Translation is a tricky thing. Mere transliteration is only a start. Translating a piece of writing, whether literature or a wire news story, takes finesse, for a certain amount of rearranging or restating is necessary to retain the original meaning. Susan Choi elegantly describes this almost morphological process in her ambitious first novel, The Foreign Student: "Sometimes, a line that seemed fine would begin to grow lumpy and poor as more lines accreted beneath it. Sometimes, like a cheaply built house, the whole would have to be completed before it unexpectedly started to sag.... The thing would emerge and begin to grow buoyant, as if it could read only just as it was. This is what he wanted: for the original to vanish. Then you knew it was actually there, bled in, letter by letter."
The main character of Choi's novel is the son of a great Korean translator who flourished under Japanese rule only to be punished for it in the aftermath of World War II. Chang Ahn follows in his father's footsteps, as a translator of news reports for the United States Intelligence Service in Korea's capital during the precarious time between two devastating wars: "He continued to translate, creating his place and becoming increasingly trapped there. Translation was a sure thing in American Seoul; neither side understood the other, but the constant racket of translation gave off an impression of good understanding, or at least of good faith." Like his father, and like Korea itself, Chang is caught between cultures -- between democracy and communism, between America and Russia and China, between the Occident and the Orient, and, after the war, the South and the North.
"He thrived there, in the zone of intentional misinformation, the way that disaster throve in the breach. He had already sensed that, like his father, he had no real place in South Korea." Disconnected from his family and his country, Chang leaves his homeland for Sewanee, Tennessee, and the University of the South, where he befriends Katherine Monroe, a lonely, seemingly independent southern belle who has returned to her family's summer house after the death of her father.
Katherine, too, is caught between forces beyond her control. At age 14, she began her first and only romantic relationship with a family friend, the brilliant but bitter professor Charles Addison, a proverbial big fish in the small pond of Sewanee. Ten years later, she returns to the summer house, only to immediately take up with Charles. Estranged from her socialite mother, Glee, who put an end to the family's summering in Sewanee after she learned of the affair, Katherine is pretty much friendless -- that is, until she meets Chang, who stirs her interest and with whom she feels an inexplicable bond.
Katherine "had spent half her life immobilized by the fear she would lose Charles, and her unhappiness, she realized now, had been passive and essentially hopeful....So long as the power to withhold her happiness lay outside herself, she could wait, and stroke her despair with the intensity of imagining its opposite." Chang, too, shares this trait of passivity, but in a much more tumultuous and politically charged (but no less wrenching) context: "He had realized that in avoiding an allegiance to the Americans he had overlooked his actual problem. No allegiance at all was an allegiance, by default, to the Republic of Korea, a government that only seemed to exist in order that it not be a Communist government, in the same way that his own recurrent desire to join the Communist party arose largely from his contempt for the republic's regime."
Choi structures her novel so as to heighten the central theme of displacement -- moving from Korea to Tennessee, backwards in time to both Chang's and Katherine's childhoods, and back to mid-'50s Sewanee. While the technique can sometimes be confusing, especially in relating scenes from the Korean conflict, in the end it energizes Choi's meticulous prose. Perhaps most of the confusion in the sections set in Korea is due to the fact that the Korean War remains the least known of the major international conflicts of the 20th century -- to Americans and Koreans alike. In weaving together these two very different lives, the results are bumpy, full of mixed messages and inarticulateness, advances and retreats. The novel reflects this -- the convergence of lives never results in a seamless whole, and it is to Choi's credit that she portrays reality in this way.
In the end, both achieve a certain freedom, together and apart -- Katherine finally leaves Sewanee to care for her dying mother. Chang's life as a translator now seems to lead to a tangible goal: "His lust to master the language had never been abstract, no matter how fastidious and intellectual his approach might have seemed.... It had always been utterly, ruthlessly pragmatic, driven by his faith in its power to transport him. It had gotten him into USIS, and across the ocean to Sewanee, and then, just as he was in danger of becoming apathetic from accomplishment, it had brought her within view. Every possibility of speech had been a possibility of speaking to her."