Translating Contemporary Korean Poetry and Evaluating Translations

Brother Anthony

1. The evaluation of previous translations

At the start of July 2008, the KLTI organized a press conference where the chair of its Translation Evaluation Committee, Professor Song Seung-cheol, spoke of the results of their work so far. Indeed, the members of the committee are undertaking a very important task, examining as carefully as possible the English translations of the most important works of modern Korean literature published in recent decades to evaluate their quality and acceptability. They have reflected deeply on the current theories of translation, in order to develop an approach and criteria that are as fair and objective as possible. The committee includes several non-Korean English speakers who evaluate the quality of the English, as well as Koreans with a high level of English skills to compare the translations with the originals. They have developed as precise a set of criteria as possible by which to evaluate what exists. They have written (but KLTI does not plan to publish) an interim report of the committee’s examination of works of fiction. They are now evaluating poetry translations.

As those active in the field already suspected, far too many translations fail to meet the minimum expected of a careful translation. The main problem they identify is an unacceptably careless, ‘sloppy’ approach to the Korean, with omissions of whole passages, even whole paragraphs, failure to translate many of the words in sentences, blending several sentences into one, insertions of additional explanations, a levelling out of style, as well as multiple mistranslations. This they find is often hidden by a superficial screen of quite acceptable English readability. They have therefore, inevitably, found themselves obliged to give rather more weight to ‘faithfulness’ than to ‘readability’ (the two main categories in evaluating any translation). They also pinpoint some translations where the spoken dialogues are marred by an excessive use of strongly American idioms and slang. Their work, based on a close reading of selected portions of each text, deserves very close study by all who are involved in translation.

This press conference was reported (in very poor English) by the Korea Times : “Song Seung-cheol, English language and literature professor of Hallym University, head of the project team, said that most of the wrong and poor translations come from not a lack of English ability but a lack of historical background knowledge or poor Korean language skills. ‘Also, the quality of the translation is closely related to Korean literature critique which guides the right interpretation of the original meaning. The poor translations are partly a result from a lack of understanding of the original works,’ Song said. He said that the overall translated sentences sound natural, are easy to understand and show a good readability in general. ‘But many have a problem in remaining loyal to the original text, which fails to revive the literary beauty and meaning,’ said Song. Song said that in some cases, the mistranslations were a result of an editor's mistake and a translator's expediency.”

The poor quality of the journalist’s English make it very hard to understand much of what is being blamed and even harder to see what kind of understanding of the act of literary translation underlies the committee’s work. What emerges from this, and from the Korean press’s reports, too, is the strongly negative quality of the report. The brief mention of the readability of a large number of translations is completely overshadowed by the comments as to their lack of accuracy, although when it comes to ‘globalizing’ Korean literature, it could also be argued that the readability of a translation is the single most important factor in its acceptance abroad. Judging from chance remarks I have heard, the effect of this seemingly very negative press conference, widely reported in the Korean Press, has been to diminish the standing of all the translators of Korean literature, since the Korean public has been given a strong impression that there are no good translations at all because all translators are uniformly sloppy, know little Korean and are totally ignorant of Korean culture. It seems likely that the aim of the press conference was above all to enhance the standing of the KLTI in Korean eyes, and make as strong a case as possible for its current programs. The unintended offshoot, however, has been to insult all translators by refusing to pay any tribute to their labors in the past 30 years.

The press conference was held just as I was ending a week-long workshop with 10 fine young translators from North America and England, heritage Koreans and non-Koreans together. All are already well on the way to becoming published translators, and they are certainly strongly aware that in today’s world literary translators are often thought to enjoy considerable freedom to translate the essence of a text in a variety of ‘creative’ ways, without being bound to translate every word and sentence exactly. During our workshop, it was striking that almost every time we referred back to the Korean original in discussing a participant’s translation, alternative, closer translations appeared.

In the light of this, it is going to be important to open a full debate on the manner in which translators currently negociate the transformation of Korean into English in preparing their first drafts. It is probably always the case that source language evaluations are inclined to pinpoint failures to follow the original closely, but the Korean evaluators are right to be shocked at the cavalier way too many translators have treated the originals. What makes things worse is the fact that many of these translators are Koreans. The claim by some (when challenged) that the portions they have omitted were ‘redundant’ might in theory be justified because Korean publishers have no style editors; but the reduction of a short story in such a manner and without the author’s permission, is surely never justified. Reducing a very repetitive and wordy novel filling over 500 pages to a more acceptable length is perhaps another matter. Verbal accuracy in translation should be seen as a sign of respect for the original author’s work.

2. Paul Ricoeur

The three late essays making up Paul Ricoeur’s On Translation (2006) are major texts, required reading for all who work in literary translation. A review by David Pellauer (DePaul University)  indicates some major topics:

“In the first essay, "Translation as Challenge and Source of Happiness," (. . .) Ricoeur takes up what he sees as "translation's great difficulties and small delights". Beginning with the difficulties, he says that what the translator does is itself something like a wager, but also something that takes work. To develop further this idea of the translator's work, Ricoeur uses an analogy drawn from Freud's notions of a work of remembering and one of mourning, in order to show that while a good translation can always accomplish something, it can do so only by always also acknowledging some loss. Because of this tension between gain and loss, we can say that both a commitment to faithfulness and an always-possible suspicion of betrayal always bind the translator, where translation as process and result occupies a middle ground between these two limit cases. Continuing to use images drawn from Freud, Ricoeur next argues that translation runs into resistance in that it can be seen as a threat to the target language since we can always ask whether this language can really say what was already said in the other foreign, source language. (. . .) Resistance can also come from the other side, that of the source language. There it is expressed by the presumption of non-translatability. This is the presumption that what is said in one language cannot be said in another one. Ricoeur's own position is that this is a "fantasy nourished by the banal admission the original will not be duplicated by another original", a fantasy that itself usually gets strengthened by another fantasy, that of a perfect translation.
“He concedes that once translation begins, it will always include segments of untranslatability. By this, he means those inevitable failures or losses in transferring what is said in one language to another. Such losses are due to such factors as differing semantic fields, intertextual references, syntactical differences, idioms, and even the "half-silent connotations, which alter the best-defined denotations of the original vocabulary, and which drift, as it were, between the signs, the sentences, the sequences, whether short or long" Beyond this, and central to any theory of translation, there is the problem that there exists no neutral third language that can mediate between the source and target language. That is, we cannot mechanize translation by first translating the source text into an established unambiguous language that itself can then be translated without loss into the target language. The fact is that any evaluation of the accuracy or adequacy of any translation will depend on people who are sufficiently bilingual to attempt a retranslation of the work in question. What is at issue therefore is always what Ricoeur calls the paradox of an equivalence that is never completely adequate. This is why major works such as the Bible or Homer or Dante are always subject to retranslation.
“The work of mourning here then is that we must give up the idea of the perfect translation and accept that translation always works through approximation. This is not easy to admit, Ricoeur adds, pointing to at least two other ways in which the fantasy of a perfect translation keeps returning. One is the Enlightenment ideal of a universal library "from which all untranslatabilities would have been erased" yielding a rationality freed from all cultural constraints and local peculiarities. The other is the dream of a perfect language, the kind of messianic expectation expressed by Walter Benjamin. This would be a pure language into which every language could be translated and where nothing would be lost. What giving up these two unrealizable dreams achieves, Ricoeur says, is "the happiness associated with translating" (10). Indeed, this points to the need for what he calls a "linguistic hospitality" that welcomes what is foreign.

3. The Korean situation

As in many other markedly nationalistic cultures, there exists a conviction in Korea that the Korean language is untranslateable and, for non-Koreans, incomprehensible; as Ricoeur notes, that conviction is accompanied by a strong belief in the possibility of a perfect translation, a dreamed-of Holy Grail that remains ever unachieved. The inevitable interplay between translation’s gains and losses escapes them, even if they know about it in theory; they always tend to ignore the gains, lamenting only the losses. Therefore their screening processes and criteria are open to the accusation of being unbalaced and unfair. But that charge cannot be sustained in the present case, where so much care went into establishing criteria. Rather, there needs to be a shared debate between the Korean evaluators and non-Korean translators on what is normal and acceptable practice in the translation of literary texts, and what is unacceptable.

Before going any further, it is worth noting that a similar committee set up to evaluate Korean translations of major works of British and American literature found that 90% of the translations published were seriously flawed. The KLTI committee’s 50% of not-too-bad translations is an extraordinary achievement. It could also, of course, be argued that it was better to have published very inaccurate but good-to-read translations than not to have published anything. Korea ought surely to remember with gratitude and celebrate the devotion of all those who have been active in the translation of Korean literature so far, even if their work was often deeply flawed. Something, we could argue, is better than nothing and there was no alternative at the time. Who were they, after all? Many were Koreans, professors of English literature in Korean universities or permanent residents abroad. Others were foreign missionaries residing for many decades in Korea. Others came to Korea as Peace Corps volunteers. All their translations were first and foremost labors of love, done as spare-time activities. These were not full-time, professional translators of Korean literature. All were amateurs, volunteers.

These translators, once they had done the best they could to render their chosen texts into English, had to set about finding a publisher. That was usually harder than doing the translation and they received little or no help. Everyone has always known that many of those translations were not particularly ‘good,’ and it is very important to stress that many of the translators were working in the ‘wrong’ direction, from native Korean language into foreign English language. Many of the native English speakers had limited Korean, little training in literary style, less knowledge of literary translation, and less still of creative writing. Above all, they were all very busy doing other things in their full-time professions. Certainly, many of the translations published are not accurate; some are also not very readable. But still they deserve to be recognized for what they are, the best the people available could do in the time available with their limited abilities. The question can best be expressed as follows: if a translation of a particular work, already translated, were to be published again now or in the future, are any of the existing translations good enough to be reprinted, or will it be better to commission a new, more careful and accurate translation? That is certainly a useful question and the KLTI committee have worked very hard to give reliable answers from a source-language perspective. Now it is the ‘creative translators’ turn to speak.

4. A translators’ view

As we translate Korean literature into western languages, we constantly find ourselves, like Ulysses in the Odyssey, caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Wikipedia says that the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” is “believed to be the origin of the phrase ‘between a rock and a hard place’.” For us, literary translators from Korean into English, Scylla snarls, “That’s not exactly what the Korean says,” and Charybdis growls, “That does not sound like natural English.” I recently saw an evaluation of some translations where the Korean evaluator said both things at once, to the effect that, “These translations fail to represent accurately what the Korean originals say and ignore the importance of translating poetry as poetry.” The evaluator had surely not heard the French dictum: “Translations are like women: you can’t find one that is at the same time beautiful and faithful.”

I who live in Korea, who am all the time subject to the moaning of Scylla: “Be faithful to the original,” mostly try to obey, in order to have a quiet life but also because I am not strongly inclined to risk betraying an author by moving my translation far from the original. But then a Korean writer comes back from the United States complaining that students in his class told him that the style of my (very precise) translation of his work felt awkward, it needed revision. My only defence is: “But that’s how you wrote it, your Korean style is awkward.”

The more translating I do, the more I find myself convinced that, indeed, I do not fully understand Korean, cannot feel Korean poetry as a Korean does, and do not know how to write a form of poetic English that might sufficiently and accurately correspond to the Korean originals. I think I must have been lucky to happen upon fairly easy poets in my younger days. A first consolation comes when Korean poets in their 50s or 60s tell me that they too, often, cannot understand the poems being written in Korea by the new generation in their 20s and 30s. As a kind of solution, when I translate I always try to find a sympathetic Korean with poetic sensitivity and good English who can point out the places where I have misunderstood and misrepresented the original. On the other side of the equation, I have recently done a lot of work with 2 American poets, who have suggested ways of making my translations sound more naturally poetic in English. But at that point, a third monster comes rising up to scream, “You’ve made him sound like a Californian poet, not a Korean!”

5. Ezra Pound and other models of free translation

Ezra Pound, notoriously, did not know Chinese at all when he wrote “Cathay” (1915) and never knew it very well, even later. Senior Korean scholars of American poetry like to present papers in which they diligently list all the “dreadful mistranslations,” the serious errors they have found in his poems. The way they speak makes it clear that they cannot understand at all why western readers admire the poems and are not bothered in the slightest by the presence of such errors, but rather shrug them off. “But he made so many mistakes, he was ignorant!” “So what? He was a poet, he’s allowed to take liberties.”

I am not Ezra Pound, of course. Kevin O’Rourke is a very experienced translator and I think I can say without betraying him that he insists strongly on the translator’s freedom to transform poetry into poetry without being constrained by each and every word (or ‘nuance,’ as Koreans often put it) in the original. He, and surely only he, could ever have had the idea of taking 신경님’s words at the start of 전설 ‘Legend’:

늘 술만 마시고
미쳐서 날뛰다가
마침내 그 녀석은 죽어버렸다

and producing:

The poor bugger drank all the time
a lunatic on the loose;
eventually he died.

He makes Shin Kyŏng-Nim sound as Irish as he might desire to be. More cautious and conservative, I proposed:

He was always drinking,
he went mad, grew rowdy,
then finally the rascal died.

Kevin also, in the Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, took the start of 김춘수’s ‘Flower’

내가 그의 이름을 불러주기전에는  
그는 다만
하나의 몸짓에 지나지 않았다.

and transformed it into:

You were
a mere sign,
till I named you.

Translators of that poem are always faced with the challenge of having to represent ‘그는’ by either ‘he’ or ‘she’ and Kevin’s change to ‘you’ certainly solves the problem. But the Korean poem is not a tribute poem of friendship or love directly addressed to the person in question, it is a private meditation on significance in relationship, addressed mainly to himself, and that might be felt to matter rather a lot in translating it. Or does it? 김종길 adopted another translation strategem. He phoned the poet and asked him what gender the person had been he had had in mind as 그는. The poet’s reply was a clear “it was a man.” So he translated that stanza:

Until I spoke his name,
he had been
no more than a mere gesture.

And I, in a version also submitted for the Columbia Anthology, proposed:

Before I spoke his name
he was simply
one set of gestures, nothing more.

I am not interested in saying this or that is ‘better,’ I just want to indicate the differences that exist, the multiple options we have, and above all the question as to what a translated poem is meant to be.

6. Brother Anthony’s view

Most translators of Korean might know the multiple (parodic) versions of Sowol’s ‘Azaleas’ I composed in 1996. That was to illustrate the same question, expressed as follows:

“Fidelity is a fundamental duty of the respectful translator, who desires to attain a state as near transparency as possible, in the hope that the qualities of the original text will bring praise to the original text's author. Yet as Barnstone insists against Benjamin, translators do not translate, they interpret. It is for this reason that those of us who translate should be very careful to respect the work of other translators, even if we disagree with some of the solutions they propose. There are many ways of rendering every phrase in every work, depending on the priorities a translator has decided on. The writing of polemical articles denouncing other people's translations, "translator- bashing", shows a lack of generosity and a failure to recognize the full variety of  approaches that can be considered as translation. If translators misunderstand something, or make some obvious error, it is normal courtesy to tell them in private and suggest revisions in future editions.
“Some famous translators (such as Christopher Logue) read a page of their original text, shut the book, and write a page in the target language which may have only a vague relationship with the original. Others slave with dictionaries, metronomes, and rulers to make lines that have exactly the same number of syllables and the same stresses and sound-patterns as well as the same meaning as the original. Every translator will find readers to acclaim the result of their efforts; every translator has some reason for each word and grammatical form chosen. Even "mis-translations" may well be part of the translator's attempt to re-create the original text elsewhere.
“There can be as many different translations of a poem as anyone cares to make, and different people will produce different translations; it is not because some are "closer" to the original in some mechanical way that they will be "better" or even "more faithful": better than what, faithful to what? The best comparison might be with the "Theme and variations" in music, every translation being a new "Variation on a theme by...". Perhaps indeed we ought always to offer several versions of  every poem we translate, as a way to help the readers better encompass the full richness of the original. Benjamin has a deep reflection on certain works' quality of "translateability" that is a function of their established value, their "immortality", even.
     “Certainly, translators always dream of a moment of perfect correspondance, when the gaps interfering with communication are all overcome in a moment of perfect union. The spectre of the perfect translation is a powerful one that has sometimes to be exorcized. There can never be a full, perfect and exact translation from one language into another. What we offer are vague resemblances, unfocussed photos of remote beauties, travellers' tales that evoke uncertain images of often exotic landscapes in the hearers elsewhere while we know that to the people living in the work's native land, our exotic is their familiar everyday.”

The point I was making is that there are multiple, mutually incompatible differences of approach to the translation of poetry as of fiction and that we all, including the KLTI,  need to be aware of them. The British review Modern Poetry in Translation indicates on its home page: “We want also to widen and diversify the very idea of translation, and in that spirit we invite transformations and metamorphoses of all kinds: down the ages, across the frontiers and cultures, from one genre or medium to another.” Creative, free translation is perfectly familiar to us in the West, even if we do not see the point of the use of Irish dialect words in Heaney’s Beowulf. However, almost all Koreans demand literal translation at all costs, and sometimes even seem to prefer Konglish to English. This can be a very serious obstacle to the creative metamorphosis of Korean works, since funding is at stake.

7. Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat and the stuffed eagle

Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubaiyat is probably the most famous / notorious example of free translation. It is also the most enduring translation ever published, with some 20 editions currently in print, after 120 years. “Everyone” knows the quatrain 12 (from the 5th edition, 1889):

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

The same text, translated (in 1988) by an outstanding Persian translator, Karim Emami, with a desire to be ‘faithful to the original’ says:

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart
Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,
Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,
If I mentioned any other Paradise, I'd be worse than a dog.

Fitzgerald himself expressed our problem very well in letters written to a friend: "My translation will interest you from its form, and also in many respects in its detail: very un-literal as it is. Many quatrains are mashed together: and something lost, I doubt, of Omar's simplicity, which is so much a virtue in him" (letter to E. B. Cowell, 9/3/58). And, "I suppose very few People have ever taken such Pains in Translation as I have: though certainly not to be literal. But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle" (letter to E. B. Cowell, 4/27/59). He employed the word “transmogrification” to express the process of translation as he performed it, “mog” being (I assume) the same word as “mug” in “ugly mug” – slang for “face.”

Maybe we should have a vote on the live sparrow / dead eagle options. But if we want to receive funding from a Korean foundation, we all know which bird to favor. It is true that some translators of fiction manage to omit whole paragraphs without being detected; I have heard of people who merrily skip what they cannot easily deal with as they translate! A tempting option that (need I say?) must be resisted at all costs.

Returning to Kevin’s wisdom, he is the first to admit that only certain Korean poems inspire him to take real creative liberties. I have a feeling that this is something that Walter Benjamin mentions in talking about “the afterlife of a poem” – the way certain really great poems cry out to be reinvented, while most remain as stuffed eagles, even in the original.

8. Proposed guidelines for the KLTI Anthology

One translation project that several of us are involved in at present is the KLTI anthology, both their small annual anthologies and one Big Representative Anthology. We in the committee for translation have decided that guidelines are needed to help maintain a certain uniformity of process. The works have been selected by another committee, we have no say over that. Guidelines for prose are quite easy to formulate, at least as wishful thinking, but it was less obvious what to say for poetry. Finally, we decided on the following:


1. Translators should adopt a respectful approach to the author's decisions as to the vocabulary chosen, the grammatical constructions, the paragraph breaks. S/he must be assumed to have had a precise reason for every aspect of the published work.

2. The goal must be to represent in one way or another every word found in the original, although the great difference between Korean and English means that there can be no such thing as a ‘word-for-word’ translation. The basic rule should be "add nothing, omit nothing."

3. Grammatically correct Korean should be translated by grammatically correct English.

4. Plain Korean sentences should be represented by plain English sentences.

5. Complex Korean sentences should be translated by complex English sentences.

6. Ordinary, everyday Korean vocabulary is to be translated by ordinary, everyday English vocabulary; abstruse or high-level abstract vocabulary by terms of a similar level, vulgarity by vulgarity (but see Problem 1 below)

7. Natural-feeling modern Korean prose should be translated into natural-feeling English prose.

8. Excentricity of style should be indicated by excentricity of style. Multiple repetitions of a word (for example) should be preserved.

9. One Korean paragraph should usually be represented by one English paragraph. (But this might be reviewed at a later stage of stylistic revision).

10. A lively narrative style must be translated by a lively narrative style. A plodding style demands a plodding style.
The translator’s difficulties begin with a number of problem situations which have no easy solution:

1. Word-play. colloquial expressions, slang, oaths or regional dialect employed in dialogue.
a) Finding puns to translate puns is the ideal but not always possible solution.
b) Colloquial language should be translated by a colloquial style, but if possible one not too aggressively North-American or British (the ideal is ‘mid-Atlantic’).
c) Vulgarisms should not be coarsened downward (there is probably no Korean term that needs to be translated by a word such as ‘fucking’!). ‘Son of a bitch’ is to be avoided if possible.
d) An existing, identifiable English-language dialect should never be used in place of a Korean regional dialect, since the codes do not coincide. Instead, a simple statement that a character is speaking in a particular dialect should be inserted, if it is needed.
e) Korean frequently employ hierarchical titles in addressing or referring to others (선생님, 형, 언니, 아버지) and these will often need to be omitted in translation, in order to avoid awkward style. In English conversation, ‘you’ is usually sufficient.

2. Vocabulary for objects or activities that have no equivalent in English culture.
a) It is usually possible to transcribe kimchi, soju, ondol, makkolli without translating. Other aspects of traditional culture, such as the parts of a traditional house, or other items of food and drink, or clothing, need to be treated with great care.
b) Translators should compile a Glossary of all such terms with their preferred translations and a brief explanatory note. This will be a necessary part of the whole Anthology.

3. The use of different grammatical ‘levels’ to indicate social hierarchy or personal feelings.
This will often have to be transformed into a brief indication of what is being implied, when the level has a clear function (to humiliate or mark age / class distinction, for example) in a context. If the styles used are natural consequences of age or class difference, with no special force, they should be ignored. A slightly more or less formal style or vocabulary will usually be enough.

Any considerable degree of stylistic editing of a text, that clearly modifies some aspect of the original (systematic changes in phrase order, sentence breaks, paragraph breaks, etc.) should only be undertaken after completion of a seriously reviewed 'full' translation on the conservative lines outlined above.


1. While the fundamental rule is that poetry should be translated as poetry, translators are requested to adopt relatively conservative strategies for the anthology, since those using the volume may wish to refer to the original poem at the same time.
2. Rather than making free transformations, the translators’ goal should be to represent in one way or another every word found in the original, although of course the great difference between Korean and English means that there can be no such thing as a ‘word-for-word’ translation. The basic rule should be "add nothing, omit nothing."
3. Because of the ‘conservative’ option being adopted, stanza breaks in the original should be reproduced in the translations. The number of lines will depend on various factors.

Still, I believe that in the end, the best guideline for translators will have to be “Do what you can, and do not bother about getting everything ‘right’.” Because we want our stuffed eagles to have at least something of the live sparrow about them.

9. Problems in translating contemporary Korean poetry

The chief problem I find myself facing is what I can only call the obscurity of so much contemporary Korean poetry. Even ‘transmogrification’ assumes that there is something which can survive in translation, I shall not repeat the stale dictum about what gets lost. But we have recently been working on a kind of poetry that I believe defies translation in special ways.
In August at the Manhae Festival, Professor Kim Jong-Gil tells me he is planning to say in his paper that the process of translation of modern Korean poetry into western languages is in fact a kind of giving back of gifts received, since modern Korean poetry has been so deeply influenced by western poetry. In the paper that I have prepared for the same event, I stress that every poem is written in a particular literary space, regional or national, and that the specific life experience of the people in that space, different from any other, is reflected in the poetry and its reception. Also, every poet writes in dialogue with the poems written previously within that space. Therefore, I think, young Korean poets are currently writing poems that are radically unlike anything being written in English anywhere, in reference and in style. Some of them seem to be developing a kind of neo-Modernism, an exhuberance of dispersed, fragmented images gathered into poems whose coherence lies beyond anything we can pin down as narrative structure or emotional flow. Certainly these poems are very hard to perform at readings, as we saw recently, but that is another issue.

So what can we do about translating such intensely untranslateable poems? Are there any valid guidelines? First, I asume that we need to provide a very exact translation of what each of the Korean words actually says. Some translators seem to glide across Korean poems, producing English versions that are far from giving a full, precise account of the whole contents, perhaps they are in a hurry to produce something that sounds / looks poetic, vaguely similar to the original. I think that this more-or-less approach will not be helpful. Above all, I, at least, cannot spot in such difficult poetry elements of pun or wordplay, and am blind to the subterranean links between apparently unconnected sets of imagery. Unless there is a Korean helping us, one who is capable of a sympathetic in-depth reading and explication of these poems, we are often going to be at a complete loss. Of course, the poet in person may be available, though I find that many poets are unable to explain their work.

My own opinion is therefore that we should not try at all costs to make a translated poem sound ‘poetic’ in English. We are in an age when the old style of cosy, familiar-feeling translations of Russian classics has given place to the ‘as is’ version, warts and all, ‘Tolstoy is as Tolstoy does’ kind of version. Modern Korean poetry is not modern American or British poetry in light disguise; it is not the case that all we have to do is strip off a thin layer of Korean language and briskly polish up the result a bit to have it turn into a convincing English poem. Perhaps the utter difference, the real strangeness of it has to remain blatant, in which case our task is, indeed, to produce English versions that say exactly what the Korean says, and that make no attempt at all to sound like Californian, or Irish, or any other kind of poem.

10. Josef Brodsky and the limits of the target language

We might end by pondering on a notorious case, that of Josef Brodsky’s self-translations. In a book review of From Russian with Love: Joseph Brodsky in English, by Daniel Weissbort, London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2004, in the Kenyon Review, Cynthia L. Haven writes:

“When Brodsky burst upon the American scene in 1972, he seemed to have emerged from a time capsule. It was long before the advent of any “New Formalist” movement. The era marked the high-tide of confessional, rambling verse. And Brodsky offended with comments like this: “[W]e should recognize that only content can be innovative and that formal innovation can occur only within the limits of form. Rejection of form is a rejection of innovation. . . . More than a crime against language or a betrayal of the reader, the rejection of meter is an act of self-castration by the author.” 2

“Brodsky insisted that the translation of a poem must match it in form—rhyme for rhyme, dactyl for dactyl. He attempted to reproduce “the whole body, the feel, movement, as well as the shape of the poem” (195), says Weissbort. Brodsky’s enormous facility for invention and rhyme—Milosz said it was the work of a daimon—made it feasible. It didn’t always make it verse, let alone poetry.
He never quite acquired an English ear, despite his love affair with our language. Often he wrote English, as Robert Hass puts it, “like an eighteenth-century hack rewriting Shakespeare.” Or more often, given Brodsky’s unlimited admiration for Auden, like one of those “clever young Englishmen of indeterminate age down from the university and set to make a splash.” 3 In the New Republic, Hass lamented egregiously awful translations and “fatal miscalculations of tone,” citing this one from “Lullaby of Cape Cod”: “Therefore, sleep well. Sweet dreams. Knit up that sleeve. / Sleep as those only do who have gone pee-pee.”

“He finally concludes that reading Brodsky’s poetry “is like wandering through the ruins of what has been reported to be a noble building.”  Hass wasn’t the only one to deliver such a verdict—though many waited till after the funeral. There was good reason for some of the Western literati’s resentment, anger, and silences—besides jealousy. Brodsky was a bit of a bully.
(. . .)
“Weissbort argues that Brodsky “was trying to Russianize English, not respecting the genius of the English language, . . . he wanted the transfer between the languages to take place without drastic changes, this being achievable only if English itself was changed” (195). In short, Weissbort invites us to listen to Brodsky’s poetry on its own terms. As he tells a workshop: “It’s like a new kind of music. You may not like it, may find it absurd, outrageous even, but admit, if only for the sake of argument, that this may be due to its unfamiliarity. Give it a chance, listen!” (110). Well, Brodsky certainly had the hubris to demand to be heard on his own terms—to invent “his English” (221). If he failed, it was because of the Herculean nature of the undertaking, and the fact that Brodsky was, as always, the linguistic lone wolf, playing by his own rules, without giving others his decoder ring.

“Brodsky’s galumphing self-translations—and he interfered with his translators so much that one might extend “self-translation” to many poems that give official credit to others—were universally deprecated, and did much to damage his literary reputation, perhaps fatally. Yet, in one of the chapters, Weissbort compares Brodsky’s own translation against his own, and comes out definitively for the former. Despite a few infelicities, Brodsky at his best could make a persuasive rendering. (. . .) In the years to come, when time has forgiven, if not forgotten, the forced and clumsy rhymes, the annoying affectations in tone—we will still be left with an off-the-scale metaphorical inventiveness and delight in wordplay and conceits that are perhaps unmatched in our time, and hint at what the Russian poems offer. That’s one reason why he’s important.”