals, anus. ‘Penetrating and passing through’ can occur on various levels. In the novel I wanted to describe a radically physical touch, the sensation of feeling a new dimension through the touch of a mucous membrane, which has no skin. An example of these membranes are the vocal chords, and the voice that resonates. I think that the myth of the Egyptian goddess Nut, which explains the cycle of the universe through a woman’s body, fits well with this novel. Coincidentally, in Korean ‘vocal chords’, seong-dae, and ‘genitals’, seong-ki, begin with a syllable which has the same sound. Though of course the hanja are different.

 

Q

The White Review

— What was it like answering questions about your writing from American readers, and listening to translated readings of your words during your tour of the US? Given that you can understand but aren’t fluent in English, did it feel alienating at all?

 

A

Bae Suah

— Though the meaning as it is originally designated is the author’s, the sounds – which become the body of that meaning: the number of syllables, the vocabulary, the rhythm, the pronunciation and intonation – are the creation of the translator. Even though I listened to the same passage repeatedly at each event, I always enjoyed it.

 

As we were there focusing on my other book, A Greater Music, it seemed that many of the audience had a connection with Berlin. In Korea, readers are able to feel that they breathe the words of the reading in unison with me. In America that is impossible. Instead, the audience are alienated. That is the greatest distance. But I wish and hope that a form of language can nevertheless be communicated, through sound, rhythm, meter. That’s why I enjoy readings.

 

Q

The White Review

— Translation highlights the need for, and the difficulty of, precise expression – the social contract necessary to believe that a word is the thing it describes. What attracts you to the writers you translate, and to the process of translation itself?
A

Bae Suah

— Among my fellow writers, there are several who, though they’ve previously worked in translation in the past, do not wish to continue translating. In general, they want to be precise and faithful to the original. Due to the impossibility of this, they consider translation difficult and taxing. But I think a little differently. I tend to believe that the same word does not exist precisely in different languages. A single word has various meanings, and is translated into another based on one of these, which is the representative meaning. The spectrum of meaning or atmosphere of nuance ends up being unmade. And so I do not agonise greatly over vocabulary. Perhaps I am a lazy translator. Instead, I tend to agonise over the sentences as a whole. Rather than selecting precise words individually, I want to change the sentence structure in order to communicate the original feeling.

 

Personally, translation is an act of reading and recommending a book to others. I select the books I translate very carefully. I struggle over whether I’ll be able to respond to the original sentences appropriately; whether there’ll be a good synergy between the original and my translation. There are books for which the translator makes little difference, and there are books for which each translator offers a completely individual translation. I prefer the latter kind. This kind of translation gives the translator a pleasure similar to that of creative writing. In my work, I see this form in my translations of Pessoa and Sebald, and the Swiss writer Robert Walser.

 

 

*

 

This interview was selected for inclusion in the 2017 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director for the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


's translations from the Korean include The Vegetarian, Human Acts and The White Book by Han Kang, and A Greater Music and Recitation by Bae Suah. In 2015 she founded Tilted Axis Press, publishing cult contemporary Asian writing. In 2016 her translation of The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize and an LTI Korea Award. She also won an Arts Foundation Award for her work as a translator both on and off the page, which includes teaching, mentoring, consultancy and reviewing. She studied English at the University of Cambridge and Korean Literature at SOAS. She tweets as @londonkoreanist.

is a highly acclaimed contemporary Korean author, and has been described as 'one of the most radical and experimental writers working in Korea today'. After making her literary debut in 1993 with the short story 'The Dark Room of Nineteen Eighty-Eight', she went on to write several novels and short story collections, and has translated numerous books from German, including works by WG Sebald, Franz Kafka and Jenny Erpenbeck. She received the Hanguk Ilbo literary prize in 2003, and the Tongseo literary prize in 2004. Her novel Nowhere to be Found was one of her first books to appear in English, and was longlisted for a PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award.


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