Translating Modern Korean Poetry

A paper presented at the 1st World Translators' Conference "Korean Culture in Europe: Achievements and Prospects"
(organized by LTI Korea, held in Seoul September 13-14, 2007)

When it comes to publishing literary translations, the United Kingdom is not part of the world at large. It is a well-known fact that British publishers are not at all interested in translations, whether from Korean or from any other language. At least 83 volumes containing English translations of Korean literature have been published since 2000. Of those 83, just 3 were published in the U.K., and none of them was of modern poetry. So, although I am a native-born British translator of Korean poetry, I am not sure that I am entitled to be here with the rest of Europe, even though 5 of my earlier volumes were published in the U.K. in the 1990s. Alas, neither of the publishers involved now exists.

The main questions in a forum like today’s will always be: Why? What? For whom? How?

(A) Why do we translate modern Korean poetry? (1) Because it’s there. (2) Because some of it is well worth translating. (3) Because it’s Korean.

Answer (1) is often the truest answer. Just as there is no perfect translation, so too there is no ideal candidate for translation. Frankly speaking, I mainly translate works that happen to come to my notice. But at the same time, I want to combine (1) with (2). I have to believe in what I am doing. There is nothing more soul-destroying than translating poetry (or anything else) that we do not believe has any value. The choice of the poems to be translated is also problematic. I, at least, cannot read a poet’s entire work. Therefore, if someone I know and whose taste I respect suggests a list of poems for translation, I am very happy. Finally, reason (3) explains why we are here today. The Korean government wants us to translate Korean literature mainly because it is Korean, part of the Korean cultural heritage. Their perspective is not primarily a matter of literary value. Their promotion of the translation of Korean literature is one element in the ongoing drive to raise the international profile, promote the “image” of Korea in the world; it is for them one part of an official publicity campaign.

The best answer to the question “Why do we translate Korean poetry” (I believe) is “Because at least some of it is worth translating” – worth translating because it has qualities that are not ‘lost in translation’ and that qualify it to stand with the poetry of other nations; it is worth translating because it is worth reading. There is the main reason why I translate.

(B) What Korean poetry should be translated? (1) Works by poets admired by Koreans. (2) Works that, in the translators’ opinion, may appeal to non-Korean readers. (3) Works of historical significance in the development of Korean poetry.

Answer (1) can be the source of a problem. We translators are expected by Koreans, especially the Korean cultural establishment, to translate works by writers who are already admired, “famous,” in Korea. This begs the question of what are the criteria for fame in Korea, and what famous writers are famous for. In the past, political sympathies loomed very large. For years, Kim Chi-Ha and Ko Un were ‘famous’ but they were not accepted by the government’s cultural agencies as poets who should be translated. When it comes to the evaluations made by Korean critics, they are often cliquish and sectarian. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, the only overall anthology of 20th-century Korean poetry available in English, is far too short (only 35 poets, 270 pages), because the one Korean critic who had the main say in deciding the contents was categorical that only the small number of poets he rated highly should be included. The rest were categorically excluded – including Kim Jong-Gil, Kim Kwang-Kyu, Chon Sang-Pyong, Kim Nam-Ju, Yi Si-Yong, Ma Jong-Gi, Na Hui-Dok, and very many more, almost everyone!

Koreans find it very hard to understand why a famous, iconic Korean poem (“Azaleas” for example) does not appeal strongly to non-Korean readers, no matter how it is translated. It is obvious that the main expectation of Koreans, both individuals and government bodies, is that works by poets who are admired within Korea will be translated, and they believe that similar admiration will automatically arise in response. Yet, usually, non-Korean translators, in chosing what to translate, consider above all the target culture and readership, rather than established Korean opinions. Foreign publishers are bound to have this even more in mind. It does not matter to them what Korean readers admire, if the translated works are not going to appeal to readers in their cultures.

So much in Korean responses depends on the impact of purely linguistic features, the aspects that are bound to vanish with translation. In addition, what once struck a Korean readership as radically new (the early poems of Sŏ Chŏng-Ju, for example) will not have any such impact when translated. Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, made that point strongly in a major review article 2 years ago, stating plainly his disappointment with the translations he had seen of “great” Korean poets such as Kim So-Wol. The “Wow factor” of startling novelty may sometimes be produced by good translations of works that most Koreans do not esteem so much, although some very high praise recently greeted Francisca Cho’s translations of Manhae’s 님의 침묵 poems (Everything Yearned For) in the US. Robert Hass has written enthusiastically of our translations from Ko Un’s Maninbo series, poems that most Korean readers have not even looked at because they fill over 20 volumes. Allen Ginsburg wrote of Ko Un’s Sŏn (Zen) poems, translated in Beyond Self: “these translations are models useful to inspire American contemplative poets.” There the finger is not pointing at the Korean reception and reputation of the original poems, but at the potential non-Korean response to the translated poems, a very different thing.

There have been a lot of translations of works falling under category (3) “of historical significance.” This is slightly different from (1); it indicates literary-historical criteria of an academic kind. Much of what has so far been translated is of this kind: poems and works of fiction by now-dead writers that were “influential” in the course of the development of Korean literature over the past century. Native Korean translators usually focus on them in choosing what to translate. Then they are bewildered by the difficulty they have in finding an overseas publisher, or readership, for the reasons already mentioned—the works have no intrinsic qualities appealing to non-Korean readers. However, students of literary history or comparative literature, whether on a worldwide scale or within this part of Asia, sometimes need to have access to such translations. They are of scholarly, academic, documentary or “archival” interest but can never hope to be a commercial success; they have little or nothing that can appeal to the general reader in countries far from Korea, they cannot begin to compete with the best-sellers of the moment in the world market.

(C) For whom do we translate Korean poetry? (1) For general readers of poetry. (2) For students of literature. (3) For lovers of Korea.

My own hope, in translating, is that people with no prior knowledge of or connection with Korea and its culture will read with pleasure the poems I have translated and find qualities in them they have not found elsewhere. I want the distinctive voice of Korean poets to ring out clearly in translation. However, for publishers, the prospect that a book of translations might be used as a classroom textbook is often very important in deciding whether to take the risk of publishing. Many translations of Korean poetry into English, at least, have been published by American University presses, or by institutes within universities where Korean studies are taught. The market envisaged for these publications is almost entirely the university East-Asian studies readership. The books are only publicized (if at all) in professional journals and there is often no attempt at distribution to ordinary bookstores. The general reader is not even made aware that these books exist.

Another rather different readership for translations into English at least (and Russian, too, surely), included in (3), comprises ethnic Koreans beyond the first generation, for whom it has become impossible to read literature in Korean. This is an important category, for it is the milieu out of which most of the future English translators from Korean are emerging, young people who grow up with some knowledge of Korean, whose English is of native-speaker level, and who have studied English-language literature or creative writing at university. In the same category of Korea-lovers, completely ignored in Korea, are the foreign visitors to Korea who, discovering the country with pleasure, want to read its literature but search (almost always in vain) in the bookstores of Seoul for translations of Korean literature.

D. How should Korean poetry be translated?

This is really a precise application of the much-debated general theoretical question, “How should poetry be translated?” The obvious fundamental options are: (1) as prose (2) as verse. Prose translations are mostly intended to offer help to readers who are able to read the poem in its original language if they have a ‘crib’ to guide them. Only a prose translation can represent accurately the verbal contents of the original. But it is usually assumed that Korean poetry will be translated as poetry (at least in the minimal sense, breaking it into short lines). The main question is whether we are able to translate good Korean poetry into good foreign-language poetry. Alas, a translator is not automatically a poet.

We, translators and sponsoring agencies, all want to see “good translations” of Korean poetry being published. The definition of a “good translation” is also a basic, theoretical issue. The two poles are: (1) An accurate representation of the original words (and even rhythms) (2) A more or less transformed version of the original that stands as a worthwhile poem in itself. Koreans wrongly think that a precise verbal transfer of the original will surely be the best possible (and the only acceptable) translation of it. That is a too simplistic, over-literal approach. Of course, we all dream of the ideal synthesis : (3) An accurate translation of the original that is in itself a worthwhile poem. Part of the problem comes from the limitations of the translator, who is not usually a poet with the gifts of the author of the original. One notable British exception was the recently deceased Michael Hamburger, whose translations into English of great German poetry are outstanding poems because he was himself also a magnificent English poet.

There are obvious limitations to be overcome, no matter who is translating: a native Korean translating into a second language may feel the poetry of the original well, but does not usually dispose of a full enough command of the target language, especially not of the vocabulary and styles used in contemporary Western poetry. I believe that a non-Korean who knows Korean reasonably well is far better placed to make the initial draft translation, but still only if s/he is familiar with the contemporary poetry of the target language. Koreans too easily forget that most “native speakers” of other languages are not able to write them correctly, let alone poetically.

It is quite easy for a native Korean associate, faced with a draft made by a non-Korean who is well-versed in Korean, to point out places where the original has been misunderstood or misrepresented. On the other hand, when a Korean translator seeks help from a native speaker of the target language (and many seem too proud to do so), help is often sought from a less than qualified native speaker, even one who speaks no Korean at all. In that case, the translation is often taken further than needed from the original in the name of stylistic polishing.

A variant of this second method is currently enjoying some popularity: a translation, hopefully as accurate as possible, is submitted to a poet in the target language, who is asked to “turn it into a real poem” by “poeticizing” it. The result, it is hoped, will be a fairly accurate translation that is also an agreeably poetic work. Of course, the procedure is not new. Ezra Pound’s earlier poems from the Chinese were based on prose translations made by an expert translator. In the U.S. poets who know no Korean have recently joined forces with native Korean translators of limited English ability and limited English style. The resulting poems are often quite pleasing. They may not, however, be very reliable representations of what was in the originals. In a few cases, none so far involving Korean poetry, the revising poet is really famous, a “Big Name,” and the published book is sold on the strength of that poet’s reputation. In such cases, the name of the original translator is usually obscured or omitted, even the original poet’s name is often given second place.

There are cases where a non-Korean translator of Korean poetry is also a poet, and undertakes both the draft translation and the “poeticizing” revision. The result can be disconcerting. I could point to cases in the Columbia Anthology where very great liberties have been taken by a translator who was certainly able to see what the original says, and deliberately opted to change or omit a great deal. Is such “creative translation” good or bad? Certainly, Koreans who can read English are very critical of translations that do not follow exactly the Korean; yet they are usually quite unable to feel the poetic qualities of an English text, even if they are professors of English literature.

The last topic to be covered is publication. The English-speaking world has a special problem, only paralleled by the Spanish-speaking; in both, large groups of readers of the same language are divided by vast oceans, that one publisher cannot easily span. Then too there is the almost complete lack of interest in publishing translations of any kind seen in the US as well as the UK, that is compounded by the general lack of interest in poetry everywhere. At present, poetry translations in English mainly find publishers among the small, non-profit presses still existing in the US (but hardly at all in the U.K.), and sometimes at university-based presses. Fortunately, some of those small presses enjoy a very high reputation among poetry-lovers. Poetry will always be a limited, specialized market. Getting bookstores to stock translations is the final nightmare.

One important activity that most translators in Korea pay little attention to is the publication of translations of single poems or small numbers of poems in literary journals. This can be a more effective way of drawing attention to Korean poetry than the publication of whole volumes. The main difficulty is the labor involved in finding potentially interested journals and sending out submissions in the required format at the proper time. The poems of Ko Un have been particularly successful in this area, some even being published in the New Yorker, which enjoys a huge circulation. I would be interested to know if other European translators have experience in this area.

Publication is only a start. A book will only sell if it gets publicity, reviews in the press, and if it is stocked by suitable bookstores for long enough. One important form of publicity sponsored by the KLTI and other foundations involves sending Korean writers to read abroad. The difficulty comes from the very limited number of them who can speak another language or project a strong nonverbal image. I have to end with a painful fact: so far as I know, no major Korean poet has ever given a public reading in the United Kingdom. That is probably true of no other European country. It seems that the UK is the world’s new Hermit Kingdom.