Modern Korean literature as seen by a translator


Brother Anthony An Seon Jae

This 90-minute lecture was a part of the SNU Kyujanggak Summer Workshop 2021 and its release was approved by the SNU Kyujanggak ICKS.

It can also be viewed as a video with Powerpoint slides.


I want to start by insisting that I am not an academic in Korean Studies qualified to talk about “the History of Modern Korean Literature.” I would not be qualified to give this lecture at all without the added subtitle “as seen by a translator.” This “lecture” would better be seen as a kind of prolonged, rambling fireside chat, and certainly not as a “논문발표.” What is sure is that, over the past thirty years,  I have published nearly fifty volumes of translated Korean poetry, translated and published translations of several dozen Korean short stories, as well as translating a number of full-length contemporary Korean novels. I have met quite a number of poets and writers personally.

When I taught as a professor at Sogang University, from 1985 onward, I taught British Literature, mainly the works of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and 17th centuries. There was a fairly clear, traditional “canon” telling us which works should be considered significant and why. Importing that canon into a Korean English Department meant, of course, choosing works which might be accessible and even interesting to Korean students with more or less limited English ability. That was my focus in teaching and research for over twenty years, having studied mainly European medieval literature at Oxford in the 1960s. If I have become a prolific translator of modern Korean poetry and fiction, that has happened rather by chance, I sometimes insist that translating is my hobby, not my job. And now I am turning 80, no longer young.

For Korean literature, the process of establishing any kind of official literary canon and setting out the criteria for a history of modern Korean literature has been a very recent development, and still cannot be easily separated from non-literary considerations. Within Korea, the evaluation of literary works and their writers has (until recently at least) been dominated by political and ideological considerations, as well as regional and personal relationships. Until the 1980s, for example, works written in Korean in the 1930s and 1940s by Koreans who supported North Korea and moved North were taboo in the South, might not be published, and were not much mentioned in university courses. In South Korea, after 1950, the poetry and fiction that enjoyed popularity and prestige were identified on the basis of rather limited nationalistic, political and esthetic criteria. Although a certain level of social satire had to be allowed, open criticism of those in power long remained a dangerous exercise. I am not at all sure that a reliable critical history of 20th century Korean literature exists, even in Korean, let alone one in English.

An example of what might exist is the very recently (2020) published volume What Is Korean Literature? by Youngmin Kwon and Bruce Fulton. Only a traditionally-minded senior Korean academic (and his disciple / friend / colleague) would think it necessary to devote the first 100 pages of a quite short, 280-page volume about “Korean Literature” to the works surviving from Joseon-era Korea, which today almost no Korean can read. Their volume offers no separate discussion of the works published at the start of modern Kore,a during the Japanese period. Instead, all the poetry, fiction and drama written between 1900 and 1990 are each given a single, separate chapter, followed by a 55-page chapter about everything published since 1990 or so. In such a short space, it is hardly possible to expect detailed analysis of the continuities, genres, influences and innovations comprising the history of literature, the main topics which constitute the dynamic history of any literature. It will be hard to do more than list a few of the topics, the writers and the titles considered most significant.

An alternative, even more purely academic approach to the history of Korean literature would be Ksenia Chizhova’s Kinship Novels of Early Modern Korea: Between Genealogical Time and the Domestic Everyday (2021). This surely very interesting book discusses in its 288 pages a very particular form of fiction that flourished in Joseon from the 17th century until the early 20th century, works that are, again, incomprehensible to modern Koreans and hardly likely to be much published in translation.

On the other hand, in 2015, Youngju Ryu, (University of Michigan) published her Writers of the Winter Republic: Literature and Resistance in Park Chung Hee’s Korea  and this is surely a fine model for future books on Korean literature, focusing on a clearly defined, quite limited period and topic. The same can be said of Janet Poole’s masterly study When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea which was published the previous year, in 2014. Anyway, such learned books do not offer a possible basis for me in this talk, for one obvious reason. I have not read them and I have not read enough Korean literature. And that is not only because I have not had time to read. I must be frank. I do not know enough Korean to simply sit down and skim through a book.


The reason why I began to write down and type out word-by-word English translations of Korean poems in 1988 was because my Korean, acquired during two years at Yonsei’s Language School, was too limited to allow me to simply read and enjoy them. When I once asked a teacher at Yonsei when we would be learning the vocabulary we needed, I was told that we were supposed to know the words already. When I asked how, there was no answer except “you must learn the words for yourself.” But I was already passing forty and the words, which all sounded the same, refused to stay in my mind. I have a French dictionary and even a German dictionary in my head, from when I was a teenager (and speaking French at home every day for over fifty years until now has helped) but I have never been able to compile a mental Korean dictionary of any size. So I began to translate with a Korean-English dictionary constantly open, and using a typewriter because this was 1988, or else I would write out drafts by hand, because there was nothing worse than having to retype an entire page if I wanted to change just one word. I was already dreaming of having a “word-processor.”


I have begun this talk with these general, personal remarks because I have to speak for 90 minutes, which is a long time for a retired 80-year-old. The point I am trying to make is that the sixty or so volumes of modern Korean poetry, short stories and various novels which I have translated and published are no more “representative” of modern Korean writing than is the entire corpus of published English translations of Korean writing (of which you can find lists in my home page and probably nowhere else). Each translator has their own personal reasons for the works they choose to translate.

I recently gave a talk on the history of translations into English of Korean works and a few statistics from there might help. Before 1970, very few translations existed. In the 30 years between 1970 and 2000, some 130 English translations of Korean poetry, fiction and (occasionally) drama were published. 53 of the total were poetry. 44 were anthologies with works by multiple authors. 63 were fiction (collections of short stories or full-length novels). It was not until 1979 that the first full-length Korean novel was published. Then, in the first 10 years of the 21st century, another 130 volumes were published, the same number as in the previous 30 years, 60 of which were poetry. 18 were anthologies of poetry or short stories. 38 were full-length novels. The greatest difference was that most of those books were published outside of Korea, but usually by minor publishers. In the 10 years since 2012, 73 more volumes of poetry and (again) 130 more volumes of fiction have been published, most of the fiction being full-length novels published overseas, sometimes by well-known major publishers.

These statistics show the increasing number of publications (130 books in 30 years – 130 books in 10 years – 200 books in the last ten years) and they also show the rapid rise in the number of Korean novels being published internationally. In addition, not only were the books published in the earlier period mainly published in Korea, the translators were mostly Koreans, and the distribution beyond Korea was minimal. There was a time no so long ago when Korea and its literature were virtually unknown in the outside world.


The Korean translators of the 1970s and 1980s naturally chose works which they considered worth translating, and those were almost invariably works by senior contemporary writers who enjoyed a high reputation in Korea, celebrated by literary critics and widely read. The very first translator to publish a collection of modern short fiction was Jeong In-seop, whose Modern Short Stories from Korea was published in 1958. He had published an anthology of poetry 10 years before in 1948. Already, he felt he could characterize Korean fiction in the following words:

         “Modern Korean writers have been suffering for a long time from the political and economic difficulties which have been imposed on them from outside. Their pleasure was to seek something in literature to display their gloominess, indefatigibility, and humour. We have a hidden power and hope for the future, with which we will overcome our difficulties.

We have shown in our modern literature as well as during the recent Korean War an ability to integrate the Western science with our spiritual home-life, and thus we are equipped to fight against any aggressions whether political or cultural. As a whole, modern Korean literature can be called “The Literature of Resistance against Imperialism and Communism.”

It should be said that his anthology includes stories with more humor than was usual in the decades that followed. Another Korean anthology of short stories was published soon after, in 1961, Collected Short Stories from Korea translated by Chu Yo-seop, who wrote something similar:

 “Some Americans who read Korean short stories say that the reading of them creates gloom and pain, for practically all the stories deal with hard and tragic lives. The editor acknowledges that they speak the truth. But to the Korean writers and readers, the gay or happy life seems unreal and unnatural, because for generations the Korean people have lived in poverty and have been mercilessly oppressed. Readers would feel offended if they found their reading devoid of the pain of the mind as well as of the body.”

As these pioneers already sensed, western readers of post-Liberation / post-war Korean fiction in translation have often been turned off by the preponderant gloom, the lack of humor or suspense, and the tendency to assume that readers are familiar with every aspect of traditional Korean history and culture. Clearly, the fiction was written with only (South) Korean readers in mind. It did not travel well. There was the deep national trauma due to the oppressive Japanese occupation, then the division of the Peninsula by outside forces and the ensuing ideological conflict and war. The Korean War was followed by a series of less-than-democratic regimes with a continuing policy of enforced industrialization and urbanization. Criticism and protest were not tolerated.

The main concerns of worthy writers were assumed to be (1) national identity (2) individual human dignity. In school textbooks, short, accessible poems, often from the Japanese period, were given pride of place as tokens of Korean national resistance, especially if the poet had been killed by (or at least died under) the Japanese. Literature, critics felt, should be resistant or inspirational. As a result, poetry and fiction were not considered to constitute “light entertainment” but were supposed to be written with a “high seriousness” to promote good citizenship and noble humanity.

The wish among Koreans to “globalize” Korean literature began with their discovery of the classics of Western literature, often through Japanese translations or in the English Departments of Japanese universities. The celebrated works of the Western canon, often poorly translated  into Korean, did not seem so superior to the poetry and fiction being written in Korea, where certain contemporary Korean writers and their works enjoyed great prestige and popularity. However, it was clear that very few non-Koreans would ever master enough Korean to be able to appreciate Korean literature, therefore translation was the only way of bringing it onto the world stage.

Soon after the end of the Pacific War, a certain kind of Japanese fiction was promoted in the US by the American government as a means of transforming the American perception of Japan from the home of brutal, sadistic warriors of the past to a land of sensitive lovers of sophisticated beauty, as well as natural enemies of the Soviet Union and China, and allies of the USA in the Cold War. The 1968 Nobel Prize awarded to Kawabata Yasunari was a shock for Koreans. The to them incomprehensible prestige enjoyed in the West by Japanese fiction (and later by Japanese movies) left Koreans feeling even more ignored and humiliated. They knew that in the West prestigious writers were part of each nation’s national image and they wanted Korea’s prestigious writers to contribute to Korea’s greater prestige, without realizing that what they as Korean readers responded strongly to might not have the same (or any) impact on people who had not shared Korea’s unique experience of traumatic humiliation.


For myself, it was because the few Korean short stories I had read translations of in 1988 were so un-entertaining and grim that I automatically turned to Korean poetry. A colleague suggested the poems of Ku Sang (born in 1919), whom she knew personally. I soon met him with her. That has in fact, until recently, been one of the most important factors in my career as a translator—meeting the writers and learning about their often dramatic or touching lives. The fact of living in Korea may have made finding publishers in the UK or the USA more difficult, but I have had far more contact with “my poets” than I would otherwise have had. When I talk about Ku Sang or Cheon Sang-byeong, Ko Un or Kim Yeong-nang, Shin Gyeong-nim, Park Nohae or Song Kyung-dong, I find it far easier (and even more interesting) to evoke the stories of their lives than to discuss their poems, which anyone interested can read and respond to for themselves. The individual human stories that underlie the poems give added power to the poems and added interest to the poet.

Ku Sang liked to include personal incidents in his poems, and avoided overly poetic styles, because he was unhappy with the purely esthetic conventions of most Korean poetry. He wanted to write poetry that was close to everyday life, in a familiar, snappy, accessible style. Ku Sang was obliged to flee South before the Korean War when Party officials in the North denounced his early poems that he was preparing to publish. He recalled leaving home, with a last glimpse of his mother on the doorstep waving goodbye. They were never able to meet or communicate after that, of course. His older brother was a Catholic priest in the North, and he was duly executed like all the Korean priests as the War was beginning.

Yet Ku Sang was always laughing! I remember how he began to laugh while he was giving the address at his wife’s funeral, to everyone’s astonishment. He explained that everyone assumed that he had no financial worries since his wife was a doctor with her own children’s clinic, but that she had always given everything she earned to charity, never to him. Among the very many poems by Ku Sang that I translated, this is probably my favorite:


Poetic feeling


Each month for this series

I select bits of idle chatter such as this

and turn out things called poems,


so that one young poet, perhaps finding it rather odd,

observed, "Then it seems there is absolutely nothing

in the whole world that is not a poem?"


Right! There is nothing

in the world, to be sure,

that is not a poem.


From humanity on down,

in every thing and every act,

all that is true and good and beautiful

is all poem.


More than that, in every person

and in every thing and in every act

the good, the beautiful, the true dwells.


And it is written that where sin increases

God's grace increases all the more.


Discovering that,

and then like a child

savoring and enjoying it,

is to be a poet.


That is a very remarkable Ars Poetica, in my opinion. At least it is honest and unpretentious. If we need a link joining Ku Sang to Cheon Sang-byeong, it will be enough to say that Ku Sang presided the party celebrating of Cheon’s 60th birthday in 1990, and both were close to the Mad Monk, Jung Gwang. The touching story of Cheon’s life is too complex to be repeated here. He was like Ku Sang in his liking for simple, honest poetry without artifice. His token poem “Back to Heaven” 귀천 is one of the purest poems I know of.

Back to Heaven


I'll go back to heaven again.

Hand in hand with the dew

that melts at a touch of the dawning day,


I'll go back to heaven again.

With the dusk, together, just we two,

at a sign from a cloud after playing on the slopes


I'll go back to heaven again.

At the end of my outing to this beautiful world

I'll go back and say: That was beautiful. . . .

But this poem can only be understood fully with some information about its origin. It was written in 1970, when Cheon was just 40. Three years before he had been unjustly arrested, tortured cruelly, and imprisoned for 6 months, merely because some friends who sometimes gave him a little money (as he had no job or income) had visited the North Korean embassy in East Berlin and he had not denounced them. Now he was lying sick from neglect and malnutrition in his brother’s home, expecting to die, and yet the only thing he wants to report about life in this world is “That it was beautiful.” He is one of the poets I never met, he died in 1993, but I was a frequent visitor to the cafe run by his widow and became part of the family, so to speak. In addition, the collection of his poems I translated has gone through 25 reprints, which is extraordinary, since all the sales have been in Korea, probably parents wanting to encourage their children to read poetry in English . . .


            When I began translating, the most highly admired Korean poet was Seo Jeong-ju. The Korean PEN and the Ministry of Culture used to nominate him for the Nobel Prize each year. I was urged to translate his poems, which I did, but could never really understand the exalted reputation he enjoyed. He is not a poet I can say much about, and I admired him mainly because, in his later years, when I used to meet him, his wife was suffering from Alzheimers and he had to care for her, doing all the shopping and housework. At the very end of his life, the fashion of damning utterly anyone considered to have been “pro-Japanese” caught up with him.

            If I began translating the poems of Ko Un at the same time as I was working on Seo Jeong-ju, it might be because although I was impressed by some aspects of Korea’s official literary establishment, I had frequently endured the effects of tear gas on campus and seen peacefully protesting students being beaten up, so that I was more strongly inclined to support dissent and protest. Ironically, both Seo Jeong-ju and Ko Un were victims of witch-hunts in their last years, so that Ko Un’s name is now mud in fickle Korean public opinion, thanks to an arbitrary Me-Too denunciation, although he still has many supporters, in Korea and overseas, admirers of his work. Ko Un, too, was frequently nominated for that ever-elusive Nobel Prize, and nobody can deny that a poet who can write 4001 poems about every person he ever met or heard of is no ordinary human being. Few indeed are the readers who have read every poem in Maninbo! But those thirty volumes are only a small fragment of Ko Un’s extraordinary output.


            From the very start, I felt that my duty as a translator was to translate a significant number of poems by living poets whose poems could still speak despite the total loss of their original poetic qualities by translation. As the statistics already quoted show, a remarkable number of translators have chosen to work on Korean poetry. Korean fiction, despite its success in Korea, was so clearly not likely to interest non-Korean readers, not only because of the unfamiliarity of the Korean setting, it history and culture, but also because of the lack of suspense and humor, ambiguity and depth. Poetry can more easily be both personal and universal.

Not that I ignored fiction completely. In England, the Harvill Press was founded after the war to publish translated novels from Russia and other, mainly East-European countries. It built up a fine reputation. Early in the 1990s, the owner, Christopher Maclehouse, felt an urge to publish a Korean title, since none were available anywhere. His wife, who was French, duly read the Korean books published by the French publishers Actes Sud and identified Yi Munyol’s novel “The Poet” as the most interesting. By a complex series of events I became one of the translators. For the first time, a major western publisher had chosen a work and then commissioned a translation from the Korean. Previously it was always the translator who chose what was translated, then desperately sought for a publisher.

“The Poet” is based on the true story of the poet usually known as Kim Sakkat. Kim’s grandfather was a regional governor who sided with rebels early in the 19th  century and was executed, but since he was related to the Queen, his family was not executed with him but only demoted to the lowest social status. Kim’s mother hoped that still he might be reinstated so he was able to continue Confucian studies, especially poetry, but with the years he realizes that he can never be accepted by the upper classes. He roams the rural villages, using his poetic skills to entertain educated commoners and earn a living. Finally he becomes a kind of Taoist wizard, so much in union with nature that sometimes his son has the impression he has vanished into the landscape or become a rock. In a second edition, Yi Munyol added a satirical episode where the poet composes militant songs to give courage to a group of bandit-rebels. They duly sing them and believe themselves invincible, neglecting military training, and are duly defeated. The very conservative Yi Munyol was aiming at the “left-wing” militant, socially dissident poets of his own day, just as he wrote a scathing satirical short story about a dissident poet in which everyone recognized Ko Un. The most striking feature of “The Poet” is the way it mirrors Yi Munyol’s own experience through the theme of the sins of the (grand)father being visited on the innocent children of following generations. Yi Munyol’s father went North, leaving his wife and children in the South. As a result, they were harassed by the police for years, black-listed, and generally persecuted. The father remarried in North Korea and Yi Munyol published a story about meeting his half-brother, reflecting the pain of Korea’s division through his own family story.

“The Poet” is, in my opinion, his most interesting novel and those who have read it tend to agree. I then felt obliged to translate his first and most successful novel, “Son of Man,” which sold nearly two million copies and became an iconic work among several generations of students. Its success owed much to the rapid growth of the Protestant churches in the 1970s, as if the whole of Korea would soon be Christian, although there were many moral failings which made that undesirable and unlikely. For Yi Munyol, writing the novel was essentially an exploration of the comparative value of different religions, which he studied compulsively in an attempt to discover the truth about the divine. The result is a very strange composite, the main framework being a detective story with a detective trying to solve the murder of a former seminarian, only to find that the dead man had once written a novel about the religious quest of a contemporary of Jesus, Ahusverus, known in legend as the “Wandering Jew.” The satire of Korean Protestantism in it is combined with a vast quest through the ancient religions of the Middle East, Egypt, Greece, Rome and Persia. The translation was finally published, after many years, thanks to LTI’s collaboration with Dalkey Archive. One person who read it even wrote a kind review of it, but otherwise it has vanished without trace.

My only other earlier experience of a Korean novel was to translate Ko Un’s novel “Hwaeomgyeong,”  which is based on the Buddhist story of the child Sudhana (Seon-jae in Korean pronunciation) who roams the world, meeting fifty-two beings, each of whom provides some teaching along the way to enlightenment. Ko Un transforms this tale of “The Little Pilgrim” into an image of his own life’s quest, romantic, social, and philosophical, including many poetical passages, and it has considerable charm in a fragmented kind of way, having been written over many years, from the time when Ko Un was a Buddhist monk until he retired from social activism with the inauguration of a civilian president. It was published by a Buddhist press in San Francisco but I think they were not fully convinced of the novel’s Buddhist credentials, they did nothing to promote it . . . I took Seonjae’s name when I was naturalized, being nothing more than a Little Pilgrim, but I did not return to translating novels until very recently.


As I have already indicated, I have always been especially interested in the story of the poets’ lives that underlies their work. For much of the remaining time in this lecture, I want to focus on a small number of poets whose work has had significant social impact in Korea, being in various ways the expression of strong dissent. None of them is widely known outside of Korea. I do not include Ko Un here because, despite his vital role during countless demonstrations and protests, most of his poetry has never been very explicitly “political” or even “social.”

One regret I have is the belated realization that I have translated too few female poets. I am glad to have published two collections by my colleague in Sogang University, Kim Seung-Hee, as well as a large selection of poems by the senior poet Yoo Anjin. A small collection of poems by the now deceased Hong Yunsook was also published, and individual poems by some others . . . . Various short stories and recently the novels by women I have translated have now begun to correct the imbalance.


I have no time to mention all the novels by celebrated Korean writers from the second half of the 20th  century which have been translated and published over past decades but have then failed completely to have any significant impact outside of Korea. In particular, many Koreans cannot understand why the world has so ignored Toji, the immensely boring 21-volume family saga written by Park Kyong-ni from 1969 to 1994. Likewise, the ten volumes of TaebaekSanmaek and the other extended novels by Jo Jeong-rae have attracted little attention, relative to their length, and although the minimally fictional “stories” by Park Wan-suh, mainly based on her own life experience, are much loved in Korea, there are few non-Korean readers who find them compelling, I think. Too often, in any case, the “publication” of our earlier translations has meant little more than “printing, binding and stocking.” No publicity, no distribution, no reviews.


Korea has a long tradition of poetry expressing dissent and resistance to those with power and privilege. In the popular fiction of the 19th century already we find clear expressions of hostility toward corrupt officials put in the mouths of ordinary people and a powerful tale of official corruption being overcome in the story of Chunhyang. Satire was equally expressed in pansori improvisations and in mask dances. Once Japan had taken control of Korea and begun introducing Korean intellectuals to the modern world through translations of western writings and through the education Koreans received in Japanese universities, it was inevitable that the radical transformation of Russian society in the 1917 Revolution should inspire radical discontent in Korea and Japan too.           

Revolutionary enthusiasm gave birth in 1925 to the KAPF (Korean Artists Proletarian Federation) which encouraged writers and artists to stress class consciousness and expose the sufferings of the Minjung (the masses, the proletariat). The poet Yi Sang-hwa (1901–1943) was a founding member, as were Yi Sang, Kim Dong-hwan and Im Hwa (1908–1953). Yi Sang died in 1937. Im Hwa went North in 1947, returned to Seoul with the North Korean army in 1950, and was executed as a spy in North Korea in 1953.

The sufferings of the Minjung were closely linked to the unjust policies of the Japanese, and the struggle for social transformation was inevitably linked with the anti-Japanese Independence Movement. As in China, the revolutionary focus was on the rural poor, not on urban, industrial workers, since there were so few factory-workers at that time. Marxist theory was less important than pity at the plight of the peasants, especially those driven by poverty and hunger to cross into remote areas of Manchuria, or go to Japan to work in the factories there. The KAPF was banned by the Japanese in 1935 but resistance continued to be expressed through covert references, such as Im Hwa’s “The Black Sea Straights” of 1936.


And Does Spring Come to Stolen Fields?   1926

By Yi Sang-Hwa


Now this is some other’s land – and does spring also come to stolen fields?


My body bathed by sunlight

I simply walk on as in a dream, along paddy-field paths like parted hair,

toward the place where blue sky and green fields are face to face.


You heavens, you fields, lips clamped shut

my heart seems to tell me I did not come here of my own will alone;

did you tug at me? Did someone call? Tell me, it stifles me.


            After 1945, Korea was torn apart by the conflict between rival regimes with conflicting social theories. The Korean War was experienced in the South as a fierce anti-Communist crusade which continued after the Armistice under the ongoing rule of Syngman Rhee, and political dissent in socialist directions was hardly possible. The April Revolution of 1960 brought an end to Syngman Rhee’s rule and for a moment it seemed that political freedom might allow a springtime for democracy. Two poets in particular emerged as heralds of new hope for society, Kim Su-yeong (1921–1968) and Shin Dong-yeop (1930-1969).

Kim Su-yeong was born in Seoul in 1921. He studied for a time in Japan, and in what is now Yonsei University. Some of his early poems were published in 1949. During the Korean war, he was forced to serve in the North Korean army for a time and was subsequently interned with the North Koreans on Geoje Island until 1952. His early poems were obscure, inspired by modernism, but his experience of the April Revolution helped convince him that poetry should use ordinary language and address social issues. His “Prayer” was read at the memorial ceremony held in May for the victims of 4.19, but by June he was having doubts, and by the end of October he was writing, in “Remembering That Room”  “The revolution has failed, I’ve only moved to another room. The “Fight, Fight, Fight,” on the walls of the previous room may still be there in the dark ― vain words.” He was killed in a traffic accident in 1968


A Prayer (May 18, 1960)

A song for the students who died for the nation on April 19, 1960


With the heart of one writing a poem,

with the heart of one picking flowers,

with the heart of one hearing the breath of a sleeping babe.

with the heart of one seeking a sweetheart who died,

with the glad heart of one who lost his way then found it again,

let’s see our newly found revolution through to the end.


Imitating the common laws of nature

by which water flows and moons rise,

since achieving our revolution

was simple to the point of folly,

we must keep it from being hurt, slashed, diverted, soiled

by snake, by caterpillar, rat, or lynx,

by mite, by crocodile, panther, coyote,

by wolf, by hedgehog, fox, eagle, or bug,


Shin Dong-yeop was born in 1930, in Buyeo, in a very poor family. He was educated thanks to his father’s sacrifices and became a school teacher in his hometown then moved to Seoul. During the Korean War, at the end of 1950, he was drafted into the South Korean National Defense Corps, where he had to face starvation after officers embezzled the money intended for food. Thousands of others died. He contracted TB and liver distoma. His was a wretched life. In 1959 he began his career as a poet and was actively involved in the “April 19 Revolution” so that he is referred to as the "April Revolution poet" by many writers. His “Away with the Husk” was an iconic poem in the following years. He died of cancer in 1969


Away with the Husk 껍데기는 가라

by Shin Dong-yeop


Husk, be gone.

April, let your husk

be gone, may your grain remain.


Husk, be gone;

Let only the shouting

of the Tonghak revolution in Gongju

remain, its husk once gone.


And again, husk, be gone

from this land,

in which a native lad meets his lass,

heart to heart,

free and easy.

They will welcome each other

for a marriage of minds

in the peace hall

of neutrality.


Husk, be gone

from Mount Halla in the south

to Mount Paektu in the north;

may all glinting metals be gone

and only fragrant earth remain.


By 1970, as Park Chung-hee grew ever more autocratic, both poets were dead.


Kim Jiha was born in Mokpo in 1941 and after middle/high school studies in Seoul entered the Aesthetics Department of Seoul National University, graduating in 1966. His experience of the 1960 April Revolution and the military coup of May 1961, as well as of being briefly imprisoned after the demonstrations against the 1964 treaty establishing relations with Japan, made him a strong activist opponent of Park Chung-hee, continuing after graduation. In the mid-1960s he began to write and publish poetry, and in 1969 he became a recognized poet after publishing the poem 황톳길 (Yellow Clay Road) with some others in a journal. In 1970 he published his first book-length collection Hwangto. By 1964 at least he had already adopted the pen-name Ji-ha (地下 Underground) though he later changed the characters into 芝河 (Mushroom stream).

In May 1970 the literary review Sasanggye published the breath-taking poem “Ojeok,”  Five Bandits, which the poet claimed to have written in the space of 2 days, a fierce satire denouncing the corrupt powers dominating South Korean society in a style inspired by Pansori. The government immediately blocked the distribution of the review (and later banned it) but then on June 1 the review “Minju Jeonseon (democratic front)” published by the opposition Shinmindang party reprinted it. Early in the morning of June 2, the police confiscated all 100,000 copies and on June 20 Kim Jiha and all those involved in the 2 publications were arrested and charged with crimes again the anticommunism law.  he prosecution claimed that the work fostered class consciousness and was being used to support North Korea. Kim Jiha replied that it was simply social satire in pansori form, with nothing to do with class consciousness. Time makes it hard to summarize the work, or even quote from it at length.

The poem begins by evoking the place in which the bandits live and the state of Seoul


Once five thieves were living in the heart of Seoul, the capital city.

To the South, see, turds go bobbing

down the Han River, that’s nothing but sewage, with Tongbinggo-dong high beside it,

to the North, its treeless hills bare as a chicken’s bald ass,

with Seongbuk-dong and Suyu-dong spiring aloft to the North again,

and in the space between South and North, packed tight, tight, tight, shacks cluster,

cluster like crabshells, cluster like snot, and above them soar

Changchung-dong, Yaksu-dong, shacks freely demolished helter-skelter to erect majestic gates.

Those gateways, soaring high as they please, gaudily glittering,

lead to magnificent, luxurious palaces full of flowers.


The poem then focuses on the five bandits, symbolic figures with names corresponding to the five social groups accused of corruption: (재벌 Conglomerate), 匊獪(국회의원 National Assemblyman, 礏功無 (고급공무원 High-level Civil Servant), 長猩(장성 General), 瞕搓(장차관 Minister), only the Chinese characters used in the poem are far from being the usual ones, although the pronunciation is the same. These names seem untranslateable, I have replaced them with something vaguely similar in English: “ConglomerApe, AssemblyMutt, TopCivilSerpent, General-in-Chimp, and HighMinisCur” to reflect the many characters that used the radical ‘dog.’

The 5 Bandits live in Dongbingo-dong. There follows a lengthy description of their luxurious houses, both outside and inside, as seen by the chief of police:


To keep the lawns from freezing, underlawn heating’s installed; to keep the carp from

broiling, the ponds are air-conditioned;

to protect the birds from the cold, the bird cages come equipped with heaters; to keep the dogfood from spoiling, each kennel has a fridge;


. . . . electric clocks, electric rice bowls, electric kettles, electric chopsticks, electric vases, electric mirrors, electric books, electric briefcases, iron glassware, clay woodware, Joseon celadon, white porcelain from Goryeo, Picassos hanging upside down, Chagalls hung sideways, orchid paintings by Sŏkpa glossily mounted in gold-lacquered frames, four hundred scroll paintings hanging up, eight thousand eight hundred and eighty-eight paintings of mountains, rivers, flowers, birds, butterflies, people, all crammed together, pewter earthenware, Tang vases, Japanese vases, American vases, French vases, Italian vases,


This leads to a list of the fantastic dishes prepared for a banquet, where the insanity of the satire reaches a climax:


broiled cow-hair, fried pigs’ nostrils, goats’ beards in batter, boiled deer horns, shish-kebab of four-footed chicken-legs, dried pheasant-fins, tempura of bream-wings, pickled corvinas’ toenails, the ears of croakers, bass, amberjacks, flounders and sweetfish, cut off and served up raw in salads, stews of the scales from octopus and sea-slugs, pork cutlets of beef, beef cutlets of pork, soup of swellfish with its blood not drained,


And so on to the final drama . . .


In 1972-3 Kim Jiha spent time lying low in Wonju and during that period met the novelist Park Kyongni and her daughter Kim Young-joo, who helped protect him. In 1973 he married Kim Young-joo, who (together with her mother and his mother) supported him in the following agonizing years of torture and prison. Then he was caught up in the in the 1974 People's Revolutionary Party case, arrested, sentenced to death, only there was so strong a groundswell of international support for Kim Jiha as a prisoner of conscience (involving J-P Sartre and others) that the sentence was commuted to life in prison. In 1980, after the death of Park Chung-hee, he was amnestied, in very poor health.

In 1975 he had published a poetry collection with the title 타는 목마름으로 (With Burning Thirst) and the title poem had become the rallying song of generations of protesting students: 


In a back alley at dawn

I write your name: Democracy!

So long since my head forgot you.

So very very long since my steps forgot you.

Only one scrap remains,

the memory of thirst in my burning breast

secretly writes your name: Democracy!


Somewhere in a back alley before dawn.

A sound of footsteps, sound of whistles, sound of pounding on doors

cries, the sound of someone’s long, unending scream,

sounds of groaning, sounds of wailing, a sound of sighing, and there, in my breast,

above your name engraved so deeply deeply there,

above the solitary splendor of your name,

the agony of still living on,

the memory of green freedom still living on,

the blood-stained faces of friends arrested, returning still living.


(******) With shaking hand, with shaking breast,

with shaking, trembling indignation, on a wooden board

in white chalk, awkwardly

I write.


Holding my breath, sobbing,

secretly I write your name.

With a burning thirst.

With a burning thirst.

Democracy! Mansei!


But alas, after being released from prison, Kim Jiha vanishes from the pages of dissident history.


If time allowed, I would also mention here the remarkable first collection by Shin Gyeong-nim, “Farmers’ Dance,” which I admire greatly and am glad to have translated. But I must move on. One of the first poets I published translations of after Ku Sang was Kim Kwang-kyu. Born in 1941 like Kim Chiha, he was the very antithesis of the wild rebel. In the early 1970s he spent some years studying in Germany, where he began to translate the works of such writers as Berthold Brecht, Günter Eich and Heinrich Heine, with their subtle, humoristic satire. Like Ku Sang, Kim felt little sympathy for the esthetic lyricism characterizing Korean poetry and although he had started to write even as a high-school student, it was only after he realized that he could imitate his German models that he began writing poems in Korean. His first collection was published just as Chun Doo-Hwan took power and was largely suppressed, which gave him added prestige as a pro-democratic poet. His poems appealed to the new generations of students and intellectuals, and he avoided being arrested or prosecuted because his satire was too subtle to be understood by the military censors.


The Land of Mists by Kim Gwang-gyu


In the land of mists,

always shrouded in mist,

nothing ever happens.

And if something happens

nothing can be seen

because of the mist.

For if you live in mist

you get accustomed to mist

so you do not try to see.

Therefore in the land of mists

you should not try to see.

You have to hear things.

For if you do not hear you cannot live,

so ears keep growing bigger.

People like rabbits

with great ears of white mist

live in the land of mists.


In 1984, a new poetry collection 노동의 새벽 (Dawn of Labor) was published by a mysterious, unknown worker-poet, Park Nohae, whose name (like Kim Jiha’s) was clearly a pseudonym, No = 노동자 (worker) hae = 해방 (liberation). The collection quickly became essential reading among the radical students who were struggling against the continuing military dictatorship of Chon Doo-hwan and in favor of social transformation in a socialist direction. The most radical students’ anti-capitalist, proletarian stance seemed echoed in these poems, that gave a voice to factory workers, expressing their suffering caused by over-long, underpaid working hours with the constant threat of accidents and disease, and fear of losing their job at the least excuse. Clearly the poet was himself a worker (or some wondered if he was perhaps a collective poet, with the poems being written by more than one hand?). The tone of the poems was less militant than pathetic, they are moving evocations of pain and frustration, of longing for solidarity and compassion.


The Dawn of Labor


The war-like night shift once over,

I pour icy soju

onto my aching heart.


I can’t go on like this much longer,

I can’t go on like this for ever.


With three wretched meals a day,

covered in grease, in a trial of strength,

all my energy squeezed out, struggling,

though this war-like labor

can’t go on much longer,

can’t go on for ever,

I have no choice.


If only I could get free,

exhausted, phantom-like,

if only I could fly free of my fate at twenty-nine,

but, ah,

I have no choice, have no choice.

Apart from death, I have no choice.

This tough life,

the yoke of poverty,

this fate, I have no choice.


Into my drooping body,

for the sake of tomorrow’s approaching workload,

onto my aching heart at dawn

I pour icy soju,

longing for a tenacity stronger than soju,

I pour wrath and sorrow.


This unavoidable wall of despair

will break and burst in the end

in rough drops of sweat and blood,

as for the sake of our calmly breathing,

growing love,

our fury,

our hope and unity,

we pour a shared glass of icy soju

onto our aching hearts at dawn,

until a new dawn for workers

comes rising up.


            Perhaps because the age had changed, but also because the poems were quite long and less lyrical, few or none were set to music to become rousing demo-songs. Instead, idealistic students read them and were so moved that some quit university in order to go onto the factory floor and become activists in support of the voiceless workers. They did not always notice that the central message of the poems was not conflict and violent revolution but a hope for a better, more human world of sharing, as in the poem “Heaven”:


Ah, we too want to be a heaven.

Not a black-clouded heaven weighing down;

we want to be a world where each of us is a blue heaven for everyone,

supporting one another.


The intelligence services determined to identify the person who had dared challenge the nation’s capitalist order. Park Nohae remained the “faceless poet” even after he and others established the 'South Korean Socialist Workers’ Alliance' 사노맹 in 1989. This was seen by the regime as a pro-communist organization and the hunt intensified. Park Nohae lived in hiding, constantly moving around. Finally his real name and identity became known and in March 1991 he was arrested: he was 박기평, born in 1957, his father had died when he was 7, his mother working in factories too poor to care for the children, he went up to Seoul to work in factories in his mid-teens. After 24 days of torture and interrogation, he was brought out to stand trial and for the first time the newspapers were able to get pictures of this mysterious poet whose book had sold nearly 1 million copies. Despite all he had been through, he was smiling broadly. The prosecution argued that the goal of the 사노맹 had been to overthrow the democratic order and install a communist regime. Park and his companions, it was claimed, should be punished by death as enemies of the state.

Finally he was sentenced to life imprisonment and taken to Gyeongju prison where he was placed in a tiny cell in solitary confinement. He was obliged to admit the failure of the militant labor activities he had been involved in to make the world a better place, to enable workers to live more truly human lives. He spent long hours each day sitting meditating, overcoming almost suicidal despair in a struggle to turn his back on the failed past and confront the future.

This he expressed in the poems of 참된 시작 “True Beginning” which was published in 1993. In 1997 he published  a volume of poetic essays 사람만이 희망이다 “Only a Person Is Hope” (1997). The poems for these 2 collections had to be smuggled out of prison. The second, far more hopeful as its title suggests, indicates the need for a society of Community, of sharing and mutual caring, as the only solution to dehumanized, profit-based capitalist society. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It began with a message from Cardinal Kim expressing the hope that Park might soon be released from prison. In 1998, Kim Dae-jung became president and in August that year Park was freed. He did not return to the factory and the workers’ struggle. Instead he withdrew, refused state compensation for his suffering in the struggle for democratization, and also refused to profit from his past to play a powerful role now. Since then, his concern has been with the struggle for justice, peace and sharing in the world’s most troubled regions.


Song Kyung-dong was born in 1967, 10 years after Park Nohae. Unlike the previous two poets, he has continued to be a common laborer, a building construction worker, while publishing 3 poetry collections and a volume of essays. He is strongly engaged in the ongoing dramas of workers driven to despair by the post-industrial tactics of Korea’s factory owners eagerly closing factories and dismissing workers in Korea in order to outsource production to branch factories in poorer countries. One poem in his latest collection, “I am not Korean,” commemorates the many suicides that have resulted. Still, not all the poems and events are tragic. Song has a sturdy sense of humor. And he boasts of his record breaking day when he received 6 summonses


Six Summonses


I come home late one night

and my wife hands me a bunch of mail—

summonses from Jongno Police Station, Yeongdeungpo Police Station,

Seocho Police Station, Namdaemun Police Station and Seoul Central District Court,

six summonses from various locations,

on the same day at the same time. Should I tell Guinness World Records?


He was sentenced to prison for his role in organizing the “Hope Buses,” a fleet of 200 buses organized in support of workers protesting at the top of cranes and chimneys. He laughs at his win-and-lose situation.

In the morning of the day I was to receive the Cheon Sang-Byeong Poetry Award

I was standing in a courtroom at the Seoul Central District Court,

waiting to receive my sentence.


Justice on the one hand,

illegality on the other. Fortunately,

while the fine was three million won, the prize money was five million,

so justice won in part.


The title poem of his most recent collection “I am not Korean” enumerates instances in which Korean companies have exploited, crushed and oppressed the workers in their factories in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand etc. It ends:


On this planet, where 85 of the world’s richest people

possess the same wealth as one half of the world’s population,

who the devil am I?


I am a Korean.

No, I’m not a Korean.

I am Song Kyung-dong.

No, I am not Song Kyung-dong.

I am Pirun, Pabi, Phok, Seron,

Parveen Akhtar.

Countless workers’ names,

countless ignorance, pain, suffering, despair

disgrace, on-looking, waiting, transgressions,

falling again, rising again,

riots across borders, solidarity,

struggle and resistance.


In 2021, Korea continues to have thousands of poets writing in a great variety of styles, mostly being self-published. Novels continue to be published with increasingly fantastic plots as younger writers propose psychological thrillers, science-fiction, and with Korean graphic fiction gaining in popularity, even being published overseas in translation like the Japanese manga. But in my personal history, recent years have seen me focus on the popular senior inspirational poet Jeong Ho-seung, for whom I have great affection, in part because we share the same birthday. Jeong’s poems have attracted the attention of some of the great Korean folk singers, Lee Dong-won, An Ji-hwan, Kim Kwang-seok, Jang Sa-ik and some 70 or more of his poems have been set to music. Jeong Ho-seung ponders on the paradoxical meaning of life, caught between joy and sorrow, love, pain, hope and death, both in poetry and in stories which are a kind of children’s fables for adults, Loving and Lonesome Jar being two of my most recent publications. His lyricism is delicate and touching.



As for Korean fiction in English translation, probably the most important turning-point came in 2011, when Knopf published “Please Look After Mom” by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Chi-Young Kim ( a New York-based lawyer whose mother, Yu Young-nan was an earlier translator). Knopf  is a Big Name among publishers! Until then, almost all Korean titles had been published by small, unknown presses with no budget for publicity or bookstore distribution, or by university presses relying mainly on class-room use and automatic library purchases. At last Korean fiction was no longer seen as material for study but as material for the worldwide entertainment industry, just like Korea’s movies, TV dramas, and (a little later) K-pop. “Please Look After Mom” was marketed in the West for general readers, especially members of book-clubs, being presented as a touching Asian family saga. It was not at all marketed as a “Korean” title, although the author’s identity made that clear enough. It was distributed, reviewed and publicized in the usual Knopf style, massively. There was a separate UK edition with a corrected English title, “Please Look After Mother.”  It did not sell millions of copies, as some of Knopf’s titles do, but for the very first time a translated Korean novel was treated just like any other appealing novel, whether translated or not.

          The other major event for the translation and recognition of Korean fiction was the award to Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. Again, we find a touching Asian family saga, although darker and more clearly a study in social and psychological alienation. The fuss made by some pedantic Koreans about the somewhat free / inaccurate translation had no effect on international sales. In fact, “The Vegetarian” was only the trailblazer for what was to follow. Korea had by this time begun to be an international household name, especially among the younger generations, thanks first to a series of very successful romantic TV dramas adored especially in Japan, South-East Asia and India, perhaps more than in the UK or USA, and then to the growing popularity of Korean movies, but above all to K-Pop music. In Korean literature, the troubled, problematic psychology of the main character in “The Vegetarian” was already a familiar motif, although certainly some readers wondered whether the novel was really worth so much praise.

A New York literary agent , Barbara Zitwer, seized on the growing popularity among younger Western readers of psychological “thrillers,” as well as horror stories, science-fiction, and almost anything written by younger women, and was able to find important commercial publishers for a considerable number of Korean novels, mostly by younger female authors such as Bae SuAh, Hwang Sun-mi, Pyun Hye-young, Jeong You-Jeong, Cho Nam-Joo, Kim Soom, as well as Kim Un-su, and the older male Hwang Sok-yong. The name of Sora Kim Russell looms large among the younger translators producing this new form of Korean Wave.

Thanks to Barbara Zitwer, we have escaped from the nightmare decades in which a translator, having selected a novel or poet (s)he liked and translated the work, desperately tried to find a “publisher” of any kind. Major companies like Knopf were inaccessible because they only deal with literary agents. We often turned to one-(wo)man, non-profit publishers such as White Pine Press, Cornell East Asia Series, MerwinAsia, Homa & Sekey, or (worse still) Stallion in Singapore . . . . the books got printed, but that was about all. The Korean government has long tried to encourage the “globalization” of Korean writing, first through the 문예진흥원 Korea Culture & Arts Foundation, then through 한군문학 번역원 LTI Korea, providing generous funding to translators once their work was accepted by a foreign publisher, as well as sending Korean writers overseas to speak and read at festivals. But that has had very little real impact.

Today, the tables have turned. It is not only K-pop and Korean movies that make the headlines, even Korean fiction is being translated, then published by major commercial presses,  and embraced by readers in many countries as never before. Not all of it, of course, since major publishers can only publish a small number of titles each year, and they only want to publish novels that they can market successfully. Korean writers have begun to understand that they have to be writing to entertain the world at large, especially the young, not only older South Korean readers. The younger translators now producing translations of popular novels and graphic fiction by younger Korean writers can hope for more success, so long as the Korean writers are able to provide what is needed. Fiction today has to be entertaining, and different, has to speak to the world’s demanding young readers who do not care if a writer is famous in Seoul and Busan. Korean writers who write exclusively for a Korean readership do not need translators. Those who write for tomorrow’s world will be given the priority. If the writers do not write what is needed, the translators will labor in vain.


To end on a personal note, since the Covid pandemic struck early in 2020 I have been translating contemporary Korean novels proposed to me by Barbara Zitwer. Of the seven I have completed, only one has so far been taken by a major publisher. Yi Geum-yi’s “The Picture Bride” 알로하, 나의 엄마들will be published in October 2022. It all takes time! This tells the story of three young women from a remote Gyeongsang Province village who in 1919 set out to become “picture brides” marrying Koreans working in the plantations of Hawaii. Two find themselves married to men far older than they thought, while the main character discovers that her husband did not know she existed until she arrived, his father having acted without telling him in order to have a grandchild before he died. The three women end up working together, united by strong bonds of friendship. The last part moves to 1941, Pearl Harbor, when the daughter of one of the three discovers something surprising about herself.

Gong Ji-young is a popular but rather controversial writer. I have translated two of her novels, “A Tall, Blue Ladder” 높고 푸른 사다리, and “The Open Sea” 먼바다, in both of which we see how very difficult communications are between two people who claim to love one another. Gong is strongly Catholic, the first tells of a young brother in a Korean monastery who falls for the niece of his Abbot, despite knowing that she already has a fiancé in the US. Finally, their relationship comes to nothing, he becomes a priest. The novel evokes two major episodes from the Korean War, the Heungnam Evacuation and the years spent in the Oksadong prison camp in North Korea by a group of German Benedictine monks and nuns. “The Open Sea” tells of an older woman, a university professor, who visits New York and meets a man who, forty years before, she had loved but he was a seminarian and she only a high-school student, then suddenly he left for the USA. Reconnected thanks to Facebook, they are to meet and all the questions she still has about what happened forty years before come back amidst tension and confusion.

Kwon Jeong-hyeon is perhaps less well-known, even in Korea. the novel “Blade and Tongue” 칼과 (which has already been published in France) is set in Manchuria during the last days of the war. A Chinese prisoner, a cook is given the task of preparing special dishes for the Japanese Commander, whose main interest is the enjoyment of fine cooking. Various plot strands, including one involving a Korean woman, are interwoven.

Jeong-Myeong (JM) Lee’s “Broken Summer” 부서진 여름 was only published in Korea in May 2021, the translation is already complete and it is currently being shown to publishers. A famous artist wakes one morning to find that his wife has left him, leaving a section of a novel she has written depicting him as a seducer of an under-aged girl. We return in flashback to the death by drowning 25 years before of the wife’s older sister. The artist’s father was imprisoned for her murder but doubts remain until at the climax all becomes clear and the artist acknowledges that he has been using and abusing his wife all these years.

  Im Seong-sun’s “Antarctic Mutiny” 극해 is the most violent and exciting novel I have translated. It is entirely set on a trawler commandeered by the Japanese navy during the Pacific War. The officers are Japanese, the crew Korean, Taiwanese and Filipino. The cruelty of the Japanese Bosun leads the Koreans to mutiny, killing all but one of the Japanese. The novel includes sodomy, cannibalism and multiple murders. Barbara Zitwer is afraid of it, it seems to me a very exciting read. The same author’s “The Consultant” 컨서턴트tells the adventures of a murder-planner who struggles with his conscience in a world where death comes in so many forms for so many inhuman reasons..


These brief summaries of translated but not yet published recent novels serve to show that Korean fiction is no longer gloomy and nationalistic. It is as entertaining and imaginative, although often in grotesque and hair-raising ways, as any Korean movie, and shows that Korean writers have come a long way from the earlier nationalism and  “documentary realism.” They are now fully “globalized,” so much so that translators and agents have to struggle to keep up with them.