The Forlorn Figure You Cut as You Walked Away; or, Your Lonely Backappearance

Owen Hyrick

I have concluded that the problem, the real problem, was that our first languages were so different from each other. Take the day that we parted for the final time. The snow was incongruously beautiful. ‘Picturesque’, I might have called it; at its ‘dazzling limit’, you might have said. But nothing but breath left our mouths, exhalations made visible by the cold. (Our vapours, at least, were of a kind.) I wouldn’t weep until several hours later, but you allowed the eyewater to trickletrickle flow down your face there and then. Eventually, we turned our backs to each other and began to walk in opposite directions. Do you remember the sound that the snow made underfoot? Doubtless we heard it differently, your footsteps having been underpinned by a precise, onomatopoeiac word, mine far more vague in this regard. Does it follow that your experience of walking through the snow was somehow more complete than mine? In the past, I might have asked you whether the opposite were not true, whether your word was nothing but a yoke, something by which the possibilities of the experience were diminished. I might ask you the same question today, only now I would no longer entail any answer. Yes, for a long time I thought that I understood our last goodbye, and everything that preceded it. I felt that I had a sure grasp of these things. But now I realize how little of anything I actually understood. I need you to help me reconstruct our relationship and its decline. I wish to establish certain things. For example, when you were walking away from me, did you at any point turn around, and if so, what did you see? The question is rhetorical: I know exactly what you saw (or what you would have seen, had you turned around): my 쓸쓸한 뒷모습. You are shocked that I have used your language, that I have written in your script, I who never once tried to speak in your language, who never once wrote in any script but the Latin. But let us return to the moment of your looking back. You saw me walking away from you in the snow, saw my 쓸쓸한 뒷모습, or — to translate it almost directly (‘backappearance’ being a nonce word with as yet no utility in English) — my ‘lonely appearance from behind’. You saw that, darling, because that is what your language gave you to see. But what about me — what did I see when I turned around to look at you as you walked away from me in the snow? Perhaps I saw the equivalent of what you saw, perhaps not. The problem is that no native English speaker would talk about a person’s ‘lonely appearance from behind’. Such words sound not only inelegant, but strange. I’m not sure why they sound strange. Is it because it is difficult for an English speaker to conceive of an image against which they would lie flush, or rather because the language has made no attempts to reify the image, however familiar it might be? You think I’m exaggerating. Well, type 쓸쓸한 뒷모습 into a search engine, and see just how many similar pictures it throws up. Then type in ‘lonely appearance from behind’, and count yourself lucky if you find a single image of the sort I am describing. Perhaps you think I am translating too literally, believe it likely that an English word or phrase exists by which to encapsulate the same idea through different means. But if such a word or phrase does indeed exist, I can ensure you that I, a native speaker, have never encountered it. The best I can manage is ‘the forlorn figure you cut as you walked away’. But just try typing that into a search engine. Thus, understand that when I turned around to see you walking away from me in the snow, I may not have seen what you are likely to believe I should have seen. I’m not saying definitively that I didn’t see the right thing; but it is a point on which I am unsure. Take the verb ‘혼나다’, for instance. You would likely translate it, quickly and confidently, as ‘to be scolded’. But not all usages of the verb seem to conform to this translation. Consider the following sentence: 딸아이가 저한테 혼나고 나면 엄마한테 달려가요. Let’s assume that you would translate it thus: after being scolded by me, my daughter runs to her mother (I retain the ugly passive for illustrative purposes). But if it is my daughter who receives the scolding, how can I be the recipient of the verb’s action? Obviously, I can’t. If one insists on treating the verb as ‘to be scolded’ the sentence simply doesn’t parse. So I invented a new English verb: ‘to scoldarm’ — that is, to incite a person to scold. Perhaps you admire my ingenuity, but I am not seeking praise. I merely wish to know whether it is possible that when you scolded me in the past, you felt the action to come from my direction, rather than yours. It is possible that some people would think my coinage fanciful — if the dictionaries say that ‘혼나다’ equates with the English passive ‘to be scolded’ (irregularities of usage notwithstanding) then why doubt the definition? But even if such people were correct, how could we really know either way? I have so many questions relating to such issues, darling. For instance, was I really to blame for my lack of noonchi (I forsake the hangul here because the word transliterates so well), given that English has yet to reinforce the concept by sprouting a word that would encompass all of its various shades of meaning? Oh, I have studied, darling, and will continue to study. I must reappraise what I thought I knew about us. You would be impressed with my ardour and precision. I have formulated nuanced definitions for han or jeong. I know exactly what those words mean. I hope one day also to know what they mean. Such knowledge may well be beyond me. Perhaps I can never become sick with hwabyeong; and even if I can, I would perhaps have to travel to Korea in order to get the diagnosis. But I remain hopeful. These are important questions, darling. I want you to think about them. I want you to think about how they might relate to us, and to what used to be our relationship. It is time to excavate and revise. It is too late for me to save our marriage, but it is perhaps not yet too late to save the belief that we might have been able to make it work, had we only known certain things.

Owen Hyrick (pronounced “’haɪrɪk”, or, if one prefers, “’hɪrɪk”) is a pseudonym. The writer tinkered with the orthography of the surname for a while, considering both “Highrick” and “Hyerick” before finally settling on the above. The name was intended to be vaguely paronomasial, after the adjective “oneiric”. What folly!

오엔 하이릭 (‘하이릭’ 또는 ‘히릭’)은 가명이다. 작가는 ‘Highrick’과 ‘Hyerick’을 고려하는 등 이 이름의 철자법을 한참 만지작거리다가 마침내 Hyrick으로 결정했다. 이 이름은 막연한 말장난을 의도한 것이었으며 ‘꿈을 꾸는’이라는 뜻의 형용사 ‘oneiric’을 본떠 만들었다. 이런 바보짓이 또 어디 있나!