SOUTH KOREA: BIG GAINS AND NOTHING LOST IN TRANSLATION

ANDREA PLATE WRITES — Imagine watching your mother and grandmother being stabbed to death in a random attack on Christmas Eve, and showing no emotion.

This is Yunjae, the protagonist of Sohn Won-Pyung’s Almond (HarperVia), first published in 2017 and translated into English this May.

Why the title Almond? First, because the human brain contains two almond-shaped clusters of grey matter called “amygdalae.” These tiny structures are hugely important. They are the processing centers for deep emotion, especially fear.  They serve as stop and go signs for our best and worst behaviors and are essential to the development of a “normal” healthy, socially acceptable human being.

Second, Yunjae has a big problem with his amygdalae — they’re too small. He suffers from a rare neurological disorder, “alexithymia.” This means that Yunjae can neither detect, decode nor display the normal range of emotions, but his intellect is intact — which means, alas, that he knows he’s impaired, knows why he’s called “weird,” but doesn’t know what to do about it.

Half of all young adult novel readers are older adults. Because who can forget, and what’s worse — being a young adult, or parenting one?

Sohn Won-pyung, a graduate of Sogang University and the Korean Academy of Film Arts, is an accomplished, award-winning screenwriter and director. But Almond is her debut in the young adult genre, because the genre itself is relatively new to South Korea. Young adult fiction, born in 1970’s America, began with luminaries like Judy Blume (Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing) and continues today, with the likes of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Decades passed before the trend took off in South Korea.

Why the shift? Perhaps, as the author of 2011’s b, book & me , Kim Sagwa, once remarked, because “Fitting into middle class society is getting harder and harder for the younger generation.”  In 2016, Almond sold 250,000 copies and won the Changbi Award for Young Adult Fiction.  Most recently, Sohn won the prestigious Japanese Booksellers Award—making her the first non-Japanese Asian winner in the award’s history.

Sohn is exceptional — and not “just” as an author. She began writing this story four months after the birth of her first child.  In the English edition Author’s Note, she describes gazing at her newborn only to think, “This creature, who could do nothing on its own, had been thrown into this world, and was floundering toward the air…. Then I asked myself, ‘Would I be able to give this child unconditional love no matter what it looked like? Even if the child grew to be someone completely different from my expectations?’” Few new mothers can see so clearly through the fog of sleepless nights.

Translator Sandy Joosun Lee was perfectly poised to make sense of Sohn’s Yunjae.  A Korean native, she studied literature and writing at UC San Diego. She is a fellow at the Literary Translation Institute of Korea’s training program for translators. Currently, she works at a South Korean studio, translating and developing animated content for the international market. One additional, deeply personal qualification: Her younger brother is autistic and blind (according to Sandy Joosun Lee’s Twitter feed). It is obvious, on every page, that Lee truly feels Yunjae’s pain and so breathes beauty into its expression.

Translation is a heralded art in South Korea. In her Note From the Translator at the end of Almond, Lee explains the daunting challenge she faced: “portraying the series of horrific events in Yunjae’s life in a uniquely detached voice…especially when lining up his next to those of the other characters who are full of emotion and life;” “ensuring he consistently sounds emotionally removed but not dull;” and choosing between “literal” versus “liberal translation as I saw fit.”

Job very well done. Together, Sohn and Lee have created a tsunami of emotion that wipes out any and all cultural or literary barriers for English language readers.  Imagine, if you dare: A child who knows that his very existence causes his mother pain: “Without meaning to, I stabbed a dagger into Mom’s heart every day;” a mother who weeps while advising her son, “Don’t stand out. That’s all you need to do;” and a grandmother who, Yunjae says,  “came in to save me, appearing out of nowhere like Wonder Woman, sweeping me up into her arms,” and who responds, when he asks why people call him weird, “Maybe it’s because you’re special…my adorable little monster.”

Mom and granny die, but the memory of their love guides Sohn’s Yunjae through the years that follow.  By the novel’s end, at age 18, he has developed a more nuanced, less self-critical awareness and has opened himself up to a new world replete with new characters who bring light to his dark past: Dora, an understanding teenage girl who awakens him sensually and emotionally; Gon, a rebellious kid also labeled “weird” and “monster;” and Dr. Shim, a professor/friend who offers pointers that Yunjae readily picks up and puts forth: “Everyone thinks ‘ordinary’ is easy and all, but how many of them would actually fit into the so-called smooth road the word implied?”

In her closing Translator’s Note, Lee writes, “I hope the English readers will feel the same rush of emotions from Yunjae’s almond as I did.”  Note to the reader:  You will. If not, there may be something wrong with your amygdalae. Or your heart.

As she translates author Sohn, “Luck plays a huge part in all the unfairness of the world.” But luck can also be fair, and good. Read this novel, then count yourself lucky to have found the agony and ecstasy of an exquisitely told, piercing and poignant tale.

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Andrea Plate, Asia Media International’s senior editor for writing and editing, holds various degrees in English Literature, Communications-Journalism and Social Welfare/Public Policy from UC Berkeley, USC and UCLA. Her college teaching experience includes Fordham University and Loyola Marymount University. Her recent book, MADNESS: In the Trenches of America’s Troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, was recently published in Asia and North America by Marshall Cavendish Asia International.

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