North or South? Whether you’re Korean-American or an expat living in South Korea, it’s the question everyone wants to ask you. Which Korea are you from? Which Korea are you living in? It’s usually answered with an eye roll and a muttered “South, obviously.” Which isn’t to say that no one is ever from the North (the relevance of this question could soon change, given the number of defectors), but for expats, at least, the absurdity lies in the notion of anyone choosing to live in the North. After all, it’s a horrible place with no food or electricity, where everyone only pretends to be happy, where the country’s leadership works best when it’s the butt of a joke, right? No one would choose to be North Korean. Right?
But there was a time when it was a choice, and one that was made by many individuals. From this end of history, it can be hard to imagine anyone choosing to head north across the 38th parallel, and we scoff now at those who do and get themselves caught, but before the propaganda machines started to turn on both sides of the border, individual people made individual choices. In this excerpt from I Am a Communist, we learn about Heo Yeongcheol’s life at a time when the border between North and South was still porous and people and ideas were on the move, when Heo himself was in the midst of making a series of choices that would culminate in his long prison sentence in the South.
But how do we define choice in such a context? Did people really get to make choices based on passionately held beliefs, or were they simply caught in the current of larger forces? Agency is a delicate question for this period in Korean history, and it’s a key idea in I Am a Communist, right down to the title.
The graphic novel was adapted from Heo Yeong-cheol’s autobiography, which was based on his interview testimony, and which carries a different title: History Never Once Missed Me. Missed, in the sense of a comet missing the Earth or a bullet missing its target. The sentence structure of the two titles is radically different. One places Heo squarely in the subject position, while the other makes him the object. Which one is closer to the truth?
Our process of translating the title began simply enough. We started with the question of how we wanted to word it and soon found ourselves debating whether to replace the title entirely. Each choice seemed to cast a different light on the text as a whole. If we teased out the individual grammatical units of the original, we got a strong declarative statement: I. Am. A. Communist. If we contracted it, we got something less strident and more colloquial: I’m a Communist. This led to the question of whether to go even more colloquial: I’m a Commie. We also considered dropping both subject and verb and simply calling it Communist.
But hovering behind our choices was the question of Heo’s choice. Was he, in fact, declaring himself a communist, when the title of his autobiography suggested otherwise? Was the title ironic? Should “I,” a pronoun that is rarely used in Korean, be read with the same tone as “I” in English, which so favors the singular agent? Or should we have read it as a contrastive unit—“As for me? Communist.”
In an interview with Kun-woong Pak, who adapted Heo’s life story to the graphic novel, it was Yun Gu-byeong, the head of Bori Publishing, who pushed for the title “I Am a Communist” because he believed it better represented Heo. Pak had initially suggested “Saram,” which means person.
Was History Never Once Missed Me Heo’s chosen title? Did Heo see himself as an object, a subject, or simply as one member of the human race? Or were they all projections?
In the end, unable to agree, we opted for the most conservative option in the hopes of preserving the widest range of interpretations.
In the interview, the graphic novelist also stated that he tried to keep the focus of the novel on the history rather than on the individual. The title, however, resists this. But what matters more in this narrative—the agent or the ideology? Does it honor Heo’s life more to highlight the choices he made, or to bring to light his victimization at the hands of history?
As we continue to work on and promote the translation of this graphic novel, our debate over the title will no doubt continue. Even now, we study the Korean title with its tiny subject “나는 (I)” balanced against the weight of its predicate “공산주의자다 (am a communist).” The predicate threatens to tip the scale, but the subject stands its ground. Wherever the title ends up, we hope we won’t lose the I in the communist, or the communist in the I.