Newly available in an English translation, The Story of Hong Gildong encompasses a variety of tones and styles over the course of a relatively small number of pages. It’s a story that’s captivated readers in Korea for centuries–and, as translator Minsoo Kang neatly summarizes in his introduction, it’s also a work where the story of its origins is compelling in its own right. I talked with Kang about his process of translating the book, its effect on culture, and whether the question of its authorship will be ever be solved.
What would you say has caused The Story of Hong Gildong to have the staying power that it’s had over the years?
There are both general reasons for the endurance of The Story of Hong Gildong that speak to universal themes as well as reasons that are specific to Korean literature, culture, and history. The story of the ‘noble robber’ who steals from the wealthy and punishes the corrupt is a figure that can be found not only in England (i.e. Robin Hood), but all over the world, as demonstrated by the historian Eric Hobsbawm in his book Bandits. The notion of a maverick champion of the common people and a talented underdog who manages to outwit powerful people in positions of authority is something that people of any country and culture can understand and enjoy. In that sense I think that even those readers who are completely unfamiliar with Korean literature and culture will find much of this work quite familiar. Also, The Story of Hong Gildong is an action-packed tale full of conflicts from the hero’s magical fight against an assassin sent to murder him, his activities as the leader of a band of outlaws, to his leading a great army into a war of conquest. For Koreans, Hong Gildong can be described as a genuine native superhero. Given the tumultuous history of the country in the modern period, from the colonization by imperial Japan, the division and terrible war between the North and the South, to the political struggles in both countries, the theme of an underrated, unappreciated, and uncared for character who emerges as a great hero has a profound resonance in the modern Korean psyche. As such, Hong Gildong had become both an aspirational figure as well as a symbol of Korean people’s resilience in the face of historical hardship and tragedy.
In your introduction, you mention that each of the novel’s three sections has “its own levels of realism and fantasy.” Have you found that this is a common storytelling device in other works written at around the same time as this as well?
There are other works of classic Korean fiction that combine parts that are realistic and fantastic, but most of the narratives are unfurled predominantly in one mode or the other. For instance, another work entitled The Story of Jeon Uchi also features a rebellious magician who wreaks havoc on the authorities, but the narrative is told in the fantastic mode throughout. On the other hand, The Story of Chunhyang, another beloved classic Korean story, is essentially a love-lost-and-regained tale with no magical element in it. The Story of Hong Gildong, in its first part, provides a realistic portrayal of life in the family compound of a nobleman, and the complex relationships among its master, his wife, his concubines, as well as his legitimate and illegitimate children. The combination of that with the exciting and often fantastic adventures of the hero in the following sections is what makes the work so rich and varied. And I believe that it is that aspect of the work, namely the seamless transition from the realistic to the ever more fantastic, that constitutes one of its greatest literary achievements.
What was the most challenging aspect of the English translation of The Story of Hong Gildong?
As a work of classic (i.e. pre-modern) fiction, it was enormously challenging for me not only to figure out the meanings of archaic words, phrases, and stylistic expressions that are no longer used in modern Korean, but also to comprehend the mentality of the author who inhabited a world that was radically different from the one I was familiar with. But even after I managed to figure out all that, I was faced with the difficult task of making countless judgment calls on how to present it to English readers. In the interest of making the narrative as readable as possible, one takes the risk of over-translating, so that the particular flavor and aesthetics of the original get lost. On the other hand, in the attempt to preserve the reading experience of Korean, one might come out with a literal translation that sounds awkward or even incomprehensible. I would say that trying to find the ideal middle between those two pitfalls was the most challenging part of the translation. For instance, in the first part of the story, one of the characters says “What is said in the daytime is overheard by the bird, and what is said in the nighttime is overheard by the rat.” This is a proverb meaning, one should be careful about revealing sensitive information because one is likely to be overheard by someone. I could have used the near-equivalent phrase “the walls have ears,” but I felt that to be an act of over-translation that loses the poetry of the original proverb. So I provided a literal translation with an endnote explaining its significance, even though that forces the reader to interrupt his or her reading to look it up at the end of the book. On the other hand, the word ‘soin,’ which literally means ‘small person,’ is a term that is used when someone refers to oneself before a person of significantly higher position in society. So a commoner might address a nobleman by saying, “This insignificant person begs Your Lordship for an audience.” I considered rendering the word in that way instead of just using the pronoun ‘I,’ as when Hong Gildong speaks to the king, but I ultimately decided that the hero repeatedly referring himself ‘this insignificant person’ would prove to be too awkward.
The question of who originally wrote this novel is one that you address in your introduction. Do you think that readers will ever know the identity of the author of this version?
None of the manuscripts of popular fiction written in the vernacular hangeul script that were produced in the late eighteenth century and through the nineteenth feature the name of their authors. Since the modern notion of authorship did not apply to such works of mass market fiction for the readership of commoners in the late Joseon dynasty period, it is highly unlikely that we will find out the identity of any such works. I think one of the reasons why many Koreans would like to believe that the seventeenth century poet and statesman Heo Gyun wrote The Story of Hong Gildong, despite the highly questionable nature of the attribution, is that they would like this beloved work to have an author. That view, unfortunately, has led to a great deal of misinterpretation of the work’s significance and origin. It also reflects a kind of elitist prejudice in thinking that such a great work of literature could only have been written by an erudite nobleman like Heo. I believe that The Story of Hong Gildong is more comparable to the popular serialized works of Dumas or even Dickens rather than products of elite culture.
In addition to your work as a translator and historian, you’ve also written a collection of short stories. Have you found that The Story of Hong Gildong is a work that continues to influence contemporary fiction?
Absolutely. The hero appears many times and in varied forms in numerous short stories and novels written in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by some of the most important Korean writers. In some of them Hong Gildong the righteous outlaw is used as a symbol of resistance to authority, in the common people’s continuing struggles against oppressors, whether they are corrupt officials, the rapacious rich, or the tyrannical government. Other writers use him to lament the loss of traditional values the literary character embodied. The hero has also been depicted as the image of the ideal Korean manhood, an impossible standard to live up to for today’s everyman. The only such work that is available in English translation is Seo Hajin’s short story ‘Hong Gildong’ (1997), about a modern Korean man living under a great deal of stress who wishes he had the magical abilities of the great hero that would allow him to escape his unhappy life. Since I have taken on this translation, I have given a great deal of thought to applying themes from classic Korean literature in my own fiction.
Very early on, you allude to the number of adaptations of this work that have appeared in different media. Are there any that stand out in particular to you, either for their overall quality or for adapting The Story of Hong Gildong in unorthodox ways?
Out of the countless movies, TV shows, and comic books that have retold the story of Hong Gildong, my personal nostalgic favorite is the film version of 1967, directed by Shin Dong Heon based on the comic books by his brother Shin Dong Wu, which is also an important work in the history of South Korean cinema as the country’s first full-length animated feature. The image of the hero from the film as a sturdy youth dressed in a blue vest and a small yellow hat has become iconic as it was used ubiquitously in advertisements of the late 60s and throughout the 1970s. Another fascinating version is a live-action movie made in North Korea in 1986, which is available to be viewed in full on Youtube. What is interesting about the film is the ways in which the framework of the classic work is presented, but with the novel additions that expresses North Korean political propaganda. For instance, the regime’s extreme xenophobia shows up in the ending in which the hero has to fight Japanese ninjas who have invaded the country in order to kidnap women and steal treasures. Another recent work that is available in America is the 2009 South Korean comedic action movie The Righteous Thief, the original title of which is The Descendants of Hong Gildong. It tells the story of a family of thieves in modern Seoul who steal from the rich and give away the loot to charity, carrying on the work of their ancestor Hong Gildong. People familiar with The Story of Hong Gildong will be able to fully appreciate the film’s humor. I will present a detailed analysis of all these modern manifestations of the classic work in my book-length study of The Story of Hong Gildong that I am currently finishing up.