Translating Poetry


Brother Anthony


A presentation read at the 3rd Korean Writers Forum in Gyeongju on September 14, 2017.


(Link to Korean translation)


 “Translating Korean poetry into English” will be much more realistic a topic for 20 minutes. I will try to suggest answers to the questions: Translate What? Why Translate? And How to Translate? But what do we mean by “translate”? A poem is a text written in a particular language. A poem is usually seen as being a unity of “sound and sense.” The aspect “sound” is almost always there, even when a poet is writing poems which are intended to be read silently with the eyes. Many Korean poets find it difficult to “perform” their poems aloud at readings and festivals yet still the text of a poem in Hangeul is essentially an indication of the poem’s sounds. In this it is different from a poem in Chinese characters, where “sense” exists independently of the way the characters are pronounced; although even with those ideograms, the rules governing poems in Classical Chinese include patterns of rhyme. The essential point is that when a poem is translated into another language, both sound and sense are going to change, the sounds completely, the words conveying the sense more or less radically.

  In recent years I have quite often spoken about the desire many Koreans harbor that the translation of a Korean poem into English should essentially be “the same” poem as the original. Yet that is not possible. A poem in English is not, by definition, a Korean poem, even when a publisher identifies the translated text as still being “by” the Korean poet. Kim Sowol or Ko Un never wrote poems in English, “Azaleas” is not the title of a poem “by” Kim Sowol. . It would really be more correct always to say: “A translation into English of the Korean poem xxx by yyy.” I then want to specify that the creative act by which the original poem came into being is only parodied by the act by which the translation of it arises. The original poet had full liberty to write what s/he wanted to write. The translator who is charged to produce a “translation” does not have that liberty; even when following modern trends and aiming to produce a free “version” rather than a (more or less) precise equivalent, we are still bound to be limited and constrained at some point by what is in the original. The translator is aiming to provide an “adequate equivalent” of a poem, using another language. The term “adequate equivalent” comes from a discussion of translation by Paul Ricoeur. But who will decide if our translations are “adequate”? Whom must they satisfy?

With the English version of Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian,” we recently saw how rapidly Koreans reach for the original of a translation and start to look for “errors.” This automatic tendency to find fault might be because most dedicated readers of literature in Korea are engaged in teaching and spend hours correcting their students’ writing, until it becomes a habit. But it certainly shows that in Korea there is a very strong assumption that a translator is obliged to reproduce, if not the order of the Korean words of a text, at least the exact “meaning” (“sense”) of the words. Everything else is a “mistake.” There is little discussion in Korea of what is meant by a “good translation” because the “good” quality is considered to lie in the Korean original, so that an “adequately equivalent” translation will automatically be “good” if it does not betray the source text by errors. There are Koreans with severely limited English who produce translations of poems they love, convinced that since they understand and love the original they can automatically produce an acceptable English equivalent.

This brings us to the question of what poems we will translate, the reasons for a choice that every translator has to make. For Koreans in general, the obvious top candidates for translation have long been the poems which they have learned at school, considered to be the “masterpieces of Korean poetry.” This selection, ranging from Kim Sowol and Manhae to Bak Mok-weol and Seo Jeong-ju, then on to various other officially approved poets, constitutes the “canon” of modern Korean poetry. The selection of certain poems for use in school textbooks was often made on the basis of their nationalistic value as expressions of anti-Japanese resistance; otherwise, they were seen as embodying beauties and humane values that schoolchildren should learn to respect and follow. Such classroom poems had of course to be fairly short and simple while the poets could not be political dissidents, let alone those who sided with the North. Perhaps because “critical thinking” was not much taught in Korean schools, generations of Koreans accepted unquestioningly their teachers’ assurances that these poems were outstanding works of poetry, worthy to stand beside anything written in the outside world. These, it was long thought, were the poems which would establish the high quality of Korean poetry if only they were “well” translated. Koreans could not understand that the outside world might not be much impressed by 진 달래꽃 or 님의 침묵 and the rest, no matter how they were translated.

Here I want to recall the lack of any common measure between the poetry available in English and that available in Korean. The living canon of poetry in English begins with the Anglo-Saxon “Exeter Book” (“The Wanderer” etc) of the 10th century, passes through Chaucer and Shakespeare, the Metaphysical poets, the Romantics of the early 19th century before branching into the poetry produced in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, North America, the Caribbean, Australia and India . . . . Moreover, a poet writing in English would until recently at least be more or less familiar with Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe and much of the literature of Italy, France and Germany. The same could be said of most European writers. Then, too, each country in the West has had a rich and varied production of poetry throughout the 20th and into the present century, and it is “on the shoulders of all these giants” that their poets who are writing today stand, and their readers too. Harold Bloom wrote about “anxiety of influence” as he pointed out the challenge facing each young writer setting out to establish a new, unique voice capable of commanding attention and gaining an audience amidst such an overwhelming cloud of august predecessors.

At the same time, in recent years, readers of poetry in the West have turned their attention to the vast quantities of poetry and fiction being written today all across the world beyond the “western” cultural sphere. The most effective way in which contemporary Korean poetry can become known beyond the Korean-speaking world is for it to become a dynamic part of what the English-speaking literary world calls “world literature.” The world’s poetry in English translation is found in many literary journals, especially in such dedicated publications as “Asymptote,” “Modern Poetry in Translation” and “Words Without Borders.” Full collections are also published by many major publishers. These all reflect a desire to hear the voices of people confronted with life’s challenges in a multitude of different places and situations. One of the most important factors here is to find poets who speak of what it is to be human in terms that transcend national and linguistic boundaries, and whose poems can remain alive in translation, deprived of their original language and national context. It is a vital part of today’s world culture that these voices are often female voices.

I want to mention here particular difficulties facing me as a translator of Korean poetry. They come from the fact of having lived completely in Korea for nearly forty years. I left England fifty years ago. Koreans tell me sometimes that I am “more Korean than many Koreans.” I have experienced Korean history from the inside since May 1980, I know quite a lot about the earlier history of Korea, I can understand and at least to some extent feel what I call the “korean-ness” of Korean poetry, the way it echoes the painful history out of which it has grown. Now that history is largely unknown in the outside world, whether it be the humiliation of the Japanese annexation or the tragedy of division or the traumas caused by industrialization and urbanization. The poetry resulting from that history has to be explained, as I did in the introductions to Shin Gyeong-nim’s “Nong-mu” or Ko Un’s “Maninbo” poems about the Korean War.

However, that is not my main difficulty. Rather it is the way in which my native England, Europe or the West are now in some ways foreign to me. I have not kept up in my daily life with social, cultural changes; I do not speak the language of contemporary critical literary discourse; I do not have any widespread network of literary friends, though I am lucky to know quite a few significant individuals. As a result I am not sure of recognizing the Korean poets who might interest the outside world, and I do not have access to major publishers in order to promote them and get them published, have them invited to literary festivals etc. I am not part of cultural life “over there” in the way (say) Deborah Smith or Don Mee Choi are. In practical terms, this is significant because of the importance of personal relations in western literary circles, where everyone knows everyone. Again, it is not because Korean readers and critics admire a poet that he or she will find a wide readership once translated and published. Much depends on finding advocates in the target countries, professional readers of world literature who find something of interest in this or that younger, innovative Korean writer and talk enthusiastically about that writer to publishers and critics. It may even be a writer who does not enjoy a very high reputation inside Korea, such as Han Kang or Hye-young Pyun; in poetry, the focus on Kim Hyesoon can seem surprising when we think of all the other fine women poets writing in Korea, but it proves very frustrating to try to promote them, since she is firmly established as the “token” Korean woman poet of her generation and there is not much room for anyone else.

Having said that, I have to mention the other side of the coin. Korean writers do not, I believe, have enough access to vivid, convincing Korean translations of the work of today’s young writers across the globe. The translation of foreign poetry into Korean is especially problematic, I think, especially poetry by younger writers who do not figure in the curriculum of Korean departments of English. The periodical “Asia” offers some such writing in translation but I am not sure that it is widely read, or that the quality of its translations into Korean will be convincing. Few Koreans are familiar with the little-known countries in which so much fine writing is being produced, or with the many languages being used in them. Last year, “Words Without Borders” published a list of 31 volumes of poetry and fiction by (contemporary) women available in English translation, from Croatian, Norwegian, Lebanese, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic . . . the only Korean work was, of course, “The Vegetarian.”

Related to what I have just been saying is the troublesome question of how a poem should be translated. I have already mentioned the Koreans’ impulse to check any translation for its accuracy, its “faithfulness” to the original. They expect a translated poem (or novel) to say what the original says, in as nearly as possible the same way, without additions or omissions. That is far from being the method of translation encouraged in the West, where “creative rewriting” is thought to be essential for a work to be made accessible (the negative term would be “domesticated”) in its new country of adoption. As I have already said, Korean writers do not usually model themselves on the writing being produced elsewhere, their models are Korean, even if sometimes they refer to non-Korean figures, such as Sylvia Plath or Frida Kahlo. The result is, inevitably, a considerable gap between the way a Korean poet writes and an English-language poet who is exposed to influences from a number of different sources, and who belongs consciously to a cosmopolitan community in which national identity is hardly a consideration. As a result, a closely translated Korean poem will often sound unfamiliar and disconcerting.

Once I allowed a North American living in San Francisco to edit the style and flow of some poems by Ko Un I had struggled to translate “accurately.” Ko Un’s wife objected strongly: “You make him sound like a beat poet!” That was the whole point, but for her that was unacceptable because he was a Korean poet, not a wild hippy. She wanted him to sound Korean in English. On the other hand, American translators of Korean fiction who translate colloquial Korean as mid-western Yankee dialect can certainly be blamed for confusing the cultural codes. The issue of what voice a translated poem should be using is not as challenging as a novel with page after page of freewheeling dialogue, perhaps. But at a deeper level, there is the fact that the voice of a Korean poet will not sound like the voice of a British or American poet, because they respond to experiences in very different ways. They do not speak of life in the same way. The flow of images and emotions is different, even the tone of voice, but above all, when I read (say) Jane Hirshfield or Carol Ann Duffy, I am confronted with forms of humor which I simply do not find in Korean writing. Western poets are often really funny and they expect their audience at readings to laugh loudly; poetry is a branch of the entertainment industry, while older Korean poets are still reading in sobbing, sentimental voices to a backing of soulful violin music.

I believe that many Koreans respond positively to my translations because I remain as close as I can to the original sense, while managing to produce a reasonably poetic flow of sounds and rhythms, so that my translations “work” when read aloud in English. I think that is a reasonable way of translating Korean poetry and I could not work in any other way. I always try to find someone who can check my translations for mistakes. Korean is such a difficult language and I have not mastered it fully enough yet! I lack the brash self-confidence of translator-poets who reckon they can do what they want with a poem because they know better than the original poet what he should have said. I hope that my way of “conservative’ translation is an expression of respect toward the Korean poet who knew what s/he wanted to say and how it should be said. But in England I know there are translation workshops where that is completely overturned and the participants are encouraged to rewrite works quite radically without any reference to the original, “improving on it.” There are many awards for literature in translation where the “accuracy” of the translation, its respect for the original, is not even a question or a factor in judging. All that counts is that a version of a text has been published and has been found interesting.

Korean poetry is unlike western poetry, I would say, because its models and conventions are different. Many poets admired in the West today speak in very personal voices, talking about their fragilities and failures humbly and often lightly, without dramatizing. I read many younger Korean poets where the poem is less intensely personal, more a verbal exercise in how to be poetic without having anything much to say. I do not think that such poetry can be translated convincingly, even Koreans wonder what it means. “Confessional” poetry should be just that, honest and sincere without sentimentality. Ko Un’s “Maninbo” is not difficult to read in translation because the poems evoke easily recognizable life-stories; Jeong Ho-seung’s poems offer little nuggets of universal wisdom and yearning in the face of separation and loss. Kim Seung-Hee writes feminist poems of great power, and more “concrete” linguistic poems which defy precise translation. Ko Hyeong-ryeol invites his readers to ponder the line dividing illusion and reality. Lee Si-young evokes the distance between past and present; Kim Soo-bok equally explores memories. Etc etc. For a translator, the biggest challenge is to ensure that each translated poem speaks in its own distinctive voice, the right voice for that poem, and somehow avoids sounding like any other poem. Each poem has its own value, its own identity, whether in Korean or in translation; to transmit that poem beyond the limits of national frontiers and national languages  is the translator’s essential task.