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Land by Pak Kyŏng-ni (review)

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 161-163 | 10.1353/jks.2013.0005

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This three-volume work is an English translation of one-fifth of the Korean epic novel T’oji, one of the masterpieces in Korean literary history. Pak Kyŏng-ni (Pak Kyŏngni, 1926–2008) wrote several novels before she started writing T’oji in 1969 and once mentioned that all her previous novels were practice for writing T’oji, which was serialized for twenty-five years until 1994, when the whole novel was published in sixteen volumes. It depicts several hundred characters and its setting includes Korea, Manchuria, the Russian Maritime Province (Yŏnhaeju), and Japan. It begins with the first year of the Korean Empire (Taehan Cheguk) in 1897 and ends with the liberation of Korea from Japan in 1945. The translation was undoubtedly a daunting job and it is significant in the history of translations of Korean literature.

The novel describes Korean people and history during a turbulent period: the drastic changes in Korean society at the turn of the century, and the colonial period. Part One, the part that was translated into English, covers about ten years from 1897 to 1908, two years before the Japanese annexation of Korea. It describes the lives of the aristocratic landlord Ch’oe, his family, and the villagers, mostly the Ch’oe family’s tenants, in a southeastern province of Korea. Although the novel starts in 1897, previous historical events such as the Tonghak movement, modern international treaties, and the Kabo reforms have affected the lives and relationships of the characters. Part One deals with the fall of the Ch’oe family, the heiress’s move to Kando, and the dislocation of the villagers. This first part specifically presents certain pressing issues that the Korean people were confronting: modernization, immanent colonization, conflict between modernists and traditionalists, unstable identities, and changes in relation to class and gender, as well as various love affairs and relationships. These themes are deployed and crystallized through the intricately interwoven plots and relationships among characters. The most remarkable aspect of this novel is the distinctive characterization of every individual despite the appearance of countless characters. Without the exclusive focus on a single heroic character, this epic narrative distributes the focal point to a community of individuals. The events affecting it are conveyed through frequently changing viewpoints, creating multiple layers of narrative and divergent perspectives, which makes the text richer.

T’oji has received serious attention from scholars of Korean literature since the serialization of Part One was finished in 1973. Beyond its literary significance, it became a remarkable piece of cultural capital in a broad sense. For instance, the T’oji Cultural Foundation was established and the Ch’oe family’s house was restored in the area that is the spatial setting of the novel. T’oji was also adapted for different media such as film, TV, and a comic book and enjoyed popularity beyond readers of literature. Pak showed a cautious concern about the commercialization of T’oji and her novels in general, but its popularity naturally entailed various types of rewritings and cultural products.

Pak was ambivalent about the translation of her novels. She was reluctant to have her novel translated into other languages, though she understood that a novel becomes unfettered from the author after it is finished. Although she witnessed its translation into a few languages—for instance, French, German, and English—when she was alive, she believed that T’oji was untranslatable. However, the translations formed their own lives and reached different groups of readers.

This three-volume English translation faithfully follows the Korean text except for a couple of minor structural changes. The Korean text has five sections under Part One and each section consists of several chapters. Each section and each chapter has its own title. But the English translation does not keep this structure and there is only a chapter division with consecutive numbers without titles. The grouping by sections and chapters in the Korean version emphasizes the thematic coherence among the chapters in each section, as the section and chapter titles hint at the content of the next section/chapter. The exclusion of the section divisions and section/chapter titles conceals the author’s organizational and thematic...

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