Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Missing Mom: Testimony as Translation in Shin Kyung-Sook's Please Look after Mom

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Missing Mom: Testimony as Translation in Shin Kyung-Sook's Please Look after Mom

Article excerpt

Please Look After Mom is about a woman, Park So-nyo, who cannot be proclaimed legally dead or alive for she is "missing." In the face of an absent figure and an absent testimony, the novel suggests a new mode of reading, address, and transmission.

To possess things one must, in effect, first "possess oneself" and this self-possession is nothing other than the generic concept of intelligence.

--Etienne Balibar, Masses, Classes, Ideas

Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung Sook has been a steady national bestseller in South Korea for many years, and has also been translated into more than thirty different languages. The novel's status as both a national and international text invites discussion about the networks that constitute an asymmetrically globalizing literary market. Despite the asymmetry, the one thing that remains constant in terms of how this novel is marketed both in Korea and elsewhere is an appeal to the universality of family love. For example, Amazon markets the novel as an "authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love." It offers a putatively Western audience the opportunity to sample authentic Korean life at a safe distance, while reassuring them of a certain familiarity in a romantic notion of family love. By delimiting a reader's relation to the text in terms of a private notion of family love, it ensures that any engagement with the text is politically innocuous. And yet, it is in the most sentimental moments of Please Look After Mom that the problem of the political makes itself felt. The process of sentimental-izing, in leaving its impression, also leaves behind its ideological signature. My reading of Please Look After Mom insists on raising the question of gender, of the division of labour within the family, and the mother as a political category in relation to a heterogeneous understanding of translation in order to resist what Rey Chow refers to as the "transparency" of sentimentality (xvi). Ultimately, such a reading should suggest that the differentiation between an "authentic" Korean context and its implied Western counterpart is as imaginary as it is forceful.

The novel begins with a line that is difficult to translate. The official English translation reads, "It's been one week since Mom went missing" (1). (1) It is worth noting that within the given context, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] would be closer to the English word for missing. Yet, it is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] the rough equivalent of the verb to lose, that is used in the Korean text. The verb choice in the Korean works against a sense of the colloquial; the formulation closer to "it's been a week since Mom went missing" would indeed have been less unwieldy even to a Korean reader. Thus, a more literal translation might read, "It's been a week since Mom was lost." And yet, while this last translation preserves the verb to lose, through passive construction the elision of an acting subject is made quite seamless. We are made to forget, if briefly, that responsibility lies somewhere and perhaps in someone for having lost Mom. In Korean, it is not so unusual to leave out the subject of a sentence: if English pronouns are deictic, the Korean will often drop the pronoun altogether while assuming those deictic relationships. For example, in English, if someone were to ask, "Where did Mother go?" one might respond, "She went home." In Korean, if one were to ask, "Where did Mother go?" one might respond, "[x] went home," where the bracketed, unknown variable is silent. Therefore, another possible translation might look like this: "It's been a week since [x] lost Mom." What the English translation represses, then, is also the way in which this opening sentence is marked. The untranslatability of the novel's first line highlights the small but nuanced difference between the possible reconfigurations--who is responsible for losing this woman? If she cannot be held responsible for her own disappearance, the question is why? …

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