- Translator’s Note
Lee Eyunkee, or Yi Yun-gi as published in Germany, is admittedly better known in Korea for his translations and non-fiction works on Greek and Roman mythology than his works of fiction or essays. This, however, does not reflect the emphasis he placed on, or the time and effort he poured into, writing fiction. In one of his essays, explaining his decision in 1991 to scale down his translating career and leave for the United States, he admits:
“Translating was important to me. But it wasn’t the most important work for me.
“I had debuted in 1977 as a writer, but since publishing my first collection of short stories in 1988, I hadn’t written a single proper novel. The trifling reputation and fairly good money I earned as a translator were holding me back by the ankle.” (“To Crawl the Bottom” from Writing That Makes Zorba Dance)
He confesses in the same essay that when he returned to Korea temporarily to receive the Dong-in Literary Award in 1998 he thought that the years he spent abroad “let him come back to being a writer.”
So, in my father’s stead, let me first express joy and gratitude for this opportunity to showcase his work for the first time for readers in the United States, an event made more exciting by the fact that his years in the United States played a significant part in [End Page 1] bringing him back to being what he most wanted to be. In this short introduction, I hope to paint a rough sketch of Lee Eyunkee, or “paint by stippling,” to use the author’s own expression, to better acquaint the readers with him by briefly describing features of his fictional works and sharing my reasons for selecting the two pieces translated here for Azalea.
Whether it is translations or novels or non-fiction that he is well known for in his home country, all of Lee’s works share a common trait: the use of fresh and raw language. His works are dotted with words and expressions uncontaminated by stale usage and even those of his own coinage. He also never shied away from using dialect from his home province of Gyeongsang, the language that resonated most with him. One can imagine the problem this poses for the translator. Indeed, the translation of Lee’s raw language and regionalisms required the most strenuous efforts but yielded the most disappointing results.
While the distinct tone of his language is shared by his works in all genres, his fictional works are especially characterized by his intentional omissions of words and information and his keen insights on man’s relationship to the world.
Lee is a writer who attempts to communicate not by what is said but by what is left unsaid. “The Bow Tie” is a good example. The key information, mainly Nosu’s relationship to Nomin, is never made explicit but is designed to be inferred by the reader—earlier by those more questioning and later by the unsuspecting. And in “The Visitor,” the father’s loss and the boy’s loss, each different in nature, are made more profound by not being addressed directly.
By contrast, what is made explicit and explored in depth throughout “The Bow Tie” is how Nosu stands in relation to the world and how he proactively shapes this relationship. Indeed, the author’s own experience seems reflected in this story. In discussing how he spent his years in the United States, he says he spent most of it having fun, “and when I was not, I was practicing English speaking and learning about the United States. But this was not [End Page 2] about learning a specific language or learning about a specific country. It was about learning to adapt to a new world. I believe that a person’s strength comes from the willingness to change oneself.” Many of Lee’s fictional characters show the same determination when faced with a strange world. And only through struggles, failures, and periods of self-deprecation do they learn and grow.
As can be easily guessed from what has been...