The Korea Herald


Spanning over century of Korean history, Hwang Sok-yong’s 'Mater 2-10' longlisted for International Booker

Co-translators say collaboration was the most enjoyable aspect of their work

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : March 12, 2024 - 18:42

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Hwang Sok-yong (left) and Hwang Sok-yong (left) and "Mater 2-10," translated by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae (Changbi Publishers, Scribe Publications)

South Korean literary giant Hwang Sok-yong’s “Mater 2-10” has been longlisted for the 2024 International Booker Prize, the organizers of the British literary awards announced Monday.

"Mater 2-10," co-translated by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae, and published by Scribe Publications, is among the 13 books on the longlist for one of the world's most prestigious literary awards.

This is the second time Hwang has been longlisted for the award. In 2019, his work “At Dusk,” also translated by Kim-Russell, secured a spot on the longlist.

"Over the past 20 years, I've been nominated for many international literary awards, each time only to fall short. So this time, it was the same -- 'Oh, I got nominated again,'" said Hwang over the phone, speaking to The Korea Herald, Tuesday.

"Maybe this time, should we harbor some expectations?" he mused.

Hwang Sok-yong poses for a photo during a press conference held in Jung-gu, central Seoul, Nov. 14, 2023. (HumanCube Publishing Group) Hwang Sok-yong poses for a photo during a press conference held in Jung-gu, central Seoul, Nov. 14, 2023. (HumanCube Publishing Group)

The organizer introduced the novel as “an epic, multi-generational tale that threads together a century of Korean history, written by one of South Korea’s most important authors.”

The novel was inspired by his 1989 visit to Pyongyang when he met an elderly man who shared stories about him and his father working as railway laborers in Seoul, Hwang explained during a press conference held upon the book's publication in Korea in 2020.

Centered on three generations of a family of rail workers and a laid-off factory worker staging a high-altitude sit-in, “Mater 2-10” (titled “Three Generations of Railworkers” in Korean) depicts the lives of ordinary working Koreans. The narrative unfolds from the Japanese colonial era, through liberation and into the 21st century, spanning over 100 years.

Judges said it is “a sweeping and comprehensive book ... blending the historical narrative of a nation with an individual’s quest for justice. Hwang highlights the political struggles of the working class with the story of a complicated national history of occupation and freedom.”

Hwang said he is currently working on completing a 50-volume collection of Korean folktales for children. The first five volumes of the collection were published in November 2023, with the complete set slated for publication by 2025.

"I plan to begin writing my next full-length novel in May. It is about a 650-year-old hackberry tree," shared Hwang. The book is scheduled for publication in the fall of this year.

Translators Sora Kim-Russell (left) and Youngjae Josephine Bae (The Booker Prizes) Translators Sora Kim-Russell (left) and Youngjae Josephine Bae (The Booker Prizes)

"It’s a great honor, and I’m grateful to the judges for considering the book. It feels especially significant that a story about generations of families struggling to survive colonial violence and political oppression should get recognition at a time when genocide is being actively perpetrated against families in Gaza," said Kim-Russell in an email to The Korea Herald, Tuesday.

The US-born translator Kim-Russell has translated numerous works of Korean fiction, including Hwang’s “Princess Bari,” “Familiar Things” and “At Dusk.”

She added that "Mater 2-10" is epic in scope but also intensely detailed on the micro-level, such that, while translating, she tried to take care not to erase details that seemed to serve an archival purpose.

"I also enjoyed the opportunity to work closely with Youngjae on a translation. Translating a book while discussing it with someone else was a nice change from solo translation."

“I’m happy and surprised at the nomination. It feels like a sign of encouragement that I can keep trying to translate fiction,” said Bae, for whom it was first time translating a book-length piece of fiction.

She mentioned Kim-Russell reached out to her, one of her former students, for the co-translation. Bae is the winner of the 2019 LTI Korea Award for Aspiring Translators.

“What I enjoyed the most were the discussions I had with Sora and our editor David Golding. Translating can be a lonely process because you usually don’t have someone else to exchange ideas with and solve problems together.”

The 13 books on the 2024 International Booker Prize longlist (The Booker Prizes) The 13 books on the 2024 International Booker Prize longlist (The Booker Prizes)

Hwang's latest long listing marks the seventh time a South Korean novel has been nominated for the esteemed award, which was established in 2005. It also marks the third consecutive year a Korean novel has been nominated.

Cheon Myeong-kwan’s “Whale,” translated by Chi-Young Kim, was shortlisted in 2023; Bora Chung’s “Cursed Bunny” and Park Sang-young’s “Love in the Big City” -- both translated by Anton Hur -- were shortlisted and longlisted, respectively, in 2022; Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian,” translated by Deborah Smith, won the prize in 2016, while Han’s “The White Book,” also translated by Smith, was shortlisted in 2018.

The International Booker Prize was established in 2005 to honor an author and a translator for a single work of international fiction translated into English, selected from entries published in the UK or Ireland.

This year’s longlist includes: “Not a River” by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott; “Simpatia” by Rodrigo Blanco Calderon, translated by Noel Hernandez Gonzalez and Daniel Hahn; “Kairos” by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Michael Hofmann; “The Details” by Ia Genberg, translated by Kira Josefsson; “White Nights” by Urszula Honek, translated by Kate Webster; “A Dictator Calls” by Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson; “The Silver Bone” by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Boris Dralyuk; “What I’d Rather Not Think About” by Jente Posthuma, translated by Sarah Timmer Harvey; “Lost on Me” by Veronica Raimo, translated by Leah Janeczko; “The House on Via Gemito” by Domenico Starnone, translated by Oonagh Stransky; “Crooked Plow” by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated by Johnny Lorenz; and “Undiscovered” by Gabriela Wiener, translated by Julia Sanches.

The longlisted books are translated from 10 original languages: Albanian, Dutch, German, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swedish.

The selection speaks of courage and kindness, of the vital importance of community, and of the effects of standing up to tyranny, noted Fiammetta Rocco, administrator of the International Booker Prize.

The shortlist of six books will be announced April 9, with the winning title to be announced May 21.