Harvard University, April 18, 2006. Brother Anthony

Lost and Found in Translation: The Poetic Qualities of Korean Poetry

There are three Major Questions on our table today: What is a poem? What makes a poem poetic? And can we translate that? Those are good questions and, as such, cannot possibly be answered in just a few minutes. As a first answer, we could try to collect and synthesize a few quotations: “Poetry is the first thing lost in translation,” wrote Robert Frost, though some claim that he wrote “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”. “Poetry is what is gained in translation” wrote Joseph Brodsky, who used to translate his own Russian poems into extraordinary English. Octavio Paz said “poetry is what gets transformed,” which is my own opinion, expressed in what follows . . .
Ezra Pound, in “How To Read,” describes three aspects of the language of poetry: melopoeia, its music; phanopoeia, the imagistic quality; and logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words.” It is this last aspect that Pound says is the essence of poetry, and we need to reflect on the possibility of its continuing to happen beyond translation. But we must never forget two other famous quotations: “A poem should not mean But be,” from Archibald MacLeish’s Ars Poetica (1926) and Auden’s “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Once we have all that clear in our minds, we can begin to think about what makes a poem poetic and how to translate poetry, any poetry first of all. Specifically Korean poetry might have to wait for a while. First, though, what is a poet?

Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.

    Those are the impressive words with which Percy Bysshe Shelley ended the first (and only) part of his Defence of Poetry. Earlier, he had anticipated the same theme by reference to the past:

Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared were called in the earlier epochs of the world legislators or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the forms of the flower and the fruit of latest time.

What Shelley saw was the immensely serious, prophetic vocation of the poet in society; what he failed to recall, it seems, is the humiliation, suffering, rejection and inglorious fate suffered by most of the Old Testament prophets, and not only those. The great writer Osip Mandelstam once boasted that it was only in the Soviet Union that “they really respect poetry—they kill because of it. More people die for poetry here than anywhere else;” and we might wish to refer to Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind (1953) in which he wrote: “In Central and Eastern Europe, the word ‘poet’ has a somewhat different meaning from what it has in the West. There a poet does not merely arrange words in beautiful order. Tradition demands that he be a ‘bard,’ that his songs linger on many lips, that he speak in his poems of subjects of interest to all the citizens.” The poet as prophet, indeed.
However, a contemporary western “prophetic” poet, the British poet Geoffrey Hill, has argued that there has long been in the West a fundamentally flawed view of poetry, one first formulated by Schiller in the words “The right art is that alone, which creates the highest enjoyment.” We find ourselves brought back to the classical tension between delight and instruction as the two poles of the writer’s art. Matthew Arnold was persuaded by Schiller’s essentially “aesthetic valuation” of the finality of poetry to omit from the 1853 edition of his Poems his lyrical drama Empedocles on Etna on the grounds (stated in the “Preface”) that the work deals with a situation “in which the suffering finds no vent in action; . . . in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done” and concluding that this was not “a representation from which men can derive enjoyment.” It should therefore not be republished.
    Hill recalls how in 1936 W. B. Yeats, editing The Oxford Book of Modern Verse: 1892-1935, excluded virtually all the poets of the First World War and justified that by quoting Arnold’s decision, which he expounded in his own words: “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.” W. H. Auden tried to supply an answer to that in the second section of his elegy to Yeats, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:

    You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
       The parish of rich women, physical decay,
       Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
       Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
       For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
       In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper,
. . .  it survives,
       A way of happening, a mouth.

Geoffrey Hill has written of this: “Auden perhaps meant to say that the achieved work of art is its own sufficient act of witness. If that is what he meant, I agree with him . . .” (254) Another way of situating the poetic dilemma is offered by Auden elsewhere. I quote from the literary critic Daniel Albright:

W. H. Auden, in his essay on Robert Frost, says that every poem exists in a state of tense equilibrium between two competing tendencies, which he calls Ariel and Prospero, the spirit of unearthly fantasy and the spirit of unflinching truthfulness, fidelity to our actual miserable state. Ariel, says Auden, presides over the realm of imagination, in which images keep shifting and sliding effortlessly, beautifully, into other images, but in which nothing serious can happen. Ariel, then, is simply a disengaged, dispassionate, almost contentless creativity, an imagination so engrossed in the continual play of images that it cannot be bothered to attend to the real. (2)

    This, surpisingly perhaps, is the point at which I think we can begin to turn to the Korean poetic record. It is a critical commonplace that, during the 20th century, Korea’s literary community was for long decades divided between those who believed that the poet’s only duty was to create beauty, Auden’s Ariel, and those who argued that the poet, like all writers, has a duty to represent the (mainly painful) reality experienced by society at large, Auden’s Prospero. The role that Auden assigns to Ariel seems to coincide with what is perhaps more commonly known as the “lyrical” and for most people in South Korea, as elsewhere, it is the lyrical that consitutes the essentially “poetic” quality in a poem. Let us not forget how often Yeats was asked to recite “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” decades after he had grown disgusted with its vacuous romanticism.
    I was once present as interpreter at a lunch in Seoul, where a Nobel-prize winning American scientist met Sŏ Chŏng-ju, having been deeply impressed by David McCann’s translations and demanded that such an occasion be set up during a visit to Korea. It was a long time time ago now, but I seem to recall that it was a rather difficult meal because in the event they had virtually nothing to say to each other. Finally, over coffee, the Great Korean Poet was persuaded to recite his most celebrated poem, the one about chrysanthemums, which he did in rather a rush with no real feeling at all. Everyone clapped enthusiastically, and left after photographs had been taken. Here is my own rendering of the poem:

Beside a chrysanthemum

For one chrysanthemum to bloom
the nightingale
must have wept like that since spring.

For one chrysanthemum to bloom
the thunder
must have rolled like that in sombre clouds

Chrysanthemum! You look like my sister
standing before her mirror, just back
from far away, far away byways of youth,
where she was racked with longing and lack.

For your yellow petals to bloom
the frost must have come down like that last night
and I was not able to get to sleep.

    It is not, I think, entirely my fault if the extraordinary qualities that Korean readers and critics have perceived in this poem seem to have got lost on the way across. This only serves to indicate one of the greatest problems translators of poetry face. In Korea, famous poems by famous poets are quite often assumed by Korean enthusiasts to be Great Poems, endowed with such an absolute poetic quality that nothing can be lost in translation, almost any translation. Students sometimes bring their own rather rough English versions of these poems to show their foreign teachers, and seem surprised by a less than ecstatic response. In Korea, famous poems and famous poets have largely been created by the writers of school text-books, where they were included. Such poems have to satisfy certain criteria: they have to be quite short and they have to be quite simple. That is not a problem, William Blake’s “Tyger” and Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” are not long or difficult. You learn the poem at school, and you learn the accepted response to it, too.
I have written an article in which I translate Kim So-Wol’s “Azaleas” in multiple ways, to illustrate how impossible it is to bring across in a translation the reputation or the associated resonances attached to a poem in its original context. I will only quote one of those versions today, and not the most respectful version, either:

The day will come when you loathe me
and leave me;
Goodbye, that's all, it's over.

I'll have them strew your road with
from Yaksan in Yongbyon.

Then be off with you
marching briskly
over those withered petals.

The day will come when you loathe me
and leave me;
you think I'll cry? Not on your life. I won't!

This is, you will rightly say, a parody, and my main point has to do with reception theory. I think that no self-respecting “western” poets today would write such a poem in a completely straight, serious tone. There almost has to be some degree of detachment, irony, or self-mockery. In addition, we need to remember that the “poetic” quality of a poem does not exist in itself so much as in the responses it provokes in its readers. And the translated poem does not exist in any prior context, can produce no automatic responses. To make matters worse, we in the West are in a culture deeply marked by skepticism, the British far more than the American, perhaps. Many people, on being told that a given poem is much-admired in its home culture, will automatically incline to question its reputation before ever hearing it. Immigration controls have been tightened, poetry too needs visas. We translators not only have to create the translated poem, we also are obliged to do what we can to arouse a response to it, any response being better than the yawn of indifference or the smug grin of condescension. The reputation attached to any translated poem’s original evaporates; that, I would say, is the aspect of poetry that first gets lost in translation.
In order to remedy this perceived loss, and promote sales, too, publishers sometimes take literal prose translations of foreign poetry and entrust them to a famous poet of the target language. The famous poet does whatever magical things she or he finds suggestive to the given texts, without further reference to the original, then the result is published with the famous person’s name on the cover as “translator,” in tribute to Ezra Pound who rather made this approach popular. This tends to be termed “turning translations into poetry” but the question is “whose poems are they now?” They are certainly marketed under the famous poet’s name, because the original poet’s name is not famous enough or glamorous enough to sell well. Koreans who can read classical Chinese often get angry with Ezra Pound for his “mistranslations” of Chinese poetry and at western critics for their ignorance in not denouncing him; Old English scholars have done the same for his “Seafarer,” and for Seamus Heaney’s “Beowulf” but such complaints fail to recognize the status the “mistranslated” poem claims as a new creation by its new poet.
Now what sounds poetic in Korean or in English may not sound so poetic when the words on the page are accurately translated into English or Korean. Quite often, the result is a riddle, something almost incomprehensible. There comes a moment when we are all tempted to do some Ezra-Pounding, jazzing up our translated versions a bit to give them a chance on the poetry market. But I do sometimes wonder if this is not a bit like the work of the beauticians at funeral parlors, putting a touch of color into the cheeks of a corpse, livening it up a bit? I just hope not. There is a poetry in plainness, as George Herbert might have said. I believe that what is going to be marketed as a poem “translated from the Korean” by someone who is not in the Ezra Pound league ought to be kept very firmly handcuffed to its original. It ought, I think, to come with a no-liberties-taken guarantee. It may not be the same poem, it should at least transmit faithfully what the original poem said.
Still, I am very glad that in Korea, Ku Sang, Chŏn Sang-Pyŏng and Kim Kwang-Kyu (and others, too) have all consciously chosen to avoid anything that tends toward the highly “poetic” in their writing. For, as already seen, we must not think that a translated poem can retain the “poetic” qualities admired in its original. The translated poem will have to acquire its own reputation by those of its qualities that can survive the radical transplanting known as “translation.” It is, in any case, not sure that today’s American or British readers of poetry, when we can find them, are much impressed by high flights of lyricism, or bewildering meshes of mystifying imagery. Yet I have heard people respond warmly to words that are less eager to puzzle and are still recognizably poetry. “Close translation” is a rewarding strategy, as I hope the following examples will show

Shin Kyŏng-Nim: A Reed

For some time past, a reed had been
quietly weeping inwardly.
Then finally, one evening, the reed
realized it was trembling all over.

It wasn't the wind or the moon.
The reed was utterly unaware that it was its own
quiet inward weeping that was making it tremble.
It was unaware
that being alive is a matter
of that kind of quiet inward weeping.

Ku Sang: Midday Prayer

Take away this darkling veil that lies between myself and space.
Take away from off the earth all boundary lines, all fences and all walls.
Take away all human hatred, greed, and all discrimination.
Take away surrender and despair, both mine and theirs.

Restore again to me the gift of wonder, tears and prayer.
Restore again the dreams and loves of all the dead.
Restore again the hurts that human hands inflict on Nature.

And grant words to that rock, a face to this breeze,
and oh, to me grant to live eternally as a radiancy of purity.

Ko Un: The Ditch

Go and look in the drainage ditch.
The water there is so friendly, you say,
like an old lady.
Like a matronly lady
who’s weathered her fair share of hardships.
Well, it’s all lies!
Chaenam’s little maid,
running errands along that far-off ditch,
fell in and drowned.
A child without a name,
without parents.
All the time everywhere her master’s eye watching,
she had no place to cry alone,
that child could never properly cry.
Go and look in the ditch.
It’s like that child.
The water that drowned that child
is like that child.

Mah Chonggi: Deathbed

When the light goes out in the westward sickroom,
the dark shadow of winter
passes beyond the low hills

and the chill bricks of the autopsy room
ring to the sound of a skull being sawed,
it’s no finale.

I first learned about
natural life in anatomy class.
That’s when the cold came.

On my lonely, youthful bed
I often found myself sentenced to death.
The dazzling vertigo of the remaining hours.
Don’t you see? The solitary deathbed
of the tall guy who gave up.
Don’t you see? This is no finale.

    I believe that we do well to stress the Koreanness of our translated Korean poetry, but that is not something that can be done by artificial tricks of sound, rhythm or “Konglish” vocabulary. I mean that we should not pretend that these poems have arisen in the same kind of social milieu and literary or political context as poems that arise in our western culture. The Korean poet speaks out of a recent history, as well as in a language, that are vastly different to ours here or in Europe. The poems we have translated often need ample introductions as well as occasional footnotes. To illustrate this, I will read my translation of the Korean poem I am happiest to have translated, without any prior introduction:

Chŏn Sang-Pyŏng: 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. . . .

I believe that this poem can be validly experienced in that naked way, but I feel certain that the poem comes alive far more deeply for most people if I introduce it by explaining that the poet was a childlike man of intense sensitivity, unable to hold a job and helped by gifts from many friends, knowing that some of those friends had visited the North Korean embassy in East Berlin but refusing to report them to the authorities, himself then arrested and tortured by agents of a dictator who kept his power by maintaining a virulent anti-North-Korean frenzy. His health ruined after months of ill-treatment in prison, homeless and penniless, Chŏn Sang-Pyŏng thought he was dying when he wrote that poem in 1970, aged only 40. To want to die saying of life “That was beautiful” without irony in such circumstances is, to me, a very beautiful thing indeed. Even in English translation.
    Korean poetry is certainly different from English-language poetry in words, grammar, sounds, rhythms, poetic effects, conventions, contents, expectations and quite a lot else. But we might still want to recall what Wordsworth said a poet was: “He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind;” and we can all correct his “man” into something more universal. Why I translate Korean poetry into English has to do with that. I want to enable Koreans who are poets to speak to people elsewhere for whom learning Korean in not an option.
Today, here, the “human speaking to humans” is called Kim Kwang-Kyu. His poetry has more to do with Prospero than with Ariel, and that is good because I believe that Prospero with his books can sometimes be translated so that he speaks poetry in another language, while Ariel with his magically beautiful but disembodied music remains ever frustratingly out of reach, floating somewhere beyond our grasp. His poetic history is particularly interesting because he first developed his poetic voice by translating German poetry, works by Heinrich Heine and Günter Eich, before ever beginning to write his own poems in Korean.
Although he is only a couple of years younger than his two friends, the poets Hwang Dong-Kyu and Mah Chonggi, Kim Kwang-Kyu did not begin to publish his own poetry until 1975, fifteen years after them. Owing virtually nothing to previous Korean poetic models, consciously turning its back on them, his work enjoyed immediate popularity as a model for a new poetics for the new age that began in fact with the assassination of Park Chung-Hee and grew to maturity during the dictatorships of the 1980s. For the first time, a poetic voice characterized by satirical humor was able to speak out, pointing its dart at the evils of dictatorship and the follies of everyday life in the modern city in subtle, understated ways.
It is significant that Kim Kwang-Kyu’s first volume of poetry has the publication date October 20 1979 on its copyright page. Less than a week later, on October 26, the life of the dictator Park Chung-hee was brought to a sudden, violent end. As a result of that liberating event, his book was more actively restricted and repressed by censorship in the ensuing security clampdown than it might otherwise have been. But at the same time, that only served to give it fuller credentials as a work of major resistance, and in the years that followed some of his earliest poems became great classics in the struggle against dictatorship precisely because the dictatorship was too stupid to realize what they were about.
Kim Kwang-Kyu is not much interested in celebrating directly the beauties of nature, in part at least because he is too acutely aware of the way human pollution has ruined the beauties of nature. He is one of the very first Koreans to express alarm over looming ecological disaster. The voice of his best poems is often one that inspires a sardonic smile, and it is tempting to recognize in it a “prophetic” voice, for Kim Kwang-Kyu never speaks to draw attention to himself, but rather to raise questions about the way life is lived, or not lived, in today’s world. In that, he is intensely altruistic. Kim Kwang-Kyu is still almost unique among Korean poets. He writes about topics that should make us want to weep in a voice that makes us smile. Lyrical humor? True poetry, anyway.