Song of Ariran and the Question of Translation

Suk Kim
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Department of English, NTNU
A quasi-autobiographical text recounting the lifelong journey of a Korean revolutionary named Kim San (a.k.a. Jang Jirak), Song of Ariran (1941) emains a unique work offering an intimate view of the incessant political strife into which East Asia was thrown in the early twentieth century. The text stands out from many hagiographic works of its genre through the way that its narrator casts his political peregrination—one that takes in nationalism, anarchism, and communism—under a thematic rubric of compulsive failure. One outcome of this avowal of failure is an aporetic logic of narrativity, whereby the text is structured around a desire to invest meaning in experiences that consistently resist such signification. But the theme of failure in Song of Ariran extends beyond its probing of the problematic boundary of life and writing. For in acceding to the offer of a joint literary project with the American journalist Nym Wales (a.k.a. Helen Foster Snow) in the foreign medium of the English language, Kim San in effect raised the question of failure to the text’s formal level by problematizing the idea of translation as a derivative form of linguistic communication. By drawing on Naoki Sakai’s theoretical formulation of translation as “heterolingual address,” my article attempts to show that the significance of a text like Song of Ariran for our time lies not so much in the moral or psychological dimension of its textual content as in its positing of the possibility of a special form of literary readership, which Kim San enacts via the traces of incommensurability arising from his collaborative encounter with his American writing partner.