‘Mommy porn’ better in translation
Korean ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ unleashed from original’s poor writing
By Kwaak Je-yup
You don’t have to look up TV ratings to realize that Koreans have a soft spot for Cinderella-type romance. Korean soap operas are filled with impeccably-groomed and well-mannered heirs of conglomerate fortune, who inevitably fall in love with a girl of a class far below. (Think the runaway success “Lovers in Paris,” 2004, starring Park Shin-yang and Kim Jung-eun, for example.)
So in a way, few should be surprised by the phenomenal success of E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy being repeated here, too, given its poor-woman-rich-man theme. After its Aug. 8 release, the first part, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” immediately became the country’s bestselling novel and e-book; more than 150,000 copies of “Grey” and its sequel “Fifty Shades Darker” combined, have flown off the shelves in the first two weeks, according to its publisher Sigongsa. (The final installment, “Fifty Shades Freed,” has yet to be printed.)
But the Grey series is not a classic Disney Cinderella, where small-town college senior Anastasia Steele meets impossibly handsome twentysomething CEO Christian Grey and they live happily ever after. The psychologically damaged prince instead seduces the insecure virgin and guides her through the pleasures and pains of sadomasochistic sex. They are in love, however.
Coming back to the Korean TV dramas, Grey’s first volume (on which this reviews focuses) feels like an explicit version of it, with a copious amount of risque sex rituals, of course. There are the fundamental elements: a sappy love story arc, a Bruce Wayne-like hero who smells of danger and a heroine with the tiniest amount of self-respect. He does whatever he wants to do, and she begrudgingly follows. She incrementally falls in love with the almost perfect man and eventually cedes control. She is saved by the prince charming! But if there is one thing that James gets correctly in this astoundingly terrible novel is avoiding the happily ever after.
Critics in the Anglophone world, without discrediting the series’ sensational run, have mocked the original writing and the English author’s at best limited vocabulary. Take Christine Sheehy of New Zealand Herald, for example: “Fifty Shades of Grey will win no prizes for its prose... And there are some exceedingly awful descriptions ... which would almost certainly be worthy contenders for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award, were that prize not limited to literary novels.”
In the Korean version, a work of a veteran female translator who decided to coin a new pen name for these books, the British author’s messy graphic sex fantasy becomes more tolerable with metaphors replacing explicit word choices. If that improves or demeans the original is a judgment best left to individual tastes, but looking at the local popularity, it seems like a commercially-sound decision.
Virtually all the strong language has been toned down with more palatable, publicly-accepted expression. Even the sadomasochistic sex rituals feel demure in comparison. The excessive references to Anastasia’s “inner goddess,” or her libido, do not come as irritating. (Word repetition is not a grammatical crime in Korean.) Devastatingly unnatural dialogue in the original are improved somewhat, but at some point in this 780-pager, especially in the Korean publisher’s two-volume form, the reader has to feel frustrated by one too many use of “God, he’s sexy.”
The female protagonist’s utterly simple and crass emotions survive the translation; so do other problems bedeviling the original. Spotty logic could be overlooked by aroused readers, but some are just disrespectful of the reader’s intellectual capacity. Take the moment where Ana so carelessly signs the nondisclosure agreement. If she is that idiotic to endorse a legal document without a review, why is she so obsessed about the ramifications afterwards? If she knew the documents’ weight, how could she have signed it so quickly? Furthermore, the CEO’s ready confession about his first BDSM (an acronym for bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadism and masochism) experience pops up like toasted bread but then every other secret has to be arduously pulled out of him thereafter.
After finishing almost 800 pages of bad literature — very bad literature — it is jarring to think there are two sets more waiting.
Therefore, hold your curiosity: it is best avoided from the get go.