Tag Archives: Bae Suah

An Interview with Sora Kim-Russell

24 Apr
Sora Kim-Russell lives in Seoul, where she writes and works as a teacher and translator.

Sora Kim-Russell lives in Seoul, and her translations of the Korean writer Bae Suah are among the first of that form-breaking writer’s work to appear in English.

Sora Kim-Russell is a literary translator based in Seoul. Her translations include Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll Be Right There and Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time, as well as Bae Suah’s Highway with Green Apples and Nowhere to Be Found. Her translation of Hwang Sok-yong’s Princess Bari will be available on April 27, 2015 through Periscope (UK).

To read an exercise on characterizing an entire society and Bae Suah’s novella, Nowhere to Be Found, and also an interview with Bae, click here.

Michael Noll

The style of the language in Nowhere to Be Found is plain and direct. There are moments of metaphor and some lovely writing, of course, but from the first page, the narrator’s voice is very matter-of-fact. I’m not a translator myself, but I can imagine the difficulties of trying to find a match in English for the tone of the original prose. Did you have a strategy for this? Did you play around with different approaches until you found one that was right?

Sora Kim-Russell

I did play around with the narrator’s voice, especially in the opening pages. It was important to me to capture the narrator’s tone and attitude right from the get-go. Korean-to-English translation has an innate tendency to veer abstract and indirect, so I really tried to push against that and keep the language clear and direct. That way, when the story later takes its flights of fancy, those parts would have room to shine. As for capturing tone and voice, I think my approach is a combination of text analysis and method acting. In terms of text analysis, I look for rhetorical patterns—words or images or emotions that reappear, particular sentence styles and shifts in sentence structure, anything at all that gets repeated—in order to pin down how the narrator is telling her story. As for the “method acting” part, I thought about my own experiences in my twenties and tapped into those memories of dead-end jobs, dead-end relationships, fear of the future, and so on, in order to channel those emotions into my translation. By that, I don’t mean that I wrote myself into the character—it was more like orienting myself emotionally onto the narrator and mapping where our choice of words and phrasings aligned and diverged.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about challenges you had as a translator in finding English equivalents for basic aspects of the Korean setting. There aren’t very many well-known Korean writers in America and certainly not many who are being translated. As a result, I found myself realizing as I read how little I know about Korea, especially as it was during the 80s. In some ways, the narrator seems like any young, single person. In other ways, though, the effect that poverty and the cultural expectations for single women feels quite different from what an American might experience. Does the prose in Korean take for granted certain things that had to be illustrated or explained a bit for an American audience?

Sora Kim-Russell

There were a few “taken for granted” parts, though to be fair, at least one of those references would be just as tricky for young Korean readers today—namely, the “officer-in-training” system that Cheolsu was in. I got really stuck on how to translate Cheolsu’s rank (silseupsodaejang). I guess it’s very roughly analogous to the ROTC system in the US, with the critical difference being that most Korean men don’t choose to go to the military. In South Korea, all able-bodied men have to undergo two years of military service, usually right in the middle of their college years. Cheolsu’s situation is different because he goes into the service after college, his stint is very short, and he starts at a higher rank than other men. He has it easy, in other words. The writer explained to me that, back in the ‘80s when the novella takes place, the officer-in-training system offered a loophole intended to benefit men from elite families, but as the man on the phone (towards the ends of the book) explains, some lower-class men were able to take advantage of it if they could pass the exam. So that was a very specific historical detail that is not explained in the original but which sheds light on who this Cheolsu guy is. I opted to add in a brief explanation, because there was no way to pack all that context into a single word translation.

Also, more broadly, the whole system of military conscription and the idea of women providing support and encouragement (from food, visits, and letters to perhaps more than that) to men undergoing military service is a ubiquitous part of modern Korean culture. If you know that, then it might be easier to understand why the female protagonist resists it. It also helps with understanding South Korea in general, though I would argue that this notion of women feeling pressured to provide “comfort” to men in the military is close to universal and no doubt found in every patriarchal, militarized culture around the world.

Another “taken for granted” part worth pointing out is the title itself. The original title was “Cheolsu,” but it didn’t work in translation because Cheolsu is an extremely common male name in Korea, comparable to “John.” In English, the name comes across as exotic and foreign, which is exactly the opposite of its intended effect in the original, so we opted to change the title in order to convey that sense of ordinariness and anonymity in a different way.

Michael Noll

How much freedom did you take in structuring sentences? For instance, a street in Uijeongbu is described this way: “A perfectly gray street. An old and dirty street.” Were the original lines fragments as well, or is that a construction you used in order to achieve a particular effect?

Sora Kim-Russell

I actually stuck very close to the author’s original sentence structures. There’s something jarring about her sentences in Korean, especially the shifts from long, antithetical sentences where she takes a phrase and turns it back and forth before moving on, to abrupt fragments where the speaker seems to have run out of breath. If I changed anything, it was because it didn’t work grammatically in English, but wherever possible I followed the author’s lead. There were a few places where I had copy editors suggest changes, either deleting a fragment or changing a word choice that seemed out of place, but I stuck to my guns and insisted on keeping them, or looked for ways to smooth them out just enough to allow them to fold into the text but still assert their presence. Whenever there was any doubt, I checked with the writer, and she gave me her opinion on what she thought could be changed or deleted without hurting the text, and which things needed to stay in place. She likes to jar her readers, but the challenge was to find the right words in English that jar without completely unseating the reader.

April 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.


An Interview with Bae Suah

23 Apr
Bae Suah is a Korean writer living in Germany whose books set in South Korea are finally being translated for English-language audiences.

Bae Suah is a Korean writer living in Germany whose books set in South Korea are finally being translated for English-language audiences.

Bae Suah was born in Seoul and has published seven books in Korean, three of which have been translated into English: the novellas Highway with Green ApplesTime in Gray, and, most recently, Nowhere to Be Found. She currently lives in Berlin and translates German literature into Korean, including Martin Walser’s Angstblute and two works by W. G. Sebald. She is currently translating the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

To read an exercise on characterizing an entire society and Bae’s novella, Nowhere to Be Foundclick here. The following interview was translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

Michael Noll

The narrator in this novella—as well the narrator in your story “Highway with Green Apples”—seems to be struggling with what it means to be a young, single woman in a place where the expectation of marriage is quite strong. Given that expectation, I was sometimes surprised at how “liberated” she sometimes sounded. For instance, in a passage about what makes a relationship special, she casually mentions watching porn. Even in the present American culture of TV shows with strong, sexually independent female characters like Girls and Broad City, this reference to porn still took me by surprise. Is it something that would have surprised Korean readers in 1998 when it was first published?

Bae Suah

Well, in that particular passage, the viewer of porn isn’t specified as either male or female, but I do think women watch porn. Of course, men probably watch it for different reasons… In this case, some readers may wonder why the act of watching porn in particular would remind a person (male or female) of someone. It’s not about porn, per se, but about the way a certain someone can suddenly come to mind when you’re busy doing something. I think most of the Korean readers of this novella have been young women, and they didn’t seem put off by this passage. Or at least, I don’t think they were. I don’t think they were surprised by it either.

Michael Noll

Near the end of the novella, there’s a jump in time. You write:

“That year was my beginning and my end. It was one year of my life that was neither particularly unhappy nor particularly happy. It wasn’t so different from 1978, and it wasn’t any more or less memorable in comparison to 1998. The things that happened in 1988 had also happened in 1978 and would happen again in 1998.”

The passage continues on that way. It’s a bleak sense of an absence of logic and progress that you end up calling “third person random.” It’s something that appears in “Highway with Green Apples” as well, a sense of disorientation and disconnectedness, not just between the narrator and her life but among almost all aspects of life. There’s a kind of cruel senselessness at work. It makes me wonder at the reception of these stories in Korea when they were first written. Did readers say, “Oh yeah! This is how it is.” Or did they bristle at the portrayal of their world and the people in it?

Bae Suah

As with the first question, I think that young female readers responded positively to this novella. I guess you could say that what I portrayed in this novella is a kind of volcano inside women’s hearts—volcanoes that threaten to, but never actually, erupt. However, older readers and male readers reacted differently. Male readers bristled at this book, and specifically said that they felt put off by the narrator. The female protagonist is not very nice to the male protagonist; she throws his food in a latrine just to dramatically demonstrate how she is feeling (one younger male reader told me that chicken was highly prized in the army back in the ‘80s); and she has a brusque way of speaking (in fact, she tends to be curt, unfriendly, and rude with others). In other words, she’s the opposite of what’s expected of a woman in Korean society, and that made older readers and male readers uncomfortable. Plus, the novella doesn’t take a delicate approach to emotion and makes no attempt to appeal to universal sentiments. It tosses out unfamiliar and idiosyncratic words and expressions without pampering the reader, and it offers no cause-and-effect explanation in a way that could be understood by anyone and everyone, and I think that is why Korean (male) critics weren’t too happy with this book.

Michael Noll

The novella contains a Kafka-esque moment when the narrator visits Kim Cheolsu at the army base. She ends up running around, being misinformed about his whereabouts, being told that there is more than one person by that name. Was it difficult to find scenes or actions that would convey that sense of “third person random” that is subtly present in so much of the novella?

Bae Suah

The events in the story are all based in reality: the fear a young woman feels as she’s on her way to visit a boyfriend in the army, the anxiety of an uncertain future, the terror of love, and so on. That fear and anxiety is not something that can be overcome simply by escaping poverty. As soon as one insecurity dissipates, another drops before us like a curtain. The young woman on her way to meet her boyfriend doesn’t know this yet, but the older woman narrating the story does. She’s no longer troubled by the pain and uneasiness that follows love (i.e. relationships with men), and she doesn’t regard it as the source of her misfortune. She accepts this anxiety as part and parcel of life and love. While writing this novella, I recalled how I felt back in my twenties, so it really wasn’t that difficult to follow the narrator’s emotional trajectory.

April 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Capture an Entire Society

21 Apr
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah tells the story of a young woman trying to make sense of her life and world in South Korea.

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah tells the story of a young woman trying to make sense of her life and world in South Korea.

Some stories are about individuals, and the drama between them is so intense that the backdrop could be the Death Star or a blank wall and it wouldn’t matter. In other stories, the backdrop matters. Take it away, and the story vanishes. Whether the story is about a society as a whole or a particular town or neighborhood, the challenge is to establish the backdrop as quickly as you’d establish a character. This is, of course, not easy.

One story that shows how it can be done is Bae Suah’s novella Nowhere to Be Found. It was originally published in 1998 in Korean and was recently translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell and published in the United States. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novella Works

Here is how the novella begins:

In 1988 I was temping at a university in Gyeonggi Province.

Mostly what I did there was send lecture requests to part-time instructors, make adjustments to their class schedules, mail them their paystubs, and field complaints from students. As far as the work went, I didn’t have any major complaints of my own. It was the kind of clerical work that anyone could have done without any special qualifications or expertise.

Many readers will likely be familiar with the tedium of such work and also the way it was done:

At this job we could chew gum or do our nails while answering the phones and take over two hours to type even the sparest syllabus. We weren’t lazy or indifferent or anything. It was just the nature of the work…I didn’t have too many tasks, but I also wasn’t so idle that I could have passed the time knitting. When I was working, the hours went by at what I can only call a measured pace.

Another writer might have dug into the absurdities that are intrinsic in such work, but Bae has something different in mind:

We got a month off while classes were out of session. I spent that month working part-time in a dye factory close to my house. My job was to screw caps onto tubes of dye using a mechanical device. That was a long time ago. I’m sure that dye factory has since found a more modern solution to that primitive final step of production. But then again, if they had modernized any earlier, I wouldn’t have spent that summer wrapped in the suffocating smell of acrylics.

Bae is up to something larger than the story of a single person stuck in a soul-killing job. The novella’s target is 1980s-era South Korean society as a whole, and, as you might expect given the nature of the work, there is some large, inhuman imagery:

“That’s how things get done, just as the less delicate components of a machine submit to the will of the machine without any conscious thought or shred of volition while being ground down.”

What makes this novella bold and interesting is that it finds perverse ways of bringing the machinery of society to bear on the components. Here is a great example from early on:

Even now I think maybe my family is just a random collection of people I knew long ago and will never happen upon again, and people I don’t know yet but will meet by chance one day.

These are recurrent themes in the novella: larger, impersonal forces and disconnection. They’re powerful and interesting, and yet they have the potential to lose their power as soon as the reader becomes used to them. And so Bae introduces the novella’s first dialogue, between the narrator and a “guest lecturer on criminal sociology”:

“This week’s topic is murder.”


When I was an undergrad, one of my literature professors made fun of 1920s political poetry, with its predictable imagery of downtrodden masses and greedy capitalists. This novella is different because it so often jolts the readers out of their expectations—causing them to lean forward to really pay attention and setting them up to be smacked down by the societal machinery all over again. Nowhere to Be Found manages to replay that cycle—beat-down, jolt, beat-down, jolt—for 100 pages. It’s an impressive feat.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing about society (without becoming predictable) using Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah as a model:

  1. Create a machine for the society. Another way to put this is this: Create a metaphor. In Nowhere to Be Found, the jobs are clearly representative of the society as a whole. The jobs are noteworthy because of how they reveal the mechanics of the society. While you can create a metaphor by thinking, “I’m going to create a metaphor now,” you can also approach the task from another angle. Try finishing this sentence, “When I think about (the place), I immediately think of _____.” Trust your imagination to fill in the blank with a job or hobby or whatever. Don’t worry about if it’s a good metaphor. If it’s an essential part of the place—not to everyone but to you—it will eventually take on the role of a metaphor.
  2. Acknowledge the machinery. In other words, give the narrator or characters some awareness of the situation. (Without that awareness, you risk writing a morality play.) There are different levels of acknowledgment. The highest level requires a statement like this: “The whole society was about _____.” While this is possible (Bae writes sentences like this), it’s also difficult to pull off. It’s often more manageable to let the characters think practically about their immediate surroundings, as the narrator does in this sentence: “It was just the nature of the work…” Try using that word, nature. Let the character ponder or make a statement about the nature of whatever surrounds her. You may find yourself working up the scale to the nature of the society as a whole. Or, you won’t. Stop when the writing begins to crumble under its own weight.
  3. Give the characters agency. Part of the reason that Albert Camus’ The Stranger is so powerful is that the narrator acts. He chooses to do things. The motive behind those actions isn’t always clear, but the action is dramatic. This is an important lesson to remember: even if characters are just floating along, they need to occasionally act as if they have some control over themselves. (In The Stranger, the narrator chooses to help set up his friend’s girlfriend for a cruel joke.) In Nowhere to Be Found, some of the moments of highest tension occur when the narrator behaves in ways that grind against the machinery she’s caught in. A good rule of thumb is this: When a scene feels like it’s about to end on a down note, keep writing. What if the character suddenly pushed back and refused to accept that down note? What would happen then?
  4. Reveal the machine at work in a surprising way. Machinery tends to work on several levels: the obvious one and the less obvious one. In Bae’s novella, the machinery is the economics of South Korea: the way that low-paid, tedious work turns people into laborers and into automatons. In other words, the machine is exterior to people. What’s surprising is when Bae makes the machinery interior as well, as in the passage about family members seeming like random people. Don’t create an impermeable wall between a character’s interior and exterior. How can her thoughts or actions reveal the presence of the forces she tries to resist?
  5. Throw a wrench into machine. Make the readers believe that the machine can be broken or that it’s possible to step outside of it for a period. Again, there are obvious and less obvious ways to do this. There’s the V for Vendetta method: bomb Parliament. Then, there’s the Nowhere to Be Found method: introduce a wild card: “This week’s topic is murder.” These wild cards don’t need to become part of the plot, they only need to throw askew the reader’s expectations. No society is totally flat. Every place contains pockets of unexpected absurdity or evil or goodness. Create those pockets in your story. How can you introduce a character, even momentarily, who is working not against the system but on a different plane altogether? He or she may still be part of it, but the level of acknowledgement or the choices he makes are different and upend our perhaps simplified ideas of the place.

Good luck.

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