Cross-cultural Communication : Translating Ko Un


By Brother Anthony (An Sonjae)

Sogang University, Seoul


A paper presented at Pusan National University, Fall 2000


Works of literature are, presumably, always written as exercises in communication; yet the communication is always more or less limited. The words a writer uses and the attitudes to life a work expresses may already raise barriers to communication with readers in the writer's own land and culture. More obviously, the diversity of languages means that people will have little or no access to works written elsewhere in the world unless a translator intervenes. Speaking as a literary translator, I want to outline some individual responses of Americans to the poet Ko Un,  and some of the problems and pleasures that I think non-Korean readers may find in approaching his works. I am not sure where this will bring us, but I hope that it will be an interesting journey.


Ko Un was born in 1933, which means that today he is nearer 70 than 60. Yet he is full of energy and publishes several new books every year. He is surely Korea's most prolific writer and he  himself cannot say for sure how many books he has published in all. He guesses that it must be about 120, volumes of many different kinds of poetry, epic, narrative, and lyric, as well as novels, plays, essays, and translations from classical Chinese.

In recent years he has made journeys to many parts of the world, including Australia, the Netherlands, Mexico... He returned early this year (2000) from a year spent in the United States, in the course of which he lectured regularly on Korean literature at Harvard and Stanford Universities, and gave dozens of other lectures and readings of his own work all over the country. He reckons he made nearly 50 flights during the year, crisscrossing the United States and Canada in all directions. His audiences were composed of  people from many American ethnic groups. He was also able to spend time with many of North America's most important poets, including Robert Hass, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder...

He made a deep impression wherever he went, especially when he was reading his poems in the husky, tense, dramatic manner he favors. It seemed to make little or no difference that most of his audience could not understand a word he was saying. He speaks little or no English but time after time a deep communication was established before anyone read an English translation or summary or translation of what he had been saying. After the drama of his own performance, the translations usually sounded rather flat, I fear.

Ko Un's ability to communicate beyond language is a gift that other Korean writers can only envy him for. There are some people who do not seem to need words in order to communicate, it is part of their charisma. By contrast, it is sometimes almost impossible for people who speak the same language and know each other very well indeed to establish any kind of meaningful communication, as parents and teen-aged children regularly discover. There are many barriers to communication and many are the arts by which people have tried to overcome them. In the case of Ko Un, who cannot be every day giving readings, there is an urgent need to make translations of his work available. In bringing Ko Un's writings to a world audience, I am acting  to make cross-cultural communication possible in one particular case.


Since many, even in Korea, are not familiar with Ko Un's life story, it may be good to begin with a summary of it, since that in turn may help to pinpoint some of the difficulties we encounter in translating his writings. He was born in 1933 and grew up in Kunsan, a town on the west coast of North Cholla Province. Echoes of his childhood experiences in the Korea of the1930s and 1940s can be found in the earlier volumes of the great series known as Maninbo, of which 15 volumes have so far appeared. The traditional life of the farming villages, the intense awareness of extended family relationships, the poverty and the high level of infant mortality all make this a world far removed even from modern Korea, and very unfamiliar to non-Korean readers. Readers are expected to know that when Ko Un was a child, Korea was under Japanese rule, anjd to know what that signifies for Koreans still today.

In 1950, war broke out and Ko Un was caught up in almost unimaginably painful situations, which were in strong contradiction with the warm human community he had grown up in, as Koreans slaughtered each other mercilessly. As a child, Ko Un had been something of a prodigy, learning classical Chinese at an early age with great facility, and encountering the world of poetry in 1945 through the chance discovery of a book of poems written by a famous leper-poet. His sensitivity was not that of an ordinary 18-year-old and he experienced a deep crisis when confronted with the reality of human wickedness and cruelty.

This might have destroyed him completely but instead he took the step, which many may find hard to understand, of becoming a Buddhist monk, leaving the world at a time when the world was a very ugly place. His great intellectual skills meant that he rapidly became known and was given important positions but more important to Ko Un were his experience of life on the road as he accompanied his master, the famous monk Hyobong, on endless journeys around the ravaged country.

Ko Un's character is intense, uncompromising, he is easily driven to emotional extremes and he soon began to react against what he felt was the excessively formal religiosity of many monks. The reader of his work has therefore to follow him through shadows cast by intense despair. He felt obliged to stop living as a monk and in 1960 he became a teacher in Cheju Island. For ten years he lived as a bohemian nihilist while Korea was brought toward its modern industrial development under the increasingly fierce dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. The climax came in 1970 when Ko Un went up into the hills behind Seoul and drank poison. He should have died but was found and brought down to hospital.

His life was saved at the opportune moment, for the declaration of the Yushin reforms in 1972, by which Park Chung-hee became president for life and abolished all democratic institutions, sparked strong protests among writers and intellectuals as well as among the students who have always acted as Korea's conscience. In the years of demonstrations that followed, Ko Un's voice rang out and he became the recognized spokesman of the 'dissident' artists and writers opposed to the Park regime. He was often arrested and is today hard of hearing from beatings he received then.

When Chun Doo-hwan rose to power in 1980, Ko Un was arrested along with Kim Dae-jung and many of Korea's major 'dissidents' and he spent months in prison. It was there, as he faced the possibility of arbitrary execution, that he formed the project of writing poems in commemoration or celebration of every person he had ever encountered. No one, he reckoned, should ever be simply forgotten, since every life has immense value and is equally precious as historical record. This was the origin of the poems in the Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) series. Soon after he was freed he married and in 1985 a daughter was born. He went to live in Ansong, two hours from Seoul. He began a new life as a householder, husband, and father, while continuing to play a leading role in the struggle for democracy and for a socially committed literature.

There are people who say that a poet's life has nothing to do with the poems he or she writes but that is hardly tenable. It is a theory that considers poetry uniquely from a formal standpoint and excludes every aspect of personal, social, or historical context. Every word Ko Un writes is rooted in and informed by the experience of life I have just outlined. It is inconceivable that a man with such a life-story should not write poems deeply marked by it. He has a very intense sense of history, and of his writing as a mirror of Korean history.

On the other hand, his life story cannot tell us anything about the quality of Ko Un's writing. He has always been such a controversial figure, from the moment his first book of poems was published and he renounced his life as a Buddhist monk, that in Korea evaluation of his work  cannot be separated from responses to his life and social options. In particular, the Korean literary establishment has for a long time been divided about the general question of the social responsibilities of the writer. Many noted writers avoided trouble under dictatorship by refraining from commenting on social issues, writing poetry of intense self-centeredness, private ponderings full of abstruse symbolism, uniquely concerned with cultivating aesthetic dimensions.

Ko Un and many others chose not to follow them but instead defied censorship to write and speak out. For many years Ko Un could not get a passport. He was blacklisted as a dangerously subversive dissident. Because the military regimes claimed to represent true Korean democracy, any one who criticized them was by definition taking sides with the Communist enemy in the North! Older literary critics are often still unwilling to admit the value or interest of Ko Un's writing. They have grown up with fixed ideas about what constitutes literary excellence and he does not fit in.

The topic of this paper is one I have explored in various ways in other papers and it can perhaps best be encapsuled in a question: What meaning can modern Korean literature have for people who have not experienced Korean history?  Within any literary work we find not only the writer but also an implied audience. A Korean writer is not, usually, consciously writing for a uniquely Korean readership, but writers inevitably assume a certain shared level of experience in their readers. This is reflected, most obviously, in the many things that are taken for granted, that are not explained or mentioned explicitly.

The most familiar example of the difficulty that arises is the question of the division of Korea. A vast quantity of prose and poetry has been written in Korea on the theme of 'division' and such writings are a recognized category of modern Korean literature. The pain of the violent separation of families, the exclusion from the land of their birth of the millions who fled southward before and during the Korean war, the resulting sense of alienation from full national identity and the paralysis of vital aspects of Korean history, as well as the resulting lop-sided cultural changes related to industrialization and westernization in the south... all these topics and the related pain need no explanation in Korea, but they are a life-experience that is hardly conceivable to someone who has never left the peace of, say, rural Vermont or of Kyoto.

Ko Un's poetry is not, usually, overtly political. He is not an explicitly protesting poet, as others have been. Neither is he a 'worker poet' like Park No-hae. Almost the only poems that directly refer to political events are those few he wrote after the massacres in Kwangju in 1980. But that only makes the question more complex. Why, people might ask, does he write as he does? Why are there so few directly "social" poems and so many really rather difficult ones?

The answer would probably have to be the obvious one : because that's the kind of poet (or writer) Ko Un is. Take it or leave it. And that is the kind of writing that I have been trying to translate into English for the past ten years or so, having chosen to take it rather than leave it. I always work in tandem with Professor Kim Young-Moo of Seoul National University, so in what follows I will often refer to 'we' since this is a shared project.

First, we published in 1993 in the Cornell East Asia Series, a selection taken from all the poems Ko Un had published before 1990, The Sound of my Waves. Then we published with Parallax Press (Berkeley) a volume of 108 Zen Poems to which the publishers gave the title Beyond Self. In the meantime we had translated Ko Un's Buddhist novel, Hwaom-kyong. It has not yet been published. In the following years we prepared translations of 180 poems taken from the first 10 volumes of the Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) series. They, too, are still unpublished. At the moment we are completing the translation of a selection of poems from the volumes Ko Un has published since 1990.


I have already said that Ko Un is becoming a well-known literary figure in the United States, as well as elsewhere, thanks to his visits and the direct impact of his presence. Yet he cannot express himself directly in English and must always depend on an interpreter, except for the communication that passes directly, without words, by intuition and mutual sympathy. In any case, his poetry is written in Korean and must be translated. How to translate it is our great challenge. Once it has been translated, it has to be read and appreciated. That is where cross-cultural communication occurs.

I have implied that a major obstacle to reading Korean poetry lies in the very particular historical context in which it originates and to which it relates in often indirect ways. Yet on reflection, I do not believe that that is such a very great problem. Even non-Koreans seem able to understand the poem in which Ko Un tells of his childhood ambition to be emperor of Japan.


Headmaster Abe


Headmaster Abe Sudomu, from Japan:

a fearsome man, with his round glasses,

fiery-hot like hottest red peppers.

When he came walking clip-clop down the hallway

with the clacking sound of his slippers

cut out of a pair of old boots,

he cast a deathly hush over every class.

In my second year during ethics class

he asked us what we hoped to become in the future.

Kids replied:

I want to be a general in the Imperial Army!

I want to become an admiral!

I want to become another Yamamoto Isoroko!

I want to become a nursing orderly!

I want to become a mechanic in a plane factory

and make planes

to defeat the American and British devils!

Then Headmaster Abe asked me to reply.

I leaped to my feet:

I want to become the Emperor!

Those words were no sooner spoken

than a thunderbolt fell from the blue above:

You have formally blasphemed the venerable name

of his Imperial Majesty. You are expelled this instant!

On hearing that, I collapsed into my seat.

But the form-master pleaded,

my father put on clean clothes and came and pleaded,

and by the skin of my teeth, instead of expulsion,

I was punished by being sent to spend a few months

sorting through a stack of rotten barley

that stood in the school grounds,

separating out the still useable grains.

I was imprisoned every day in a stench of decay

and there, under scorching sun and in beating rain,

I realized I was all alone in the world.


Soon after those three months of punishment were over,

during ethics class Headmaster Abe said:

We're winning, we're winning, we're winning!

Once the great Japanese army has won the war, in the future

you peninsula people will go to Manchuria, go to China,

and take important positions in government offices!

That's what he said.

Then a B-29 appeared,

and as the silver 4-engined plane passed overhead

our Headmaster cried out in a big voice:

They're devils! That's the enemy! he cried fearlessly.

But his shoulders drooped.

His shout died away into a solitary mutter.

August 15 came. Liberation.

He left for Japan in tears.


Such a story is not so hard to understand, the poems of Ten Thousand Lives are probably the easiest for non-Korean readers. The main level of cultural difficulty in them are the references to aspects of traditional Korean life unfamiliar in other cultures, the sliding fretwork doors, the hot floors, the kimch'i and makkolli, the red pepper paste and the names of people. A matter for footnotes and intuition, not more. Robert Hass, the former American Poet Laureate, wrote of the Ten Thousand Lives poems in the Washington Post: "they are remarkably rich. Anecdotal, demotic, full of the details of people's lives, they're not like anything else I've come across in Korean poetry." (Washington Post, "The Poet's Voice" Sunday, January 4, 1998)

They are not like anything else in Ko Un's poetry, either. The selected poems translated in The Sound of my Waves are arranged in chronological order, and some of the early poems are of a much more challenging kind :


Spring rain 


On your sleeping silence, wave,

spring rain falls and dies.

The night dark in the water may soar up

but by the spring rain on your sleeping water


far away by that rain's power

far away rocks are turned to spring.

Above this water where we two lie sleeping

a rocky mass looms, all silence.

But still the spring rain falls and dies.


With poems like this, the most important quality demanded of the reader is a familiarity with modern poetry, a readiness to allow images to work without a given framework by which to interpret them. Ko Un's early work is closer to the general run of modern Korean poetry in that respect, with a strong note of melancholy and a fondness for puzzling riddles. The poetic effect is often dependant on the use of unexpected words and images, or seemingly irrational relations.

Read in  chronological sequence, the evolution of certain themes and characteristics of Ko Un's work soon becomes clear, and as Ruth Welte wrote recently: "The political poems seem richer in meaning if the reader has a knowledge of Korea's difficult modern history, but each poem also stands alone as  statement on the movements of political systems and the damages that they can cause. Ko Un's poems grow gradually more political but retain their deep stillness. Even the most politically specific poems have a timeless feel." (The Chicago Maroon, November 9, 1999). One of the most famous of Ko Un's "political poems" is "Arrows" :


Transformed into arrows

let's all go, body and soul!

Piercing the air

let's go, body and soul,

with no way of return,

transfixed there,

rotting with the pain of striking home,

never to return.


One last breath! Now, let's quit the string,

throwing away like rags

all we've had for decades

all we've enjoyed for decades

all we've piled up for decades,


the lot.

Transformed into arrows

let's all go, body and soul!


The air is shouting! Piercing the air

let's go, body and soul!

In dark daylight the target is rushing towards us.

Finally, as the target topples

in a shower of blood,

let's all just once as arrows



Never to return!

Never to return!


Hail, arrows, our nation's arrows!

Hail, Warriors! Spirits of the fallen!


Recent Korean history has been blood-stained and the memory of those who have died for freedom, democracy, and reunification is regularly celebrated. Yet theirs' is in some ways an ambiguous martyrdom, it would have been so much better if they had not died, so young. Ko Un's poem expresses the feelings of many who took part in the demonstrations of the 1970s and 1980s at which it was often read. It may not communicate so well with people living in non-heroic situations of established democracy, although they ought to realize that there are many struggles demanding of them a similar level of commitment, sacrifice, and hope. Often they do not realize it and need Ko Un's voice to wake them up.

While he was a monk, Ko Un underwent training in what the English language calls Zen, following the Japanese. In fact he plunged into the most demanding and potentially dangerous form of Zen with such abandon that it caused him a severe psychic trauma. In any case, Ko Un is deeply influenced by the challenge to normal rational discourse and logic that is found in the Zen use of language. A certain kind of Zen aestheticism is familiar to many today in America and Europe, again mostly identified with things Japanese. Korean monastic Zen is altogether a tougher thing, I would say, and Ko Un's Zen poems are surely far more challenging than anything else he wrote, both to translate and to read.

In 1991, Allen Ginsberg was in Seoul for a rather boringly official poetry conference. He escaped one evening and was brought to a secret location where Ko Un and he were supposed to meet and give a joint reading to a select audience. A famous Anglican priest had visited North Korea and had been sentenced to prison on his return. It was then, as usual, a fraught time in Korean politics and I am told that Ko Un, filled with a passion for the reunification of Korea, read and spoke at such length that Allen Ginsberg was quite forgotten about, sitting silent in his corner. I was therefore rather relieved when Allen Ginsberg accepted to write a magnificent Preface to our translations of Ko Un's Zen poems, only published after his death. Again, the personal encounter and Ko Un's charisma clearly made a great difference.

Even Ginsberg, very familiar with the Zen tradition, had to struggle with the poems of a collection which have the simple Korean title Muonya? "What's that?" -- the essential Zen challenge to any idea that you know anything about anything. Translating them was a challenge too, like writing a Buddhist sutra on a grain of rice. Most of the poems are only a few words long and highly elusive. As Ginsberg wrote: "I can't account for them, only half understand their implications and am attracted by the nubbin of poetry they represent. Hard nuts to crack -- yet many seem immediately nutty & empty at the same time: "before your mom / your burbling / was there" i.e. Chortling you had before you were born."  Ginsberg was a great man, and it is very moving to see how deeply he appreciated Ko Un's work : "Ko Un is a magnificent poet, combination of Buddhist cognoscenti, passionate political libertarian, and naturalist historian. This little book of Son (Zen) poems gives a glimpse of the severe humorous discipline beneath the prolific variety of his forms & subjects."

I believe that the Zen poems, Beyond Self was the title the publishers gave it, sold several thousand copies in the first month. Yet they require the reader to let go of virtually everything :


A single word


Too late.


The world had already heard

my word

before I spoke it.

The worm had heard.

The worm dribbled a cry.





The sightless sunflower follows the sun.

The sightless moonflower blossoms in moonlight.


That's all they know.

Dragonflies fly by day

beetles by night.



A shooting star


Wow! You recognized me.



An autumn night





A cricket sings.


Ko Un seems to be a "poets' poet." Reading the Zen poems, Gary Snyder responded with a poem of his own:


Not just holding his Zen insights

And their miraculous workings tight to himself,

Not holding back to mystify,

Playful and demotic,

Zen silly, real-life deep,

And a real-world poet!

Ko Un outfoxes the Old Master and the Young poets both!


Tributes like that are the greatest reward a translator can receive. It means that communication has happened, and that the readers felt confident they were reading what the poet had written and wanted them to read.  A lot is written today about the act of translation and the position of the translator, but certainly, as far as poetry translation goes, the translators should leave as little sign of their work as possible. The poet must speak, not they.

Part of the effectiveness of Ko Un's Zen poems in English translation must be attributed to a third member to our team of translators. Effective translations of Korean poetry into English are rare because there are few translators who are writers (or even readers) of contemporary English poetry. It constitutes a serious limitation. We have been fortunate in finding an American poet and writer, Gary Gach, who is willing to go through our versions of Ko Un's poems, point out places where the translations fail to communicate,  and make suggestions for improvement.

This negotiation between "literal" translation and "poetic" translation is an extremely delicate one. George Steiner  quotes Dryden's definition of  "to paraphrase": "to produce the text which the foreign poet would have written had he been composing in one's own tongue". (After Babel p.351) All theories of translation and communication derive from that. Other people are working at the same task to bring Ko Un's work to readers in French and Spanish; when he goes to Poland this autumn, translations of some of his most recent poems into Polish will be waiting for him there. They will be made from English versions we are now working on.

Ko Un has established his characteristic way of writing poetry, and the works from collections published in the 1990s that we are at present translating often show him transforming simple moments of everyday experience into poetry by a stroke of imagination, the irruption of an unexpected connection. This can be seen as a deliberate strategy of 'defamiliarization' which means that his readers can never know what will come next. His recent poems are longer than the Zen poems but far richer than the quite simple evocative narratives of the Ten Thousand Lives. An example, chosen at random, might be "One Apple":


For one month, two months, even three or four,

a man kept painting an apple.

He kept on painting


while the apple


dried up,

until you could no longer tell if it was an apple or what.


In the end those paintings were no longer

of an apple at all.

Not paintings of apples,


in the end those paintings were of shrivelled things,

good-for-nothing things,

that's all they were.


But the painter gained strength,

letting him know the world in which he lived;

he gained strength,

letting him realize that there were details

he could never paint.


He tossed his brush aside.

Darkness arrived,

ruthlessly trampling his paintings.


He took up his brush again,

to paint the darkness.

The apple was no more,

but starting from there

emerged paintings of what's-not-apple.


My intention in this presentation has been to suggest a few of the challenges that confront the translator of Korean literature, and the reader of his translations, and to point hopefully toward Ko Un as an example of the possibility of cross-cultural communication. With three more volumes still to be published, the Buddhist novel, the Ten Thousand Lives, and the recent poems, it is still to early to say that his work, his specific voice, is adequately represented abroad. A lot of work remains to be done before the world at large is ready to exclaim, "Ko Un? Ah yes, the Korean writer!" And only time can tell if the world will ever exclaim, "Ko Un? Ah yes, the great Korean writer!" We must wait and see.


Link to a page listing all my translations and articles.