A ‘grotesque, edifying’ allegory of modern lifeTranslation is a work of art in itself, which is why reading a translated literary work can have unfulfilling aspects because of linguistic limitations. For Koreans learning English, reading classic literature written in English with a simultaneous translation side by side has been well received. This method, of course, also works just fine for expatriates. A series of Korean classic literary works in bilingual versions comes in quite handy to catch two birds with one stone ― to sample the feast of literature in its original language as well as to learn the language.
As an established publishing company, Hollym has long targeted expatriates as its main readership, producing a prolific, well-selected list of books on Korea, including best-selling practical collections such as “Travel Korea Your Way” and “Facts on Korea.” The publisher’s recent projects include having Korean short stories translated into English for expat readers, with the original text on the facing page.
The latest release in the series is “Tower of Ants” by Choi In-ho, a 60-year-old popular author with noticeable standing on the Korean literary scene. A slim volume, yet intensive and of high caliber, “Tower of Ants,” a literal translation from the original Korean title, “Gaemiui Tap,” invites readers to a lonely battle between an average Joe and innumerable ants infesting his apartment.
Ants have been a favored topic in literature, as in the French novelist Bernard Werber’s “Ants.” Mr. Choi, however, in a simple yet precise manner notes the similarity between human beings and ants in this modern, mechanical world and shows them as being just bricks in the wall.
Readers are not given the name of the protagonist, who works as a copywriter: he is referred to only as “I” or “He.” The author has no reason to give his main character a name; it could be anyone in this society, even the readers themselves. Intrigued by an accidental discovery of a group of ants, “He” is soon faced with an overwhelming army of them, infiltrating his belongings and then his life. The battle leads to a rather unpredictable ending, which can be called neither a victory nor a defeat, but which leaves a deep aftertaste.
Puns and the writer’s fine selection of words in the original fall rather flat in translation, yet such shortcoming should be viewed leniently. The hardcover copy contains a review, in both languages, by critic Lee Nam-ho, who calls this novelette a grotesque and edifying allegory on human lives in this modern society. Another compelling part of the book is a group of interesting illustrations, well matched to the story.
Despite the low profitability prospects, Hollym will continue the bilingual project by releasing more Korean short stories translated into English. Included on the soon-to-come list are a number of classics like Kim Seung-ok’s “Seoul, 1964 Winter” and Hwang Sok-young’s “The Road to Sampo,” both used as Korean literature textbooks for local high schools.
“Tower of Ants”
By Choi In-ho
Hollym, 170 pages
8,500 won (about $8) at Kyobo
by Chun Su-jin