Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Little Korean Science Fiction: 카이와판돔의 번역에 과하여 (Concerning the Translation of Kaiwapandom)

Lee Young-do's "Concerning the Translation of Kaiwapandom" appeared in an anthology of Korean science fiction, Alternative Dream, in 2007. Like many of his sf contemporaries, Lee's work was first available online--with all the advantages and disadvantages that it implies. That medium may be ideal for the world's most wired nation, but it has also served to limit the foreign, scholarly audience for this work. Translators, after all, are less likely to invest their energies in a medium that is, by definition, shifting and protean. So it's nice when presses like 황금가지 (Hwanggeumgaji) publish these collections of stories. As for translators--well, as you see below, I'm not much of one. But I have tried to give you a sense of this interesting story. You can find another translation of the story at Crossroads, an online journal of science and culture published by the Asia Pacific Center for Theoretical Physics. And, in that vein, if you're interested in an English introduction to Korean Science Fiction, you can visit Gord Sellar's blog for a taste of his Korean sf visionquest.

Ultimately, "Kaiwanpandom" is a story steeped in anthropology--a tale about linguistics, language survival and Korean unification--and an ultimately optimistic vision of Korean cultural futures.

The obvious target of Lee's story is the blatant linguistic imperialism in mainstream US- and English sf. How many sf stories hinge on some kind of standard language spoken across a galaxy? How many stories project a future where the people of Earth speak only English? One of the many ironies of golden-age sf is that, in the act of discovering a diversity of intelligent life in the universe, people lose their linguistic and cultural diversity.

Of course, this is a common sense understanding of linguistic hegemony that writers in the US and other English-speaking countries are steeped in and rarely question, a kind of linguistic social Darwinism that not only naturalizes the present dominance of English but also projects it into a future where a monolingual world is an inevitable product of the progress into space.

It is here that "Kaiwapandom" begins. Aliens have made contact with Earth through a kind of receiver system called an "ansible". A dictionary of Galactic Standard has been compiled. But now, the work of cultural translation has begun--starting with mythology (the basics, as it were). After a disastrous attempt to translate one myth (destroying much of California), the alien governing body has initiated an exchange of mythology with the Witanians.

They have sent a kind of alien Cinderella--"Kaiwanpandom". Interpreters around the world are striving to translate cultural texts from the the alien tongue. But, here, there is already the politics of language at stake--it is the "Galactic Standard-English" dictionary that is produced first, after all. Will other Earth languages be swept aside for a single language to communicate with Galactic Standard? Especially since the stakes are so high--the transfer of unimaginable technologies.

But not everyone may view this as a spectacular crisis. As Teacher Lee--the interpreter engaged by some government body to work on the Korean translation in some undisclosed location in the mountains north of Seoul--explains to her bodyguard, Captain Bak (formerly of the North Korean People's Army), you have to take the long view:

We don't know how many viewpoints have disappeared. In reality, other language users take over; in the last century, capitalism was like that, and now it's aliens. Both don't use the languages of other people. [ . . .] When barbarians appear speaking other languages, as a rule they are assimilated or killed off. After this present resistance ends, the Earth will quickly unify under a common language. It's highly possible that will be English. (80)

But there are those that would oppose this change. There's a guerrilla resistance movement to the incursion of alien culture--the "Earthers" (지구주의자). Their goal is to advance a kind of xenophobic agenda--and they have actively tried to stop the translation of the alien myth into Earth languages.

Even though it seems like a long shot that the Earthers would be after the Korean translation, Teacher Lee explains that, since she is the only real authority on Galactic Standard in Korea, knocking her out would eliminate the whole process of Korean translation altogether. So, in the midst of her work on the translation, the Earthers attack. That's where Captain Bak comes in--jumping in defense of both Teacher Lee and of the Korean language in general.

That is, not only is Captain Bak (as her bodyguard) key to her physical survival, he also articulates the importance of Korea's linguistic survival. His first point concerns the widely held opinion (in Korea, anyway) that Korean is the most logical and scientific of the world's languages, one that Teacher Lee pessimistically dismisses.

"Suppose that it comes to light that the easiest language with which to understand Witan is Korean? What then?"

"Manx may be the closest language to Witan. Yahi or Katavaka may be as well. But in the last century capitalism did away with these languages. And there was no problem with the suitability of these languages.

"This is natural law. It doesn't matter how beautiful or how special the languages that have disappeared are, Only power is important. Because this is natural law I don't get angry or try to resist." (84)

But, despite Teacher Lee's defeatist rendition of linguistic history, Captain Bak doesn't give up. As the two escape from the clutches of the terrorists, Bak pieces together a politics of Korean language survival in the age of Galactic standard.

That politics is premised on his own experiences of what appears to have been a one-sided reunification of North and South Korea--i.e., one where South Korea assimilates the North.

"Teacher Lee, what can you understand if you lose the Fatherland (조국) and the language of the fatherland?
[ . . .]
Now I'm Captain Bak. But at one time I was Bak Weon-jin, an officer of the North Korean People's Army (조선인민군). But it's an even more strange evil to remember that when's there's no longer any position from which to use that name.
[ . . .]
I'm sure you're right when you assert that the weak disappear and the strong proliferate. I've suffered this first hand. I'm talking about cultural language. Korean too will disappear. And some day the world and Witan too."
[ . . .]
"Captain Bak, you're talking about an even larger extinction than I was. Given that, doesn't that make it even more useless?"

"It's not so much extinction as giving up. For adults to arrive at that place you have to give up on your children." (88)

In the end, it's Captain Bak who saves them both from the terrorists. And Korean proves important, after all, in conceptualizing gender terms in Witan (92). One of the translation problems dogging them is the existence of three genders--Woman, Man(1) and Man(2)--each of which can be placed together in any combination to produce different, gendered offspring.

Then there are occasions in Witan when different [gender] combinations are possible. Two women coupled together produce a daughter and a woman coupled with a man(1) produced Man(2) sons. If a combination of three people--two women and a man(1)--is achieved, then you can have a daughter and a man(2) son; three people consisting of one woman, one man(1) and one man(2) give birth to boys of each type. Then if Witanians want to reproduce all of the genders, how do they have to combine?"

"You would need a combination of two women, one man(1) and one man(2)." (92)

This ideal combination of four people as a basic unit for reproducing all genders in Witanian society is known as a Kaiwanpandom. Translated, Teacher Lee decides on "온가시버시" (Ongasibeosi) which we might translate into English as "whole couple."

It's important here that they use "온가시버시"--i.e., combining the pure Korean "온" (on) with the pure Korean "가시버시" (gasibeosi) rather than the Sino-Korean 부부 (bubu). Somehow, this is a better translation of Kaiwapandom than one in Sino-Korean (or in English).

The obvious meanings here include both the survival of Korean in a future dominated by powerful and imperialistic hegemons (i.e., the US). But also the sense of a reunified Korea being one that brings together a combination of different peoples and different customs in order to found a whole. In other words, both Teacher Lee (the embodiment of South Korea's knowledge society) and Captain Bak (the representative of the perpetually militarized North) need to come together to found a stronger, lasting Korean peninsula. The last scene finds Captain Bak giving Teacher Lee cigarettes in the hospital--dreams of unified future, after all.

And there's an argument here for linguistic diversity in general. Implicit in "Kaiwapandom" is the idea that the world is better for the different perspectives different languages bring. And even more than this, that linguistic diversity may be one of the best resources we have for adapting to perpetually changing (and perpetually surprising) cultural futures. The other side to this argument is the acknowledgment that a monolingual future is an ultimately impoverished one.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Book review: Cory Doctorow's Makers

Cory Doctorow should have been an anthropologist; or, rather, he is--a nonce anthropologist of his corner of information society. Doctorow is a veteran activist, best known for his work in electronic media and civil liberties. His technical background, together with his considerable experience in policy and political activism, makes him the ultimate anthropological insider--few writers are as dead-on in their descriptions of geek-dom in general, and his policy writings give his work a level of accessibility that would otherwise be missing.

Makers is in many ways the synthesis of his work in science fiction, activism and what might best be described as self-entrepreneurship. As such it is a profoundly reflexive work: Doctorow blogs on about people who re-combine the dross of consumer society into new forms, clever hacks, ironic parodies. Makers extrapolates on these smaller-scale inventions into a description of a new economic system (the 'new work'), as seen through the eyes of the blogger who loves it (the journalist-cum-blogger Suzanne Church). At the same time, Doctorow is re-cycling and re-using his own materials in Makers, returning to Disney once again (pace Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom), and to 3-D volumetric printing (which appears in at least one of his stories, "After the Siege"). And finally, he's opening his work to re-use and re-mixing through his creative commons licensing, itself an intellectual property hack on par with the inventions of his two protagonists, Lester and Perry.

The "New Work" that Makers introduces expounds on the ethics of re-using and re-mixing, combining technologies, trash, abandoned buildings, polluted factories and everything else in a post-industrial "future" America (that exists in many places right now in the present) and using that to create something else.

It starts with Lester and Perry in their junk-yard laboratory on the borders of an abandoned Wal-Mart in Florida, but then blossoms into rapidly brachiating micro-enterprising fuelling the creative urges of an underemployed and de-skilled lumpenproletariat.

As Lester and Perry later eulogize in a "new work" theme park,




In the end, the company that was bankrolling most of the new work start-ups ("Kodacell") goes bankrupt, throwing everyone out of work again in another paroxysm of “creative destruction,” but the boys trudge on, re-using the wrack of new work in their project. The "new work" may have been beaten by specters of shareholder value, but the entrepreneurial spirit lives on!

Some of the early reviews of this work have applauded the way the entrepreneurial spirit remains unconquered--indeed, the final paragraphs of Makers find Lester and Perry, now at the end of their lives, toiling over their next mash-up invention:
The scene inside the workshop was eerie. Perry and Lester stood next to each other, cheek by jowl, hunched over something on the workbench. Perry had a computer open in front of him, and he was typing, Lester holding something out of sight.

How many times had she seen this tableau? How many afternoons had she spent in the workshop in Florida, watching them hack a robot, build a sculpture, turn out the latest toy for Tjan’s amusement, Kettlewell’s enrichment? The postures were identical—though their bodies had changed, the hair thinner and grayer. Like someone had frozen one of those innocent moments in time for a decade, then retouched it with wizening makeup and hair-dye.

Is this a celebration? Sure, there's something to the idea that human creativity perseveres despite age and economic collapse. But I don't believe Doctorow is so optimistic. The novel, after all, is not just about the "entrepreneurial spirit"--it's about the imagination trammeled under the profit imperatives of a ravenous corporate capitalism that ruins everything it touches, turning the revolutionary hack into the bland recapitulations of the same.

After all, it's the vagaries of the market that sinks the "New Work," Disney lawsuits that ravage the participatory, recombinant "cabinet of wonders", and, finally, the dictees of the market that turn 3D volumetric printing from a tool for hackers and reuse into the catalyst for a renewed era of Disney dominance. It is even the market that turns the "fatkins" treatment--a biological hack applying genetic therapy and pharmaceuticals to speed the metabolism of fat Americans--into a death sentence of organ failure and osteoporosis. At every turn, what begins as potentially liberating--or at least cheeky--techno-tinkering turns into a source of corporate profit, after which Lester and Perry move on.

This is, finally, what drives Perry out of the whole game altogether. Washing his hands of his partnerships, he becomes a bricoleur-drifter, unwilling to stay put long enough to build more tech for the commodity machine.

Lester is less of a cynic, and ends up at what appears to be a kind of Disney think tank. But there, his experiences are little better, and he ends up with the same kind of sad realizations.

“They said that they wanted me to come in and help them turn the place around, help them reinvent themselves. Be nimble. Shake things up. But it’s like wrestling a tar-baby. You push, you get stuck. You argue for something better and they tell you to write a report, then no one reads the report. You try to get an experimental service running and no one will reconfigure the firewall. Turn the place around?” He snorted. “It’s like turning around a battleship by tapping it on the nose with a toothpick.”

That is, rather than the "entrepreneurial spirit," there another spirit altogether haunting this novel: the spirit of money.

As Christopher Bracken writes (only partly in irony) of this omnipotent spirit,

It is the pure potential for appropriation. Hence it is the most powerful kind of spirit there is [ . . .] Although money is a "mere thing," still in some ways it is more human than I am. I possess only some human potentialities. Money possesses them "all." How did it come to have more "human abilities" than humans do? And how did we trade places with a thing?

More than the straw man villains who harry our protagonists (a vengeful journalist and a Disney executive), it is this money spirit that swallows up everything the inventors produce. It is the "third man" in Doctorow's novel--the genius loci that hastens the entropy of ideas. Kettlewell, the venture capitalist, opines in the opening paragraphs of the novel,

“Capitalism is eating itself. The market works, and when it works, it commodifies or obsoletes everything. That’s not to say that there’s no money out there to be had, but the money won’t come from a single, monolithic product line. The days of companies with names like ’General Electric’ and ’General Mills’ and ’General Motors’ are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.

But, in the end, capitalism is still eating itself. And Lester and Perry manage to hold out longer than most (416 pages in the printed edition!), but they succumb to death and the bottom-line in the end, just like everyone else.

So, in a way, this is Doctorow's most bleak novel yet (and he has drawn on the dystopian muse before)--not the triumph of ideas, but the triumph of capitalism and commodification over ideas. And while we’re meant to feel empathy for the two inventors, there’s some finger-pointing here as well. Why can’t Lester and Perry see that their nerdy coke-can computer ultimately strengthens the system it was supposed to poke fun at? Why don’t they ever come up with a really new work, one that doesn’t end up on a balance sheet? And what would that mean? Can we even conceive of intellectual creativity outside of the market?

Bracken, Christopher (2007). Magical Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.