Translating Korean Poetry
by Brother Anthony (An Sonjae)

This text was published in the review Modern Poetry in Translation Volume 13 (1998)

 It is quite difficult to describe the problems facing translators from languages such as Korean, which use a different system of writing and which are totally unlike English in structure as well as cultural context. From time to time articles are seen discussing the problems involved in translating Japanese; since Korean is very similar to Japanese as a poly- syllabic agglutinating language employing a huge number of Chinese loan-words, the difficulties sound familiar to us.

 Ever since Walter Benjamin pointed out that French pain and German Brot are not the same (besides, neither corresponds to sliced wholemeal from Marks), and probably well before that, it has been obvious that translation is an approximative science, or perhaps an ambivalent art. Translation is in some ways easier when working from a language like Korean, which has no articles and no consistent distinction between singulars and plurals, always puts the verb at the end, and does not necessarily give every verb a defined subject. At least we know what we are changing.

 In addition, Korean poetry is often rendered more "poetic" by the use of suspended clauses and broken grammatical structures. In order to give added semantic depth, recourse may be made to more or less recondite Chinese characters or to archaic or dialect vocabulary from the native language (which is not written in the Chinese ideogrammes but in a set of phonetic symbols invented in the 15th century). Much of the effect in certain highly acclaimed poets' works is due to their exploitation of vernacular idiom and the rhythms of language rooted in a not yet fully extinct rural oral culture. None of these elements can be adequately represented in translation.

 One of our great problems, naturally, is how to translate the vocabulary of a different culture: the pain/Brot problem. So many aspects of everyday life, assumed by the writers to be familiar to the readers, correspond to nothing outside of Korea. This is particularly a problem in the many works that depend for their effect on the immense difference between the traditional life-style of the village house in which most Koreans alive today grew up and the urban apartment in which they are now living. Evocations of the sunlight (or better, moonlight) falling on, or of the wind shaking, the paper covering the sliding fretwork window or door of the rooms cannot awaken fond memories in translation. Yet in the original they are not "exotic" but homely. Koreans translating Seamus Heaney's work find themselves confronting similar problems. Plants and tools are different, and we have no peat-bogs...

 The transition from the old rural culture to the modern urban one underlies a lot of modern Korean literature. Equally if not more challenging is the presence as hidden "subtext" of awareness and memories of the dramas of modern Korean history. The three million dead of the Korean War (1950-3) haunt the lines and there is no need to put '(1950-3)' when writing in Korean. Recent history is often simply referred to by figures: 419 (massacre of students by Syngman Rhee in April 1960), 518 (beginning of Kwangju uprising during Chon Doo-Hwan's coup in May 1980), 625 (invasion of the South by North Korea in June 1950),  and although a reference to November 11 may still suggest something in England, how are we to translate such things while avoiding a lengthy footnote? "May" is not "hawthorn" in Korea, it is massacre and military coup, demonstrations and martyrdom.

 Poetry is still a popular art in Korea, although poetry performances are virtually unknown. Go into the big bookstores and you will find dozens of schoolchildren avidly reading the latest poetry collections, some of which sell in thousands or more. There are upward of two thousand published poets alive in Korea today. Fiction too is pretty popular, with a recent trend towards multi-volume literary soap-operas, the largest of them now past its seventeenth volume.

 Naturally enough, the things that please the reading public here are not necessarily designed for a wider readership and although a lot of modern world literature is translated (not often very convincingly), it does not always find a wide degree of understanding.

 Modern Korean literature, as opposed to the traditional forms mostly imitating classical Chinese models, has barely a century of history. Korea was under severe Japanese oppression for almost half of that time, when the Korean language itself was often banned or under attack. As a result, writing poetry in Korean became a means of nationalistic resistance and the custom grew of seeing certain poems as icons of Korean identity. These works were not usually overt declarations of independence but indirect, evocations of themes and situations which might be read in various ways but recognized as essentially Korean. These poems were then taught to children, inscribed on stone, memorized by the whole population.

 To translate such a poem is almost inevitably an act of transgression, since the specific aura that brought it to its iconic status can never be reproduced. Kim So-Wol (1902-1935) was one of modern Korea's finest lyric poets, undoubtedly. Among his works is one that virtually every Korean feels unthinkingly patriotic about. A Korean who tries to translate Korean poetry into another language usually insists on tackling it first, in part because it is quite simple. It is Korea's most often (mis)translated poem. The poem's title is Chindallae-kkot (Azaleas) and if we transcribe the Korean sounds into English alphabet the first stanza goes:

 Nae po'gi'ga yok'kyo'wo
 mal'opsi ko'hi po'nae tu'ri'u'ri'da

This, keeping the word order and reproducing the whole poem, would correspond roughly to:

 Me seeing revolted
 word-without quietly send you-I-will.

 Yak-mountain in Yong'pyong
 azaleas (object)
 fill-arms you-will-go path-on spread-I-will.

 Going-you footsteps
 placed those flowers (object)
 lightly crunch tread go-please.

 Me seeing revolted
 die-I-even not tears shed-I-will.

 The speaker is conventionally thought to be a woman. In Korean tradition, women are seen as the bearers of suffering and they certainly have had to put up with an awful lot, usually at the hands of men, although the most often evoked tormentor of younger women is their mother-in-law. Usually Koreans read the poem as a pathetic but dignified "end-of-affair" speech and explain (or even translate) the last line as meaning the opposite to what it says. Although the grammatical forms indicate time- yet-to-come (no future tense in Korean), the poem is read as the report of a present parting.

 Any attempt to read it in a more nuanced way is liablt to be rejected with cries of outrage. Suggesting that there is a tension, that the disgust and departure are imagined as lying in the future in speech addressed to the man within a relationship strong enough for the very idea of parting to evoke incredulous smiles and provoke feelings of even greater closeness, is rejected as heresy and treason.

 What follows below is a "suite" of adaptations of the poem in the light of all this, moving progressively in the direction of iconoclasm. Needless to say, none claims to be a strictly literal translation. We ought perhaps to reflect more on the parodic nature of the translator's work as a whole.

 When seeing me sickens you
 and you walk out
 I'll send you off without a word, no fuss.

 Yongbyon's mount Yaksan's
 by the armful I'll scatter in your path.

 With parting steps
 on those strewn flowers
 treading lightly, go on, leave.

 When seeing me sickens you
 and you walk out
 why, I'd rather die than weep one tear.

With a little more freedom in the line count, iambically :

 When you go away at last,
 sickened with the sight of me,
 know that I shall let you go,
 saying nothing, make no fuss;

 but climbing high on Yongpyon's hills,
 there I'll pick azalea flowers,
 armfuls of purple, just to spread
 along the pathways as you go.

 Then go, with muffled parting steps
 trampling down those flowers you find
 strewn before your departing feet;

 and when you go away at last,
 sickened with the sight of me,
 know that for the life of me
 I'll not shed tears then, no, not one.

With rhyme:

 I know you'll leave me one fine day.
 You're sick of me, is what you'll say;
 dumb and numb, I'll send you on your way.

 Ahead of you I'll scatter showers
 great armfuls of azalea flowers
 from Yongbyon mountains' springtime bowers.

 And as you go, each step you make
 lightly on the flowers that break
 will echo as the leave you take.

 I know you'll leave me one fine day.
 You're sick of me, is what you'll say;
 but I'll not weep then, come what may.

In a more hearty mode:

 The day will come when you loathe me
 and leave me;
 Goodbye, that's all, it's over.

 I'll have them strew your road with
 from Yaksan in Yongbyon

 Then be off with you
 marching briskly
 over those withered petals.

 The day will come when you loathe me
 and leave me;
 you think I'll cry? Not on your life. I won't!

A melancholy song:

 When you say goodbye
 turn aside and walk away
 I'll say farewell
  and not ask you why.

 I'll gather flowers for love of you
 azaleas from some springtime hill
 and scatter them beneath your feet
  as you walk away.

 Then go
 crushing with your parting steps
 my humble offerings of flowers.

 When you say goodbye
 turn aside and walk away
 I tell you now that on that day
 I'll not shed a tear.

For most western readers, though, the tone surely needs to be made sharper and less exotic:

 One day you'll walk out on me, I know,
 saying you need a change of air;
 you hope I understand, you do so hate a fuss.

 I suppose you'd love to see me dancing
 somewhere out ahead of you,
 scattering azaleas in your path, perhaps?

 I can just see you there, prancing along
 squashing those poor flowers underfoot
 as you fade away into the sunset.

 Oh yes, you'll walk out one day, I know,
 saying you need a change of air;
 you think I'll mind? I won't, you know.

 An alternative exercise to this, one which is sometimes done in Korea, is to collect a number of translations made over the years by more or less reputed translators, Korean and foreign, put them side by side, and smile knowingly as you list the 'errors'. I believe that this sport ought to be called "translator-bashing". The immense difficulty (utter impossibility) of finding adequate "equivalents" for Korean words and structures leaves everything we do wide open to challenge.

 The final question concerns readers' response. Because Koreans care intensely about their literary heritage, and value famous works very highly, they are convinced that if someone makes a "good" translation of a work, every foreign reader will immediately respond to it as Koreans do. It is very hard indeed to convince them that perhaps American or British sensitivities may not be tuned to the same emotional (and nationalistic) wavelengths.

 In the end, the translator can only produce something that seems a fairly valid representation in another language of at least the surface sense of a Korean work and hope that readers in the outside world may hear some faint echo of beautiful tunes from a distant, tragically divided land.