The ‘reflexive turn’ in anthropology, marked by the publication of Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus) in 1986, raised fundamental issues of representation, epistemological authority, and Eurocentric colonialism in anthropological texts. In this crucial moment, the traditionally assumed value hierarchy between ethnographic fieldwork and anthropological theorization of such fieldwork was also challenged. The so-called objective, scientific theory of humanity no longer held unquestioned authority, while previously marginalized ‘personal’ or ‘fictitious’ accounts of society and culture—memoirs, journals, and fictions—combined with theory have become explored as alternative ways of ethnographic writing. This growing body of literature, sometimes referred as fictocriticism, challenges the myth of faithful cultural representation through performative modes of writing as a means of doing theory. The Centipedes follows this legacy of the ‘reflexive turn,’ concerning the assumptions embedded in cultural ‘translation’ in ethnographic writing, namely, culture as a text and translation as a transparent process executed by the ethnographer.
This project is also about reimagining marginalized beings, social positions, and places as ‘liminal spaces’ that are in constant processes of cultural translation, or ‘moving across.’ Starting from Victor Turner’s (1967) concept of liminality as an “interstructural situation” in a society of “structure of positions” (93), we approach liminal beings and places not as in a ‘passage’ that leads to more stable structural positions, as in rites de passage, but as contingent spaces that appear, disappear, reappear, and travel around between cracks of structures, resisting any concrete definitions or developmental progress.
The Centipedes consists of nine short stories initially written in Korean by Woo, Yun Jin alluding to folk tales and current social issues in South Korea, which were then translated to English by Mathew Bumbalough, a self-taught translator who lived in South Korea for six years working for the US Army and Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. Each story was written either from the perspective of a marginalized entity (e.g. a parasite, pet, bug, elder, widow, and the deceased) or in relation to a peripheralized place (e.g. an old rental house, outskirts of a large city, and internal spaces of human and non-human bodies). These stories are connected to each other by some mention of centipedes, alluding to Korean folk tales where centipedes having the ability to transform their appearances at will. Because of this, these narratives could be read as an entity reappearing in different bodies or shapes. The following text shows the translation process of Specimen, one of the nine stories, from Korean to English with words in red indicating how changes were made.
- 한국구비문학대계 (韓國口碑文學大系) 8-3, 1981
- 분야: 구비 전승 언어/문학
- 유형: 설화
- 채록지: 경상남도 진주시 수곡면 사곡리 식실마을
- 제보자: 박순악. 68세, 여성.
- 옛날 어느 마을에 과부가 살았다. 혼자 살기가 외로워 검은 닭을 키웠는데, 그럭저럭 자라 알을 낳기 시작했다. 암탉이 알을 낳으면 과부는 늘 닭을 몰아내고 알을 가져다가 삶아먹곤 했다. 6년째 되는 어느 날, 닭이 갑자기 죽었는데, 그 날부터 과부의 배가 불러오기 시작했다. 과부는 이상한 생각이 들어서 의원을 찾아가 진맥을 하고 약을 먹고 용하다는 사람을 찾아다니며 약초를 달여먹었으나, 배는 점점 불러왔다. 아이를 낳고보니 잘생긴 사내아이였다. 아이는 무럭무럭 자랐고, 총명하고 재주 많은 것으로 동네에 소문이 자자했다. 하루는 아이가 책보따리를 메고 서당에 가는데, 마침 그 근처를 지나가던 스님이 이상한 것을 보게 되었다. 아이가 집을 나와서는 담 위에 책보따리를 놓고 지붕 위로 올라가더니, 큰 지네가 되어서 살살 용마루로 기어들어가 눕는 것이었다. 깜짝 놀란 스님이 줄곧 지켜보니, 저녁이 되자 지네가 용마루에서 기어내려와 다시 사람으로 둔갑을 하여 보따리를 메고 집으로 들어가는 것이었다. 이를 본 스님은 다음 날 힘센 편수 대여섯과 기름을 한 가마니 구해 과부의 집으로 찾아갔다. 스님은 과부에게 자초지종을 설명하지 않고 그저 시키는 대로 해보면 이유를 알 수 있으리라고 했다. 영문을 모르는 과부는 겁이나 할 수 없이 시키는 대로 마당에 가마솥을 놓고 기름을 부어 끓이기 시작했다. 스님은 편수 대여섯에게 사다리를 놓고 용마루로 올라가 지붕을 걷어내고 집게로 지네를 잡으라고 주문했다. 기운 센 편수들은 기와 아래 숨어있던 커다란 지네를 집어 내려와 끓는 기름에 삶아버렸다. 지네가 죽고 나자 스님은 과부에게 자초지종을 이야기했다. 과부는 지네로 변한 닭이 아들행세를 하면서 자신을 잡아먹으려고 했다는 이야기를 믿을 수 없었다. 과부는 차라리 자신이 죽는 것이 나았을 것이라며 울었다. 울다가 눈물이 더이상 나오지 않자 과부는 우물에 뛰어들었는데, 그 후로 그 우물에 붉은 지네가 들끓어 마을 사람들은 큰 바위로 못을 막았다.
- An outline of Korean Oral Literature, 3 August, 1981
- Field: Oral Transmission/Literature
- Type: Narrative
- Location: South Kyongsang province, Jinju City, Siksil Village in Sukokmyeon, Sakokri
- Narrator: Park Sun-ak, Age 68, Female
- Once upon a time there was a widow that lived in a village. There was a black chicken living alone with her and one day it started to lay eggs. The widow would always go and find the hen once it laid eggs and take them away a to boil the eggs to and eat. After six years the hen suddenly died and from that day the widow got very hungry. The widow had a strange idea and went to a clinic to find a person to give her an examination and medicine, she took a lot of herbs and slowly her stomach became fuller. Then she had a handsome baby boy. The child grew up quickly and his cleverness was the gossip of the neighborhood village. One day the child got his book bag and went to go to school but it just so happened that a passing monk saw something strange. The child put his book bag on the wall and crawled up on the roof and became a big centipede and began creeping around, finally resting on the crest of the roof. The surprised monk watched until dinner when the centipede crept back down, became a boy, took up his bag and went back inside. The next day the that same monk that saw all this went to the widow’s house and brought six strong rice cakes and oil in a rice sack. The monk didn’t explain the details of what he saw to the widow but just said that he had his reasons she would understand if she watched. The widow didn’t know understand what he was talking about but trusted him and brought a kettle out into the yard where she started to boil the oil. The monk told her to bring the rice cakes up the ladder and catch the centipede with forceps. The widow lured it down with the rice cakes and then threw the hug centipede into the boiling oil. As soon as the centipede died the monk told the widow what happened. The widow couldn’t believe that the chicken turned into the centipede and impersonated a boy and tried to eat her???? child was impersonating the chicken and by catching the centipede, it was like she was eating herself*. The widow said she would have rather died, and then started criedying. She cried out all of her tears and then threw herself into a well, after which the well swarmed with red centipedes and the villagers had to block it up with a stone.
- *The widow saw the eggs were like the chicken’s children, and then she realized she was boiling her own child like she did those eggs.
Among other liminal entities in this project, we draw specific attention to the role of the translator as an ethnographer, or a cultural mediator. Ritva Leppihalme (1997) takes note of the discourse on how translators are often culturally marginalized as producers of mere copies of original texts in their traditionally “invisible” roles (18). Ironically, however, through this ‘translation’ project, it became clear that culture is not something that can be stabilized as “text” to be “read” and “moved across” into another language without any changes of its “original” meaning. The very act of textualization and translation of languages turned out to be already entangled with the complex processes of culturally interpretative decision-making. Culture turned out to be segments of lived experiences and relations that do not compose a coherent whole but resonate and overlap in a multitude of layers. “Moving” something, whether text or culture, from one place “across” to another proved to be a social performance of bringing attention to particular interpretations since the movement is always an embodied experience.
After these translation processes, the stories were “translated” again to paper collages by Woo in collaboration with Bumbalough as an attempt to find a way to perform this ethnography more affectively (see figures 1 and 2). These collages were then remade into a large number of small prints by Woo, which were inserted into library books in and outside of Bloomington, IN USA (see figure 3). By inserting the unendorsed narratives into places where official records of history and culture are archived, The Centipede seeks to become ‘liminal spaces’ in which unheard narratives and unspoken feelings reside, breed, and leak out to the sanitized surface of the everyday. By borrowing others’ territories of knowledge and narratives, these strange intruders may disturb the spatial order of knowledge from within it.
Artist Statement (Woo, Yun Jin)
My body is not mine. I listen to the sound of floating strangers who make up my body. They move around in a system, and jump from body to body in their invisible trajectories. They are bacteria, fungus, viruses, and parasites that connect bits of me to bits of you. In their world, nothing is alone. Everything is connected. We overlap. My art lives like these secrete intruders. I reappropriate public spaces and systems in order to produce and circulate my work, similar to how viral or parasitic vectors borrow their hosts’ metabolism or biological cycles. Rather than producing more, I choose to re-produce or ‘para-produce,’ altering existing relations of matter and perception. As floating strangers in a system, my artworks appear, disappear, and reappear through others’ discoveries and involvements.
All photos copyrighted to Woo, Yun Jin (http://wooyunjin.com).
Leppihalme, Ritva. Culture Bumps: An Empirical Approach to the Translation of Allusions. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd. 1997.
Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. 1967.
Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1986.