Literary Translation from Korean into English: A Study in Criteria

by An Sonjae (Brother Anthony of Taizé)


Very few discussions of the specific problems facing the translator of Korean literature have been published, in part because so few people are active in the area.[1] It would be hard to list ten translators who have published a significant number of volumes of translations from Korean.[2] Most of those who translate Korean literature do so in whatever spare time they have left after their main occupations, and have little opportunity to reflect on or write about their work, let alone familiarize themselves with the literature and the concepts of translation theory. Certainly none of the discussions of the problems arising in translation from Korean that have so far been published attain the quality of the introductions by David Hawkes, A. C. Graham, or Arthur Cooper to the volumes of Chinese poetry translated by them in the Penguin Classics.[3]

If little is being translated, even less is being published. This can be explained by the general lack of awareness of (and therefore interest in) Korea and its literature in the world at large. Korea is widely considered not to merit the degree of interest shown in its much larger and more highly esteemed immediate neighbours. Whereas a simple search of the online bookseller Amazon’s database for ‘Chinese literature’ brings up 440 titles, and 296 for ‘Japanese literature’, ‘Korean literature’ only produces 60 titles, a good number of which prove to be works by or about Korean-American writers. Where China and Japan are countries which have cultural prestige in the western world, Korea is one of the many which do not. Indeed, Korea probably has an ‘image problem’. If it is perceived at all, it is generally seen in terms of a violent war, corrupt politics, consumer products of dubious quality, bankrupt companies, rioting students, and striking workers. In cultural and literary terms, it has never figured much in American awareness, less still in European. The Korean president’s recent Nobel Peace Prize has probably had little effect, since so few people are aware of the true nature of the country’s division and the reasons why the prize was awarded. Korea, it seems, is doomed to be grossly overshadowed by Japan and China, without having the alternative charms or challenges of countries like Thailand, Vietnam, or Burma. The international reputation of Korean literature in translation might best to compared to that of Philippino, Taiwanese, or Indonesian literature — unpublished and unknown.

A general discussion of the problems of translating Korean literature would need to cover several very different topics. First come the more strictly linguistic problems involved in the transfer into English of what was written in Korean, given the immense differences between the two language systems. Closely related to this are the cultural and historical presuppositions underlying and underpinning literary works written in Korean, which are not shared by readers living elsewhere. Strictly literary conventions differ too, so that the ways in which Koreans write poetry and fiction may not be the same as elsewhere. Not completely unrelated to this is the question of the criteria by which certain works are recognized as significant in their country of origin. The selection of works to be translated for publication abroad is often influenced by their popularity with readers or regimes at home, although their appeal may not in fact be translatable.

In discussions of translation between European languages, it is comparatively easy to cite examples in both languages, not only because the alphabet is familiar but because the languages themselves are often more or less known to many readers. Korean is written using its own unique phonetic system (hangul) with the possible inclusion of Chinese ideograms (‘characters’) in the case of words of Chinese origin, either in parentheses after the hangul or in place of it. There exist several systems of ‘romanization’, but it may be more helpful first simply to summarize the essential features. The intention here is to suggest just how great is the difference between Korean and English, and implicit is the question of how (if at all) the specific qualities of Korean can be translated. This discussion is entirely about the translation of contemporary (late twentieth-century) works.

Korean is a language usually categorized as ‘polysyllabic agglutinating’, and in that respect it is often compared to such western languages as Hungarian. It modifies and develops meaning by the addition of syllables at the end of words. Its structures are closely parallel to those of Japanese, and are very unlike those of Chinese or of Indo-European languages. In particular, the verb governing each separate phrase within a sentence, which usually ends with the added syllables indicating the mode governing the phrase (corresponding to the English ‘if’, ‘but’, ‘and’, ‘however’), comes as the last word of the phrase, while the main verb of a sentence is always placed at the very end of the entire sentence.

As in Japanese, the forms of pronouns, verb endings, and sometimes the choice of vocabulary are dictated by the relative positions of speaker and addressee in the social hierarchy, mostly based today on their relative age. There are very great differences between formal and informal styles of speech (mostly indicated by verb endings), and bitter disputes can be caused by talking ‘down’ to someone to whom one should be talking ‘up’. Nothing can ever directly represent this in English translation. In conversation, whether addressing or talking about people, it is usual to employ titles indicative of social relationship which have no place in equivalent western discourse: 형수 ‘wife of my elder brother’, 아우 ‘my younger sibling’, 고모부 ‘husband of my father’s sister’.

Like Japanese, Korean has borrowed a very large number of words from Chinese, amounting to nearly half the current vocabulary. The resulting mixture can be compared to the mixture of Germanic and French/Latin vocabulary in modern English, but the differences are much greater. Chinese words furnish virtually all the abstract and intellectual terminology. Even when they are written using hangul, they can usually only be understood by reference to their ideograms (most Chinese ‘words’ are a combination of two ideograms). The sound value of these Chinese words cannot easily be exploited for poetic or dramatic effect, since each character is spoken as a single syllable based on one of the pronunciations found in China, but deprived of the tones by which the various homophones are distinguished in Chinese. Unfortunately, young Koreans receive minimal education in the Chinese characters and are therefore very often unable to understand the nuances writers seek to introduce by using them, specific nuances which of course vanish in translation.

Words of native Korean origin belong to a radically different system of language, one which is profoundly oral (where the Chinese characters belong to an essentially written, literary system of communication). Again, a certain parallel can perhaps be drawn with the specific qualities associated with Anglo-Saxon. In its expressive power when spoken, Korean is perhaps unmatched; in many cases, feeling is expressed by using varieties of what would, in English, be termed onomatopoeia, and shades of meaning are indicated by progressive deepening of a word’s vowels.

One of the greatest challenges facing the translator of Korean is the way intensities and complexities of feeling are expressed by sound values, often doubled. Thus the exclamation 아이구 ‘Aigu!’ is used, with varying tonality, in keening for a dead parent, or expressing sympathy for another person’s bad news, but it is also used on spilling a cup of coffee, or to express exasperation on just missing a bus, amazement on meeting a long-lost friend, or fury at losing one’s job, to suggest but a few scenarios. 잘랑잘랑 (challang-challang) is a verbal modifier (adverb) corresponding to ‘jingling’ or ‘clinking’, while 자래잘래 (charae-charae) indicates a shaking head, 잘록잘록 (challok-challok) is used to evoke a sense of constriction by tight binding, especially a woman’s ‘hour-glass’ waist, 잘박잘박 (chalbak-chalbak) expresses ‘splashing along’. But none of these can vie with the simple 잘잘 (chal-chal), for which a dictionary offers the following evocations: (a) water boiling, (b) something dragging, (c) rapid motion to and fro, (d) shaking something in the hand, (e) oily and well-fed. Not surprisingly, subtle differences distinguish this from the closely related 절절 (chŏl-chŏl), 졸졸 (chol-chol), 줄줄 (chul-chul).

Korean has no definite or indefinite articles. It can, but frequently does not, distinguish between singular and plural. Pronouns are not used when the subject governing a verb is thought to be obvious. Endings of nouns indicate grammatical values roughly corresponding to subject and object (nominative/accusative) but the correspondence is not exact. Adjectives are verbal forms - participles when preceding a noun, directly verbal where English adds ‘be’. The use of verbal ‘participles’ in what we might term adjectival position is not without parallels in German or Latin: 김포 가는 (Kimp’o kanŭn kil) ‘Kimpo going road’ is ‘the road (going) to Kimpo’. Verbs have endings indicating past tense and a future (anticipatory) mode, but future ideas are often formulated in other ways. Briefly, Korean supplies much information, but uses structures and formulations that have no direct equivalent in English.

The translator of Korean prose usually finds that the order of phrases in a complex Korean sentence has to be almost completely reversed to produce a correspondingly natural English sentence. Within each phrase, too, words take a quite different order. Beyond that, the endings providing the grammatical structure do not always correspond to a precise English equivalent. As a simple example, - (myŏn) can be conditional ‘if’ or temporal ‘when, once’ while the most frequent qualifying ending –는데 (nŭnde) is without clear equivalent, but often invites translators to use ‘since’, ‘although’, ‘but’, ‘yet’, ‘however’, ‘after all’. In any case, these elements begin the English phrase where they end the Korean.

The differences between the two language systems just outlined mean that the translator is bound to operate in a far freer manner than when the languages are very similar. There can be no ‘literal’ translation. Yet Korean academics and critics discussing translation often insist that translations should be strictly ‘faithful’ to the original. A translation of a poem I once produced was rendered quite incomprehensible because a Korean editor decided that the English version must reproduce the word order of the original. When Koreans translate into English, the result is often very unlike standard English because they are so dominated by their own language. They simply cannot make the transition. The general outlines of the debates within translation theory on this kind of situation are familiar.

Modern (twentieth-century) Korean literature comprises a series of texts that were written under a variety of particular, conditioning circumstances which strongly influenced and coloured all that was produced. The challenge facing the translator here is the way that knowledge of this background is assumed in the reader, and therefore remains only implicit in most narratives, which can hardly be correctly read without it. In 1910, control over the Korean peninsula was forcibly taken from the last king of the Choson era by the Japanese. The Japanese set about replacing Korean culture with their own; for a while, use of the Korean language was completely prohibited. In 1919 a struggle for Korean independence was launched; it provoked a brutal crackdown, but a Korean-language press was then allowed, and the publication of a limited number of literary texts in Korean, until the extreme nationalism of the war years again made Japanese the only authorized language. All instruction in schools was always carried out in Japanese, and students using their own language were punished.

Literary work between 1910 and 1945 was strongly conscious of its modernity; there was little or no continuity with the literary traditions of the Choson era. Writers were often acutely aware of what had been written in Europe in recent decades, thanks to the excellent translations into Japanese that were available (translation had been a vital part of the policy of openness known as the Meiji reform, in the second half of the nineteenth century). Many writers wrote with the intention of supporting the demand for Korean independence, although that could only be done indirectly, through veiled symbols. There could be no directly nationalistic writing, but the very fact of writing in the Korean language was an act of defiance and an expression of hope. The Russian revolution and the establishment of the Communist USSR led certain writers and intellectuals to adhere to socialist paradigms of realism, while others adapted Modernist and Surrealist models.

With liberation in 1945, groups that had been struggling for Korean liberation in exile returned from China, Siberia, and the United States. The terms of the Japanese surrender signed in August 1945 required all Japanese personnel to withdraw from all occupied territories, including Korea. The USSR and the US were jointly to oversee the transition of Korea to full independence. The ideological divisions hardened with the presence in the north of Soviet troops and in the south of American. These were intended to prepare the country for elections, but finally a republic with elected officials was instituted in the south while in the north a system controlled by the Workers’ Party took control. Before and during the Korean War, writers were among those who moved south and north, according to their ideological and personal options. Some were forced to go north against their will. The division of the peninsula since the 1953 armistice means that North and South Korean literature have developed separately, in almost total ignorance of one another, books from each side being forbidden in the other. From this point in this discussion, the term ‘Korean literature’ is used to designate what is, in fact, only South Korean literature.

The polarized nature of the ideological conflict meant that after the end of the war, writers in the south had little freedom to explore openly socialist options of any kind. At the same time, life was dominated by the pain arising from the tragic division of what had previously been a single country, which was reflected within many families, with parents left on one side, children on the other, husbands and wives or brothers and sisters separated, simply because of where they had been living in 1953. Three million had died.

After the war, South Korean society was in deep disarray; the traditional life of most rural villages had been seriously disrupted, poverty and social dislocation filled the cities with migrants, the wounds caused by war and division only festered. This situation gave birth to a vast number of literary works, short stories in particular, which needed only to evoke the painful realities of contemporary Korean life to find a deep resonance. This documentary, ‘realistic’ fiction is mainly designed to celebrate the degree to which individuals retained their human dignity in the face of quite appalling suffering and injustice. This dignity is sometimes barely perceptible, a touch of Stoicism, a continuing readiness to hope that there will be meaning. Writers and literary critics saw no value or literary interest in ‘protest’ and rather stressed the ‘high seriousness’ of the writer’s task in raising the public’s vision of daily life.

Since the end of the Korean War, Korean literature has been written and published in an intensely dramatic socio-historical context of repression that has so determined what is and is not said that an awareness of it is a sine qua non for the potential reader. The Korean reader knows, at least as stereotyped situations, the human impact of the urbanization and industrialization of the 1960s and 1970s, and the accompanying dictatorships. The main events of Korean history are so familiar that they are often evoked simply as a string of numbers or a single name: ‘625’ (the outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June, 1950), ‘419’ (the violent repression of student protests on 19 April 1960, which cost Syngman Rhee his presidency), ‘517’ (the 17 May 1961 coup by the military led by Park Chung-hee), ‘1026’ (the 26 October 1979 assassination of President Park by the head of his security service), ‘1212’ (the 1979 semi-coup by which General Chun Doo-hwan took control of the military), ‘519’ (the May 1980 declaration of martial law by Chun), ‘Yushin’ (the 1972 suspension of the Constitution and of all democratic institutions), ‘Kwangju’ (the south-western city where hundreds were killed in an uprising in May, 1980).

The problem facing the translator here is probably insoluble. Since the Korean readership brings intense emotional associations ready-made to the least mention of these and a host of similar moments, Korean writers feel no need to explain background or even make very explicit the events they are referring to. Footnotes will never provide enough information to awaken the same feelings in a non-Korean. In addition, many of the short stories and novels make quite harrowing reading. ‘Why is Korean literature so depressing?’ is a frequently asked question. It is hard to give a satisfactory answer. Yet Koreans value such works very highly, enjoy reading them, and cannot easily believe that other readers will not share their admiration, ‘if the work is properly translated’. The element of underlying nationalism makes the issue even thornier.

It was only in the later 1980s that writers began to explore zones of experience that are more directly familiar to non-Korean readers. As wealth has increased, the Korean urban landscape has begun to look less specifically Korean; high-rise blocks of flats have taken the place of single-storey houses. The solitude of the modern Korean, alienated by the anonymity of life in the ‘concrete jungle’, is a major focus of contemporary women writers, in particular, and it is surely no coincidence that stories of this kind are both easier to translate and easier to read. The main limitation, one less easily overcome by a translator’s vivid annotations, would seem to be the lack of what might be termed suspense, wit, bite, or sophistication in the construction of plot lines and narrative strategies. Most of the time, the writer is content to narrate a familiar slice of daily life, in the course of which the central figure experiences emotions. This kind of writing is already familiar in the West in the works of Japanese writers; it will be interesting to see if works by Korean authors, deprived of the aesthetic prestige that Japan enjoys, can appeal in the same degree.

The translator of poetry often senses particularly acutely that while s/he is trying to translate the words of poems, s/he is in fact under pressure to translate an established reputation.[4] Ko Un is today one of the most famous poets in Korea; he is recognized and greeted if he walks down a street anywhere in the country.[5] Yet this recognition has less to do with the poems he has written than with the fact that he was a member of the entourage invited to accompany President Kim Dae-Jung on his historic visit to North Korea in 2000, highly visible in the television reports during and the talk shows after the event. That invitation was made because during the 1970s and 1980s Ko Un was the main spokesman for the writers and artists opposed to the military dictatorships. As such, he was frequently arrested and imprisoned. Like President Kim Dae-Jung, he had suffered for his refusal to accept that ‘might is right’. When the leaders of North and South had signed their historic agreement, he was suddenly called to the podium by both to read a poem about Korean unity he had written that morning. It seems unlikely that there is any other country in the world where poetry could play such a public, national role.

Ko Un is an ideal case for closer reflexion on what criteria the translator of Korean literature should adopt. He is immensely prolific, having published more than 120 volumes. He writes in almost every genre: brief ‘Zen’ poems, lyric poems, fifteen volumes of poems descriptive of individuals he has encountered, longer poems filling one or several volumes, including an epic on Korea’s anti-Japanese struggle that is seven volumes long. In addition he has written several novels, mostly on Buddhist themes, dramas, large numbers of essays on literary and social topics, travel books, and translations from classical Chinese. After ten years as a Buddhist monk, he entered a nihilistic phase that lasted another ten years until a failed suicide in 1970, after which he discovered his vocation as a social dissident, the prophetic task that led to his present prominence. Ko Un is the first Korean poet to have become a familiar figure on an international level, esteemed by Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Robert Hass, invited to read at events including such festivals as the UNESCO First World Poetry Day of the Millennium held in Athens and Delphi in March 2001.

There he read a suitably oracular poem, 촛불 앞에서 (‘Before a Candle’), which may usefully serve as a case study in the ways the translator from Korean works. In its formal aspects, the poem is a typical modern Korean poem, with lines of greatly varying length divided into irregular ‘stanzas’. Ko Un writes poems in which the form is entirely free, depending on the qualities of the language to give poetic texture. Like many other poets, he does not use punctuation since the grammar of Korean (outlined above) makes it perfectly clear where a phrase or sentence ends. The opening section (stanza) has nine lines:


우리는 오늘 뭔가를 놓쳐버리고 있지 않은가

urinŭn onŭl muŏngarŭl noch’yŏbŏrigo ich’i anŭnga?

Aren’t we missing something today?

찾아야 것을

kkok ch’ajaya hal kŏsŭl

something that surely has to be found

엉겁결에 열차는 떠나버리고

ŏnggŏpkyore yŏlch’anŭn ttŏnabŏrigo

unexpectedly train leaves  

이루어야 것을

kkok iruŏya hal kŏsŭl

something that surely has to be accomplished

하늘 높이 휘날릴 깃발

chŏ hanŭl nop’i huinallil kitpal

flag that will flutter high up there in the sky

결코 헛될 없게

kyŏlk’o hŏttoel su ŏpke

not at all able to be in vain


kkok iruŏ

surely accomplished

내일의 푸른 들녘 가득히 피어날 꽃을 앞두고

naeirŭi p’urŭn tŭlnyŏk’ kadŭk’i p’iŏnal kkoch’ul ap’tugo

before flowers that will fill tomorrow's green plains

우리는 오늘 뭔가를 놓쳐버리고 있지 않은가

urinŭn onŭl muŏngarŭl noch’yŏbŏrigo ich’i anŭnga?

aren’t we missing something today?


It would take too long to explain the word-by word grammatical transformations yielding the conservative interlinear translation of each line; we need only note that they are standard, that the grammar of each separate line is regular. The initial translation given here reflects the fact that Korean has no equivalent to English articles, so that the translator has to introduce a distinction between definite and indefinite articles later.

It becomes clear at once that the line-breaks mark off units of sense, with grammatical patterns and individual words repeated here and there. The lines stand in an apparent but often undefined relationship with one another. Between the complete (but mysterious) question with its grammatical form associated with inner pondering which opens and closes the section, we find seven lines that cannot be read as a united, coherent, closed sentence. The grammar does not allow it. Koreans, asked to ‘explain’ the sequence of images, or the relationship of one line with another, admit that at least with some lines they cannot. They admit that it is a ‘difficult’ poem, but they do not therefore find fault with it. They will suggest, rather, that this is the way it achieves poetic status. This is very common in Korean poetry, and is perhaps especially characteristic of some of Ko Un’s work.

The next section is represented without romanizing the Korean:


밤마다 여기저기 모여

gathering here and there every evening

자꾸 주사위만 던지면서

regularly playing at dice

만나야 것을

what surely ought to be meeting

그냥 보내고 말지 않았는가

have we not finally simply sent away?

차가운 밤거리 지나가던

used to pass through chill evening alley

지난날 통금시대 안마장이 소경의 피리소리

old curfew time whistle of the blind masseur

그것마저 보내고 숨막히는 정적

precisely the suffocating silence after we sent away

우리는 한때 거기에 활을 적이 있다

we loosed an arrow there.


The rest of the poem can be quoted giving only the initial English version, in the line order of the Korean:


But also voices that have been shouting for far too long have vanished

wind rolls trundling along

scraps of leaflets, plastic, newspapers

was this freedom?

Aren’t we missing something today?


word ‘history’ and word ‘last’

used a very great deal but

always it was first.

Still, have we done all there was to do?

Aching far-away mountains!

Our love

our wilderness times we fought for them

what were we for them?


Before a single candle

we never give way to remorse

we never beg in prayer

but aren’t we today and before today

in those many hours missing something?

as melting wax flows down

before the candle that grows brighter

what are we?

what are we?


It should be stressed that this version is designed only to give an insight into a rather radical difference between languages. Analysed and expressed in this way, the poem looks even more disjointed than it does to a reader of the Korean, who will quite automatically and with no conscious effort establish most of the linkages that would need to be made explicit in English. As already mentioned, the Korean language normally gives information in a manner and an order very different from that familiar in English.

The final form I chose to give the poem (and with so many differences, there is a range of possible forms) is as follows:


                            Before a Candle


Aren’t we missing something today?

something we surely have to find?

The train leaves unexpectedly —

something that surely has to be done?

A flag will flutter high in the sky

not at all in vain

and once that is surely done

flowers will fill tomorrow’s green plains

before all these

aren’t we completely missing something today?


Have we not simply sent away

what surely ought to be meeting,

gathering every evening

regularly playing at dice?

The suffocating silence after we sent away the whistle

of the blind masseur who used to go walking

through the chill alleys in the old curfew times.

We loosed an arrow there.


The voices that have been shouting for far too long

have vanished now and the wind just rolls trundling along

scraps of leaflets, plastic, newspapers —

was this freedom?

Aren’t we missing something today?


We’ve used the words ‘history’ and ‘last’

a very great deal

but always we had to start anew.

Still, have we done all there was to do?

Aching far-away mountains!

Our love

our wilderness – the times we fought for them —

yet what were we for them?


Before a single candle

we never give way to remorse

never beg in prayer

but aren’t we missing something

in the many hours of today and before today?

Before the candle that grows brighter

as the melting wax flows down

what are we?

what are we?

The option taken here is to preserve to a very large degree the line-by-line structure of the original, which is felt to constitute the fundamental structure of what is being evoked. At most points the linkages are clear, but minimal clarification has been attempted, where the Korean is not particularly radical in its lack of sequence. In an attempt to represent the open structure of the associations, most punctuation has been avoided. The largest point of uncertainty concerns the sequence of images in the opening section, which resist precise analysis of the kind demanded by standard English grammar and ‘logical’ explanation.

The standard method in such cases of uncertainty, involving poems by living writers whom the translator knows very well, would seem to be to ‘ask the poet’. But this does not work well with Ko Un, who simply explains that he felt obliged to write what he wrote; that was how the poem emerged. He feels no obligation to go any further, and indeed cannot. After two such questions, he shows signs of wanting to escape into the garden. This is not unrelated to another fairly standard characteristic of modern Korean poets: they do not revise and polish their work. The spontaneous, the ejaculatory, and the fragmented are precious aspects of the poetic; logical thought and clear grammar threaten them. Without wishing to sound cutely exotic, it has to be said that traditional Korean ink painting and calligraphy (for which Ko Un is also noted) depend for much of their effect on the interplay between the explicit black strokes and the empty space surrounding them on the paper. What is not there is almost more important than what is visible.

The final version of the translation just quoted has been assessed by a Korean poet, who is also a professor of English literature, with whom I usually work. He considers that it represents a fairly exact equivalent of the original and insists that to provide any more explication would be to mistranslate by over-translating. He has no problem with it in this form. Yet I fully realize that non-Korean readers of the ‘final’ version given above may well be discontented; they will complain that they feel excluded from the ‘meaning’ of the poem, that the English text remains excessively opaque. In order to ‘make clear’ what the poem is saying, should the translator then improve on the original, which is by no means ‘clear’ to Korean readers? The difference is that Koreans do not complain but smile. As already mentioned, Korean poets very often string together phrases without feeling a need to enclose them in a completed sentence. British and American poets seem not to.

What if we disregard the translator’s duty to preserve the incoherences of the original, and set about trying to produce a poem as acceptable in English to its readers as Ko Un’s original is acceptable to his Korean readers? The first section might be transformed into something like:


Could we be failing to catch something today?

Something we just have to get,

something that just has to be done,

like catching a train as it leaves unexpectedly.

Soon new flags will flutter on high,

not in vain by any means;

and once that happens,

flowers will fill tomorrow’s green meadows

but before any of that comes about

could we be failing to catch something today?


Why do I feel reluctant to do this? Why do Koreans complain about what is still a quite conservative levelling out? It seems that there is a need to avoid making Korean poets sound too much like English-language poets; these poems were not written in the same way. This brings us to the question of whether Ko Un, in writing this poem, was doing the same thing as British or American poets do when they write. There are, of course, many kinds of poetry around, but in so far as much contemporary western poetry essentially takes private, individual life experiences as the starting point and main subject-matter, there may indeed be a difference.

The poem we have been examining is not marked by individualized experience, by wit, by clever concatenations of imagery, or by ironic combinations of contradictory emotions. There are references to widely familiar life experiences (though they are not likely to be familiar to readers in Edinburgh or Boston, where curfews or blind masseurs are uncommon). Its emotional world (and it is an intensely emotional poem) cannot be separated from the collective historical reality of the Korean people. This poem cannot be felt, presumably, so long as the ‘we’ inhabiting it remains abstract. It will not need to be the ‘we’ of Ko Un’s immediate context and meaning, otherwise no non-Korean could enter into it. But the poem’s collective, unspecified ‘we’ is the key to its origin and meaning.

This can most easily be explained by a note on its background. This poem forms part of a volume titled 내일의 노래 (naerŭi norae, ‘Tomorrow’s Song’) published in 1992, soon after representatives of South and North Korea had signed a ground-breaking accord that seemed to promise a rapid opening-up of the previously hermetic frontier between the two, which since the Korean War has allowed no letters, telephone calls, TV or radio programmes, let alone visitors, to pass. In fact, it took another eight years for anything more to happen, but Ko Un felt driven to celebrate the new hope of unification with a series of poems. ‘Tomorrow’ here represents a hope that the tears which have flowed in so many Korean hearts on both sides for the past fifty or more years may soon be transformed into songs, tomorrow’s songs, sung by the entire Korean people, of north and south.

Korean literature, we have already seen, is deeply rooted in just such a shared historical reality. Even when a poet puts his or her personal emotional world at the centre (and much Korean poetry is highly introverted), the pain and conflict of the social context in which the poem is being written are intensely present in silence, forming the white paper on which the poem is inscribed. The translator’s main anxiety then is whether a Korean poem, transposed into English words and read in a quite different society with a quite different sense of identity and history, is in any real sense the same poem as the original. A similar question arises when Ko Un is giving a reading abroad. On many occasions, he first reads the original poem, and someone then reads a translation. I have suggested that it would be better to give the audience a printed translation without having it read aloud. This is because Ko Un has a completely inimitable way of reading, one developed in part through declaiming powerful, moving poems at countless pro-democracy rallies. The voice is tense and vibrant, the poem usually begins very quietly and gradually rises to a thundering climax. There is a deep sense of passionate concern, even when the text is far from being a simple set of slogans or a denunciation of dictatorship. Ko Un is not a ‘protest’ poet, and Korea has no tradition of ‘performance poetry’ but there is no doubt Ko Un is a tremendous performer. A translation read by a ‘standard’ voice after this sounds shockingly diminished. It is definitely not the same poem.

In poems of the kind analysed above, Ko Un is playing an oracular role, addressing coded messages to the world around him without the dubious benefit of an authorized interpretation. It might be that a Korean translator would respond similarly to the challenge of attempting to render Geoffrey Hill’s poetry into Korean: there too, a specific, national experience of history is often assumed in the reader and there too we find an urgent (‘prophetic’) insistence that the future must not repeat the past. There too, we find a very considerable level of difficulty, which leaves some readers inclined to give up.

Probably no ultimate criteria determining the choice of works for translation exist at all; we can translate anything we like, like Hunt climbing Everest, simply ‘because it’s there’. Korean agencies that fund translations sometimes wave a list of ‘great Korean writers’ in the hope that translators and publishers will come running. They cannot believe that the reputation a writer enjoys at home will not accompany a translation. Of course, it is always interesting to have access to works admired elsewhere, especially if they influenced other writers in that country, but that is the field of academic study.

In the end, the translator is master of the criteria. One reason for beginning to translate Ko Un was certainly a vague awareness that he was on a Korean government list of ‘dissident writers not to be translated’. But he seemed, and still seems, to be a writer whose work can appeal more widely abroad than to departments of Korean Studies. He is a writer whose work has a universal dimension, who deserves to be widely known. The translator of literatures like Korean is obviously at a disadvantage: since no one can read Korean, major publishers will not come running to commission translations; the translation must exist before publishers can be asked to show interest. The translator, then, has to go on to become his own agent.[6] This is very difficult, and if we did not believe in the rightness of our criteria, we would probably desist. But some confirmation of our intuitions does reach us, and, to conclude on a more upbeat note, no translator could ever ask for better encouragement than Allen Ginsberg’s words in his preface to Ko Un’s Zen poems. ‘Ko Un is a magnificent poet’, Ginsberg wrote a few years ago, and the translations are ‘models useful to inspire American contemplative poets’.[7] This is not because of the flattering words, but because of the prospect that a Korean poet’s work in translation could have a creative influence on poets working in a major world culture and language - living poetry being read by living poets.

Sogang University, Seoul



[1].           Only two volumes come to mind: 한국문학의 외국어 번역현황과 전망. 김종길 . 서울 (민음사, 1997), and Language, Culture and Translation: Issues in the Translation of Modern Korean Literature, edited by James Huntley Grayson and Agnita Tennant (Sheffield, 1999).

[2].           See the entry ‘Korea’, in The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, edited by Peter France (Oxford, 2000), pp. 249-50.

[3].           The Songs of the South, translated by David Hawkes (Harmondsworth, 1985); Poems of the Late T’ang, translated with an introduction by A. C. Graham (Harmondsworth, 1965); Li Po and Tu Fu, translated by Arthur Cooper (Harmondsworth, 1973).

[4].           For further discussion on this point see An Sonjae, ‘“The Foreignness of Language” and Literary Translation” in Journal of English Language and Literature (English Language and Literature Association of Korea), Special Number 1996 (available online at

[5].           See Ko Un, The Sound of my Waves (Ithaca, 1993) and Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems (Berkeley, 1997).

[6].          There are clear parallels with the situation facing translators of eastern European writers discussed by Francis Jones, ‘The Poet and the Ambassador: Communicating Mak Dizdar’s Stone Sleeper’, Translation and Literature, 9 (2000), 65-87.

[7].           Ko Un, Beyond Self, p. xi.