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The Jehol Diary: Yŏrha ilgi of Pak Chiwŏn (1737–1805) (review)

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 17, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 219-222 | 10.1353/jks.2012.0000

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Yang Hi Choe-Wall is to be commended for taking on a very difficult task in translating the first three books of Pak Chiwŏn’s The Jehol Diary (Yŏrha ilgi). Yŏrha ilgi chronicles Pak’s travels with a Chosŏn diplomatic mission to the Qing Empire in the summer of 1780. One might be tempted to identify Pak’s work as one of the many examples of the yŏnhaengnok genre: the journals Chosŏn envoys kept on their travels between Seoul and Beijing. Yŏrha ilgi in its entirety, however, moves far beyond the usual yŏnhaengnok fare to encompass not only the sights and sounds from the road but also a great deal of commentary on Qing and Chosŏn society, economy, and politics as well as discourses ranging from discussions of Qing models for Chosŏn reform to sometimes snarky and often hilarious accounts of conversations with fellow travelers and sundry people from all manner of avocations in the Qing Empire of the late eighteenth century.

Translation of such a work requires a relationship with Classical Chinese, the language in which Pak was writing, which allows the translator to move with fluid comfort from the technical and official language of the agents of the Qing and Chosŏn governments to the obscurities of literary allusion and back again to the banality of the lowest rungs of everyday conversation, all with an understanding of the social, political, intellectual, and institutional contexts that contour the meanings of the text. There are few with such fluency in the currents of eighteenth-century Chosŏn elites to be able to produce a viable English rendering of Pak’s work, but there are some extended passages in Choe-Wall’s translation that initially suggest she may well be equal to the task. The most engaging and enjoyable of these is the section titled “At the Yisuzhai Antique Shop” (pp. 95–108). Pak spent two nights in this antique shop talking with the proprietors Tian Shike and Li Guimeng and their friends. As they ate and drank into the wee hours, their conversations ranged from travel, friendship, the Confucian classics, and calligraphy to personal histories, music, education, alcohol, and ribaldry. Of particular interest was Tian’s explanation of the business of forgery in Qing antique markets. Having developed a friendship of sorts during their brief time together in Shengjing, Tian did not want Pak to look like an idiot pausing over the all-too-common counterfeits in the Beijing antique markets, so he explained at length the differences between real and artificial patinas and how they were produced. It is interesting to note in this exchange that Pak recorded Qing merchants’ impressions of their Chosŏn customers. Much of the extant yŏnhaengnok literature is restricted to Chosŏn impressions of the peoples of Ming and Qing, but it is unusual to see the tables turned and find men of Chosŏn under examination. Here Choe-Wall’s translation is enjoyable and quite informative, pulling the reader into the pleasures of good wine, engaging conversation, and even some of the disquiet in the sudden realization that one has drunk too much and stayed out too late.

While such passages in Choe-Wall’s translation are a great deal of fun to read, they do come at a price. As Marion Eggert noted in her insightful critique,1 Choe-Wall is rather free in her English rendering, often inserting a great deal of her own material that cannot be found in the source text. Rather than add to Eggert’s illuminating commentary on the literary merits of Choe-Wall’s translation, however, I will examine some problems and implications of Choe-Wall’s translation of technical terminology. I wish to stress that I do not pursue this line of critique in the interest of terminological accuracy alone but rather to illustrate a larger problem in her translation concerning the broader context in which Pak was traveling and writing.

Early in the text there is a problem with Choe-Wall’s understanding of the term “local products” () in Pak’s account of the embassy’s stay in Ŭiju before crossing the Yalu...

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