[KS] KSR 2004-11: _Writing Women in Korea: Translation and Feminism in the Colonial Period_, by Theresa Hyun
Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Thu Jul 1 03:57:44 EDT 2004
_Writing Women in Korea: Translation and Feminism in the Colonial
Period_, by Theresa Hyun, 2003. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i
Press. 256 pp. (ISBN 0-8248-2677-9).
Reviewed by Janet Poole
New York University
janet.poole at nyu.edu
Theresa Hyun's Writing Women in Korea: Translation and
Feminism in the Colonial Period takes up the intriguing and fresh
theme of the woman translator in colonial Korea. Although it is
commonplace to argue that Western notions of feminism were translated
into Korea at the turn of the twentieth century, this is the first
study to examine this process through the historical figure of the
woman translator. Translation here is no metaphor, but a material
practice through which women transform themselves and Korean writing.
Women, the author argues, made a decisive contribution to the
development of modern Korean nationalism and feminism through their
translation activities and their own fiction writing, which developed
in correlation with their translation practice.
In order to pursue the question of translation and feminism,
Hyun focuses on three bodies of material which enable her to consider
the relationship between gender and writing in the colonial period.
First, she looks at the ways that translators and writers (of both
sexes) wrote about women, ranging from an early twentieth century
focus on European heroines such as Joan of Arc, who might offer not
merely a new notion of a feminine role but, more importantly, comment
upon the state of the nation on the eve of colonial rule, through to
the elaboration of the "New Woman" subjectivity in the 1920s.
Secondly, in what is by far the most original part of the book, she
looks at the work of women translators in the 1920s and 1930s.
Finally, she takes a closer look at three specific writers--Pak
Hwasông, Mo Yunsuk, and Kim Myôngsun--in order to consider fictional
writing by women in the 1920s and 1930s, with specific reference to
its relationship to translations of Western forms of writing. By
examining such a wide range of material, Hyun attempts to reconstruct
the figure of the woman writer in colonial Korea. Her stated aims in
doing so reach beyond the significance of recovering the history of
the Korean woman writer to argue the "central role of translation in
creating new gender and national identities" and thus to find a place
for Korean literary activities in feminist and cross-cultural studies
This is an ambitious and exciting agenda, but one which is
only partly fulfilled in this well-researched and clearly organised
book. For the reader looking for a bibliographical source on women
writers of the first half of the twentieth century, this book will
prove a valuable tool. A long bibliography is divided into two
halves: "primary materials" covering not only literary works but
articles pertaining to women writers from colonial period journals,
and "secondary materials" listing the major works from the recent
boom in studies on women's literature. The author also includes an
appendix that lists women translators from the 1920s and 1930s, the
works they translated and place of publication. The clear
presentation of such research will be invaluable for scholars in the
field of Korean literature looking for bibliographical sources.
Given a context in which there is almost no secondary work on
Korean literature in English, this book is certainly welcome. Added
to that the fact that so many English-language translations have
focused on the work of women writers (albeit from the postcolonial
period), then this book could be useful to supplement such readings.
However, the bibliographical nature of this book tends to overwhelm
its narrative, making it hard to see it successfully placing Korean
literary activities in cross-cultural context, for it is precisely
the context that disappears in such a narrowly empirical focus. As
the sweep of history of writing is rewritten to center women's
writing, instead of enhancing our understanding of history it
The author does attempt to provide historical and social
context, both in an opening chapter entitled "cultural background"
and in various sections later on in the book, but the historical
narrative provided rarely rises above the commonsensical and
oftentimes is simply misleading. To claim that Japanese colonialism
brought about the "ruin" of the "middle classes" (49) hardly makes
sense, particularly in a book which focuses upon that paradigm of
emergent female bourgeois subjectivity known as the "new woman." The
working presumption that gender is overwhelmingly the predominant
factor in the life of the woman writer works to further expel social
and political context. Kang Kyongae, for example, is said to be
interested in the situation of women but no mention is made of
communism and the important fact that many of the 1930s women writers
were committed to political changes, which they demanded reach far
beyond the realm of women's rights. As Kang's explanation of the
title of her long novel "Human Problems" (In'gan munje; 1934)
suggests, she conceived of her interests not as women's problems but
as human problems.
The greatest contribution of this book is undoubtedly the
unearthing and cataloguing of translations by women, but this would
have been enhanced by more discussion of the linguistic context.
Comments such as a translation being "wordy" or "simple" do not mean
much to the reader unless some broader context of literary language
from the time is given. This would necessarily involve looking more
broadly at the writing context rather than just focusing on pieces
written by women, but the result would enable us to appreciate these
women's achievements more clearly. Similarly, a closer reading of
translations and fiction might be able to draw out the significance
of these writing activities in a way that would enable us to consider
the relationship between translation and feminism in a more
theoretically nuanced way.
As it is, this book proves decisively and in great detail
that women in colonial Korea were vigorously involved in the literary
field in multiple capacities. Anyone who is familiar with Korean
literature and seeks information on women writing in this period will
find this book useful.
Poole, Janet 2004
_Writing Women in Korea: Translation and Feminism in the Colonial
Period_, by Theresa Hyun (200)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2004, no. 11
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr04-11.htm
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