Harvard University, April 18, 2006. Brother Anthony
Lost and Found in Translation: The Poetic Qualities of Korean Poetry
There are three Major Questions on our table today: What is a poem?
What makes a poem poetic? And can we translate that? Those are good
questions and, as such, cannot possibly be answered in just a few
minutes. As a first answer, we could try to collect and synthesize a
few quotations: “Poetry is the first thing lost in translation,” wrote
Robert Frost, though some claim that he wrote “Poetry is what gets lost
in translation”. “Poetry is what is gained in translation” wrote Joseph
Brodsky, who used to translate his own Russian poems into extraordinary
English. Octavio Paz said “poetry is what gets transformed,” which is
my own opinion, expressed in what follows . . .
Ezra Pound, in “How To Read,” describes three aspects of the language
of poetry: melopoeia, its music; phanopoeia, the imagistic quality; and
logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words.” It is this last
aspect that Pound says is the essence of poetry, and we need to reflect
on the possibility of its continuing to happen beyond translation. But
we must never forget two other famous quotations: “A poem should not
mean But be,” from Archibald MacLeish’s Ars Poetica (1926) and Auden’s
“Poetry makes nothing happen.” Once we have all that clear in our
minds, we can begin to think about what makes a poem poetic and how to
translate poetry, any poetry first of all. Specifically Korean poetry
might have to wait for a while. First, though, what is a poet?
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors
of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the
words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing
to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved
not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.
Those are the impressive words with which Percy
Bysshe Shelley ended the first (and only) part of his Defence of
Poetry. Earlier, he had anticipated the same theme by reference to the
Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which
they appeared were called in the earlier epochs of the world
legislators or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both
these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it
is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to
be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts
are the forms of the flower and the fruit of latest time.
What Shelley saw was the immensely serious, prophetic vocation of the
poet in society; what he failed to recall, it seems, is the
humiliation, suffering, rejection and inglorious fate suffered by most
of the Old Testament prophets, and not only those. The great writer
Osip Mandelstam once boasted that it was only in the Soviet Union that
“they really respect poetry—they kill because of it. More people die
for poetry here than anywhere else;” and we might wish to refer to
Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind (1953) in which he wrote: “In Central
and Eastern Europe, the word ‘poet’ has a somewhat different meaning
from what it has in the West. There a poet does not merely arrange
words in beautiful order. Tradition demands that he be a ‘bard,’ that
his songs linger on many lips, that he speak in his poems of subjects
of interest to all the citizens.” The poet as prophet, indeed.
However, a contemporary western “prophetic” poet, the British poet
Geoffrey Hill, has argued that there has long been in the West a
fundamentally flawed view of poetry, one first formulated by Schiller
in the words “The right art is that alone, which creates the highest
enjoyment.” We find ourselves brought back to the classical tension
between delight and instruction as the two poles of the writer’s art.
Matthew Arnold was persuaded by Schiller’s essentially “aesthetic
valuation” of the finality of poetry to omit from the 1853 edition of
his Poems his lyrical drama Empedocles on Etna on the grounds (stated
in the “Preface”) that the work deals with a situation “in which the
suffering finds no vent in action; . . . in which there is everything
to be endured, nothing to be done” and concluding that this was not “a
representation from which men can derive enjoyment.” It should
therefore not be republished.
Hill recalls how in 1936 W. B. Yeats, editing The
Oxford Book of Modern Verse: 1892-1935, excluded virtually all the
poets of the First World War and justified that by quoting Arnold’s
decision, which he expounded in his own words: “passive suffering is
not a theme for poetry.” W. H. Auden tried to supply an answer to that
in the second section of his elegy to Yeats, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper,
. . . it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Geoffrey Hill has written of this: “Auden perhaps meant to say that the
achieved work of art is its own sufficient act of witness. If that is
what he meant, I agree with him . . .” (254) Another way of situating
the poetic dilemma is offered by Auden elsewhere. I quote from the
literary critic Daniel Albright:
W. H. Auden, in his essay on Robert Frost, says that every poem exists
in a state of tense equilibrium between two competing tendencies, which
he calls Ariel and Prospero, the spirit of unearthly fantasy and the
spirit of unflinching truthfulness, fidelity to our actual miserable
state. Ariel, says Auden, presides over the realm of imagination, in
which images keep shifting and sliding effortlessly, beautifully, into
other images, but in which nothing serious can happen. Ariel, then, is
simply a disengaged, dispassionate, almost contentless creativity, an
imagination so engrossed in the continual play of images that it cannot
be bothered to attend to the real. (2)
This, surpisingly perhaps, is the point at which I
think we can begin to turn to the Korean poetic record. It is a
critical commonplace that, during the 20th century, Korea’s literary
community was for long decades divided between those who believed that
the poet’s only duty was to create beauty, Auden’s Ariel, and those who
argued that the poet, like all writers, has a duty to represent the
(mainly painful) reality experienced by society at large, Auden’s
Prospero. The role that Auden assigns to Ariel seems to coincide with
what is perhaps more commonly known as the “lyrical” and for most
people in South Korea, as elsewhere, it is the lyrical that consitutes
the essentially “poetic” quality in a poem. Let us not forget how often
Yeats was asked to recite “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” decades after
he had grown disgusted with its vacuous romanticism.
I was once present as interpreter at a lunch in
Seoul, where a Nobel-prize winning American scientist met Sŏ Chŏng-ju,
having been deeply impressed by David McCann’s translations and
demanded that such an occasion be set up during a visit to Korea. It
was a long time time ago now, but I seem to recall that it was a rather
difficult meal because in the event they had virtually nothing to say
to each other. Finally, over coffee, the Great Korean Poet was
persuaded to recite his most celebrated poem, the one about
chrysanthemums, which he did in rather a rush with no real feeling at
all. Everyone clapped enthusiastically, and left after photographs had
been taken. Here is my own rendering of the poem:
Beside a chrysanthemum
For one chrysanthemum to bloom
must have wept like that since spring.
For one chrysanthemum to bloom
must have rolled like that in sombre clouds
Chrysanthemum! You look like my sister
standing before her mirror, just back
from far away, far away byways of youth,
where she was racked with longing and lack.
For your yellow petals to bloom
the frost must have come down like that last night
and I was not able to get to sleep.
It is not, I think, entirely my fault if the
extraordinary qualities that Korean readers and critics have perceived
in this poem seem to have got lost on the way across. This only serves
to indicate one of the greatest problems translators of poetry face. In
Korea, famous poems by famous poets are quite often assumed by Korean
enthusiasts to be Great Poems, endowed with such an absolute poetic
quality that nothing can be lost in translation, almost any
translation. Students sometimes bring their own rather rough English
versions of these poems to show their foreign teachers, and seem
surprised by a less than ecstatic response. In Korea, famous poems and
famous poets have largely been created by the writers of school
text-books, where they were included. Such poems have to satisfy
certain criteria: they have to be quite short and they have to be quite
simple. That is not a problem, William Blake’s “Tyger” and Wordsworth’s
“Daffodils” are not long or difficult. You learn the poem at school,
and you learn the accepted response to it, too.
I have written an article in which I translate Kim So-Wol’s “Azaleas”
in multiple ways, to illustrate how impossible it is to bring across in
a translation the reputation or the associated resonances attached to a
poem in its original context. I will only quote one of those versions
today, and not the most respectful version, either:
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
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!
This is, you will rightly say, a parody, and my main point has to do
with reception theory. I think that no self-respecting “western” poets
today would write such a poem in a completely straight, serious tone.
There almost has to be some degree of detachment, irony, or
self-mockery. In addition, we need to remember that the “poetic”
quality of a poem does not exist in itself so much as in the responses
it provokes in its readers. And the translated poem does not exist in
any prior context, can produce no automatic responses. To make matters
worse, we in the West are in a culture deeply marked by skepticism, the
British far more than the American, perhaps. Many people, on being told
that a given poem is much-admired in its home culture, will
automatically incline to question its reputation before ever hearing
it. Immigration controls have been tightened, poetry too needs visas.
We translators not only have to create the translated poem, we also are
obliged to do what we can to arouse a response to it, any response
being better than the yawn of indifference or the smug grin of
condescension. The reputation attached to any translated poem’s
original evaporates; that, I would say, is the aspect of poetry that
first gets lost in translation.
In order to remedy this perceived loss, and promote sales, too,
publishers sometimes take literal prose translations of foreign poetry
and entrust them to a famous poet of the target language. The famous
poet does whatever magical things she or he finds suggestive to the
given texts, without further reference to the original, then the result
is published with the famous person’s name on the cover as
“translator,” in tribute to Ezra Pound who rather made this approach
popular. This tends to be termed “turning translations into poetry” but
the question is “whose poems are they now?” They are certainly marketed
under the famous poet’s name, because the original poet’s name is not
famous enough or glamorous enough to sell well. Koreans who can read
classical Chinese often get angry with Ezra Pound for his
“mistranslations” of Chinese poetry and at western critics for their
ignorance in not denouncing him; Old English scholars have done the
same for his “Seafarer,” and for Seamus Heaney’s “Beowulf” but such
complaints fail to recognize the status the “mistranslated” poem claims
as a new creation by its new poet.
Now what sounds poetic in Korean or in English may not sound so poetic
when the words on the page are accurately translated into English or
Korean. Quite often, the result is a riddle, something almost
incomprehensible. There comes a moment when we are all tempted to do
some Ezra-Pounding, jazzing up our translated versions a bit to give
them a chance on the poetry market. But I do sometimes wonder if this
is not a bit like the work of the beauticians at funeral parlors,
putting a touch of color into the cheeks of a corpse, livening it up a
bit? I just hope not. There is a poetry in plainness, as George Herbert
might have said. I believe that what is going to be marketed as a poem
“translated from the Korean” by someone who is not in the Ezra Pound
league ought to be kept very firmly handcuffed to its original. It
ought, I think, to come with a no-liberties-taken guarantee. It may not
be the same poem, it should at least transmit faithfully what the
original poem said.
Still, I am very glad that in Korea, Ku Sang, Chŏn Sang-Pyŏng and Kim
Kwang-Kyu (and others, too) have all consciously chosen to avoid
anything that tends toward the highly “poetic” in their writing. For,
as already seen, we must not think that a translated poem can retain
the “poetic” qualities admired in its original. The translated poem
will have to acquire its own reputation by those of its qualities that
can survive the radical transplanting known as “translation.” It is, in
any case, not sure that today’s American or British readers of poetry,
when we can find them, are much impressed by high flights of lyricism,
or bewildering meshes of mystifying imagery. Yet I have heard people
respond warmly to words that are less eager to puzzle and are still
recognizably poetry. “Close translation” is a rewarding strategy, as I
hope the following examples will show
Shin Kyŏng-Nim: A Reed
For some time past, a reed had been
quietly weeping inwardly.
Then finally, one evening, the reed
realized it was trembling all over.
It wasn't the wind or the moon.
The reed was utterly unaware that it was its own
quiet inward weeping that was making it tremble.
It was unaware
that being alive is a matter
of that kind of quiet inward weeping.
Ku Sang: Midday Prayer
Take away this darkling veil that lies between myself and space.
Take away from off the earth all boundary lines, all fences and all walls.
Take away all human hatred, greed, and all discrimination.
Take away surrender and despair, both mine and theirs.
Restore again to me the gift of wonder, tears and prayer.
Restore again the dreams and loves of all the dead.
Restore again the hurts that human hands inflict on Nature.
And grant words to that rock, a face to this breeze,
and oh, to me grant to live eternally as a radiancy of purity.
Ko Un: The Ditch
Go and look in the drainage ditch.
The water there is so friendly, you say,
like an old lady.
Like a matronly lady
who’s weathered her fair share of hardships.
Well, it’s all lies!
Chaenam’s little maid,
running errands along that far-off ditch,
fell in and drowned.
A child without a name,
All the time everywhere her master’s eye watching,
she had no place to cry alone,
that child could never properly cry.
Go and look in the ditch.
It’s like that child.
The water that drowned that child
is like that child.
Mah Chonggi: Deathbed
When the light goes out in the westward sickroom,
the dark shadow of winter
passes beyond the low hills
and the chill bricks of the autopsy room
ring to the sound of a skull being sawed,
it’s no finale.
I first learned about
natural life in anatomy class.
That’s when the cold came.
On my lonely, youthful bed
I often found myself sentenced to death.
The dazzling vertigo of the remaining hours.
Don’t you see? The solitary deathbed
of the tall guy who gave up.
Don’t you see? This is no finale.
I believe that we do well to stress the Koreanness
of our translated Korean poetry, but that is not something that can be
done by artificial tricks of sound, rhythm or “Konglish” vocabulary. I
mean that we should not pretend that these poems have arisen in the
same kind of social milieu and literary or political context as poems
that arise in our western culture. The Korean poet speaks out of a
recent history, as well as in a language, that are vastly different to
ours here or in Europe. The poems we have translated often need ample
introductions as well as occasional footnotes. To illustrate this, I
will read my translation of the Korean poem I am happiest to have
translated, without any prior introduction:
Chŏn Sang-Pyŏng: Back to Heaven
I'll go back to heaven again.
Hand in hand with the dew
that melts at a touch of the dawning day,
I'll go back to heaven again.
With the dusk, together, just we two,
at a sign from a cloud after playing on the slopes
I'll go back to heaven again.
At the end of my outing to this beautiful world
I'll go back and say: That was beautiful. . . .
I believe that this poem can be validly experienced in that naked way,
but I feel certain that the poem comes alive far more deeply for most
people if I introduce it by explaining that the poet was a childlike
man of intense sensitivity, unable to hold a job and helped by gifts
from many friends, knowing that some of those friends had visited the
North Korean embassy in East Berlin but refusing to report them to the
authorities, himself then arrested and tortured by agents of a dictator
who kept his power by maintaining a virulent anti-North-Korean frenzy.
His health ruined after months of ill-treatment in prison, homeless and
penniless, Chŏn Sang-Pyŏng thought he was dying when he wrote that poem
in 1970, aged only 40. To want to die saying of life “That was
beautiful” without irony in such circumstances is, to me, a very
beautiful thing indeed. Even in English translation.
Korean poetry is certainly different from
English-language poetry in words, grammar, sounds, rhythms, poetic
effects, conventions, contents, expectations and quite a lot else. But
we might still want to recall what Wordsworth said a poet was: “He is a
man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively
sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater
knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are
supposed to be common among mankind;” and we can all correct his “man”
into something more universal. Why I translate Korean poetry into
English has to do with that. I want to enable Koreans who are poets to
speak to people elsewhere for whom learning Korean in not an option.
Today, here, the “human speaking to humans” is called Kim Kwang-Kyu.
His poetry has more to do with Prospero than with Ariel, and that is
good because I believe that Prospero with his books can sometimes be
translated so that he speaks poetry in another language, while Ariel
with his magically beautiful but disembodied music remains ever
frustratingly out of reach, floating somewhere beyond our grasp. His
poetic history is particularly interesting because he first developed
his poetic voice by translating German poetry, works by Heinrich Heine
and Günter Eich, before ever beginning to write his own poems in
Although he is only a couple of years younger than his two friends, the
poets Hwang Dong-Kyu and Mah Chonggi, Kim Kwang-Kyu did not begin to
publish his own poetry until 1975, fifteen years after them. Owing
virtually nothing to previous Korean poetic models, consciously turning
its back on them, his work enjoyed immediate popularity as a model for
a new poetics for the new age that began in fact with the assassination
of Park Chung-Hee and grew to maturity during the dictatorships of the
1980s. For the first time, a poetic voice characterized by satirical
humor was able to speak out, pointing its dart at the evils of
dictatorship and the follies of everyday life in the modern city in
subtle, understated ways.
It is significant that Kim Kwang-Kyu’s first volume of poetry has the
publication date October 20 1979 on its copyright page. Less than a
week later, on October 26, the life of the dictator Park Chung-hee was
brought to a sudden, violent end. As a result of that liberating event,
his book was more actively restricted and repressed by censorship in
the ensuing security clampdown than it might otherwise have been. But
at the same time, that only served to give it fuller credentials as a
work of major resistance, and in the years that followed some of his
earliest poems became great classics in the struggle against
dictatorship precisely because the dictatorship was too stupid to
realize what they were about.
Kim Kwang-Kyu is not much interested in celebrating directly the
beauties of nature, in part at least because he is too acutely aware of
the way human pollution has ruined the beauties of nature. He is one of
the very first Koreans to express alarm over looming ecological
disaster. The voice of his best poems is often one that inspires a
sardonic smile, and it is tempting to recognize in it a “prophetic”
voice, for Kim Kwang-Kyu never speaks to draw attention to himself, but
rather to raise questions about the way life is lived, or not lived, in
today’s world. In that, he is intensely altruistic. Kim Kwang-Kyu is
still almost unique among Korean poets. He writes about topics that
should make us want to weep in a voice that makes us smile. Lyrical
humor? True poetry, anyway.