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Translation’s Forgotten History: Russian Literature, Japanese Mediation, and the Formation of Modern Korean Literature by Heekyoung Cho

Reviewed by Sawnie Smith, University of Oxford

Translation’s Forgotten History: Russian Literature, Japanese Mediation, and the Formation of Modern Korean Literature, Heekyoung Cho. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016. ISBN: 9780674660045.


Heekyoung Cho’s Translation’s Forgotten History: Russian Literature, Japanese Mediation, and the Formation of Modern Korean Literature (2016) urges its readers to entertain the not-so-farfetched argument that modern conceptions of national literature are the ironic products of translation. ‘Translation was not a supplement to national literature but the kernel of it,’ (ix) she writes succinctly. But given the smear campaign that the practice of translation has endured in many regions of the globe in the past several decades (if not centuries), Cho claims that the translational foundations of most national canons have been deliberately erased from the equally nebulous realm of national consciousness, ‘…national canons are often founded on amnesia regarding their process of formation…’ (x). In other words, the multi-directional, multi-lingual, and multi-textural origins of many national canons were and are willfully forgotten by their own purveyors (an additional notion whose ironies do not go un-interrogated by the author) in a bid for national(istic) autonomy, for defined borders. It is from this place of ideologically inspired forgetting that Cho begins her exploration in the book’s introduction, “Translation and the Formation of Modern Literature”.

            The three chapters of Translation’s Forgotten History, situated between the book’s introduction and epilogue, are specifically concerned with the emergence of modern Korean literature at the turn of the twentieth century through the 1920s, a precarious chapter in the peninsula’s history. Cho undertakes the exploration of what is perhaps an under examined component in this emergence: Korean translation/adaptation/appropriation of nineteenth-century realist Russian literature (namely the works of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Turgenev) via Japanese relay translations. It is worth mentioning that Cho demonstrates within the fabric of her argument that all three of these ‘-tion’ words could apply to the work produced by Korean writers during this era, as categorization of written work is a historiographical concern.

            Returning to the precariousness of this time period, that Korea was a colony of the Empire of Japan during the emergence of its modern literature is central to the various arguments Cho articulates throughout the book. She deftly grounds the literary consequences of Korea’s “colonial psyche”, with all of its attendant anxieties, ironies, frustrations, and limitations, in landmark works of translation studies (Venuti’s The Translation Studies Reader, Bassnett’s Translation Studies, Liu’s Translingual Practice, etc.). In addition to her use of these works—no doubt familiar to her intended readership at least in name—Cho’s study is solidly and meticulously structured around an enormous body of Korean, Japanese, and Russian-language texts. The depth of her research and lingual dexterity is consistently evident.

            Chapter 1, “Manipulation of Fame and Anxiety: Construction of a Model Intellectual and a Theory of Literature”, explores the process by which two prominent Korean intellectuals, Yi Kwang-su and Ch’oe Nam-sŏn, constructed an image of Leo Tolstoy ‘as a towering moral authority in order to promote and legitimate their own ideas about modern intellectuals and a new literature’ (43), a process which relied on the selective translation of preexisting Japanese translations of Tolstoy’s work into Korean. As was typical of middleclass Korean men of the early-twentieth century, Yi and Ch’oe received several years of secondary education in Japan. This chapter successfully illustrates the political and cultural cachet of Russian realist literature for these newly colonized Korean intellectuals and the mobilization of these texts on the Korean peninsula via Japanese relay translations.

            Chapter 2, “Rewriting Literature and Reality: Translation, Journalism, and Modern Literature”, focuses on the activity of another foundational figure in the formation of modern Korean literature, Hyŏn Chin-gŏn, a writer of fiction and journalist. Cho argues that Hyŏn translated/adapted/appropriated the style and motifs of Anton Chekov’s short stories in several of his own works, including his 1925 short story, “Pul” (Fire), the protagonist of which is a child bride who resorts to arson in order to escape further sexual abuse at the hands of her much older husband. The political relevance of this theme (early marriage was still a common and heavily debated practice in 1920s Korea), as well as Hyŏn’s joint literary and journalistic pursuits, allow Cho to explore the mutable boundaries between truth and fiction within Korean textual output of the early twentieth century. That is to say, by examining the increasingly more common practice of serializing Korean appropriations of these Russian literary forms in the peninsula’s newspapers, Cho suggests that the theoretical boundaries of literature, zealously demarcated by Korean intellectuals of the 1900s and 1910s, were poised to be redrawn in the following decades.  

            Finally, it is in Chapter 3, “Aspirations for a New Literature: Constructing Proletarian Literature from Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature”, that Cho advances what is likely the book’s principle argument. She claims that Korean proletarian literature of the 1920s and 30s was modeled off of late nineteenth-century (i.e. prerevolutionary) Russian realist literature versus the seemingly more politically congruent literature of the newly formed Soviet Union. ‘They [Korean intellectuals] explained that Chekhov’s Russia—around the 1880s and 1890s—was the era of disillusionment and argued that Korea had arrived at the same situation as Chekov’s Russia…They thus referred to prerevolutionary nineteenth-century Russia to explain the situation of Korean society’ (153). Soviet literature was not yet applicable to the Korean situation. It was the literature of these aforementioned Russian realists that became the object of Korean intellectuals’ burgeoning interest in politically committed literary appropriations (45).

            Translation’s Forgotten History makes good on its statement of intent, found in the preface, ‘…this book thus aims to go beyond the paradigm of national literature yet still find a place for agency and the importance of local meaning through a focus on the constructive process that translation entails’ (xii). In addition to the rigor of her research, Cho demonstrates tremendous empathy towards the frustrated and often thwarted activity of these Korean writer-intellectuals. She situates these various Korean literary figures within a dynamic and detailed world, a world of both secretive and explicit exchange. The book’s texture, forged from this sense of empathy, is consistently translated to the reader. And Cho’s careful study will no doubt prove useful to students engaged in a wide range of topics: modern Korean literature, colonial Korea, translation studies, historiography, Russian-Korean relations, etc. But perhaps the most memorable and thus the most lasting effect of Cho’s study is her willingness to explore, with this characteristic sense of empathy, the murky intersection between translation and the politics of forgetting.