The novel “The Man Without Qualities” by Austrian writer Robert Musil has been translated into Korean for the first time, the Austrian Embassy in Seoul announced on Friday.
“Today we mark the first-ever complete translation of ‘Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften [The Man Without Qualities]’ in Korean, a feat achieved by Professor Shin Ji-young,” Wolfgang Angerholzer, Austrian Ambassador to Korea, said at a book launch at his residence in Seoul on Friday.
“It’s no small feat, because she translated a work of more than 1,000 pages, and a work which is one of the main representations of Austrian literature of the 20th century.”
The work, generally considered one of the most important in modern literature, had been translated by other authors and experts, including Ko Won, but previous translations did not cover all known chapters of the work.
The novel itself is unfinished, as Musil began publishing the novel, divided into volumes, in 1930 and died in 1942 without having completed it.
The translation by Shin, a professor of German literature at Korea University, was published in March by Nanam Publishing House.
Given that it took the original author more than two decades to write all three volumes of the novel, it’s no surprise that it took Shin 15 years to translate them.
“The phrase ‘lost in translation’ exists for a reason,” she told the audience at the launch. “What makes it quite difficult to translate Musil’s work is that you really have to understand what he’s saying. Only after you grasp the full meaning of his German words will you be able to locate the right Korean words to carry all the right nuances the author intended.
Set during the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the outbreak of World War I, the novel features a wide range of existential themes, which have caught the attention of many literary critics around the world, including those of Seoul.
“Musil speaks in a language that penetrates the human mind, body and soul,” said Moon Gwang-hoon, professor of German language and literature at National Chungbuk University in North Chungcheong. “Understanding one’s language means being reborn with a completely different linguistic thought. Worlds exist in every sentence of Musil’s work. It is a privilege to be able to experience them through his work.
During the launch, actor Park Sang-won read part of a chapter set in the Vienna ring road.
“As I prepared for today’s recitation and read the chapter, I could easily imagine myself on the Vienna Ring Road,” Park said. “My impression was that Musil’s work had enough theatrical elements to give free rein to the imagination of his readers.”
Austria has devoted this year and the next to special years for literature.
“Austrian literature began to develop seriously from the 19th century and found its independent voice in the 20th century in the German-speaking world,” said Angerholzer. “Today, Austrian literature transcends the country’s geography and demographics, and we hope to continue these conversations with local and international audiences to share the works of modern Austrian writers.”
Austria and Korea celebrate their 130th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year.