Three Generations


Translated from by

Published: January 2005






An enjoyable and quite fast-moving big read.
—The Complete Review


One of the masterpieces of early modern Korean fiction.
—The Nation


The novel, filled with gossi and family intrigue as scandalous as any contemporary soap opera, reads deliciously like a Dostoevsky novel or Les liaisons dangereuses meets Korea’s traditional middle class.

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Book Description

Three Generations charts the tensions in the Jo family in 1930s Japanese-occupied Seoul. Yom’s keenly observant eye reveals family tensions with profound insight. Delving deeply into each character’s history and beliefs, he illuminates the diverse pressures and impulses driving each one. This Korean classic also brings forth the larger issues at hand, revealing Korea’s situation under Japanese rule, the traditional Korean familial structure, political movements of the 1930s (both national and international), and the battle between the modern and the traditional. Touted as one of Korea’s most important works of fiction, Three Generations gave birth to naturalism in Korean literature.

The novel, filled with gossi and family intrigue as scandalous as any contemporary soap opera, reads deliciously like a Dostoevsky novel or Les liaisons dangereuses meets Korea's traditional middle class.


Much of the tragedy of Korea's modern history stems from the fact that the country came under the colonial domination of Japan just as it was undergoing the transition from a feudal to a modern society. Yom's novel does a masterful job of portraying the complexities of this turbulent situation through the lives of three generations of the Jo family.

Michael D. Shin

Through the sorrowful lives of three generations of the Jo family, each caught between desire and social expectation, Three Generations chronicles the interior of the old Seoul way of life of the affluent in 1930s colonial Korea, under siege and about to disappear, just as The Makioka Sisters evokes the vanished bourgeois life of prewar Osaka.

JaHyun Kim Haboush

With deliberation, precision and quiet power, Yom dissects the relationships and traditions within a family wracked by the constraints of heritage and the impersonal crush of history shifting around it. Yet, Three Generations, mellifluously translated by Yu Young-nan, remains relentlessly intimate, exploring emotions and motives with an unsparing eye, an achievement that establishes Yom as one of the century's seminal novelists.

Edward A. Gargan

One of the masterpieces of early modern Korean fiction.

The Nation

Can you reach outside your own experience? If you do, you will be rewarded by a lusty soap-opera rife with drinking, brawling, infidelity, and wrangling over a rich man's will, despicable, familiar humanity that transcends any cultural divide. You will find yourself riveted, gasping at the plot twists and explaining urgently to your loved one the conspiracy this or that servant has entered into with a third wife to usurp an absent grandson's share of inheritance. While valuable to its originating nation as a document of the political and social times, the real meat of this novel is the timeless conflict and confluence among strong personalities born into differing social strata. When rendered with understanding and humor, as this is, it makes for a ripping read.


Vividly captures the cultural, moral, and political complexities of the Japanese colonial period through the urban microcosms of bars, stores, noodle shops, streets crowded with trolleys and rickshaws, and centuries-old mansions. His narrative voice [is] a delicate mix of social satire and psychological depth. . . . Continues to resonate some seventy years later.


An enjoyable and quite fast-moving big read.

The Complete Review

Author’s Awards:

1953 – Seoul Culture Award
1956 – Asia Freedom Literature Award
1957 – National Academy of Arts’ Contribution Award
1963 – March 1st Culture Award
1963 – Korean President’s Medal


Chi-Young Kim, the translator’s daughter, speaks about growing up as a daughter of an established translator:

She was always reading throughout my childhood, both to me and my sister and by herself, and reading was very important in our family. We went to the library all the time, checking out something like 15 to 20 books at a time—whatever the maximum was—and going back the next week to get new ones. Since we moved around a lot, reading was one way to keep up with my Korean and English. … I also read certain books both in Korean and English. When I was very young, I read Anne of Green Gables in Korean, and when I was older, I reread it in English; I did the same with Les Miserables. I only realized when I was much older, when I read Les Mis in English, that the main character’s name was Jean Valjean. Since it was 장발장 in Korean, I’d thought his name was Long-Haired Jean!

When I got older, [my mom and I] would sometimes talk about what she was translating, how she was handling certain passages, and I started to read her translations when I was in junior high and high school. So it never was a conscious decision to translate.  Honestly, when I was living in New York, working in publishing for pennies, I just decided to do it on the side to make a few extra bucks. Then I realized how much I enjoyed doing it, and the rest is history.

Now, we often talk about what we’re translating and pick each other’s brains about word choice, or flow or whatever. It’s invaluable because she has decades of experience and really good ideas on how to solve sticky issues that come up. Since my Korean isn’t as good as my English, and I’m not very good at reading Chinese characters, it’s very helpful to have her help when there is Chinese in the text, or if I am unsure of what a specific word should be translated as. Oh, and since I haven’t lived in Korea as an adult, there are so many things that I just don’t know about.  Like, I didn’t know that 처음처럼 (literal translation: “like the first time”) was the name of a soju, so I kept translating it in a weird way, until my mom sent me a picture of the soju bottle.