The Power of Translating—and Not Translating
Yu Miri's The End of August is a battle cry for cultural and historical preservation
[Dear readers: This issue contains discussion of sexual assault, imperialism, and more.]
From the opening page of The End of August, Yu Miri’s 710 page, multigenerational saga asserts itself as battle cry for Korean culture and history: “I’m shouting no I’m not / I’m singing / my bones are Korean / my blood is Korean / this blood these bones / will live in Korea / will die in Korea / and be part of Korea,” cries Lee Woo-cheol, the protagonist based on the author’s grandfather (Yu, 1). The novel spans decades, beginning with the Japanese occupation of Korea, and navigating through World War II, the Korean War, and South Korea’s anti-communist uprising. And through the novel’s entirety—which alternates between prose, poetry, song lyrics, play dialogue, and streams of consciousness—is a sense of preservation.
In Japanese-occupied Korea, we watch Japanese authorities ban the Korean language, enforce name changes from Korean to Japanese, and more. In the novel, Korean characters’ sense of grief, of resilience, of shared history comes through in untranslated Korean words, in the repetition of the lyrics from “Arirang,” an unofficial Korean resistance anthem, in historical and cultural references, and in protagonists’ decisions to preserve Korean identity through their names. Even Yu’s decision to place herself as a character in the novel, one who (like herself in real life) is attempting to learn more about her family’s history, is an act of cultural preservation.
While the story in many ways focuses on Lee Woo-cheol and his brother, Lee Woo-gun, readers would be remiss to overlook the women within the novel. Over 100 pages of the novel focus on Eiko. When we meet Eiko, we are introduced with her Japanese name, in line with the aforementioned enforcement of changing Korean names to Japanese. “I cannot say the name my father gave me / I was often called Namiko / but I don’t want to be called Namiko / don’t call me by any name…the one thing no one can violate is the name given to me by my abeoji” (26, 29). It’s not until the very end of the novel that we learn her Korean name as (the character) Yu Miri helps set her spirit free. Only 13 years old, Eiko is tricked and subsequently forced into becoming a “comfort woman” for the Japanese army—a form of human trafficking and sexual enslavement enforced by the Japanese military before and during World War II. Originally published as a serialized story in Japan, “the novel was deemed too controversial for print” and publication stopped after the introduction of Eiko’s storyline (LitHub). Eiko’s existence—both in the novel and in the real world, with its eventual publication—is a form of resistance, a call for Korea’s preservation.
And other women in the story assert their own forms of resistance, Yu’s storytelling displaying the role they’ve played in Korea’s history. Numerous times we learn from groups of women performing household duties, such as washing at the water. A Greek Chorus of sorts, these women speak in hushed Korean (a form of resistance), pass along information regarding the resistance and war, and do what they can to keep their families safe. The spirit of Arang, a character in Korean folklore, watches over the townspeople, using the wind to try and alert them to danger and help them find missing loved ones. And the wives, mistresses, and daughters of Lee Woo-cheol make decisions to keep themselves safe amidst infidelity and turmoil—whether that be leaving, staying, or resignation.
The Korean word han has no direct translation into English, but it’s deeply tied to a shared sense of sadness, history, resilience, and anger. (Elsewhere, might one compare it in ways to generational trauma?) Based on Yu’s own family, The End of August captures this emotion on every page, both because of Yu’s writing and Morgan Giles’s translation. And such emotion only lends itself further to this sense of cultural preservation. What comes through, in the end, is not simply a story. “It’s a special, precious thing that smells of leather and mildew,” thinks one of Lee Woo-cheol’s grandchildren, while looking at a family photo album (692). “When I look at pictures from when I was little, my memories are fuzzy or I can’t remember anything and it makes me feel really weird. But I can’t forget things in pictures that happened before I was born.”
Reading in translation
Did you know that an overwhelmingly small number of books are translated from other languages into English each year, and that novels by women make up less than half of these translated works? Even more disappointingly, the books being translated tend to come from the same four languages (French, Spanish, German, and Italian). Learn more in this post and explore more using Open Letter’s translation database.
Taking place each August, Women in Translation Month aims to promote works by women in translation, from all around the globe (including nonbinary and intersex writers who wish to be included).
Yu Miri and Morgan Giles have a unique relationship. Learn more about how Morgan Giles began to translate The End of August.
“Eiko knew for the first time the summer. And she was sad, realizing she was still a child who knew nothing. Nunbusida…”
—The End of August, p395
Others’ thoughts on The End of August
“The act of running away inevitably forces you to run toward something, whether that be a place, a person, or a receding horizon. Yu Miri understands that history is a race without a finish line. In the final pages of The End of August, we circle back to the beginning, listening to the rhythmic “in-hale ex-hale” of a person running along the banks of the Miryang River. And the river, like this far-reaching, all-encompassing novel, is breathtaking.” —Tara Cheesman, Words Without Borders
“Yū brilliantly weaves in themes of loss and grief through the characters' long-distance runs and explores running away from trauma vs. towards freedom.” —@AmberShelf
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