Impressions of Modern Korean Poetry in Translation

By | 8 April 2011

Since reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Inferno at the age of 15, and ‘discovering’ Baudelaire a couple of years later (translations by Francis Scarfe and Geoffrey Wagner), I have had a lifelong love of literature in translation, especially poetry. During the 1970s, a period coinciding with a boom in translation (such as Penguin’s Modern European Poets series), I found many of the poets who have since enriched me: Rilke, Cavafy, Pessoa, Celan, Akhmatova, Salinas, Lorca.

Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation, a statement undeniably almost true. The sounds are the most significant loss, followed by connotations/cultural associations, puns, rhymes and the like. But a skilled translator, frequently a poet himself/herself, can bring across much of the imagery, content and tone of the original. In the absence of being massively multi-lingual, it is the only way most of us are going to get any insight into, and derive enjoyment from the fascinatingly diverse poetries of non-Anglophone cultures (browse The Princeton Handbook of Multicultural Poetries for an inkling of this multiplicity).

My interest in Chinese and Japanese poetry grew in the 1980s (my own first book of poems, published in 1984, was called The Chinese Feast, reflecting my fascination with Chinese culture). Compared with Korean poetry, there is an avalanche of translations available of the Chinese and Japanese poets, and most poetry-readers would have some familiarity with Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Basho and others. But how many have heard of Hwang Jin Yi, Han Yong Un, Pak Mogwol, Ko Un, Kim Chiha? Fortunately, recent years have seen a huge interest in translating Korean poets, both classical and modern, and many highly respected translators are flourishing: Kevin O’Rourke, David McCann, Brother Anthony of Taize, Peter H. Lee, Richard Rutt, Clare and Richard Silberg, to name just a few.

The poetry of any great and long-lived culture such as Korea’s is a vast ocean of periods, styles, achievements. In the following essay I will be offering comments on the effects and impressions made by a few of the recent translations of modern poetry. I stress that I am not qualified to comment on the mechanics of the translation, and simply wish to offer observations about the poems as poems in English.

In The Silence of Love: Twentieth Century Korean Poetry, David McCann remarks that Kim Sowol is ‘the most widely known and popular of twentieth century Korean poets.’ And his most famous poem is ‘Azaleas’. Here is McCann’s translation:

When you leave,
weary of me,
without a word I shall gently let you go.

From Mt. Yak
in Yongbyon,
I shall gather armfuls of azaleas
and scatter them on your way.

Step by step
on the flowers placed before you
tread lightly, softly as you go.

When you leave,
weary of me,
though I die, I’ll not let one tear fall.

The simple melancholy of this gentle love poem is characteristic of his other poems. Nature and rural folklore infuse the imagery. Kim Sowol was writing in the middle of Japan’s long colonial rule (1910-1945) of his homeland, and the unsubtle pressures applied to so many areas of traditional Korean life – including restrictions on the use of the language itself – contributed to the poet’s depression and eventually led to Sowol’s suicide.

Midang So Chong-ju (1915-2000) was regarded during his lifetime as Korea’s premier poet, not least for his introduction of a lusher, Baudelaire-influenced type of imagery (in his first book, Flower Snake, 1938). David McCann has written that ‘he created an oeuvre that stands as among the most impressive in its range of imagery, subject, location, period, and, above all, its strikingly beautiful effects in the Korean language.’ He goes on to lament that these very qualities are the ones ‘most obviously missing in translation.’1

One of his most loved poems is not without hints of the sensibility and responsiveness to nature, found in Kim Sowol’s poems. It is ‘Beside a Chrysanthemum’, given here in McCann’s translation (from The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry):

To bring one chrysanthemum
to flower, the cuckoo has cried
since spring.

To bring one chrysanthemum to bloom,
thunder has rolled
through black clouds.

Flower, like my sister returning
from distant, youthful byways
of throat-tight longing
to stand by the mirror:

for your yellow petals to open,
last night such a frost fell,
and I did not sleep.

Interestingly, in Kevin O’Rourke’s translation of the same poem, the opening stanzas are questions, rather than statements: ‘Has the cuckoo cried/ since early spring/ to get this one chrysanthemum to bloom?’ (Poems of a Wanderer). One original can give rise to dozens of variants in translation (in Sato Hiroaki’s One Hundred Frogs, for example, there are exactly a hundred different versions of Basho’s famous frog/pond haiku!).

Having lived a long and full life, Midang So Chong-ju writes wonderfully of old age, both its rewards and irritations. In ‘At a Wine House Near Taegu’, commemorating his very auspicious 60th birthday (traditionally a major milestone in Korean lives), he is reminded by a young girl of his own distant days at primary school, when life was hard but ‘still/ the fun we had/ tickling the girls!’ He realises such experiences can never be repeated and serve their purpose in simply having been so deeply remembered. He is one of the most immediately engaging Korean poets, even in translation.

Another major twentieth century poet, Pak Mogwol (1916-1978) was also strongly affected by southern Korean folk traditions and folk song. Unlike Kim Sowol, he received much recognition and many awards in his lifetime, though a similar vein of sadness permeates many of his poems. ‘Live like a waning moon,’ he says in Peter H. Lee’s translation of ‘Mountains Enfold me and Say’.

Pak Mogwol’s nature poems, as translated by Lee, are full of lapidary images that are juxtaposed and positioned with all the grace of a painter’s eye. Here is ‘Wild Peach Blossoms’:

The hill is
Nine River Hill
purple stony

A pair of
wild peach blossoms

In the stream’s
crystal clear
melted spring snow

A doe
washes her feet.

All the images here are literal; it is the placement that matters, that creates a feeling of purity, that presents nature at its untrammeled best.

In ‘Metamorphoses’, however, Pak Mogwol uses an extraordinary series of metaphors to express his feeling of unity with nature. It is too long to quote in full, but here are the opening stanzas:

I become a tree,
Its lower half
Shorn of flowers.
I know
Its lonely weight.

I become a drop of water
That falls from the eaves.
I know
The rhythm of life.

I become a plate.
I know
The fullness of its hollow space.

These stanzas build to an expression of his awareness that ‘I am alive in all things.’ Buddhist concepts, combined with deeply ingrained animist principles, are to be found here, as in so much Korean poetry, whether ancient or modern.

Yet another highly regarded poet, Yun Tong-ju (1918-1945), died tragically young in a Japanese prison. During a period in which the Korean language was banned, to write a poem in Korean was a subversive act. Yun Tong-ju and many others, intensely proud of their language, hated their colonial status and protested as vigorously as they could. And many paid the price. Yun Tong-ju’s one book of poetry (The Heavens, The Wind, The Stars and Poetry: The Works of Yun Tong-ju, Korean Patriot and Poet, translated by David E. Shaffer) has been immensely popular, not least because of its author’s nationalist martyrdom.

  1. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, edited by David McCann, Columbia University Press, 2004. 97.
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