Monday, October 03, 2005

Opening-Heaven Day

Today, Monday, we're off work for gae-ch'eon-jeol, or "opening-heaven* day," the day Korea was founded (for more on the legend, see here). I'm celebrating by writing up a mess of lesson plans and in-class activities, and by eating the following improvised ddeok snack, which I have yet to name:

A little background is necessary. One thing I can't stand about plastic packaging is the plasticky odor it gives to the food inside it. This is a problem with many of the products I buy in Korea, whether we're talking about some form of Mystery Meat or about ddeok, Korean rice cakes (pictured above).

Some ddeok brands are pretty good: they come out of the packaging with no plasticky taste. Other brands, however, keep that taste even after thorough boiling. I was unfortunate enough to have bought such a brand recently (won't ever buy it again), but because I didn't want to waste the ddeok, I decided to pan-fry the little boogers in the hopes that that might erase the nasty chemical aspect.

I've fried ddeok up before; it's sort of amusing. If you keep those little discs in the pan long enough, they start to puff out and you end up with a crunchy/chewy, almost popcorny snack. In previous experiments, I've pan-fried the ddeok and sprinkled sugar over it. Not bad.

Today, I decided I'd try a sugar/sesame glaze: basically, sugar plus a bit of water plus a mess of sesame seeds. Nothing complicated. I fried the ddeok up in regular corn oil first, then added the glaze, allowing it to caramelize a bit. The results were visually pleasing, as you see above, but be warned: once the glaze starts to cool down, it gets a bit gummy. Combined with the natural chewiness of the ddeok, the dish gives your jaw muscles a workout. I recommend eating the dish quickly, while piping hot, and not eating the entire amount shown above: the snack is sweet enough to share in tiny amounts among several people. Another solution, for future snacks, might be to add more water to the glaze and not let it caramelize too much. While today's munchies were pleasing to the eye and tongue, my masseters resented the extra work I'd given them.

*A more elegant translation might be "Opening of Heaven Day," or perhaps "The Day the Skies Open(ed)." My apologies: I tend to translate Sino-Korean phrases in a deliberately crude manner, using brute hyphenation-- this being a reflection of my Buddhist studies bias (e.g., it's normal to render a Buddhist term like mu shim as the hyphenate "no-mind" in English, as opposed to the smoother but dubious and archaic translation "mindlessness"). The rationale behind the crudeness is to let the characters "speak for themselves," if that makes any sense. By translating them as raw, inelegant hyphenates, the reader is free to see how the ideas represented by the characters might blend to produce the notions in question.

Obviously, I won't do this in all cases. For example, the Sino-Korean hak-saeng is best rendered "student" in English. To use the hyphenate "learning-life" (i.e., one who devotes his life to learning) would be to obscure the obvious meaning.



Anonymous said...

I love frying up ddeok and sprinkling sugar over it. My wife and I, combining all our creative energies, came up with the term "candy ddeok" for this treat. Although in English I guess "candied ddeok" would be more accurate.

Kevin Kim said...


I was expecting you to swoop in and scold my philosophy of translation, which seems to run counter to the recent post you wrote!

Actually, I don't dispute what you wrote at all: especially when translating for literary purposes, I think it's best for the translator to insert himself fully into the process and worry primarily about how the target audience should experience the text.

Whether that philosophy is applicable to translation of religious terminology, though, is less obvious to me. I'm not a professional translator, so my opinions on the matter are vague at best, but my feeling is that one should approach religious terms with a minimalist philosophy. There's always a danger in assuming that ideas from one religion map neatly onto ideas from another.

For example, consider one Sino-Korean term for "enlightenment": seong-do. Taken literally, this means "attaining the Tao"-- an expression that already existed in Taoism before Buddhism came along and the monastic translators hijacked the term.

Seong-do is very evocative, and gives the Indian Buddhist concept quite a Chinese spin, but whether it's a just translation of the Sanskrit bodhi is debatable. The term Do/Tao carries enormous historical and cultural baggage, including a semantic field that has little overlap with an equally central Hindu term like brahman.

For those reasons and more, I'm wary of how one translates religious terminology. Unfortunately, this wariness affects how I translate other, nonreligious things.

One more goofy, potentially irrelevant example of translational difficulties: at Catholic University in DC, one of my profs, a priest who taught Catholic ecclesiology, asked me how I would best translate a phrase from the diary of Yves Congar. In the diary, Congar had written, "Je les emmerde."

"Should I translate this as 'I shit on them'?" asked the prof.

I considered. The slang verb emmerder is used in a couple different ways in French, one of which might best translate as "to piss [someone] off." Another sense, as seen in the phrase "Je t'emmerde," might best be rendered as "Fuck you."

So I told my prof that "Je les emmerde" should be translated as "Fuck them!" While "I shit on them!" retains something of the lofty, arrogant attitude one sees in Congar's diary, it's too literal (a slavishly literal translation of "je les emmerde" would be, "I put them in the shit"). The fact is that French folks use "Je t'emmerde" and its variants in the same context as when anglophones say "Fuck you." So I stuck to my guns, and the priest and I spent an interesting ten minutes exegeting clerical vulgarity.


Anonymous said...

Ah, I must apologize for not swooping in with the proper rebuke, thus allowing you to post your justification... which you posted anyway.

Actually, the reason I did not mention your philosophy of translation is because I didn't have sufficient time to think about it and I didn't want to go off half-cocked. My first instinct, as you rightly guessed, was to reject the idea. But I believe it is harmful to the learning process to reject any idea out of hand simply because it doesn't agree with the framework we may have set up for our own view of the world. So I did think about it, and while I'm not sure if I would translate gaecheonjeol in exactly the same way (In all honesty, I would be more inclined to go with "Heaven Opening Day"), I can't deny that your version has a certain awkward charm to it. And I don't mean that in a condescending way at all--sometimes awkwardness is effective in translation.

In fact, I believe that your example of vulgarity in French is one such instance. I think there is something to be said for conveying the "lofty, arrogant attitude" of the original, even if it does seem too literal and awkward.

In a nutshell, after much thought I have come to the conclusion that your ideas do not run counter to my philosophy, they just touch on an area I neglected to discuss because I was attempting to emphasize something else. But I noticed that you used the phrase "which seems to run counter," so I think you may have suspected that. I'm getting a bit vague here, but that's only because the wheels are turning and I can feel another entry coming on, and I don't want to blow my whole load here (if you'll pardon the mild vulgarity). So consider this a preview of things soon to come.

P.S. Speaking of vulgarity, I am eagerly anticipating the day that your comment verification system spells out something obscene. It's only a matter of time, statistically.

Kevin Kim said...

I'll never miss out on a chance to self-justify.

I agree that "Heaven Opening Day" is a better translation. If I'm not mistaken, that's the phrase I used previously on this blog. But I'd have to check.


Kevin Kim said...

Aha-- "heaven opening day" found! From 2003:


I shoulda' stuck with my original instincts, eh?