Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Words Written with Petals

This is a translation of a story from a Korean 4th grade elementary school reader. There's no author name listed that I can find. It's the longest translation I've ever done and I had to fudge it in a few parts because I couldn't completely understand the Korean.

As far as I can tell this story takes place in the 1930s or early 1940s. It should be interesting reading for anyone who's noticed how patriotic Koreans can be about their language.


Words Written with Petals

Seung-u and his sisters left home together right after breakfast. The new homeroom teacher, Mr. Tanaka, hated it when students came late. Most students came early so they had enough time to dust off the desks or clean the stinking bathrooms. They didn’t want to be slapped.

Seung-u parted with his sisters just inside the school gate and ran across the sports field. He put his bookbag under the bench just as the morning assembly bell rang. He’d almost been late.

The children were sitting straight in their chairs. When the teacher came in they had to be looking straight ahead at the chalkboard. They heard the sound of footsteps in the hall and the door opened. Mr. Tanaka, wearing the national uniform, walked in with big strides. His head was shaved, and below his dark eyebrows his cold eyes looked at the students.

“Attention! Salute!” yelled Jun-shik, the class leader. The children bowed until their heads almost touched their desks.

“You’re all here. Good,” the teacher said in an unfriendly voice, as he looked around the room. The students shrunk back, their eyes cast down, afraid to meet the teacher’s.

“Children, beginning today we’re going to play a fun game,” said the teacher, sounding friendly all of a sudden. The children looked at each other uneasily.

Morning assembly was usually remarks on how Japan and Korea was one country, and our parents had to do their duty to the nation. However today there was going to be a game… The children’s eyes began to show curiosity.

“Look at this!” It was a tile made of wood, 3 centimeters by 10 centimeters. The teacher held it like a torch.

“Do you know what this is?” The teacher asked this, and the room fell silent.

“Class leader, stand up!” Jun-shik stood up.

“Take it,” said Mr. Tanaka. He tossed the tile to Jun-shik. It made a “plock” sound as it hit Jun-shik’s palm.


The tile said “VIOLATION” on it in Japanese. Jun-shik looked at the letters burned black on the tile like it was some sort of monster. Mr. Tanaka explained the game meticulously:

“The class leader will keep the tile, and during break time he will give it to any student who speaks Korean. The student who receives it will give it to the next student who speaks Korean. At the end of the school day I will see who has the tablet. That student will be slapped on the hand. Watch each other well! Understand?”

The students who had been expecting a fun game were disappointed. They quietly began grumbling.

“Be quiet!” The teacher rapped on his desk with the attendance book. The students quieted down.

The first class ended and break time began. The children were worried. They couldn’t slip up and accidentally speak Korean. The stick that Mr. Tanaka hit students with was thicker and stronger than the other teachers’. Students pretended to have to go to the bathroom so they could leave the classroom. The students who stayed behind put their hands over their mouths or buried their faces in their books. But still, Jun-shil ended up giving the tile to Yun-chil in section 4.

“Kimura Ichiro!” called Jun-shik, using Yun-chil’s Japanese name. Yun-chil’s head jerked up, and he scowled. He and Jun-shik were friends.

“Here”, was all Yun-chil said, as he handed Jun-shik his eraser. Immediately his heart sank. But there was nothing he could do but take the tile.

The break time went like this. The tile that said “VIOLATION” went around the room, and every time it changed hands the student who had to take it seethed.

The day’s classes ended. The teacher went back to the teachers’ room to prepare for closing period. All the students except Ho-chang finally felt relieved. Ho-chang fingered the tile in his hand and began to tear up.

Suddenly Myung-suh in the next row pointed to the window and shouted “Hey, it’s a butterfly!” A yellow butterfly was fluttering outside the window. It was the first butterfly of the new year.

“Thanks!” said Ho-chang as he quickly tossed the tile to Myung-suh. Myung-suh’s fingers closed around the tile and Ho-chang started smiling. Closing period was coming up quickly. Myung-suh tried to listen for Korean from the other students, but nobody said anything. The sound of footsteps came from the hallway outside. Myung-suh suddenly got up from his desk.

Jae-duk screamed “Aaaaayah!” Myung-suh had pinched his hand. Of course Jae-duk screamed in Korean – how could he scream in Japanese if he was surprised? Myung-suh quickly slapped the tile into Jae-duk’s hand.

“That was mean!” said Seung-u, who was Myung-suh’s friend. Jaeduk, who had been about to spring at Myung-suh, hesitated. Then he put the tile into Seung-u’s palm.

The tile had passed through ten hands that day. But when Mr. Tanaka used his stick, it was only Seung-u’s palm that received the bruise.

Seung-u’s mother saw the bruised hand that evening at the dinner table. Mother asked about it curiously. No matter what lies Seung-u told her, Mother did not believe him.

Seung-u finally stammered out the story of the “VIOLATION” tile to Mother and Father, and Mother listened, biting her lip.

“Seung-u!” Seung-u heard his father’s loud voice. The room was silent. Father looked at Seung-u sadly. Seung-u’s sisters stared at the bruise on his hand. Father coughed.

“Today the peach blossoms bloomed. Did you see them? They’re beautiful.”


Father opened a window. Peach blossoms fluttered in.

“Just two months ago that tree had nothing but bare branches. It stood there in the snow and cold wind. As if it were dead… Who could have thought it would bloom again like this?”

Seung-u listened to his father and looked at the lovely peach blossoms.

“But even after a harsh winter, leaves sprout and flowers bloom. Nations and peoples are the same. Seung-u, what do you think is the root of your nation and your people?”


“It’s spirit, language, and writing. You’ve heard people say, ‘You absentminded jerk!’ Those words have real meaning. A person who loses his spirit loses his mind. He’s no longer intact. If we have spirit, language, and writing, no matter how harsh the cold winds are, we will live and flowers will bloom again. Just like these peach blossoms – remember that.”

After this strange talk, Father went into his room. The house was quiet again.

“Come here,” said Mother, beckoning with her hand. Seung-u approached and Mother undid her coat and put Seung-u’s hands on her chest. Seung-u’s hands, which were still smarting, could feel Mother’s heart beating. The bruise began to feel better and the pain went away. Mother stroked Seung-u’s hair and patted his back.

“Seung-u, when you grow up, become a poet. Write poems in our language.”

Seung-u suddenly buried his face in his mother’s chest. He didn’t know the meaning of what his mother had told him. He heard the sound of a tramcar outside.

“Wait a minute.” Mother went out. Before long she came back with some peach blossoms and a white porcelain bowl. She took out the small octagonal table she used when company came over. Then she spelled out words with flower petals on the table.




Mother said these words in a clear voice. Seung-u looked at the words she had written.

When Seung-u said the Japanese words Yama, Sora, or Hoshi, he did not feel anything in particular. But the Korean words San (mountains), Haneul (sky), and Byul (stars) felt alive and he could feel them in his beating heart. He looked at the bright colors in front of him.

San written in petals rose high.

Haneul written in petals was deep blue.

Byul written in petals had a bright clear sound.

The words were beautiful.

Tears came! Two lines of tears appeared on Mother’s cheeks.

Seung-u knelt before the table with the letters written with flowers.

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