An essay on 언니 / unni, by So J. Lee – Modern Poetry in Translation’s 2020 Writer in Residence
When Kang Seung-hee translated Oyinkan Braithwaite’s novel My Sister, the Serial Killer into Korean, she or her editor changed the title to Unni, I Killed A Man. ‘I clicked on this book as soon as I read the title,’ the top customer review on Yes24 reads. ‘From the title alone, I thought it’d be told from the perspective of the murderous younger sister, but it was actually the unni who advanced the narrative from beginning to end.’
All the words exist in Korean for a word-for-word, punctuation-for-punctuation translation of the source title. Yet this word, Unni, was brought in to mean more than Sister. We know from the Korean title that a woman is about to tell her older sister about the man she just murdered. Don’t you want to know what happens next?
Perhaps unexpected from its title, Lee Soho’s poetry collection Catcalling spares no moment to introduce the discord between Kyungjin and her younger sister Sijin. In my translation published online in December 2019, the third stanza reads, ‘Sister, the doctor says I should do whatever I want. So Sister, I’m going to call you you from now on. Because I love you, I’m going to call you you. Let’s be real, you don’t deserve to be called a big sister, my little sister says, peeling the apple with a knife.’
When I translated without Unni, I was thinking about how the poem would be taken out of the context of the collection. I didn’t want to risk the readers registering this capitalized foreign word as a name instead of the honorific title it is. Hence, ‘Sister.’
Something else I notice is how much this translation relies on tone to provide the cultural subtext that older sisters are to be called Unni, not by name only (Kyungjin Unni would be fine) or the informal ‘you.’ Age order is a big deal! In Hwang Jungeun’s novel I’ll Go On translated by Emily Yae Won, prepubescent sisters Sora and Nana are running away from a strange man when the younger Nana falls behind. ‘Unni-ya, Nana keeps howling, and if she still doesn’t look back then she’s no big sister, Nana is thinking. Sora is what I’ll call you, then. I’ll never call you Unni ever again.’ An unni must be attentive, caring, and patient – or she’ll be disqualified.
Not legally, of course. Contrary to her declaration in the first poem, Sijin almost never calls Kyungjin ‘you’ again for the rest of the collection as they go from sharing a room in their family home to sharing a studio apartment. To Sijin, Kyungjin is Unni. The title is inextricable from their relationship and traps Kyungjin into a role.
In an interview, Lee Soho said, ‘My sister and I are only a year apart, but the role and responsibilities vested by that single year are so different. Eldest daughters are pressured to be unconditionally patient. I wanted to speak about the unfairness of this.’ Even Nana of I’ll Go On admits as an adult that she still calls out to her unni in distress and suspects that she might actually prefer to be called Sora contrary to Korean custom. ‘Because it’s easier to just be Sora, isn’t it, than to be the big sister?’ Nana asks herself.
Now that I’m revising for book publication, I’m reviewing my options: Unni, older sister, Kyungjin. While Kyungjin’s name doesn’t appear until a few poems later, I’m fortunate to have this third option, considering how many characters have gone unnamed in Korean poetry and fiction –particularly short stories about families. Kyung-sook Shin’s novel The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness translated by Jung Hayun stars Sister, Little Brother, Cousin, and more all capitalized Like That. Imagine my mom writing a book about her six siblings the way she’s referred to them all her life: Big Older Sister, Little Older Sister, Older Brother, Third Older Sister, Little Sister, and Little Brother. A translator’s nightmare!
All this said, I might’ve used variations of ‘sister’ for the whole collection if there wasn’t a truly remarkable Oppa poem in the second section of Catcalling. The unnamed male speaker of ‘Oppa Likes That Type of Girl’ is indeed referring to himself in the third person, and you don’t need me to tell you that’s just a hair less cringy than a man calling himself ‘your daddy.’ (For more Oppa/Appa content, read Kim Hyesoon’s poem ‘Double p — How creepy’ translated by Don Mee Choi.)
So let me try this again:
‘Unni, the doctor says I should do whatever I want. So Unni, I’m not going to call you Unni from now on. Because I love you, I’m going to call you Kyungjin. Let’s be real, you don’t deserve to be called a big sister, my little sister says, peeling the apple with a knife.’
It’s not that dramatic, I know, but I still want to be showered in confetti.
I was called Unni at a public bathhouse by a woman at least a decade older than my mother. We were both nude and she was asking if the open locker was mine. It was not.
Unni is and isn’t about biology. Is, in the sense that it’s about age order. Isn’t, in that you don’t have to be blood-related. This is why Unni means more than Sister. It’s what a younger woman can call an older woman. Unni is not only familial but friendly and close.
Unni is the babysitter, the cool and punctual college tutor. Unni is the cast of Ocean’s 8 on a good day. Unni is Gong Hyo-jin. She’s relatable but someone to aspire to. And she’s actually there for you.
‘I felt as though I had made a literary discovery by addressing and referring to eonni,’ said the poet Kim Haengsook, interviewed and translated by Jake Levine in 2018. ‘It was as though I was belatedly reading a love letter I’d somehow found, one that had always been hidden from me. I thought that feeling was something very important.’ (Here’s the other thing: eonni is the ‘correct’ romanization of Unni.)
Kim Haengsook is not alone in that feeling. Throughout the male-dominated history of Korean literature, there was little space for women to exist, much less to speak to each other about the things that matter to them. I find more and more poets asserting their gender and communicating with other women by calling them Unni.
Take Lee Young Ju’s 2014 collection, which I can refer to as Dear Unni halfway through an essay about the word Unni. For an excerpt in Korean Literature Now, Ji Yoon Lee translates the title of the poem ‘Sister,’ with the comma and the collection Sister without it. She also italicizes and capitalizes the word in the body of the poem as if to say, There’s something special about this sister. After all, Lee Young Ju wrote a whole collection addressed to Unni.
Lee Hyemi, on the other hand, uses the word exactly once in her 2016 collection Unexpected Vanilla. ‘Sister, we must be a cleverly split person,’ says the speaker of ‘Cupboard with Strawberry Jam’ according to my year-old translation in Words Without Borders. This playful observation likely borrows from the theory of soulmates passed down from Aristophanes to Hedwig and the Angry Inch: humans were once all two-faced, four-legged, etc. until a vengeful Zeus ordered them to be severed, leaving them forever in search of their other halves. Except Lee Hyemi’s choice of words is much less violent and feels to me like the lovers are somehow tricking the system for a sensual treat of their own. Above all else, I was pleasantly surprised by the direct address to Unni and wanted no ambiguity as to the shared gender of the speaker and her beloved. I was a little worried about the incestuous implication, but I figured people would get it.
At a reading, I was asked why I translated Unni as ‘Sister’ by a friend wearing a t-shirt we got for free at 6 a.m. the day after Pride. My friend added that ‘Unni’ is a special word for Korean sapphics, with sexual connotations. Since I’ve never dated an older Korean woman, I made a Twitter poll: ‘Dear sapphics: Is there a sexual connotation to the word Unni?’
There could be 51%
Cutting-edge research aside, my friend’s comment stayed in the back of my mind for months. Then, just before sending in my final draft of Unexpected Vanilla, I changed ‘Sister’ to ‘Unni.’ Readers might register Unni as a name, and that’ll be fine – as long as they don’t reach to find a heterosexual explanation for two girls in bed with a ‘sweet stickiness’ on their fingers.
I get called Unni when they want to sell me something, another friend says. Even by older men. They’ll call after me on the street, Unni! Unni! Try this!
In Choi Jin-young’s 2017 novel To the Warm Horizon, a recently orphaned pair of sisters flee Korea from Incheon Harbor and rob their way from Qingdao to Ulan-Ude in a post-pandemic apocalypse. (It’s no COVID-19, or maybe we just haven’t entered the Horizon stage… This is exactly what I tried not to think about while revising my translation under shelter in place.) Dori, the unni, is always on guard to protect her younger sister from the rest of the world. She surprises herself by falling for Jina, a stranger on the road, but this is exactly what she needs to feel whole again.
Jina and Dori, both in their twenties, call each other by name. Who they call Unni is Ryu, a 40-something Korean mother who spares them canned food (and does a few other things I can’t share without spoiling the book!) somewhere in Russia. The way Ryu transforms from ‘the woman’ to ‘Unni’ in Dori’s eyes shows the significance of these strangers coming across one another and learning to trust again at the end of the world. While calling an older acquaintance Unni may be customary in present-day South Korea, it feels very special coming from characters who previously had no one but their biological kin with whom to speak their language. The development of this kinship feels just as hard-earned as the romance, and I really wanted to highlight that shift in the language I used.
There’s also a teenage boy who calls Jina ‘Noona’ in accordance with the socially prescribed rules of gendered honorifics. He doesn’t call her Unni, though both mean older sister. Given the unfamiliarity of these words and their differences, I chose to unify Unni and Noona as Sister in my translation.
In fact, Unni isn’t even a historically static term. A horse on Twitter says it ‘used to refer to any elder family member (or older close friend) in the same generation’ regardless of gender, and another source without a citation adds that this gender-neutral use of Unni was a part of the 1940s-50s Seoul dialect. Unni, Noona, and Oppa are ‘pure’ Korean words unlike Hyeong, which comes from the Chinese xiong, meaning older brother. Neither xiong nor ge specify the gender of the speaker, so it is unclear to me how Hyeong became a term exclusively used between men or why the three other gender-specific titles were created. Perhaps Hyeong was the borrowed term and Unni was invented as a Korean gender-neutral alternative before it turned femme4femme. According to an adamant blog post, Unni comes from combining eot (an archaic word that means ‘first’ and rhymes with ‘but’) with the affix ni. 엇+니 = 언니. First born. ‘Sister, elder sister dear | dark and smart as sesame cake,’ begins Seo Jeong-ju’s ‘Cute Rhymes’ translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, a Christian brother. The word Seo Jeong-ju used as a male poet in 1961 was Unni.
Regardless of how it has morphed over time, Unni can be misused in the here and now – whether it’s a cis woman not realizing someone is non-binary or a Korean man selling his goods to a younger white woman. The two are not the same, of course. How do we address the undeniable fact of our kin who are neither Unni nor Oppa? And doesn’t Unni still reinforce a hierarchical relationship based on age?
There are people who critique not only the gender binary of these honorific terms but the very familial metaphor for society that underpins their use. An elderly Korean woman, for example, can be called Grandma by virtually anyone. This is why the few living victims of the Imperial Japanese Army, the so-called ‘comfort women,’ are referred to as ‘Grandma Gil Won-ok’ or ‘Grandma Lee Yongsoo’ even in news articles.
A similar issue also came up in the third issue of chogwa, where four translators chose ‘old woman’ and three chose ‘grandmother’ to identify the person collecting trash in Kim Haeja’s poem. I find this interesting, but not worthy of debate. The topic of translating honorific titles has split every room I’ve ever been in, and the discussion remains a tug-of-war between should and should not. Aren’t there more interesting things to discuss? What works for a novel may not work for a single line in a poem, and vice versa.
The case I’m putting forth is that it’s truly case by case. But definitely spelled Unni. Maybe unni. Unni.
On a queer comedy advice show, performance artist and cult icon Ibanjiha teased us queers for trying so hard to make the world understand who we are, then offered two catch-all phrases for daily use.
‘Are you her unni?’ Something like that.
‘Are you a man?’ Sometimes!
It takes effort and courage to translate.
We know that, living outside language.
This is for us.
About So J. Lee
So J. Lee is the translator of Lee Hyemi’s Unexpected Vanilla (Tilted Axis Press, 2020), Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (Honford Star, 2021), and Lee Soho’s Catcalling (Open Letter Books, 2021). They also make chogwa, a quarterly e-zine featuring one Korean poem and multiple English translations. Find excerpts, essays, and more at smokingtigers.com/so-j-lee.
So J. Lee is Modern Poetry in Translation’s 2020 Writer in Residence.