The Joys of Translating

A lecture given to the Korean Open Cyber University on December 15, 2007. (Slightly shortened)

How, you may wonder, can translating ever be a source of joy? For me, joy is the hallmark of fulfillment, the sign that our life has found at least a certain degree of meaning and value. I would say that translation ought always to be a source of joy, because it is an activity by which we try to overcome the barriers to communication which keep people apart; by literary translation, the words of writers who could never communicate directly with the vast numbers not understanding their language are made accessible to a wider readership. Translation aims at communication, a wider comprehension, a more universal understanding. In that way, if the words translated have any value making them worth translating, the human family is (however partially) enriched. To that extent the translator’s activity seeks to reverse some of the consequences of Babel, the Bible’s symbolic story of the source of the divisions and frustrations arising from the multiplicity of our human languages.

It should by now be clear that I am not talking about translating business letters, emails, or contracts. My focus is on literary translation, especially poetry, and I believe that what we call literature has value far beyond the commercial calculations of publishers who will only publish a book if they think it will make a profit. The value of literature, whether poetry or fiction or drama, is immense because it is the way in which writers have sought to express a vision of what it means to be human. Literature, among many other things, can be seen as a school of compassion, teaching us ever more about human sorrows and joys, pains and hopes, and revealing each time we read a little more of the wonder of the human heart.

It can be argued that it would be far better for everyone to learn to speak and read several languages, so that they can communicate with others speaking them and also read the books written in those languages without relying on translations, that can never be quite the same as the original. That was what John Milton did, mastering Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish, German and Dutch while being able to read several other languages reasonably well. As a result, he was able to read virtually every book that was available in England in his time, without needing any translations. It might, of course be argued that he paid the price, ruining his eyesight reading so many books; he was completely blind before he was fifty. Today’s world of literary translation is, certainly, the result of a growth in literacy that has not been accompanied by increased multi-lingualism. It is the sign that people feel an urgent need to read works from cultures that use languages very unlike their own.

Translation in earlier centuries

Translation of texts from one language to another goes back a long way, of course, and it is surely no accident that the act of written translation began with sacred, religious texts. One of the first important acts of translation was accomplished in the second century BC, when the Jewish scriptures that had originally been written in Hebrew or Aramaic were translated into Greek. The reason was the steadily rising number of Jews and others living in Alexandria and other parts of the Hellenic world who wished to read the scriptures but could not hope to master Hebrew.

Even in those days, doubts were raised about the possibility of representing in translation the full meaning of the original accurately, as they still are today. The response from the Jewish religious authorities was that all races and all languages were descended from the three sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Hebrew and Aramaic were the language of Shem, Greek the language of Japheth; since Shem and Japheth were equally blessed by God (unlike Ham, the originator of Canaan and Africa, who was cursed), there could be no real difference between the Hebrew and Greek languages. Translation between them must therefore be possible without loss of the essential sacred meaning. The result was the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament still accepted as the cannon by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, without which no on would probably have thought to write the record of the life and teachings of Jesus in Greek, quite soon after the start of the Christian Church; there would have been no Gospels, no New Testament! One of the biggest puzzles in the world of translation is just how the message of Jesus, spoken in Aramaic to small groups of Jews living in Galilee and Judea, came to exist as Greek texts written and edited in various parts of the Roman Empire by people who never heard him speak.

In Asia, a very similar project on an even larger scale, that happened centuries later, was the translation of the Buddhist scriptures from Pali into Chinese. At first, Taoist terminology was adopted to translate Buddhist terms, but as a result people concluded that Buddhism was simply an exotic form of Chinese Taoist wisdom. It was only when a new set of translations was made, using other words for the key Buddhist concepts, that the two teachings diverged in Chinese history. Only a few highly educated Chinese Buddhists continued to read the scriptures in their original Indian language. An interesting parallel can be seen in the paintings in the cave-temples of Mogau in Dunhuang on the Silk Road. In the earliest paintings, the disciples gathered around the Buddha are made to look Indian, with large eyes and noses and dark skins; in later paintings, they have all become Chinese in appearance and dress!

In contrast, the intellectuals of Rome all learned Greek and saw no need to translate the writings of Homer, Plato and Aristotle, or of the great Greek tragedians, into Latin. By a miracle, all the texts of Plato survived and were finally translated at the time of the Renaissance; but strangely enough the books that Aristotle wrote, although they were widely studied in classical Rome, were utterly lost after that. The texts now studied as the works of Aristotle are in fact only rough lecture notes found stored in the cellar of his former home. The survival of Greek medicine and mathematics was due to the translation of the basic texts into Arabic by the great scholars of the early Islamic world. The universities of Europe arose on the basis of the translations into Latin from Greek and Arabic undertaken in the 12th century.

Plato had to wait until the 15th century to be translated into Latin, the great Greek tragedians until the 16th. Homer, too, was always read in Roman times in Greek, untranslated, which is why the Latin Middle Ages knew nothing of his way of telling the story of Troy from the Greek point of view. England had to wait for Shakespeare’s contemporary Chapman to publish his translation of Homer, and it was not much read, although Chapman shares one characteristic with many modern translators: having failed to get paid the money he had been promised for his translation, he died after years of poverty and debt. It is probably only because Keats wrote his first adult poem in praise of Chapman’s translation of Homer that anyone remembers it, and few if any follow Keats’ enthusiasm to the point of finding a copy and reading it, although it is available on the Internet.

The introduction of Christianity to England from 597 saw a remarkable effort to translate the terminology of the faith from Latin into a Germanic language, though that was not the first time, since the Goths and Visigoths were already Christians before 400 and one Gothic bishop, Ulfilas (also known as Wulfila, 311-382) had translated the entire Bible into Gothic, though much is lost. England’s first translation project dates from the years just prior to 900, when King Alfred, having defeated the Danes and brought them to Christianity, decided that Latin would never be widely understood in England and set about learning it, then translating into Old English a number of fundamental texts including the most translated of all philosophical works, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, that Geoffrey Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth I also translated. Alfred’s translation of Boethius is so different from the original that it is better seen as a free adaptation, if not an independent work; yet at the same time, Bede’s History was very faithfully translated, though with quite a lot of boring material omitted. This was a remarkable enterprise; for the first time, a ‘barbarian’ language, Old English, was considered capable of expressing the same level of serious significance as Latin.

The 12th century saw the birth of modern fiction, in the form of what are known as the Old French ‘chansons de geste’ and ‘romances.’ As a result of the Norman Conquest of 1066, the aristocrats of England were French-speaking and needed no translations. Instead, it was into German that translations were made—above all the Tristan of Gottfried von Strasburg and the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach. These great works of German literature, like the versions of French works made in Italy a little later, show how, for the Middle Ages, translation was not so much a matter of seeking word-for-word equivalents as of entirely rewriting a work, creating an only vaguely similar adaptation.

In England, Geoffrey Chaucer is the great example of both approaches. His translations of Boethius’ Consolation and of the Romance of the Rose are reasonably precise translations in our modern sense. But when it came to fiction, he followed quite different strategies, radically transforming Boccaccio’s epic Tesseida by abbreviating it drastically to produce the much shorter Knight’s Tale of the ‘love’ of Palamon and Arcite for Emily; in contrast, it is clear that he was looking at a copy of Boccaccio’s Il Filocolo as he wrote Troilus and Criseyde, and a recent edition prints the two works in parallel. Yet here, too, Chaucer is not simply a translator in our modern literal sense, for he omits and adds freely at certain points of the story, subtly transforming it in essential ways. Amusingly, for us, at the point in the story where young Troilus is trying to understand the emotional turmoil he is experiencing after first glimpsing Criseyde in a temple, Chaucer turned aside from Boccaccio’s text and instead introduced a new, lyrical meditation on the torments caused by love. He gives no sign that in fact these lines are a very close translation of a sonnet from the Rime Sparse of Francesco Petrarcha, the first poem by Petrarch to be translated into English!

The introduction of printing only encouraged a thirst for translations. William Caxton, who brought printing to England, translated romances that he then printed and sold. The Reformation could never have happened without printing, that allowed the rapid spread of translations of the Bible to social classes that could not have afforded hand-copied manuscripts.

Shakespeare benefited enormously from the translations produced in the later 16th century. He could perhaps read a little Latin and French but it is obvious that he was deeply influenced by the recent translations or free adaptations of the comedies of the Roman dramatists Terence and Plautus, with their frustrated young lovers, unreasonable old fathers, cunning servants and conniving nurses, as well as by the melodramatic English adaptations of tragedies by Seneca, themselves psychological thrillers adapted (not translated) from the Greek. Harrington’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses provided Shakespeare with his wide range of mythological references; without Thomas North’s translations of Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare could never have written Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra, and it was Plutarch’s way of showing how the analysis of the personalities of ‘great men’ allows us to understand their actions that underlies the use of soliloquies in Hamlet. Finally, Shakespeare was so impressed by John Florio’s translations of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne that he uses quite a number of new words in King Lear and later plays that he had found there, as well as an entirely new level of self-analysis.

By the later seventeenth century, English society had developed a kind of wealthy ‘middle class’ where the women especially had much leisure and where men and women alike were conscious of a need for ongoing education in the classics of literature and felt excluded by their ignorance of classical languages. John Dryden in the late 17th century and Alexander Pope in the early 18th provided translations for them—Dryden’s version of Virgil’s Aeneid being followed by Pope’s translations of Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. All three of these great translations, that enjoyed tremendous popularity, are composed in the rhyming ‘heroic couplets’ which were so popular at this time, though they completely change the feel of the originals.

More radical still are Pope’s ‘translations’ (or ‘free versions,’ rather) of the Satires of Horace. For in them Pope takes all the details of the geography and people of ancient Rome that Horace mentions, and replaces them by the geography and people of contemporary London. Thus the medieval concept of translation as very free adaptation, a recreation of a work for and in a totally different cultural mode or context, continued. We might want to remember that John Dryden even made translations of works by Geoffrey Chaucer, on the grounds that Middle English versification and vocabulary could not satisfy the demands of sophisticated modern taste.

Translation since the 19th century

The 19th century saw the development of generalized literacy in Britain. Many more translations were published, and in particular the modern fiction of other European countries began to find an audience. No one did more to introduce the English-speaking world to Russian literature than Constance Garnett (1862–1946), who translated into graceful late-Victorian prose seventy major Russian works, including seventeen volumes of Turgenev, thirteen volumes of Dostoevsky, six of Gogol, four of Tolstoy, seventeen of Chekhov, and others. She worked so fast that when she came across an awkward passage she would simply leave it out. She also made mistakes. But her stylish prose, which made the Russian writers so accessible, and seemingly so close to the English sensibility, ensured that her translations would remain for many years the authoritative standard of how these writers ought to sound and feel. For the English-reading public, Russian literature was what Garnett made of it.

Russians were not so impressed. Nabokov called her Gogol translations "dry and flat, and always unbearably demure." Kornei Chukovsky accused her of smoothing out the idiosyncrasies of writers' styles so that "Dostoevsky comes in some strange way to resemble Turgenev." Joseph Brodsky sniped that the "reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren't reading the prose of either one. They're reading Constance Garnett." In his Lectures on Russian Literature Vladimir Nabokov maintains that "the third, and worst, degree of turpitude" in literary translation, after "obvious errors" and skipping over awkward passages, “is reached when a masterpiece is  . . . vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime . . . .”

Whether one agrees or not with Nabokov—whose own translation into English of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin sacrificed poetic rhythm, rhyme, and readability for literal word-by-word equivalence—there is no doubt that the practice of translation is strongly influenced by the literary tastes and sensibilities of the receiving culture. These comments on Russian literature in translation are drawn from a recent New York Review of Books review of a new translation of War and Peace, one that seeks to represent adequately in English the peculiarities of Tolstoy’s style. This reflects the postmodern interest in affirming the ‘otherness’ of other cultures and their texts, seeing the Garnett approach as being a form of colonialist appropriation.

In the first half of the 20th century, the West (meaning mainly the United States and Western Europe including Britain) discovered through translations the ancient religious writings of India (the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita etc), the poetry of the medieval Provencal Troubadours, and the classical poetry of China and Japan; the poetry of China was translated by scholars such as James Legge and Arthur Waley but it mainly owes its popularity to the work of Ezra Pound, who at first knew no Chinese, and simply recast scholars’ literal translations into his own poetic voice, though later he learned enough Chinese to be able to work with the originals when he wished to. Pound’s “translations” in Cathay (1915) and the Cantos should not be seen as academic exercises designed to provide readers with precise renderings of Chinese poems. Hugh Kenner, in a chapter entitled "The Invention of China" in his The Pound Era contends that Cathay should be read primarily as a book about World War I, not as an attempt at accurately translating ancient Eastern poems. The real achievement of the book, Kenner argues, is in how it combines meditations on violence and friendship with an effort to "rethink the nature of an English poem". These ostensible translations of ancient Eastern texts are actually experiments in English poetics and compelling elegies for a warring West. (Wikipedia). That can be considered as the highest form of literary translation.

The second half of the 20th century saw a growing interest across the West in “world literature” with the growth of departments of Comparative Literature in American universities and the publication of English translations of an increasingly wide range of works from many different cultures. In England, the Harvill Press, a publishing house specializing in translated literature, came into being just after the 2nd World War and for 60 years introduced English readers to the work of such noted writers as Yourcenar, Solzhenitsyn, Calvino, and Yi Mun-Yol. Still, until 1960, at least, ordinary British readers would never even have thought of reading translations of novels written in Latin America, Eastern Europe (apart from Russia), or Turkey. They mostly never wondered what was being written in the former colonies of Africa; even Indian writers writing in English were hardly familiar names.

One exception exists, and for a particular reason: Japanese literature became popular in the U.S and Britain in the 1950s. The Chinese – English translator Julia Lovell has written: “The cold war has a lot to do with it. In the 1950s, as part of the broader US project of reinventing Japan as an unthreatening regional ally against communist China, the American publisher Knopf set about marketing a picture of Japan - through carefully selected and translated works of its modern fiction - as a non-bellicose land of exotic aestheticism; the very opposite of Japan's aggressive, jingoistic pre-war image. These were the years in which authors such as Mishima and Kawabata became the representative, languishingly melancholic voices who later slipped comfortably into canon-forming collections in Britain (. . .) Although the themes and styles of those contemporary Japanese novelists now best known in the west - Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto - are a far cry from the taciturn, elusive qualities of Mishima and others, they owe large swathes of their western audiences to the trails blazed by their predecessors” (The Guardian, June 11, 2005*). In contrast, as she says, Chinese writers are still almost completely ignored in the West, to say nothing of Korean, Indonesian or Vietnamese writers, to name but a few. Japanese literature, like Russian literature before it, became popular for reasons that had more to do with conditions in the receiving culture than with qualities inherent in the original texts.

Translating Korean literature

It was necessary to start with that long historical survey before mentioning the translation of Korean literature, because it is important to realize just what a major role translation has always played in western culture, providing access to the works, ancient and modern, that writers and literate society felt were needed to provide  them with renewed vision and wider perspectives. At the same time, that means that the choice of works to be translated and published has always depended mainly on choices and conditions in the receiving cultures.

If we turn now to the translation of Korean literature, it may be a little easier to see the main obstacle facing us. Briefly, it does not matter how proud Koreans are of their literary heritage, the fact is that translations of Korean literature are only going to be published and read in the West if they correspond to a felt need there. Unfortunately, the slot in the publishing market that Korean literature can occupy is one which it has to share with every other country in the same category: “world literature.” Korean writing, seen from a Europe or North American perspective, has to compete with Indonesian, Vietnamese, Uruguayan, Peruvian, Kenyan or Nigerian literatures, among many others. It is a big challenge and the statistics are daunting.

In 2004, 375,000 new books were published in the entire English-speaking world, of which 14,440 were translations from other languages (3% of the total). However, at least 75% of those 14,440 translations were in the ‘non-fiction’ category, i.e. not literature. Just 4,982 of those translations were published in the United States. By contrast, 4,602 translations into Czech were reported to have been published in the Czech Republic, almost as many title as in the United States, although the total Czech population is only 10 million.  The English-speaking world includes some 400 million people. Another way of expressing the same problem is to say that of the 12,828 works of fiction and poetry that were published in the United States in 1999, 297 were translations, but that included multiple new editions of Cevantes, Homer, Balzac, Tolstoy, Dante . . . There is very little room left for new writers with unfamiliar names from unfamiliar countries.

Many Koreans keep repeating that nobody is translating Korean literature, that nothing from Korea is being published abroad. It is not true. In my home page, I have a list of all the published English translations of Korean literature I know of. 85 volumes have been published since 2001, most of them in the United States. In view of the statistics just indicated, I think that is extraordinary! I myself have published 23 volumes of translated literature since I first began in 1990, mostly poetry, and mostly they were published by small, non-profit presses in the United States, or by a small press here in Korea. The only exception was Yi Mun-Yol’s The Poet, published by Harvill Press in London, a very special event, but without long-term consequence since the press has now been absorbed by Random House and is no longer interested in Korean literature.

Young Koreans are often eager to make their country’s literature known overseas, and many say that they wish to become translators. My first reaction is a stern warning: it is universally agreed that translators should translate into their first, mother, language. That is usually the only language that one masters fully, unless a person has grown up from infancy to be fully bilingual. The English education that is given in Korea is so poor that virtually no one, even an A+ English department graduate from a top university, is able to write a grammatically and stylistically correct business letter. There is a very great difference between those who have studied only in Korea and those who have spent several years of their childhood attending school in an English-speaking country. But with very rare exceptions, the only ‘native’ Korean-speakers who can translate Korean literature into English are those who spent almost all their childhood abroad and whose first language is in fact English. Koreans educated in Korea should always be translating from foreign languages into Korean.

Very often, Koreans seem to think that translations of Korean poetry ought to be almost word-for-word / line-for-line equivalents; this is due to a lack of knowledge of Western translation practice. Very often, especially today, a translated poem is a very free version of the original. The challenge is to enable the translation to stand as a poem in its own right; but of course there is always going to be the theoretical question of whether or not a translation should so transform the poetic discourse of the original that the result assimilates the poem to contemporary American, Irish or British poetic practices. In other words, for example, should Ko Un in English translation sound like a Californian beat poet? It is not an easy question to answer. I rather think that the answer might have to be yes, but I am fairly sure that he would not agree.

Finally, because people always ask what is my favorite Korean poem, here it is, in Korean and English:

귀천(歸天) : 천상병

나 하늘로 돌아가리라
새벽빛 와 닿으면 스러지는
이슬 더불어 손에 손을 잡고

나 하늘로 돌아가리라
노을빛 함께 단 둘이서
기슭에서 놀다가 구름 손짓하면은

나 하늘로 돌아가리라
아름다운 이 세상 소풍 끝내는 날
가서 아름다웠더라고 말하리라 .

Back to Heaven by Chon Sang-Pyeong (Translated by Br Anthony)

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 would stress that I never simply read that poem; I tell people the story of the poet’s life, his poverty, his arrest and torture, his physical weakness, his childlike heart. And I also have to speak of the times he lived in, the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the military dictatorships. It is part of the translator’s task to ensure that a nation’s literature is carried across together with at least a minimum of information about the social and personal context in which works of literature arose. Korean literature is part of Korean history. It is also part of the universal human experience, with its own unique voice. I only hope that in translating it, I enable that voice to be heard clearly. Then people living far away can understand what it is that makes Korean poetry beautiful, and so worth reading.