Impressions of Modern Korean Poetry in Translation

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 untrammelled 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.

Yun Tong-ju’s poems reflect his youthful idealism as well as the youthful angst that is youth’s currency worldwide:

In a copper mirror corroded blue,
Is it so disgraceful
For my face remaining therein
To look like a relic of some dynasty?


His poetry abounds in unusual but entirely appropriate images. In ‘Towards a Place in the Sun’, spring winds carry “Yellow sands from afar,/ Like a Chinese waterwheel”, while above are the “Outstretched hands of the spotted April sun.”

When he moves from personal preoccupations, as in the nature and socially reflective pieces, his poems have an aura of lonely grandeur, as in ‘Last Words’:

In a moonlit room
Last words are the silence of playful lips.

- The son who went to sea in search of pearls,
The oldest son whispering love to the woman diver,
Look out to see if they might be
at long last returning this night -

The fate of their father, lonely throughout his life,
Sorrow gathers at his closed eyes.

At the lone house, a dog barks into the night,
And the radiant moon flows through the lattice door.

(24 October, 1937)

In a translation of the same poem by Kay and Steffen Richards (in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry), the final lines are beautifully rendered this way: “A dog barks from a remote house;/ cool blue moonlight flows over the ribs of the door.”

Image: Jackson Eaton

Ku Sang, a revered and prolific poet, was born in 1919. The turmoil that was, and is, Korean history underpins his socially and philosophically oriented poetry. A Catholic (and ex-president of the Catholic Writers’ Association and Korean PEN), he was brought up in the north, educated in Japan, forced to flee to the south when the Korean War began, and was subsequently imprisoned there for daring to write about government corruption. Such an outline barely does justice to the hardship and complexity of this poet’s experience.

There appear to be no strivings after effect in Ku Sang’s poetry. He is sometimes reminiscent of Kim Sowol, at least in the poems reflecting on nature, using carefully controlled and simple utterance to suggest the feelings aroused. His longevity and productiveness make it difficult to generalise, as he has written about so many different topics and in several different styles. One of his translators, Kevin O’Rourke, says that “his poems have a meditative, alert, and watchful air.”2

Some of his most powerful poetry (Wasteland Poems, translated by Brother Anthony of Taize) deals with his youthful experiences under Japanese occupation and the later traumas of the civil war. The slightly oblique point of view, almost a sense of detachment, emphasises the poignancy of his country’s recent history far more effectively than direct denouncing and moralising. There is an entire philosophical and metaphysical realm to his poetry, which space does not allow to detail here.

As Brother Anthony says, “In the end, the impression we gain from Ku Sang’s verse is that of a man intrigued to find himself alive, inexhaustibly surprised by all the things that each day reveals.” Here is a poem, ‘First Frost’, that exemplifies this summation:

Along the branches of old trees,
stripped of every last leaf,
the hoarfrost-flowering morning cleanly spreads.

The ivory brow of the catechism sister,
object of my tiny breast’s deepest childhood longing,
creeps into my mind.

Purity is no matter for melancholy, surely,
yet my eyes are moist with a chill dew.

Another significant poet whom McCann despairs of translating adequately because of his “íntense physical and emotional intimacy” is Pak Chaesam (1933-1997). McCann has, however, valiantly attempted to bring a large body of Pak’s work into English in Enough to Say It’s Far.

A sense of transience and time’s paradoxes is to be found in all the world’s poetries, but it has an insistence, is almost a preoccupation, in Korean poetry. Here is McCann’s translation of ‘Night at Tonghok Temple’:

Bury in order the snow-melt
and the spring night,

and somewhere in the next world
water drops fall from eaves

while at the very edge of your far away
lips, now the whole universe collapses.

Another factor shared by many poets, and Korean poets in particular, is poverty, often accompanied by illness, physical hardship and the predations of various conflicts and wars. But Pak’s poems frequently also celebrate a sense of ‘re-birth’ after illness, a joy in returning to the world, and he can write: “Generous bounty makes all things/ seem like an elder brother.” In that poem (‘After an Illness’) he remains all too aware that while heaven is ‘great’, the earth remains ‘tiny’.

His exact contemporary, Ko Un (born in 1937) remains a real force in Korean literature and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Prize, in 2002 and 2004. McCann writes that he is ‘without question the most prolific writer of twentieth century Korean literature’3, across many genres. He has been both a Buddhist monk and an energetic pro-democracy campaigner, and has been imprisoned for his efforts.

As with so many of the Korean poets, nature themes abound. He can celebrate: “Just look! The fish rising from deeper water/ are using their backs/ to break the ice!/ How on earth/ can heaven keep silent?”(‘Great Spring’). And he can remember times of duress, famine in particular: “About the time crepe myrtles bloomed and/ the barley was nearly ripe,/ I got so hungry.” (‘About the Time’).

There is considerable intensity and anger in many of the political poems, and this possibly doesn’t translate so well. The most successful are those in which the ‘message’ is conveyed indirectly or through a memorable and concrete image, as in ‘Peace’:

on the peninsular cease-fire line,
after the bird has flown,

I caress the helmet that lay rusty all these years,
yearning for

(translated by Clare and Richard Silberg)

A droll and sometimes sprightly or whimsical humour permeates many of Ko Un’s poems, especially his little haiku-like reflections, such as ‘Green Frog’:

Green frog,
because you croaked
the rain clouds massed in the sky.

You sure are a mighty dude,
you little runt.

(translated by Silberg)

There remains a huge amount of Ko Un’s work to be translated, though a useful and recent selected poems, The Three Way Tavern, translated by Clare and Richard Silberg, is available.

Another controversial poet who has also been nominated for the Nobel Prize (in 1975 for Peace and Literature) is Kim Chiha, born in 1941. He was sentenced to death in 1974 for writing poetry considered offensive by the military government of Park Chunghee. There was worldwide condemnation of this projected act, and the sentence was commuted in 1980, after the assassination of Park.

Many of his poems are long, satirical narratives, drawing on traditional Korean oral-narratives (pansori). The humour is wry and sardonic, as in this stanza from his well-known political epic, ‘The Story of a Sound’:

He began to think of hanging himself,
but couldn’t find a rafter.
Gas wouldn’t do – the windows were full of holes.
He couldn’t slip away
on a mixture of poison and wine -
there was no money for a cup
and nothing else to use,
so no way, he had no way:
no way to rest, no way to put his feet
down on the ground and just stand.

(translated by David McCann)

If this brief survey of some of Korea’s most important poets is male-dominated, it is simply because the most influential voices have been male poets. Korea is very much a patriarchal (Confucian) society and it is only relatively recently that women have had opportunities for expression, and there are now many fine contemporary female novelists and poets (see, for example, 12 Contemporary Korean Poetesses, edited by Koh Chang-soo, Literature Academy, 1996).

Korea’s most prominent female poet is Kim Namjo (born in 1927). She has published thirty books of poetry and essays, and achieved much favourable attention in the 1960s and 70s when her first books appeared. They also sold very well. David McCann refers to her pioneering efforts for women writers, saying that her success was all the more unusual ‘given the male domination of the literary critical establishment, then and even now.’ 4

Aspects of nature are frequent subjects of her poetry, as is love in all its many variations. In ‘For Baby’, she writes, “Sunlight alights and plays by my baby’s sleeping head./ Sunlight is the baby’s guest.” There is often a philosophical dimension to her musings about love, as in this stanza (one of 88!) from ‘Love’s Cursive’:

An uninvited woman;
I live with her.
Many days, I am that woman.
So it is,
while love is a special invitation,
the reception of conscience.

(tr. McCann)

Korea’s turbulent history in the Twentieth (and Twenty-First!) Century is reflected in the work of all the major poets. It could not be otherwise. Yet Korea’s cultural traditions go back thousands of years and form a rich foundation for the country’s poetry and other thriving art forms and crafts (see journals such as Koreana and Korea). Korean poetry has not as yet received the worldwide attention it so eminently deserves. Koreans themselves respect their poets and are generally quite knowledgeable about them. Poetry features far more prominently in the education system than it does here in Australia, where it is very much treated as the neglected member of the literary family (for example, there are five categories for books in the Prime Minister’s literary awards, but not one of them for poetry).

Final impressions? Well, there is much to learn from, discover and enjoy in the oceanic world that is Korean poetry. It is poetry that is as variable, multifaceted, as the poets who write it. It is suffused with a deep reverence for nature and a deep desire for peace, both personal and political.

Even though translators cannot convey all the beauty and subtlety of the Korean language, enough can be brought across in the form of meaning, image and tone to legitimately claim the attention of Anglophone readers. Translators are the great unsung heroes of literature. We must remember that most of us have read our Bible or Homer or Goethe or Plato in translation, yet we are still inspired and awed by the reading. I would like to close by encouraging others to seek out the world of Korean poetry, and to express gratitude to all the translators of Korean poetry that I have read.

I append a list of some of the books referred to in this essay:

Kim Chiha, Heart’s Agony: Selected Poems, White Pine Press, 1998
Ko Un, The Three Way Tavern, University of California Press, 2006
Koh Chang-soo (ed), 12 Contemporary Korean Poetesses, Literary Academy, 1996
Ku Sang, Wasteland Poems, English Translations of Korean Literature Series, 2000
Lee, Peter H. (ed), Poems From Korea, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1974
Lee, Peter H. (ed), The Silence of Love: Twentieth Century Korean Poetry, The University Press of Hawaii, 1980
McCann, David R., The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, Columbia University Press, 2004
Pak Chaesam, Enough to Say It’s Far, Princeton University Press, 2006
Pak Mogwol, Selected Poems, Asian Humanities Press, 1990
So Chong-ju, Poems of a Wanderer, Dedalus, 1995
Yun Tong-ju, The Heavens, The Wind, The Stars and Poetry, Hakmun Publishing Inc., 1999

  1. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, edited by David McCann, Columbia University Press, 2004. 97.
  2. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, edited by David McCann, Columbia University Press, 2004. 97.
  3. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, edited by David McCann, Columbia University Press, 2004. 182.
  4. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, edited by David McCann, Columbia University Press, 2004. 160.

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Shane McCauley

About Shane McCauley

Shane McCauley is a Perth-based poet. His previous books include The Chinese Feast, Deep-Sea Diver, The Butterfly Man, and The Glassmaker.

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