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.

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