A life spent pushing the boundaries of expression : Literary critic Hwang Hyun-san is always on the hunt for new talent

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A life spent pushing the boundaries of expression : Literary critic Hwang Hyun-san is always on the hunt for new talent



A sharp-eyed assessor of poetry, an excellent essay writer and a reliable French-Korean literary translator - literary critic Hwang Hyun-san has so many titles that it is hard to describe all of the roles that he plays in a brief description. The 72-year-old has been adding more color to his life since he retired as a professor in Korea University’s Department of French Literature in 2010.

Thanks in part to his 360,000 followers on Twitter, Hwang has sold over 50,000 copies of his 2013 book, “The Night is the Teacher,” an exceptional feat for a book full of essays and newspaper columns. His fans used to be limited to critics and professional writers, but now a wider range of book lovers are finding his works, thanks to the sincerity of his writing.

As well-established of a translator as he is, Hwang actually never studied abroad when he was young, and it was only in his 40s that he joined the literary world. Now that he has built his reputation as one of the major literary voices in Korea, the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, sat down with Hwang to walk through his life and his philosophy. The following are edited excerpts.


Above, the “Beautiful Author Award” presented to Hwang Hyun-san by fellow writers sits in Hwang’s living room. Below, Hwang’s desk in his study. [KWON HYUK-JAE]

Q. You were born in 1945. What was it like back then?

When me and my friends first stepped inside the elementary school, our teachers told us that we were born in the year of the Korean Liberation, and I’m quite sure that no other generation would have received an education half as nationalistic as we did. We felt doubly blessed by the liberation, since we were constantly reminded of the suppression under the Japanese Colonial rule for 36 years, and how our ancestors bled to take back the country, and also because the teachers would always call us the “Liberation Babies.” I grew up with a strong urge to do something for my nation and people.

You were born on Bigeum Island, which is also the home of Go player Lee Se-dol. What was your childhood like, growing up on a small island?

I was actually born in a neighborhood called Ongeum-dong in Mokpo [in South Jeolla], but we moved to my grandparent’s hometown of Bigeum Island when the Korean War broke out when I was five. I lived there for seven years until I went back to Mokpo to attend middle school.

My family was always poor. My parents made a living out of something called “Hwaryeom,” which involved boiling sea water until all the water evaporated to make salt. Later, when we moved to Mokpo, they opened a small shop selling gear for sailors and ship parts. On the island, we were using an old version of hangul which had a vowel called “Arae-a,” which was used during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), along with dialects and proverbs that weren’t seen anywhere else. I think my linguistic backdrop of having learnt a pure and primitive form of Korean has helped me grow a keen interest in languages. The things I saw and learnt on the island became my life, like destiny.


What were you like as a high school student?

Back when I was in middle school, the best high school in my neighborhood was Mokpo High School. But I went to Moontae High School, where I was able to receive a full scholarship for all three years, and was evaluated relatively higher than my actual performance. I started hanging out with the “bad boys” from the second semester of my second year, and my scores just kept getting lower and lower. I got into the school as the brightest student, but at that point, I had to turn in my papers blank because I resented the idea of struggling just to get half of the problems right. I was lucky enough to come back to my senses just a few months before graduation, and enter Korea University.

Even when you weren’t studying, did you keep reading books?

Yes, because the way I covered up my bad scores was that I told people I was going to become a writer, and that I was a literature boy. I took the stance that school books were boring. If I was going to keep that attitude, I had to actually write well, and so I read a lot and wrote a lot. I used to work really hard for writing competitions, and I think that is the foundation that I still stand upon.

Do you remember what kind of books they were?

I mostly read the world literary classic series from publishers like Jungumsa and Dong-A, but I don’t think I was able to fully understand much of them. But the thing with reading is that even if you don’t understand it at first, you get the feeling that the things you’ve read come in handy later in your life. And quite often, you come to understand them later, even if not at first.

You’re most well known as a poetry critic. Why do you think we need poetry?

Writing a poem is about experimenting with your words so that you figure out how to get across your message more effectively, and bring into our consciousness the things we hadn’t been able to express and put a name to. Through such work, we can say that we’ve broadened the range of our thoughts, our consciousness, the things we can say and the things we can see with our eyes.

You’re known as a specialist in French symbolic and surrealist literature. What meaning do these styles carry in the literary world?

Charles Pierre Baudelaire is known as the father of modern poetry, which means that he went beyond the linguistic boarders between different countries. For instance, if Korean classical poems seem to be based on the native intuitions - the emotions and the flexibility of the language only shared among only Koreans - modern poetry doesn’t depend on those elements of the native language, but rather achieves its very own literary feat. So even if you translate Baudelaire’s poetry into Korean or Japanese, the essence of the poem stays the same. But of course, you have to be very meticulous with the translation.

With Baudelaire’s modern poetry and within the symbolic meaning in his poems, you find an element of surrealism. The symbols show a side of the human subconsciousness that has been made clear through surrealism. Here, “surrealism” is used in the same sense that we use the words “poetic” and “unique” these days.

Modern poems tend to be really difficult to grasp. Is there a need to struggle with them?

Quite frankly, I don’t think you need to read them. Not everyone needs to read and understand difficult poetry. But you do need to engage yourself with experimental, pioneering poems, because you can get complacent with familiar, and thus easy poems. There can’t just be simple poems on their own.

You earned your Ph.D. in Korea, not abroad. Have you faced any difficulties from that decision?

Quite frankly, the reason I didn’t study in France wasn’t because I didn’t want to but because I couldn’t afford to. There were many shortcomings I had as someone who didn’t get the chance to study overseas, and so I had to make a tremendous amount of effort to overcome those. There were some benefits of having a Korean Ph.D., because I could focus on just studying literature without caring about anything else. And the fact that I had always been inside the Korean literary world has helped me grow an insight as a literary critic, I think.

You’re famous for your delicate translations of French poetry. Do you have any principles when it comes to translating a piece of literature?

I started translating at a young age, so that I could pay for my graduate school tuition. When I looked back on my translations 10 years later, I found that they were incomplete in many ways. I thought I had done a good job back then, but it turned out that I had either wholly gotten certain parts wrong, or they were funny and subpar.

My philosophies when it comes to translating are: The original is the best piece; you have to translate it so that the meaning of the original is preserved as much as possible; and that you translate just the way it’s written. When I’m translating, I don’t think, “I want to make people read foreign literature in Korea,” but rather, what’s on my mind is that I want to unfold the text in Korean.

For instance, the reason I translated “Manifeste du Surrealisme” [Surrealist Manifesto] even though the contents of the book are so well known is because I felt the need for the book’s text to exist in Korean. I think the expressions of Korean become richer with such books.

Does that mean you have to create Korean expressions that do not exist in French?

It’s a little different, because when we write in Korean, we tend to think inside the box of the Korean language. But when you’re translating, you can’t just think inside that box. When you’re translating French text into Korean, you have to step outside of the Korean frame and think there. I think the more you step outside, the bigger the range of Korean expressions become. That’s where the essence of translating lies.

So you’re looking to find a Korean expression that can be communicated anywhere in the world?

Yes. I want to pave the road towards a universal language, a pure language that goes beyond just Korean or French.

You witnessed the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement, as well as the 1987 pro-democracy uprising of June. What do you think about historic events like these ones?

My philosophy and frame of thought, in my perspective, is captured in one word: historicism. I tend to think that history will solve everything, all the problems of the society. When the Wars of Religion broke out in 16th century France, the Catholics killed countless Protestants. Someone asked me, ‘Who would avenge those innocent, sinless deaths?’

My answer was that no one avenges them. But the fact that we advance to a better world and that we rise to a higher level of historical consciousness is revenge in itself. And it is the only way that we know that the deaths weren’t in vain.

Korea, as a country, has gone through so many things. We experimented with different political systems, many were locked up and bled to death, until we’ve arrived here, the Moon Jae-in administration. All the steps Korea has taken prove my faith in historicism.

Are there any words that you live by?

A lot, actually. I used to teach at a school, and even though it may not have been the case when I was on my own, whenever I was around others, I tried to live an exemplary life. Also, I have made it a habit to sit at my desk before I go to bed no matter what happens. Even when I’m drunk as a dog, I go home, sit at my desk and open a book. I also have this rule to always be dressed to receive guests at any time.

If you’re too drunk to read, then what’s the point in having a book open?

It’s my job to read books. And, if I don’t read once a day, then I know it; if I don’t read once a week, then my students know it; and if I don’t read any more than that, then the whole world knows it.

You have discovered quite a lot of talented and young poets. Do you have any secrets to seeking out talent?

The thing with understanding poems is that when your mind’s full of prejudices or stereotypes, then you never correctly grasp the meaning of a poem. I teach my students to read a poem as if you were an alien who knows nothing other than Korean. That method works well for myself when I’m trying to figure out the talent or the energy of a poet. I managed to find a lot of hidden talent, and they’ve managed to become active members of the literary world. I am very proud of that.

There are many people who are interested in becoming good writers. Do you have any tips for them?

Yes. Empty your mind. What I mean by that is that you have to be honest with your writing. People tend not to be so frank in their writing. Honesty is the best policy. But many times, I’m not honest either.

BY SHIN JOON-BONG [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]
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