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That poem in ‘Because This Is My First Life’

There are a lot of reasons I loved Because This Is My First Life. Like, a lot.

One of them is Jiho’s penchant for making literary allusions and using extended metaphors to express her complicated thoughts and feelings. This was a nice bit of character development, I thought; even though Jiho doesn’t work as a writer for a good chunk of the show, that side of her still comes through to the viewer.

There are two main works which Jiho alludes to in the show. One of them is the poem <방문객> (“The Visitor”) by Korean poet 정현종. The poem appears in his 2009 anthology <섬> (Island).

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방문객

사람이 온다는 건
실은 어마어마한 일이다.
그는
그의 과거와 현재와
그리고
그의 미래와 함께 오기 때문이다.
한 사람의 일생이 오기 때문이다.
부서지기 쉬운
그래서 부서지기도 했을
마음이 오는 것이다―그 갈피를
아마 바람은 더듬어볼 수 있을
마음,
내 마음이 그런 바람을 흉내낸다면
필경 환대가 될 것이다.

The Visitor

The coming of a person
is, in fact, a tremendous feat.
Because he
comes with his past and present
and
with his future.
Because a person’s whole life comes with him.
Since it is so easily broken
the heart that comes along
would have been broken ― a heart
whose layers the wind will likely be able to trace,
if my heart could mimic that wind
it can become a hospitable place.

[I’m appending a million caveats onto this translation because I feel that translating poetry is sacrilegious unless you truly, truly understand the nuances of the language and the cultural/historical context of the poet — neither of which I can claim to be any kind of expert on… and yet here I am. I did read a few analyses of this poem; while my translation is a little graceless, I think it gets across the main point of poet. Take it with a grain of salt, use with caution, etc. etc.]

For what I know of the poet (Romanized as Chong Hyon-jong), his works reflect the challenges of connecting with oneself and others during this age of materialism, but mostly end on an uplifting note.

The titular poem, for example, poignantly captures this sentiment with just two lines:

사람들 사이에 섬이 있다.
그 섬에 가고 싶다.

Island

There are islands between people.
I want visit that island.

Because This Is My First Life isn’t only about marriage and love in the modern age (though it does do an amazing job at addressing that). Like these poems, I think the show as a whole tries to capture the profundity of human interaction. Knowing oneself isn’t easy. Knowing others is almost impossible. But despite this, the fact that humans are able to come together and communicate and coexist is a truly tremendous feat. Everyone comes with their own ‘baggage’ — their own past, their own present, their own future. It’s not something to downplay or ignore. To accept them as a person is to accept all of their weight; that, perhaps, is the best comfort that one human being can offer another.

Interview with Lee Min-ki and Jung So-min (Marie Claire 2017)

So 이번 생은 처음이라 / Because This Is My First Life wraps up this week. This interview came out in October, right before the show started airing so it’s kinda old news at this point, but I needed something to occupy me between episodes and it’s been ages since I’ve translated celebrity news anyway, so here it is.

Man, this drama. I came for the contract marriage trope (and also Lee Min-ki because I literally can’t remember seeing him in anything other than Dalja’s Spring) and stayed for the earnestness, the poignancy, the tender heartache present in all the characters.

Growing up, I thought a lot about love and marriage and how they relate to each other, given that my family feels one way about it and the society I grew up in feels the almost exact opposite. And now with those two worlds currently colliding in my life, this drama couldn’t have made a more timely arrival.

이번 생은 처음이라 will soon be the only Korean drama I’ve managed to finish in 2017. I may be speaking too soon, but I think it’ll be sticking with me for a long, long time after as well.

(Disclaimer: All copyright belongs to the original source. I am not profiting by this translation and cannot guarantee its accuracy.)

First-Life

 

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Twenty-eight

It’s been a few years now since I stopped being excited about my birthday.

Every year, the weight of my disappointment in myself grows heavier; all of my numerous, unrealized goals come rushing painfully back at me. Responsibilities grow, conflicts become more convoluted, and meanwhile it gets harder and harder to stay true to my own sense of self.

Maybe that’s just growing up?

But maybe it’s a sign of personal growth that this year, I tried hard not to be moody and taciturn around my birthday. I know that the people who send their greetings or think to get me gifts do it because they care. So, I try to be kind to myself on my birthday and grateful for the love others have shown me.

I made a rare trip to Koreatown in Santa Clara to visit a bookstore that I haven’t been to in years, since my language partner moved away. If you’re in the South Bay, 서울 문고 종교 서관 has a limited quantity of new releases, all-time bestsellers, and Korean books on religion. But the real gem is the used books collection. I spent an unreasonable amount of time combing through the shelves until deciding on a couple birthday presents for myself.

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Yes, that book on the left is a history book for elementary school kids about 사서 (四書), or the Four Books of Confucianism. Since Joseon-era scholarly study was almost entirely rooted in Confucian teachings, I learned some relevant Korean words on the topic while reading 성균관 유생들의 나날. I figured I might as well pick up this book to learn a bit more.

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I haven’t really looked through the book, but I can say that while the writing is quite simple, and I’m surprised by just how much detail is packed in a book for elementary school children. There’s a separate section for each of the four books (논어, 맹자, 대학, 중용) and places where they break down Hanja.

The second book is a collection of essays by bestselling author 공지영. I don’t know if  I can say I’m a fan of her work (too damn depressing), but I do admire her writing. I’ve been doing a lot of writing in Korean and I’m trying to improve not just my sentence structure and vocabulary, but overall composition; I figured I should get in the habit of reading good, creative nonfiction as a first step.

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(This book’s table of contents is so weirdly cute.)

After books, I stopped for coffee and deliciousness at Cocohodo. Cocohodo is famous for pretty much one thing: 호두과자, or Korean walnut pastries.

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호두과자 is a walnut-shaped pastry, with a bready outer shell made of dough containing pounded walnuts, and filled inside with red bean paste and walnut chunks. In its entirety, it tastes like I’m eating a soft, sweetened walnut… which was confusing for my brain because a walnut-shaped pastry, made of walnut dough, filled with walnut chunks, which tastes like a walnut but that isn’t a walnut….! Heh. Anyway, it was my first time trying it and it was quite incredible with black coffee.

This post is late. I’ve been 28 for a few days now. It’s still hard to shake the feeling that it’s not just this post, or this blog, but that I’m late at everything I set out to do. But I know that’s not true. I know I’ve accomplished a lot in the past year, both related to Korean and not. I know I’ve achieved things I never even had a goal post for in the first place. So I’ll continue to tell myself, at least until the birthday-ish feeling wears off, that there’s really no reason to be so melancholy.

육예 – The Six Arts

I’ve learned a lot about Korean Confucianism reading <성균관 유생들의 나날>. The main point being, everything academicincluding the meritocratic Joseon governmentwas rooted in the teachings of Confucius (공자). Even “extracurriculars,” like archery had deep philosophical meaning.

대사례 [大射禮], for example, was a ceremonial archery demonstration that scholars partcipated in alongside the King. The act of doing archery alongside the King, after having passed the civil service examinations, was supposed to further cultivate and reaffirm one’s class and rank.

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Sungkyunkwan Scandal‘s Yeorim (Song Joong-ki) during Dae Sa Rae.

In fact, there’s a part in <성균관 유생들의 나날> where the main character, our cross-dressing female scholar Yoonhee, gets huffy about practicing archery. Sunjoon replies:

“활쏘기는 선비라면 반드시 익혀야 하는 육예 중 하나요. 우선 바른 자세를 만들어 주고, 그와 함께 정신도 가다듬게 하오. 이것을 거치지 않는다면 활을 쏠 이유가 없소.” (p. 255)

Archery, he says, is part of 육예, and therefore something all scholars must be familiar with.

육예[六藝] literally translates to the Six Arts. (You can intuit the meaning easily given the Hanja. is 여섯 륙/육 and  is 예술 예.)

The Six Arts were the six main “subjects” that made up a proper Confucian education:예학 (ceremonial rites), 악학 (theory of music), 궁시(archery), 마술 (charioteering), 서예 (calligraphy), and 산학 (mathematics). Those who mastered all six arts were known as 군자[君子]a gentleman, or man of virtue.

The novel mentions calligraphy and archery, and eventually the four main characters also form a mathematics club (which becomes a big deal because it includes members across political factions.) But I haven’t read our main characters having to deal with any of the other 육예 yet.

Given that pretty much everything that the scholars did had something to do with Confucianism, I wonder if there’s some deep philosophical explanation of 장치기 (a street hockey-type sport from Joseon Korea which the main characters play in the novel) or was that something that people maybe actually played for fun?

I still can’t believe that <성균관 유생들의 나날> was one of the first Korean novels I ever bought back when I started learning the language seven (!!!) years ago. It’s taken me years to get to a point where I can not only comfortably read it, but also research the things I don’t know and learn from them. Ugh, now I just want to keep reading historical novels forever!

(Header: 송풍수월 )

Striving for excellence in language learning

This post was going to be about how I’m preparing for the 55th TOPIK but it turned out being more about my insecurities instead. I’d normally scrap it but it’s been preying on my mind for a while now and I wonder if any of my fellow language learners have felt the same way.

It’s hard to describe my relationship with language, and with Korean in particular.

I don’t have a simple answer when people ask me why I’m learning Korean, or why I’m motivated to push myself, or why I want to pass TOPIK II. I don’t have any ethnic or relational ties to the language or culture. I’m not motivated by a love for Korean idol music or dramas. I have never studied abroad there. I have no particular interest in Korean brands nor do I aspire to work at Korean company. I developed a love for Korean literature and history only after I had achieved a certain degree of fluency.

Now with Hallyu reaching the West, so many people automatically assume I’m part of then new generation of Korean learners who are really into pop culture that I often don’t even reveal to people that I’m studying Korean. And when I do, it’s always the question of why. Why, why, why.

The only way I can describe it is how I’ve described it before: the language chose me, I didn’t choose it. There is something in the way the Korean sounds, the way that it works topologically and syntactically that just fits with the way my brain works.

For some reason, that’s not “enough” of an explanation for a lot of people.

I suppose language learning is an uncommon enough passion that everyone assumes that if you’re actively striving to improve your skill, you must have a practical reason for it. In my case, that’s simply not true.

I love the Korean language. And the reason I spend money on lessons and textbooks, and spend time revisiting old TOPIK exams is because I want to achieve a degree of excellence that’s commensurate with my love for it.

“We need to internalize this idea of excellence. Not many folks spend a lot of time trying to be excellent.”

BARACK OBAMA

I’ve written before about how I’ve struggled with my passion for the language waning. Taking advanced level classes have gone a long way toward restoring not only the sanity in my life, but also the 욕심 I thought I had lost for Korean. I’m glad that I’m even capable of being as passionate about the language now as I used to be when I first started.

It’s interesting, because I can’t say that I strive for the same degree of excellence in every new hobby or passion I develop. Like I said, the more I’m passionate about something, the more I want to get better and better at it. And I’m really quite passionate about language.

Header image by Kristopher Roller

Q&A: The way I spell my name in Korean

HeJin asked: Just out of curiosity, why didn’t you transliterate your name as 아르차나?

I actually answered this question way back in 2014 when HeJin first asked it on my About page. Since then, a lot more people have been curious about how I transliterate my name in Korean, so I figured I’d write a post about it.

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먹칠하다

It’s so strange to realize that 성균관 유생들의 나날 was one of the first Korean novels I ever bought, at a time when it was still wayyyy too difficult for me to comprehend.

Six years later (!!), I can finally read entire chapters without having to look up words and still understand what’s going on. Plus, I know an astounding number of words related to Confucian scholarship and education. (Oh my god I found the blog post I wrote when I first bought the books.)

Anyway, that’s how I came across the word 먹칠하다.

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懐かしい

I love the word 懐かしい (natsukashii).

It’s one of those words that most people learn through anime, that’s usually translated as “how nostalgic” or “I miss when I used to experience such-and-such.” I don’t think I really got the essence of the word until I started going to Japanese conversation club, back when I was taking Japanese in college. One woman was talking about going to onsen when she was younger, and the other responded with 懐かしいね.

I don’t think there’s an equivalent Korean word that has the same kind of connotation and is used in the same kind of way. The dictionary tells me 그립다 is the closest equivalent:

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It’s interesting that the words aren’t exact equivalents of each other. I’ve only ever seen 그립다 used in songs or poetry, or used in literary or scholarly speech, usually when talking about something really sentimental. 懐かしい can be used in those cases too, but also more casually–like when you describe a childood anime, or when you hear an old song, or eat a dish you grew up with.

A couple weeks ago, I went out with my Korean language class classmates for dinner and karaoke. I tried to sing some “old” K-pop songs and failed miserably because I didn’t remember the melodies at all. (Honestly, I was kind of shocked at myself–yeah, it’s been years since I really listened to K-pop but to not recall some of my favorite songs? Sob!)

A few days following that, I plunged myself into the songs and idol groups I used to like (and learn Korean from) back in the day and spent hours watching old variety shows and dance practice videos, channeling the long lost fangirl buried with in me…. The best way I can describe how I felt is 懐かしい.

Speaking of which, I’ll be back in Japan during the first week of October this year. Is anyone else going to be there? I’d love to meet up!

Translating Korean relative clauses

Ahhh, Korean prose. It’s so amazingly different from its English counterpart.

I’ve spoiled myself when it comes to translation because, before now, I’ve only translated what I enjoy translating or what I think naturally translates well into English – avoiding passages with dreaded idiomatic expressions or puns.

For the past couple months, though, I’ve kinda sorta taken up casually translating a Korean e-book into English, and over the course of thousands of words, the translation challenges are becoming more and more persistent and unavoidable.

Case in point: relative clauses.

In English, a relative clause is a phrase that modifies a noun and is usually preceded by a relative pronoun (i.e. who, whom, which, that, or whose). Note, Korean doesn’t have explicit relative pronouns; at the end of verb, adjective, or noun preceding the noun you want to modify, you just add -는 (for present-tense verbs/adjectives), -(으)ㄴ (past-tense verbs), -았/었/였던 (past-tense adjectives),-(으)ㄹ (future-tense verbs/adj), or -인 (nouns).

Now, obviously I can’t generalize writing style, but given the range and number of things I’ve read over the years, I’m comfortable saying that standard Korean writing uses a lot of relative clauses. And, man, are they hard to translate.

First off, in Korean, relative clauses can modify personal pronouns (i.e. I, they, we, us) which quickly gets strange and awkward to translate in English:

별에서 그대
lit. You who came from the stars.

Not… wrong, necessarily. But there’s a reason why the official English translation of this drama title is My Love From the Stars instead.

Relative clauses in Korean can also get long, like beyond what actually sounds decent in English. Now combine that with point 1 and you might see things like:

요즘따라 내꺼인 듯 내꺼 아닌 내꺼 같은
lit. You who seem like you’re mine these days, who aren’t mine, who are like mine.

(Okay, so these are song lyrics, so not totally representative of normal prose. LOL.)

I struggle with sentences that use a lot of descriptive clauses because it makes English-translated Korean sentences sound homogeneous. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s a stylistic thing that bothers me a lot. So much tone, mood, and pacing comes from varying sentence length and structure. It gives prose an overall movement and cadence.

Side note – I love writing, it’s my day job, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what ‘good’ is writing to me and developing my craft.  I tend to hate using adverbs and overwrought descriptions in my own prose, so when I encounter relative clauses in Korean, I think I exercise a little too much creative freedom in translating them.

낡긴 하였으나 깨끗한 도포를 입고 갓을 쓴 곱상한 선비가 두 손으로 보자기를 함겹게 들고 서책이 빼곡한 책방 안으로 들어서며 주인을 찾았다.
lit. The handsome scholar who wore an old, although clean dopo and hat, clutched with difficulty a cloth-wrapped bundle in both hands, and, stepping into the bookstore crowded with books, looked for its owner.

Yeah, nope. If this was the first sentence of an English novel, I would not be shy about using a red pen all over it. I’d break that sentence up into at least two, if not three sentences.

An interesting and unintended consequence of translating Korean is that my own writing (especially in fiction) has also changed subtly. I find myself using a lot more relative clauses and adverbs than I used to. Make it stopppp.

(Photo by João Silas via Unsplash)

First ever Korean class

So after many months of not really studying Korean (despite what it looks like on my blog, I rarely pick up a textbook and study. Almost everything I write about comes from random one-off things I read in Korean.) I decided what I really needed was external motivation to take my skill to the next level.

SO! I signed up for Advanced Korean classes at San Jose Language Center. I really feel like I struck gold here because it’s incredibly close to where I live and it’s a language school designed for adults – which means all classes are after working hours.

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There are only two other students in the class and they’re both of Korean heritage. At first, the instructor said she was worried when she saw me (clearly not of Korean heritage) on her roster but we conversed for a bit, and then afterward, she said I might actually be too advanced for the class. Welp?

Either way, I was really nervous about taking an actual class for Korean that’s also completely taught in Korean. In my 7-ish years of learning the language, this was the first time I’d ever taken a class in a formal setting. I also hadn’t actually had a conversation in spoken Korean since my first trip to Seoul about 2.5 years ago.

I had my first class last Friday and… it was really, really great. Yes, I’m fairly familiar with all of the grammar we’re supposed to cover over the next seven weeks, but I’m getting so much more value than that out of this class.

  • Speaking practice: This is a huge one. Since there are only two other students and the instructor, we get to converse a lot amongst ourselves. I’m finally getting some very much needed speaking practice.
  • Proverbs: Yeah, I’m pretty terrible at learning proverbs. I’ll look them up and then immediately forget them. I think learning proverbs and idioms in a classroom – especially in one this small – will be really effective because of all the practice we do with each other.
  • Nuance: In the first class, we covered three different ways to express reason or cause: -느라고, -는 바람에, -고 해서. Though I’m familiar with all three, the instructor provided a lot of insight into the nuances of each and the different types of situations each one would be appropriate for.
  • New friends: Yay new IRL language friends!
  • Expert knowledge: I’m so used to researching/looking up all the questions I have about Korean grammar or vocabulary on my own that it’s incredible to be able to just ask the teacher when I don’t know something.
  • TOPIK prep: Because I hate reviewing TOPIK papers on my own. And (as with any kind of test prep) there are tricks that can help you master certain types of questions that are just not covered in textbooks.
  • Accountability: This is really the main reason why I wanted to take a class – so I’d be forced to study, do homework, review… or else be forever shamed in front of my teacher and peers, heh. Already since my first class, I’ve spent more time reviewing grammar/vocab in the past several days than I have in months. And by the time the course ends, I’m hoping that I will have developed a daily cadence for studying Korean that I will continue to follow.

I’m a huge proponent of self-studying languages and I always will be. If you have the drive and you can find the right resources, I think you can go far studying on your own. But I’ve come to realize (not just regarding language learning, but also other things), if you feel stuck in some part of your life, figuring out a way to shake things up really helps. I realized that I just wasn’t motivating myself to study Korean even though I really want to get better in the language (yay for the 욕심 coming back); getting myself into a classroom setting was the right way to kick my brain in gear.