Minsoo Kang is a writer and historian, as well as one of the most erudite and well-read people I know. His most recent work is a new translation of The Story of Hong Gildong, published last month by Penguin.
Written around the mid-nineteenth century, The Story of Hong Gildong is a fundamental work of classic Korean fiction that has been adapted into a great number of films, television shows, and novels in Korea. The story’s protagonist is the illegitimate son of a nobleman who leaves home because, though he is a “sturdy man of great talent,” he is barred from opportunity due to his lowborn birth and the rigid caste system of pre-modern Korean society.
After leaving his father’s house (and thwarting his own assassination), Gildong leads a band of outlaws stealing from those who hoard wealth and punishing official corruption wherever it is to be found. The outlaw lifestyle turns to out to be a proving ground for Gildong’s abilities that would have otherwise gone unrealized had he stayed in polite society. He practices magic on grander and grander scales, time and time again evading capture by the king.
In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, Kang was asked when he first encountered The Story of Hong Gildong. Kang, who grew up in Seoul, said that would be impossible to answer, like asking an American when he or she first encountered Batman or Superman. So elemental is the story in South Korea that the name Hong Gildong serves in that country an equivalent function as ‘John Doe’ does in the United States. Given the novel’s bedrock status, any challenge to its origin or meaning provokes controversy.
Kang’s previous work includes the nonfiction book Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (Harvard University Press) and the short story collection, Of Tales and Enigmas (Prime).
The Rumpus: At a recent reading you mentioned that when you return to South Korea this summer you’re likely going to get some shit.
Rumpus: Do tell.
Kang: In the late eighteenth century Korea, for the first time a mass market for popular fiction existed. Literacy rates had previously been so low before that writers just couldn’t make enough money. There are plenty of examples of novels like The Story of Hong Gildong that came out at that time, written not in Chinese script, which was the writing of the upper-class, but in Hangeul, which was a phonetic script of commoners.
The problem is that in 1930s, a scholar named Kim Taejun, who was a nationalist and a communist, was the first literary critic to do a thorough analysis of Hong Gildong. For various political reasons he wanted to elevate this work as a work of great literature, and one that was subversive of the feudal order of Joseon–dynasty Korea. He mistakenly attributed authorship to a nobleman named Heo Gyun, a seventeenth century poet, statesmen and member of the elite. The evidence that Heo Gyun wrote this novel is at best highly problematic, and based on one statement made by one of Heo Gyun’s own students.
Rumpus: And these misconceptions are still prevalent?
Kang: Yeah. The fact is that the vast majority of Koreans still think this was written by a well-educated nobleman, but that’s just not true. The reason behind that has to do with the extremely problematic nature of how they teach literature in the Korean school system. The entire school curriculum is geared toward memorization of information for students to do well in college entrance examination. The way they teach literature is not having you read the entire book, but giving you a small section of it to read and having you learn a number of facts that you would be tested on in the multiple choice format.
Some of those facts would include: The Story of Hong Gildong is the first Korean novel written in the phonetic script. It wasn’t. It was written by Heo Gyun in the seventeeth century. It wasn’t. It was written by Heo as a kind of literary manifesto of his radical political ideas. It wasn’t. But Korean students are forced to memorize those points again and again, and so they just become accepted as facts.
I talked to one professor in Korea who is a leading expert on The Story of Hong Gildong in Korea. He once told me that sometimes he would conduct classes for high-school teachers who teach Korean literature. He would have them all read The Story of Hong Gildong, and they would be just astounded. They told him that the book wasn’t anything like what they imagined the story was about.
Rumpus: And these teachers had been teaching Hong Gildong, presumably, for years and years?
Kang: Exactly. Also, I think there are a lot of scholars who, for various traditionalist and nationalist reasons, are extremely resistant to the idea that this is a popular nineteenth century novel instead of a work written by a nobleman during the seventeeth century. This is a really important point for me too because I think part of this is literary elitism. Here is a wonderful work of literature that all Koreans are justifiably proud of. This is the one work that we can take to the world and say, “Isn’t this awesome?” It’s a great story, it’s an engaging story, and it works on a bunch of different levels, from realism to fantasy.
Just because I describe The Story of Hong Gildong as written for mass consumption by a commoner doesn’t, in my eyes, denigrate its literary qualities and values, at all. I think it’s a wonderful work. I think it’s endlessly engaging, it’s layered. It’s got so many themes, it’s so inventive.
Rumpus: Do we know anything about any real-life historical figures who The Story of Hong Gildong might have been based on?
Kang: There was a real Hong Gildong, and there are a couple of mentions of him in the official records of the Joseon dynasty. He was a bandit and he was captured in the year 1500. Unfortunately, beyond that we know nothing about who he was or where he came from. The stuff about him being an illegitimate son is totally fiction, as far as we know. But one thing we do know about him that ended up in the book was that he dressed up as an official to better enable him to, as the record states, “do his foul deeds.”
To impersonate an official in that way was one of the most serious crimes at that time because that society was so heavily based on a caste system. Dressing up like a nobleman when you’re not, riding around in carriages designated for government officials, that was a huge crime. It’s hard for me to imagine a self-respecting nobleman writing a story about a hero who’s going around doing stuff like that, subverting the system someone like Heo Gyun would have seen himself as part of.
Rumpus: Let’s move out of the authorship and into the text itself. When you read work in translation, you’re reading the original text plus the translator’s voice. What aesthetic choices did you make in translating The Story Hong Gildong to English?
Kang: I’ve translated stuff from modern Korean literature to English before, and even that was difficult. All translations are difficult, but Korean and English are two completely different linguistic systems with no historical connection. On top of that this work was written in nineteenth century Korean, from a mentality I’m not familiar with. It was immensely difficult.
In every sentence I had to make the kind of aesthetic choice you’re alluding to. There were two pitfalls. One, where I became so concerned about creating a smooth reading experience for English readers that I’d make everything sound so colloquial and end up over-translating. There were some reviews, even positive reviews, on my translation that said, “well, in some sections, it’s not quite idiomatic, and in some sections, it’s kind of stilted.” But that’s deliberate, because I don’t want these nineteenth century Koreans to sound like twenty-first century Americans.
I want people to read this and go, “oh, that’s a little bit weird.” Because this is a completely different language, a completely different culture. There are going to be things that characters say that sound stilted and weird. Over-translating is a problem where, in the interest of giving you as smooth a reading experience as possible, all the subtle nuances and peculiarities of Korean get lost.
For instance, one of the characters says, “During the daytime, one is overheard by the bird, and during the night time, one is overheard by a rat.” Which is a proverb that means, be careful what you say, because somebody’s liable to listen. I could’ve easily just rendered this as, “The walls have ears.” But I didn’t want to, because that loses the poetry of the original language. When you read it, it ought to make you feel like this is coming out of a different language, and a different culture.
Rumpus: You mentioned two pitfalls. What was the other?
Kang: Going the other way, where I’d do too much of a literal translation. Then things just become awkward or even incomprehensible.
For instance, in Eastern Asian Languages, there is are levels of speech that one uses depending on whether one is speaking to someone who is a friend of the same age, or someone older, or in a higher social position. The grammatical rules become different, especially in the way sentences end. And there are certain words you can or can’t say when speaking informally or formally. I can’t bring all of that in, because such levels of speech don’t exist in English.
For instance, in pre-modern Korea if you were a commoner and you’re talking to a nobleman, when you refer to yourself you’re not supposed to use the pronoun, “I.” You’re supposed to refer to yourself as “soin” which means, “a small person” or “an insignificant person.”
Today, that would be ridiculous. Initially, I translated “soin” into “an insignificant person” every time. As you can imagine it came out really clunky.
Now, one could say that using the simple pronoun “I” also results in the loss of the flavor of what it was like for a someone like Hong Gildong to address the king, but after Gildong has called himself “an insignificant person” once, I thought that was enough. As you can imagine, it was immensely difficult, making those kinds of choices one after another.
Rumpus: I wanted to talk a little bit about the use of magic in this novel. Fantasy and sci-fi often seem very rules-oriented. And the rules of an imagined world, usually established in the first act, sometimes hint heavy-handedly at how the plot will resolve later on. But it seemed to me like The Story of Hong Gildong didn’t have any rules. All the sudden, Gildong has access to magic, and then he’s inverting the orientation of a room. I thought to myself, okay, that’s cool, I didn’t know he could do that. Then, later on, he’s making copies of himself from straw. This had a very free-wheeling nature to it, in a way that a lot of contemporary fiction doesn’t.
Kang: Well, I think you’re right, but also I don’t think there’s any practice of magic that Hong Gildong is involved in that’s completely invented. In one way or the other, these practices have reference to some form of traditional Chinese magic. For instance, he reads the book, Zhouyi, which is better known in English by the alternative title, I Ching, or The Book of Changes. A lot of the magic can also be found in the grand Chinese epic novel, Journey to the West, which is about this magical monkey. The kind of magic in that novel is very similar to Hong Gildong’s.
One of the most interesting insights that I had into the modern fantasy genre came from this historian named Michael Saler, who wrote a book called As If. It’s a sort-of cultural history of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, HP Lovecraft, and JRR Tolkien. In his discussion of The Lord of the Rings novels, he said something that was just so insightful, that it made me completely change my perception of it.
There are elements which the fantasy genre is famous for, right? It’s scary monsters, it’s magic, ancient kingdoms and all that. Obviously, none of that is new. You get that in Homer, for instance. You get that in medieval literature, and you get it in nineteenth century romantic literature. The really critical difference between those older works and modern fantasy begins with Tolkien.
If you look at virtually all of the fantastic literature before the modern period, it’s either allegorical, you’re not supposed to take the fantasy completely literally, or it inhabits a world, like in Homer, where the mentality is pre-modern. Magic and the presence of gods and all that, as part of the worldview of the time period.
What happens with modern fantasy, and why Lord of the Rings is different from previous fantasy novels, is that you get these moments of absolute realism. Like when there’s this long description of what the hobbits are cooking, how they’re cooking it, and the ingredients. If you’re writing an allegorical, metaphorical novel, you don’t do stuff like that. Everything is supposed to work symbolically.
I think that one of the things that you point out about magic in modern fantasy, say in the Harry Potter novels, is that it’s not just random acts of the fantastic, but it tries to add at least a gleam of realism through a kind of systematic order. It’s basically a frame of realism within which fantastic things happen. That’s what distinguishes modern fantasy from pre-modern fantasy. What you’re noticing is that The Story of Hong Gildong is definitely pre-modern. One of the greatest achievements of The Story of Hong Gildong as a work of literature is the way it seamlessly moves from the realism of the first section to ever more fantastic adventures.
Rumpus: Like many other heroic outlaws, Hong Gildong seems a little more interested in robbing from the rich than he is in giving to the poor.
Kang: Gildong’s first act as a bandit is to loot Haein temple. He and his bandits go in there because there’s so much treasure there. No moral justification is given, like a bank robber robbing banks just because that’s where the money is. You’re not supposed to admire Hong Gildong for the moral justification behind what he does, but because of his prowess, because of how awesome he is as a strategist and battle commander. I think this novel is not primarily about the goodness and benevolence of the protagonist. Even in the beginning when he laments to his father about being an illegitimate son he tells him, “I have all this talent and I can never do anything with it.” He has a deep frustration over not being able to utilize his abilities, though that changes when he becomes an outlaw.