Translating Shin Kyong-nim's Poem Mokkye Changt'o

A paper originally given by Brother Anthony (An Sonjae) at a seminar organized in November 1996 by the Yonsei University Literary Translation Research Institute.

Several distinct methods can be employed in making literary translations. A decisive question is whether the translation will be read in tandem with the Korean original or not. If the answer is positive, the aim of the translation will be to enable readers with some limited knowledge of Korean to gain access to the poem in the original language. After that, the translation ceases to be useful.

In such a case, there are three conventional methods of proceeding. The first, that chosen by Professor Michael Alexander for his Penguin edition of Beowulf in the original language, is to give a single word equivalent in modern English of each key word when it first appears, but not afterwards. In this case, an ability to understand the grammatical constructions is assumed.

The second method is to supply an interlinear line-by-line translation. This looks ugly and makes reading difficult. It is very much a school text-book format, there are editions of Chaucer and even Shakespeare for high-school students that do this. Of course, the line-by-line order of a Korean poem is often quite unlike the order required for coherent English grammar to work, but with this method a very conservative full guide to contents is supplied, enabling the reader to pursue the task of interpretation alone.

The third method, adopted by Penguin editions of major foreign poets, is to supply a precise prose translation at the foot of the page, with the original poem above it. Here the readers are assumed to know enough of the original language to be able to read the poem without detailed assistance, but with the reassurance given by being able to check their understanding against the printed translation.

With the growth of Korean Studies programmes across the world, the need for such close translations, where English and Korean are printed together, should not be underestimated. They can offer very considerable help to readers at initial stages and enable them to become accustomed to reading Korean poetry with more assurance.

In this paper, I will use Shin Kyong-nim's poem Mokkye-Changt'o to illustrate the main ideas. At the end of this text are three English texts corresponding to the above three methods of parallel translation. The first gives only an approximate, single word equivalent for each word of the Korean, corresponding to the word on its first appearance; the second offers a conservative line-by-line translation; the third gives two prose translations.

On the second of the texts I have underlined the main points of real difficulty, on which I will concentrate. Most of the poem is not very difficult verbally. I want to include discussions of certain indirect associations easily adduced by Korean readers but not explicit in the text itself. This will help make clear an additional problem in translating Korean poetry, namely the far greater role expected to be played by the Korean reader's imagination in interpreting a poem, compared to what would be considered normal in the West.

The title poses the first problem. Local place-names used in poems are assumed to have resonance by association, but for this they have to be recognized by the reader. No non-Korean can know where Mokkye is or what codes of meaning are attached to it. Perhaps the same is actually true of students in Seoul. At the same time, the rural Korean changt'o is not the same as the English market square or market place with their evocations (for England) of picturesque villages surrounding a charming open space now often used as a car park, or with picturesque booths selling woolies and art pottery.

For the informed Korean reader, mention of the remote and insignificant place-name Mokkye evokes the humble small towns with regular market days that continue to be held to some extent in the rural areas, so very different from the affluence of Seoul. The village is assumed to have very few shops.

In addition, the informed Korean reader knows that this is a famous poem, one of Shin Kyong-nim's key works, on which he spent much time, and that Mokkye (#) is the pen-name he took for himself, indicating how important he considered the poem. A whole introduction would be needed to enable the non-Korean reader to know that the poet spent the early years of his adult life in a wandering life of the kind echoed here.

In line 3 we have the first crux: ch'ongryong hukryong are Chinese characters meaning blue dragon black dragon and evoking storm clouds by traditional poetic extension, whereby a turbulent battle of dragons is seen in the turmoil of a violent storm. The translator has to decide whether to try to preserve anything of the specific imagery, which has no equivalent in English, or to paraphrase it.

In Line 6 comes a curious crux, for even Korean readers have difficulty explaining the meaning of ahure nahul. The word market in the title, never used in the poem, alerts us to the context. The rural markets of Korea are commonly held on every fifth day (o-il-jang), rather than once every week. The markets of any particular region are held on different days, allowing merchants to move from one to another. The poet has chosen an unusual expression to specify that the Mokkye market is held on the dates ending in a 4 and a 9 each (lunar?) month. It is not obvious why the 9 precedes the 4 in the Korean, unless it is for reasons of euphony.

The mention of pakkapun too is an important crux, of a more complex kind. Each culture has its familiar brand-names, some of them strongly associated with a particular historical moment. Korean women of the older generation smile (#) now on seeing this word and recall how Pak Seung-jik produced the famous patent face powder (pun) that bore his family name. It was produced in his home near Dongdae-mun in Seoul, and sold for fifty chon a pack, in the years between 1916 and 1937. His family later developed into the Dusan group. This powder was mixed with water and applied as a paste to the face.

At last in line 7 the subject appears, pangmulchangsu, a peddler specializing in pangmul, the kind of items appealing to women: make-up and fancy goods, knick-knacks, or gew-gaws as the English 18th or 19th centuries would have said. Only modern England and America, or Seoul, do not now have such peddlers.

For older Koreans (#) mention of the pangmulchangsu evokes a visual image of a poor woman, going along the roads from house to house to sell her wares, usually armed with a cheap black umbrella to keep off the sun or rain as she walks.

The peddler is additionally qualified, in a mysterious way, as kaulpyot'do soroun. Korea's autumn sunlight is usually brilliantly clear and exhilarating, yet for some reason even then (-do) the imagined peddler is sad, sorrowful, grieving. He is presumably gloomy in sympathy with the Modernist brotherhood of poets, whose dominant emotion was mostly inner torment.

Line 12 introduces the untranslatable toitmaru the wooden shelf, ledge, platform, or step in front of the room(s) of the t'opang earth-floored room, mud hovel where minmul seiu freshwater shrimps are kkurhonomnun boiling over in an unspecified relationship to the step. Implicit in the words (#) is a picture of the poorest kind of rural housing, around which floats the odor of the richly spiced soup in which the shrimps are boiling.

In line 13 another crux comes with soksamnyone which can mean in three years, in three times three years, or in many years and the only solution is to ask the poet; his answer is that three times three years is many years. In the third versionthe prose translation has been rendered in two ways. The first indicates the elements that have to be added to give coherent English phrases. The second follows a more common model and silently supplies essential elements of grammar, quantity, and implied linkages, which of course already begins to take us beyond the explicit information provided by the original, but remains within the limits of what is usually acceptable in a 'literal translation'.

Methodologically speaking, it is this kind of precise translation, as literal as can be, that alone deserves the name of translation. All the processes that move beyond it may better be termed transposition or versioning or some other word of approximation. The finality of supplying a close translation side-by-side with the original is to enable the reader to do without the translation, reading the original directly as soon as possible. All freer forms of translation have a quite different finality, in that they do not imply any expectation that the readers will at some stage go back to the original. These are versions destined to replace permanently the Korean poem for foreign readers unable to read Korean and not intending to learn it.

All of this may seem quite elementary, but we need sometimes to come back to basics. It is at precisely this point, where the translators are asked to produce a text that will replace the original and be precisely equivalent to it, that the most interesting problems of translation theory occur. Anyone who has read Barnstone's very remarkable chapter on Bible translation, or who is in touch with recent French studies of the way in which the Septuagint was produced, will realize this. In Asia, similar questions arise in exploring the passage of the Buddhist Scriptures from Sanskrit or Pali into Chinese.

Basically, the translators of a sacred text feel a very particular anxiety concerning faithfulness. The words of the original come to them loaded with the greatest importance; these words in Hebrew or Sanskrit claim to be expressions of the most absolute truth available to humanity. They should therefore be translated in such a way that this truth will still be the same absolute truth when the words are read in translation; the translators may not change, by addition or by omission, any aspect of that truth and at the same time cannot expect that the readers of their versions will be in a position to interpret them by referring back to the original.

This is clearly an impossible task, since complex concepts simply do not have equivalents in differing cultures. We need only think of the word theos in Greek, with its cultural connotations linking it to the myths about Zeus and Aphrodite on the one hand and to Plato and the Absolute of the philosophers on the other, to see how hard it must have been to decide to use that word to refer to the Lord God of Israel.

As translators of Korean poetry, we are not translating absolute truths, but we are confronted with the same kind of fundamental task and anxiety. We are attempting, more or less, to dismantle a text in one language and rebuild it in another, while claiming that the two texts are the same text. Once our version leaves our hands, it will not be accompanied by its original and will not normally be compared with it. It will have become an independent text, but one bearing (more or less) the name of the original work and its author.

People like us translators, who can read both Korean and English, are in an a-typical situation; we are the only people likely to go back to the original again, after the publication of a transposed version; we alone may throw up our hands in horror at what we consider the errors, the weaknesses, the wrong options, taken in such versions.

Yet we need to be careful. What are the paradigms for such transpositions? Of course, everyone will agree that a translation should be 'faithful to the original' but that is hardly a precise notion. Only the original can be completely faithful to itself. The original poem has its diction, its rhythms, its explicit and implicit references to other poems, to culture, history, its place in a writer's on-going work and his developing style, its place in a particular literary context, its message to readers sharing a particular moment in their nation's history, and its later reputation in the critical reception. It is itself, fully.

How much of that can be translated, and to what should we give priority? Do we always have to represent accurately every word? Do we always have to follow exactly the number of lines in the original, it being obvious that the order of lines and of elements within each line will have to be changed in moving from Korean to English in any case? Is there any point in trying to imitate a particular rhythmic characteristic of the Korean?

It is a quite common practice in Europe and America to submit accurate but unpolished close translations of poems to established poets skilled in writing poems in the target-language but ignorant of the original tongue, and it is they who transpose the translation into what they consider to be a good English poem. The late Jon Silkin's recent work on some modern Japanese poetry is a good example of this. It is a practice that has the advantage of making the translation more marketable; the famous poet's name serves to validate its quality as poetry. Alas, the real translator's name usually gets completely lost in the process.

On the whole, we unknown folk who translate poems from Korean into English do not benefit from this method. Perhaps we should try. Instead, we do everything ourselves despite our patent lack of poetic credentials; we remove the most awkward terms and polish up the initial translation, until we have a final English version or transposition that we feel is more or less a faithful image of the Korean, and at the same time a fairly poetic object. We may even try to prettify it by some clever tricks of our own. This all reminds us of Frost's joke that 'poetry is what gets lost in translation'.

One step that we usually take involves going back to the original and noting the use of repeated words, sounds, and rhythms, or other characteristic structures. In Shin Kyong-rim's poem the repeated soft sounds stand out: hanurun naltoro... In addition there are quite regular rhythmic patterns of 4 stresses to a line, without absolutely regular syllable counts. We are usually content if this kind of simple rhythmic feature can somehow be brought into the English version without loosing too much of the contents of the original. The poem that follows is the result:

Mokkye Market

The sky urges me to turn into a cloud,
the earth urges me to turn into a breeze,
a little breeze waking weeds on the ferry landing
once storm clouds have scattered and rain has cleared.
To turn into a peddler sad even in autumn light,
going to Mokkye Ferry, three days' boat ride from Seoul,
to sell patent face-powders, on days four and nine.
The hills urge me to turn into a meadow flower,
the stream urges me to turn into a stone.
To hide my face in the grass when hoarfrost bites,
to wedge behind rocks when rapids rage cruel.
To turn into a traveller with pack laid by, resting
on a clay hovel's wood step, river shrimps boiling up,
changed into a fool for a week or so, once in thrice three years.
The sky urges me to turn into a breeze,
the hills urge me to turn into a stone.

This transposition seems reasonably faithful to the verbal content as well as to the fundamental rhythmic patterns and sound effects of the original. Words have been chosen for their softness, as with urges, earth, breeze. Most lines have four major stresses. The culturally over- explicit mentions of the dragon clouds and the brand name of the face-powder have been eliminated. The toitmaru of the t'opang has continued to defy precise poetic translation.

Yet non-Korean readers will still not be able to bring to their reading of the poem the immediate sympathetic response of the original Korean readers, alert to the implication of words suggesting poverty, rootlessness, insecurity, and the powerful contrast between the idealized contentment of simple nature and the agonized homelessness of the poem's speaker, to say nothing of the moment's respite at the clay hovel.

Still, this is the poem that I would normally publish as the completed translation, and I consider it a reasonably acceptable model of the kind of result I aim for when I translate. Yet on reflection, I admit that it falls between two stools: it is no longer a precise translation of every word of the original. Yet it is not really a living English poem of the kind that might interest people familiar with the poetry being written today in English. It is gravely hamstrung by being forced to follow the order and flow of ideas and images of the Korean, in a more or less neutral tone.

In addition, the English poem lacks the clear echo of the rhythms of popular songs, which is the feature that gave the poem (after several revisions) its success with Korean readers. This kind of version feels like a death-mask, an accurate but ultimately lifeless likeness. Can we take it any farther, not just by tinkering, but by a more radical remaking?

We know with what glee Koreans pounce on any point where a translation departs from the original. Yet we might remember that the first translation into English of a sonnet by Petrarch is found in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde; there the poem is no longer a 14-line sonnet with its characteristic rhyme-scheme, it has been converted into two rhyme-royal stanzas; it no longer stands alone but is embedded in a long narrative poem; there it has no conceivable reference to Laura, being spoken by Troilus about his feelings for Criseyde; and nothing in Chaucer's poem indicates that there was an Italian original by a poet called Petrarch. Yet I do not hear Italians shouting in outrage.

When Dryden and Pope undertook the translation of the epics of Homer and Virgil, they adopted the heroic couplets popular in the England of their time, that in no way reproduce the rhythms and flow of the originals. When Pope translated Horace's Satires he changed all the persons, and the settings, from ancient Rome to the London of his times. And we might mention Ezra Pound, the qualities of whose responses to Chinese poems, that might be called free versions of them, cannot be understood if they are seen and judged as translations which they are not.

In the other direction, how many critics have objected to the way that Kim So Wol (*) published a poem Spring as his own work, that on examination turns out to be a creative transposition of a Chinese poem by Tu Fu, Ch'un-mang? Nothing indicates the fact, it is normally read and admired as an original poem by So Wol, and nobody accuses him of crimes against Chinese aesthetics, although he has changed the original in quite a few ways.

Perhaps more particularly appropriate for this topic, we could, and indeed should, turn to those pioneering free translations into Korean (*) of western poetry, French and English, produced by Kim Ok (Kim An-so). For the rhythms of some of his transpositions are almost certainly among the sources of Shin Kyong-rim's rhythms in Mokkye Market.

English popular songs, of the kind that have affected lyric poetry, are mostly of the ballad type. In recent years the ballad forms and styles have been given fresh vigor in the work of Charles Causely and James Fenton. In view of all that has been said, I think that I am justified in offering two transpositions of Mokkye changt'o which do not fit the straight-jacket of the rhythms and line-count of the original:

The Song of Mokkye Market

Turn into a cloud, the sky insists,
become a breeze, the earth suggests,
become a breeze and wake the weeds,
clouds scattering, the rain blown away
from the riverside bank where the ferry lands.
Turn into a peddler, haunt the fairs,
finding no joy in bright autumn sun,
visit Mokkye market on every fifth day,
sell Park's Patent Powder to the women there,
only three days by boat from the streets of Seoul.
Turn into a flower, the hills suggest,
become a pebble, the river insists;
on chill frosty nights hide your face in the grass,
in the fury of rapids wedge under a rock.

Become a wanderer, wearily resting
outside a poor hut, your pack laid aside,
take shrimps from the river and boil them hard,
a happy fool for a week, after so many years.

Turn into a breeze, the sky suggests,
become a pebble, the hills insist.

The Ballad of Mokkye Fair

I heard the sky speak, and it said to me:
Turn into a cloud, my lad;
The earth sighed back: Turn into a breeze,
Turn into a breeze so glad

That it wakes the weeds at the river-side
When storms and rain are gone;
Turn into a peddler all forlorn,
To Mokkye Fair plod on,

Full three days from Seoul by boat, for sure
There the women are waiting in line
For your patent powder, your knick-knacks sweet,
When the date has a four or a nine.

I heard the hills speak, and they said to me:
Turn into a flower, dear boy;
The river murmured: Turn to stone
And let that be your joy.

Hide your face when hoarfrost bites,
Hide it in the sedge;
Take refuge when the torrents rage,
Behind a boulder wedge.

Turn into a wanderer; weary, take rest
By some poor hovel's door;
Stay there, lay your pack aside,
Boil shrimps from the river's shore.

Enjoy yourself, play the fool for a bit,
After all this time alone.
I heard the sky speak: Become a breeze;
But the hills bade me turn to stone.

It seems to me that the desire to do this kind of recasting only occurs when the poem has some particular quality to it. I have translated hundreds of Korean poems that I would never dream of treating in this way; as Walter Benjamin suggests somewhere, the translator's desire to play various games with a poem is a sign of its inherent qualities.

I am very grateful to Professor Kim Tae-Ok (#) of Sogang University and Professor Kim Young-Moo (*) of Seoul National University for important points marked accordingly in the text.

Read the poem in Korean (if your browser allows)

1. Minimal translation guide (return to reference point)

sky me cloud become says
earth wind
blue dragon black scattered rain cleared ferry
weeds waking breeze
boatjourney Seoul three days
ninth fourth visit Pak's Powder selling
autumn light sad peddler
hill wild flower
river stone
frost bitter grass in face bury
rapids harsh rock behind wedge
freshwater shrimp boil over earth hut wooden step
three yrs etc some seven days fool change
bundle untie sit resting traveller
sky me wind become said
hill stone

2. Conservative translation

Sky is telling me to become cloud and
ground is telling me to become wind.
blue dragon black dragon (clouds) scattered rain cleared ferry (landing)
(telling me) to become light wind waking weeds
to Mokkye ferry landing three days boat journey from Seoul
come on dates with nine and four selling Pakga face-powder
(telling me) to become peddler sorrowful even (in) autumn light
Hill is telling me to become meadow flower and
river is telling me to become small stone
(Telling me) to bury face in grass if frost is sharp cold
to stick behind rock when rapids are harsh
freshwater shrimp boiling-over platform of clay hut
changed into idiot for seven days or so once in (three times) three years
(telling me) to become wanderer sitting with pack taken off resting
Sky is telling me to become wind and
hill is telling me to become little stone.

3. Prose translations (Return to reference point)

(The) sky is telling me to become (a) cloud and (the) ground is telling me to become (a) wind. (Telling me) to become (a) light wind waking weeds (when) blue dragon black dragon (storm clouds) (have) scattered and (the) rain (has) cleared (from) the ferry (landing). (Telling me) to become (a) peddler sorrowful even in autumn light (who) comes on dates with nine and four selling Pakga face-powder to/at Mokkye ferry landing three days boat journey from Seoul. (A) hill/mountain is telling me to become a meadow flower and (a/the) river is telling me to become (a) small stone. (Telling me) to bury (my) face in grass if frost is sharp and cold, to stick behind rocks when rapids are harsh. (Telling me) to become (a) wanderer sitting with (his) pack taken off resting (on the) wood platform of (a) clay hut (with) freshwater shrimps boiling over changed into an idiot for seven days or so once in three times three years. (The) sky is telling me to become (a) wind and (a) hill is telling me to become (a) little stone.

The sky is telling me to become a cloud and the ground is telling me to become a wind, telling me to become a light wind waking weeds when blue dragon black dragon storm clouds have scattered and the rain has cleared from the ferry landing. Telling me to become a peddler sorrowful even in autumn light who comes on dates with nine and four selling Pakga face-powder to Mokkye ferry landing three days boat journey from Seoul. A hill is telling me to become a meadow flower and a river is telling me to become a small stone. Telling me to bury my face in grass if frost is sharp and cold, to stick behind rocks when rapids are harsh. Telling me to become a wanderer sitting with his pack taken off resting on the wood platform of a clay hut with freshwater shrimps boiling over changed into an idiot for seven days or so once in three times three years. The sky is telling me to become a wind and a hill is telling me to become a little stone.