Translation: Connecting the World, Promoting Peace


Brother Anthony


Opening Address at the International Literature Festival held in Kathmandu (Nepal) December 27-29, 2019, with poets from Nepal, Bangadesh, Sri Lanka, India, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Korea, Australia.


We are living in a very special era when it comes to World Literature, thanks to the rise of the Internet. Blogs, internet sites and online magazines nowadays make freely available a steady stream of translations from a multitude of countries, from a host of unfamiliar languages and cultures, that would never have been available in the days of printed publication. Of course, poets and other writers have always written in many different languages in many diverse lands across the globe, languages which are often little known beyond each country’s frontiers, or even each region’s. It has long been obvious that translation into multiple languages is the only way by which literature, which is otherwise by definition regional and temporal, can become universal and in a sense eternal.

In England in the 17th and 18th centuries John Dryden and Alexander Pope made the great epics of Virgil and Homer accessible to multitudes who would never master enough Latin or Greek to read the originals. Constance Garnett is today vilifed for her “inaccurate” translations of the Russian classics, but it was thanks to her vast labors that the English-speaking world came to love the great works of Russian literature. James Legge in the 19th century produced an almost incredible series of English translations of all the essential Chinese Classics, then Arthur Waley brought Chinese lyric poetry to life in a way that enabled lovers of Western poetry to respond to it feelingly. More recently, great works of Asia’s past centuries have been made available. Classical poems and other works written in centuries past, translated into major modern languages, form the foundation and core curriculum of World Literature today.

             I left my native England over fifty years ago, first for France, then for Korea, where I arrived forty years ago. Over the past thirty years my concern has been to translate the poetry (and some fiction) written in South Korea by currently living writers, not dead celebrities but still living human beings of our contemporary world. Here, too, I am not alone. Contemporary writing is at the forefront of today’s interest in international literature, more especially the fiction written by the younger generations. Young writers no longer focus uniquely on readers in their land and language of origin, they write in part at least in the hope of being translated and read beyond any frontiers, whether national, linguistic or cultural, in a variety of languages. This might be especially true for fiction, since it is fiction that forms the great bulk of most people’s reading diet. Poetry has in many places lost its privileged position and is only now once again beginning to regain popularity because of its ability to communicate the depths of the human heart, the sensitive individual’s experience of life in all its complexity.

             Poets first must write their poems, which sooner or later translators might try to translate. Both poets and translators face a great hurdle in finding publishers for their work. Poets might idealistically claim that they write to express their inward joys and sorrows, but poets who do not somehow or other seek to publish (make public) what they write will remain in the state of the man evoked in a poem by our great Korean poet Ko Un, “a poet who never once wrote a poem.” But print publication costs money, producing a book is inevitably a commercial activity, and the usual expectation is that books will be sold to readers, though poets frequently give their away many books as gifts. When I translate a poem, it seems clear that the purpose of my activity is to make that poem accessible and known in places where it will never be understood in its original language. I sometimes reflect that for a poet writing a poem, that purpose of “making known to others” might not be so clear, especially when the poem being written is a record of anguish or doubt or private experience. I sometimes wonder whether poets always write with the aim of being widely read, or not. The ambiguity of fame desired might compromise the purity of the unread masterpiece.

             The answer is, of course, that publication of one’s personal poetry is not done to gain fame or wealth but to communicate, as one human being with other human beings across the distances separating us one from another. In the Renaissance, courtier-poets often published their poems in hand-written form, inviting their fellow courtier-poets to admire their verbal skills and copy their poems by hand into their commonplace books. This was a sharing from friend to friend, as well as a form of self-promotion in a premodern economy, where royal and noble patronage was the only means of earning a living. Today poets communicate their poems as best they can, hoping to be recognized as poets by fellow-poets especially, becoming part of a community of poets, but also hoping that readers will find their poems rewarding to read, a source of comfort and courage, of joy and compassion, of insight into another person’s fragile if not wounded heart. Perhaps a poet’s greatest joy comes when a composer sets a poem to music so that it can be sung?

             In the Renaissance, convention and imitation dominated poetry, until one could never be sure that the poet of a love poem had ever really loved in fact. Having passed beyond Romanticism, Modernism and many other –isms, today we read contemporary poems in search, I think of traces of authenticity, of truth unveiled, even of pain endured, no matter how stark, austere, hesitant, fragmentary or challenging the result may be. And above all we seek to hear the unique, individual voice of the poet ringing across the gaps separating us one from another. In Korean Buddhist temples there is often a very large metal bell hanging in a pavilion all alone. It is struck by banging a section of a tree-trunk against the rim or side of the bell but the resonance is greatly increased and improved by burying a large pottery jar directly beneath the bell. The jar receives the vibrations produced by the bell, amplifies and modifies them, then feeds them back into the stream of sound issuing directly from the vibrating metal, rounding it out, making it more agreeable to the ear, richer, more resonant. Such, perhaps, is the task of the translator. Neither jar nor translator have any voice of their own, their role is to wait until a voice rings out from something or someone outside of themselves, then to receive, modify, and amplify it before sending it out into the surrounding world to be heard and admired.

             Without a translator, a poem’s voice remains single, poor, limited, heard and understood only within a narrow circle of like-speaking hearers / readers. With every translation a poem speaks more widely, gains an increasing richness of voice, yet always somehow retaining the same voice, for the poem continues to be printed with the name of the original poet. A conscientious translator does not wish to give a poem a completely new voice and content that has no connection whatever with the original. It will certainly be a totally different poem in every way, in its sounds, language, writing, grammar, word order, since languages differ so widely, but yet it must still be that same poem, only more so.

             Today, we live in an age of massive extinctions, every day we hear bad news about the destruction of the planet’s biodiversity. But one process of extinction we hear less about is the extinction of languages. There are more and more languages that nobody speaks, that have never been studied and codified. When the last speaker, the last singer, that last poet dies, the language and its poetry die with them, unless there has been an act of translation. Even without total extinction, there are vast swathes of the world where almost no languages are spoken and alive. The worst cases are probably the regions where English is the standard language. Since English is so widely spoken and understood, few people in such countries feel a need to master other languages. In addition, the UK, Australia and North America are islands with virtually no direct geographical contact with regions having multiple languages. Many people living there have insular mentalities and are positively unwilling to visit other regions with other languages. Translation by contrast connects the world, but it is very rare indeed to find someone in the UK, North America or Australia who has studied even such major languages as Russian, Chinese, Hindi or Arabic, let alone Nepali, Bengali, Cebuano, or Tibetan. English-only ignorance is especially appalling, given the power and influence of the countries involved.

             This is not simply to talk about the need for poetry translation. Knowledge of other cultures, other languages, is a matter of mutual respect and understanding, of communication, and thus of peace. Without comprehension and acceptance of the otherness of others we are unable to appreciate the gifts they possess and that we need to have access to. To bridge these gaps, translation skills are vital. I think we all agree on this, so let me move on to a related example which is particularly important for me personally.

I have been asked to translate poetry by a Korean poet called Park Nohae. In Korea in the 1980s his name meant a lot to many younger people, students, workers, social activists, all those opposing dictatorship and the exploitation of workers. His name itself was a trumpet call, for everyone knew it was a pseudonym, ‘No’ meaning ‘workers’ and ‘hae’ meaning ‘liberation.’ Nobody, least of all the police and intelligence agencies, knew his real name, some even thought it might be a collective name. Equally, nobody knew what he looked like, if he was a real person, or in what factory he was working. His first collection of poems, “Dawn of Labor,” was published in 1984 and sold nearly a million copies. He became known as “the faceless poet.” He was, the poems showed, a worker living and working as one of Seoul’s many factory workers, familiar with their pain and exhaustion, their lack of freedom and their exploitation, looking for a better future where people might live in peace and harmony, one for another, sharing the joys and pains of daily life, with time for love and family life. Radically opposed to capitalism and authoritarian dictatorship, he joined with others in launching a movement that dared use the name “Socialist,” “the South Korean Socialist Workers’ Alliance,” which in South Korea was understood to mean “Communist,” and merited the death penalty.

             In 1991 he was caught, tortured, sentenced to life in prison, placed in solitary confinement. He published 2 volumes of prison poems. the first contained poems expressing a feeling of failure and loss, the second with poems of hope for a more communitarian world of sharing and peace. Released and pardoned in 1998, he made it clear that he no longer believed in the value of protest marches, strikes and demonstrations, that the problems concerning him now were those facing the poor across the whole world, and that the secret of world peace lay in living together in human community, as people had lived together in rural villages in times not so long past. Then, with the Iran-Iraq war in 2002-3, he went to the battlefronts in the Middle East as a human shield, “to be close to the crying, frightened  children.” From then on he visited many countries, Ethopia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Peru, Columbia, Syria, Sudan, always carrying a notebook, and a small camera with a lot of black-and-white film. He found that simple people readily allowed him to photograph them in their daily lives, working together, eating together, studying, fishing . . . . but always together, in the simple lives of sharing that they had never become weathy enough to neglect.

             From 2010 there have been frequent exhibitions of his photos in Seoul, usually in a special gallery, sometimes devoted to one country, at other times a mixture. His photos, unlike his poems, need no translation, although I have translated the captions he composed for his current exhibition. Photos and captions together do more than open a window on life in the countries depicted in the photos. They invite us to reflect on how we are living in our large, impersonal cities, be it Seoul, Kathmandu, or wherever.

Such photos are themselves poems, poems that need no translation, unless the one looking is blind, of course. Which can happen. Park Nohae is more than “just” a poet, by virtue of his sufferings, and of his spiritual vision pointing toward a world of sharing and community he is an inspirational activist. The glimpses his photos give of miners in Columbia, children in Pakistan, the barley harvest in Tibet, the potato harvest in the Andes, Ethiopian women carrying water home, women laboring in India, remind us how urgently our world needs to be governed for their sake and not for the sake of the wealthy few who have appropriated it for their own advantage. Life’s simple joys are the right of every human person and none have the right to rob a single person of their joy. Poets, we hope, will ever give voice to humanity’s deepest aspirations in the simplest possible ways. But always in their own place, their own way. The universal can only be intensely local.

             To give a voice to the voiceless is the supreme task of all who would serve peace and the world’s poor, who constitute the vast majority of humanity. Poets can only truly be poets if they draw on the pain in their own lives and that which they see around them. The smiling faces in so many of Park Nohae’s photos tell us that pain and joy, trials and dignity go together. He is a pilgrim of peace, a witness to hopeful community. The Community to which I belong, that of Taizé in France, has for decades now been engaged with young people across the world in a Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth. Without trust there can be no communication, no peace, no community, no sharing, no hope.

Translators are sedentary pilgrims, they sit in their rooms and patiently move word after word across the great geographical, linguistic and cultural chasms dividing humanity. Translating is a matter of linguistic mastery, for sure, but more that that it is an exercise in transcultural, international understanding, which is what peace-building has to be. If a translator canot feel an essential sympathy and harmony with a poet’s work, translation surely becomes impossible, even if a translator cannot be expected to identify totally with every poet she translates. We are a kind of ventriloquists with many voices at our command. I have been translating Korean poetry for 30 years now, working on poems by countless poets. I only hope that they do not all sound the same when they express themselves in my English, because they were each very different from one another when I met them and heard them speak or read.