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“A Bungling Thief” by Hyun Jin-geon


ⓒ Getty Images Bank

Since it was hard to heat two rooms, we slept in one side of the room divided by a paper screen while the maid slept in the other side. We were practically living in a single room. 

Her sighs and pleas fell like a waterfall across the screen. She barely slept. When she sensed that I wasn’t asleep, she would pour out her grief and resentment. 

“Who would save me if not the holy master?” 

She pleaded, begged, nagged relentlessly, doggedly, and steadfastly as if I was obligated to save her. Being an insomniac, I often stayed up all night. 

After mumbling her pleas in sleep, she would fall into troubled slumber, but even that didn’t last long.

할멈이 일어나 나간 뒤로 아내가 나가 보니

마룻바닥에 쌀낱이 흩어져 있었다.

밥쌀을 내다가 떨어뜨린 것인가 하였더니

자세히 살펴보니 마루로부터 뜰로, 

뜰로부터 우물 가는 길로, 

쌀이 줄을 그은 것처럼 흘러 있었다.

After the old woman had left the room, my wife went out and saw rice grains scattered on the living room floor. Wondering if the maid had spilled some as she scooped out the rice for breakfast, my wife took a closer look to realize that there was a trail of rice grains leading from the living room to the yard and finally to the well. 

하도 이상해서 할멈 뒤를 쫒아가 보니까

그의 걷는 대로 쌀이 줄줄 흘러내린 것을 발견하였다.

Sensing something was wrong, my wife followed the old woman and saw that rice had spilled everywhere she went. 

필경 할멈의 품속에 쌀을 감추어 둔 것이 발견되었다 한다.

The old maid must have taken some rice and hidden it under her clothes. 

그는 헌 전대 하나를 주워서

쌀을 불룩하게 집어넣어 가지고 가슴 밑에 찼는데

전대의 구멍이 뚫어져서 

그의 걷는 대로 쌀이 흐르게 된 것이었다.

She had taken an old money belt and filled it with rice before wrapping it around her bosom. But there was a hole in the money belt through which the rice spilled with her every step.

# Interview with literary critic Jeon So-yeong

This story was written in 1931 when even the Japanese colonial empire felt the impact of the Great Depression. In order to distract the Japanese people from domestic woes, Japan launched aggression into East Asia in the early 1930s. Since then, Joseon was politically oppressed even more and economically deprived more than in previous generations. The old woman represents Joseon’s poverty in the 1930s, especially the dead-end situations of the low-class people. Joseon was in a difficult place at the time, but the suffering of the poor ordinary people, like this old maid, was beyond imagination. She begs her master and mistress day and night to hear her requests, which indicates that the maid’s family cannot endure their situation even for a few days. The low-class people in the 1930s Joseon suffered the most even though they didn’t know anything about social issues of the time. 

나는 그 할멈의 한 일을 서투른 도적의 노릇으로 웃어버리기엔

너무 맘이 저리었다.

My heart was too broken to laughingly dismiss the old woman’s bungling thievery. 

대욱의 말마따나 할멈은 과연 파출소를 겁내었을까?

아무도 몰래 안전하게 제 품속에 든 동전 세 푼이

귀신 아닌 사람에게 발각되리라고 믿었을까?

사랑하는 손자에게 사탕이라도 사 줄 수 있는 그 귀중한 동전 세 푼을

얼떨결에 그리 쉽사리 내어 놓았을까?

Was she as scared of the police station as Dae-wuk said? Did she believe that the three coins safely tucked inside her pocket would be discovered? What made her give up those coins so easily when she could have bought candies for her dear grandson with that money? 

그는 일부러 동전 세 푼을 내어 던진 것이다.

보라는 듯이 내어 던진 것이다.

She threw those three coins at us on purpose. To show us. 

우리의 얼굴을 향해서,

심장을 향해 이 동전 서 푼을 후려갈긴 것이다.

She hurled those three coins at our faces, at our hearts.

Hyun Jin-geon (Born in Daegu, Aug. 9, 1900~Apr. 25, 1943)

Debuted with short story “Huisaenghwa” in 1920

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