[KS] KSR 2004-11: _Writing Women in Korea: Translation and Feminism in the Colonial Period_, by Theresa Hyun

Stephen Epstein 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 
obscures 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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