It’s Women in Translation month! Hurrah! Not enough women are getting their work translated into English, so this month bloggers are highlighting some of the wonderful works of foreign literature by women that have made it to our library shelves. Here is a description of “I’ll Be Right There that I stole from Amazon:
When Yoon receives a distressing phone call from her ex-boyfriend after eight years of separation, memories of a tumultuous youth begin to resurface, forcing her to re-live the most intense period of her life. With profound intellectual and emotional insight, she revisits the death of her beloved mother, the strong bond with her now-dying former college professor, the excitement of her first love, and the friendships forged out of a shared sense of isolation and grief.
When I was small, my friend who had lived in England for three years told me that if you answer the door with a towel wrapped around your hair, it was a signal to the person at the door that you’ve just had sex. It’s one of those things that stuck with me long after it should have been obvious that it wasn’t true. (Like, right? That’s not true, right, British people?) It’s clung stubbornly to my neurons for over fifteen years, I think because of the totally true truth that you can misunderstand what is going on, completely, when you are in a culture that doesn’t belong to you. When my mother moved from New York to Louisiana, and people she’d just met would ask her to dinner, she said that she used to think, What do you want from me?
(They wanted to feed her dinner.)
I’ll Be Right There gave me a lot of trouble in this regard: I didn’t know what was implied by the words and actions of the characters. I didn’t have enough of a grip on the cultural assumptions of South Korea to feel sure all the time about what was going on. What do these people’s choices mean? To take a small example, a girl called Miru writes down everything she eats in a small notebook. Since none of the other characters observes this and says “Oh dear, has she got an eating disorder?”, I mistrusted my instinct that this was indicative of an eating disorder, and I was surprised and annoyed with myself when it turned out later that yes, she had an eating disorder.
This is nothing to do with the author and everything to do with me. I don’t like the feeling of not being certain about what’s behind the words everyone is saying. I like to understand the subtext, and it’s much much harder with a translated novel, especially one that comes from so far away with — presumably — so many cultural assumptions that won’t be the same as mine. I never felt sure how I was supposed to feel about anything: Yoon’s relationship with her childhood friend as he goes off to the army; Miru’s desperate longing to share a house with her two best friends; the steady growing apart of college friendships. And I think that uncertainty on my part detracted from my ability to appreciate the book on its merits.
But what I did love was the elegiac tone of the book as a whole. There are so many deaths that Yoon misses, not for any dramatic reason but simply by not being there, not doing the work to stay in touch and hold on to people. She remembers a time when she and her ex-boyfriend stopped saying “I’ll be right there” in their phone conversations with each other, and she wishes that she had kept doing that, kept making herself available in difficult times as well as good ones. The wish to have done more and been more after people are gone is universal, I think, and Shin Kyung-Sook carries it across beautifully.
Do y’all encounter this problem with translated novels? Do you get bogged down in uncertainty over what you’re supposed to think of the characters and their actions?