Spatial Limitations in the Translation and Globalization of Korean Poetry

An Sonjae (Brother Anthony of Taizé)

A paper given at a Workshop held during the 2008 Manhae Festival at Manhae Park, Paekdam-sa and subsequently published in Korean in the journal 시와 시학 (Si-wa-sihak, poetry and poetics) 71, Autumn 2008, 31 - 44.

Generally speaking, people seem to think that Korean poetry and fiction can be ‘globalized’ or ‘universalized’ simply by replacing their Korean language with the corresponding words and grammar of other languages. However, I want to suggest that the features making a work of literature specifically ‘Korean’ go far beyond the language in which it is composed; rather they depend on the specific space, geographic and historic or cultural, in which it was written, published, read and received.

We need to remember that whenever a literary work from one nation is refashioned into another language and published in another cultural space, it leaves its home context and reputation behind and undergoes an entirely new process of reading and reception in that new space and context. If the transfer succeeds, the translated work will have become part of that target nation’s literature. If some of the essential characteristics of a nation’s literature resist attempts to ‘export’ them, that is often a result of the ‘foreignness’ of the literary space in which the work arose.

Korean poets naturally exploit the resources of the vocabulary, grammar and rhetoric, rhythm and style of the Korean language to create works that will be accessible to a Korean readership. They produce poems designed to evoke situations and emotions which they expect Korean readers to respond to readily. The subject of Korean literature is almost always an experience of Korean reality; that reality is normally located in a Korean space, in Korean geography and history. Where the setting of a work lies outside of Korea, the narrator and main characters are still usually Korean.

              We must remember that before any work, written in any language, can be viewed as “an achieved work of literature,” it has to undergo multiple processes beyond being written. What turns a raw text, be it play, novel, or poem, into a ‘work of literature’ is not the mere fact of having been written. It has also to be published, distributed, read and received. Without publication and reception, it is nothing more than a latent “textual object,” rather similar to an embryo in the womb. These things are true of every nation’s literature. Most works of literature are written first of all for reception within a specific space, a national, or even local, regional context and ‘culture.’ So although certain languages such as English or Spanish are spoken and written in more than one country or continent, usually the works of literature written in such languages have deep roots in a specific culture, history, geography, and in a particular national or regional identity, which is far more than a matter of language. One corollary of this is that there is and can be no such thing as unconditioned “universality” in literature. Living works of literature are bound to be limited, rooted in specific particularities of national space, in place and time. And that is why the translation or ‘globalization’ of literatures is such a problematic undertaking.

A particular space of this kind can never claim to be universal, its experienced history can never be considered universal, and so, too, its literature can never be universal. The fact that English is used in more countries than most languages does not make any real difference to the limited, regional referentiality of most of what is written in it. An Irish writer (for example) is usually clearly writing within an Irish space, and to that extent remains distinct from a British, an Australian, or a Canadian writer. Where the readers who identify with a given space can say ‘this is our story,’ every other reader will have to say ‘this is their story.’

              In the case of Korean literature, the spaces involved give rise to other complexities. First, obviously, the literary works written in the Korean peninsula since the middle of the 20th century have been produced and read in two quite separate geographical, political and social spaces. Essentially, for 50 years the literatures of North and South Korea have had no contact with one another. In recent years, there have been beginnings of exchange, groups of writers have met and shared something of their work. But there is still virtually no possibility for general readers in North and South to read, let alone respond to, the novels, plays and poems written and published in the other half of the peninsula. We no longer assume that South Korean literature is the only ‘authentic’ Korean literature, or that what has been written in the North is disqualified by the very different circumstances found there. Largely unknown it may be, and produced under very different circumstances; but that is the most we can say.

              In exploring the ‘literary space’ that is specific to and characteristic of Korean writing, we recall that prior to the start of the modern period in the early 20th century, Korea’s written literature was mostly produced and read by an elite for whom ‘literature’ was almost entirely Chinese literature, the language of composition being not Korean but classical Chinese. A literary education involved intense study of works written in China, about places, events and persons located in China. The effect of that was that Korean life-experiences were very largely mediated and expressed through another, Chinese perspective, with the Korean and Chinese spaces overlying one another like a kind of palimpsest. The obvious example would be the habitual reference to characters and events from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國志) in evoking and interpreting events and persons in Korean history and fiction. Korean poetry written in Chinese similarly exists in close dialogue with the works of the great Chinese poets, echoing the Book of Odes and much else written since.

              Koreans do not usually refer to their language or literature as ‘Korean’ (한국어, 한국문학) but simply use the terms “국어, 국문학” (national language, national literature) as if there were obviously no need to specify the nation in question. Yet for decades, during almost all of the first half of the 20th century, Koreans were in a situation where they were taught and forced to repeat that their ‘national’ language was Japanese, that their ‘national’ culture and literature was Japanese culture and literature. The palimpsest comprising the Korean literary space was thus transformed by an overlayer of Japanese references, largely replacing the earlier Chinese one. Those were years when the erasure of Korea’s specific linguistic, literary and cultural identity was paralleled by an intense cultural, geographical erasure, as virtually every administrative building from the previous Chosŏn era was destroyed, almost every town or city wall was demolished, the names of some cities and of most people were transformed. Of the more than 360 buildings that were standing in Gyeongbok-gung in 1910, only 12 remained in 1945.

Yet at the same time, the Japanese colonial period saw Koreans inhabiting, moving across, and writing in a far more open and varied space than ever before or since. Beginning in the year 1880, official Korean delegations were dispatched first to Japan, then to the United States. Following them, Koreans soon began to go and study or settle in both countries. Japan became a highly significant literary, intellectual, cultural space for Korean intellectuals. But in the following decades, Japan also became a place of forced exile for millions of Koreans, as poverty on the peninsula drove them to seek employment there. Other poor Koreans began to emigrate to Hawai’i to work in the sugar plantations there. Such were the beginnings of the Korean Diaspora.

For those with access to education, Japan was a very different space, a space of Modernity, where it became possible to imbibe the intoxicating waters of a modern, essentially Western, vision of the world; in the 1920s, Einstein lectured there, Tagore gave readings, many vitally challenging works of literature and philosophy from distant cultures were translated, and the revolutionary fire of Marxist-Leninist thought brought from Russia mingled there with idealistic forms of Anarchism.

In one of the poems from Im Hwa’s first volume, Hyŏnhaet’an (현해탄, 1938), ‘Romanticism of the Straits,’ the symbolic value of the Genkai Sea that separates Korea from Japan is expressed as ‘a romanticism of the heart gazing at the long shadow cast by the Japanese Islands’ and to the youthful speaker of the poem the Korean homeland to which he is returning is nothing but darkness and night, in which he will suddenly appear, eager to kindle and illuminate the darkness by means of his newly enlightened reason and passion, ‘a star burning more brightly than any torch.’ The Genkai Sea becomes an image as a ‘sea of hope across which I return after learning art, scholarship, truth’, a romantic and optimistic view of the Japanese space. Yet in another poem from the same volume, ‘Nunmul ŭi haehyŏp’ (눈물의 해협, Strait of Tears), the Genkai Sea, quite opposed to that previous romantic view, is termed ‘sea where a new fate screeches like a crow,’ a sea full of death and tears, fateful separations, thanks to the history of suffering of all who have been colonized: ‘Child, the night on the straits is so fearful.’

Other spaces, too, were open to the Korean writers and dreamers of those days. To the North, Manchuria also became a land of exile for the very poor, but it was at the same time a region where armed resistance to the Japanese flourished. China, meanwhile, became a very different space than before, for now it too was a place where young Koreans could gain access to the new, modern, western learning through study. At the same time, it offered greater freedom, so that China served as a base for Korean nationalist resistance to the Japanese, with the establishment of a Provisional Government in Exile in Shanghai and other organizations. Diaspora and exile arose from acts of displacement, of boundary-crossing, though the motivations were diverse. The first narrative poem in modern Korean literature is usually said to be Kim Dong-Hwan’s Kukgyŏng ŭi pam (국경의 , Night on the Frontier), evoking the terrible suffering experienced by Korean refugees attempting to cross the frontier into Manchuria, embodied in a wife waiting fearfully for news of her husband, only to learn of his violent death.

In this perspective, the withdrawal of the Japanese from the Korean peninsula in 1945, the ensuing division of Korea’s political and social space determined in part by the Americans and Russians and in part by conflicting Korean bids for power, and the tragedy of the war with the ensuing total division, are events that brought about a radical narrowing of Koreans’ space, with the impossibility of any kind of free movement from South Korea toward Manchuria, China, or simply into North Korea and vice-versa in the post-1945 decades. Most terrible of all, the ideological and militarized division of the peninsula forced millions to make a choice between the North or the South, before and during the Korean war; large numbers of writers and intellectuals believed that the North would offer more creative possibilities than the South and opted to move there, with disastrous results for many.

Im Hwa was one such. He left Seoul in 1947 and went to live in Pyŏngyang; he followed the invading North Korean forces at the start of the Korean War, returning to Seoul and going on with them as far as the Naktong River before the intervention of the UN forces routed the North Koreans, at which he again crossed the 38th Parallel. Forced to flee northward beyond Pyŏngyang as far as the Manchurian border, he longed to see the daughter Hyeran, nineteen years old, whom he had left behind in the South and in December 1950 published a poem addressed to her, ‘Nŏ ŏnŭ kos e ittnŭnya’ ( 어느 곳에 있는야, Where are you?). Most tragic of all, the army from the North, withdrawing from the southern regions, forced a number of poets and writers to go with them against their will. Meanwhile, Ku Sang, who had bidden goodbye to his mother as he set off Southward from Wonsan in 1946 to escape ideological censorship of poetry, could have no idea that he would never again enter that space or see her, although he would live for 58 more years.

As a result, the South Korean literature written throughout the post-1945 decades has been restricted to the ‘island’ nation lying to the south of the DMZ, works mainly dominated by the consequences of the South-North division, with narratives occupying either the battle-lines, in the literature evoking the 3 years of actual conflict, or a space somewhere between the poverty-stricken villages, the Seoul to which so many moved, and the high-rise apartment blocks that were then built on the site of the poor workers’ houses as economic progress drove them ever further from the center and from sight. In detail, the space is often restricted to a single house’s or apartment’s interior and its surrounding area, or a village with the hill to the back, the hill to the front, and the nearby ricefields. A tale of epic travels can only evoke train journeys between Seoul and Busan or Mokpo.

The severely restricted geographical space might even be reflected in the choice of the short story as the preferred fictional form, lengthy novels mostly being constructed of a succession of short narrative units. For poets, since the Japanese colonial period had been so painful for so long, there was no possibility of counterbalancing the painful present by some kind of nostalgia of an idealized, fairly recent, golden past. This might in part explain why Midang Sŏ Chŏng-Ju, in quest of beauty, wrote so many poems completely detached from the modern Korean space and its realities, turning instead to an imaginary dream-world located far in the past, that he called ‘Silla.’ By contrast, the poems of Shin Kyŏng-Nim’s Nong-mu (농무, Farmers’ Dance) express the pain and hurt of Korea's poor, not so much living in as wandering between remote villages in the poems of the earlier sections, while the final poems focus more on the urban poor, those internal exiles marginalized in industrial society.

A lot of the poems in Nong-mu are evocations of almost nothing happening. There is a deep feeling of absurdity; people spend whole lifetimes waiting for sense to come, but in vain, it seems. The celebrations that tradition imposes only serve to highlight the lack of anything to celebrate, while any preparation for resolute action, or protest, turns quickly into a whimper or a riot. The dance of the farmers announced in the title barely rises above a shuffle except when it turns into a rough, drunken shambles, and certainly never takes off into the carefree mirth that simple peasants are expected to enjoy in the lighter forms of pastoral and georgic. The reader in search of rural charm and aesthetic pleasure is going to be frustrated. Instead, the poet brings us into spaces inhabited by people whose lives could scarcely be more remote from those of the educated, poetry-loving elite of 1970s Seoul. Not that they were totally unfamiliar, since many of the people living in Seoul had come there from just such remote villages; but it was a long time since anyone had ventured to make such harsh realities the subject of lyric verse. It is not ‘activist’ poetry in the sense that it seeks to provoke outrage and social change. It is much closer to memorial verse, a commemoration of lost generations, like a war memorial’s ‘Lest we forget’.  The last poem in the book, ‘We Meet Again,’ expresses something not unlike nostalgia for all that has been lost, but it is full of the sense of pages for ever turned. Like the whole volume, it affirms strongly that there can be no going back to the Korea of the past. All are now wandering exiles, inside the frontiers as beyond them.

One of Kim Kwang-Kyu’s earliest poems, ‘영산, Spirit Mountain,’ expresses that same theme in a very different way. In the speaker’s childhood memories, the home-village was dominated by a mysterious, symbolic mountain, ‘Spirit Mountain,’ hidden in cloud yet powerfully present, but on returning to the village from urban exile years later, not only is there no mountain, but the people now living in the village have no memory of such a thing having ever existed; today’s village people have lost contact with the past just as surely as if they had all moved into the city. The pattern of loss and exile affects everyone in Korea equally.

Returning to the notion of literary ‘space’ evoked earlier, we should not forget that one of the ways in which such spaces differ, and become difficult for outsiders to penetrate, involves the development in different spaces of very distinct forms of silence. Each culture tends to develop its own silences, to consign to the unsaid a whole series of topics, experiences, attitudes and fears. In Korea, this is a particularly familiar topic, expressed by the notion of the 여백 taken from the art of oriental painting. The white areas in a painting, where the paper is left untouched by ink or paint, are as important as those that are painted or inked over. In any conversation, what is not expressed in words is usually at least as important as what is spoken. To understand a literary work, readers very often need to have a strong sense of what is being assumed, left unsaid, the attitudes and awareness shared by the community to which writer and readers belong.

Beyond the unsaid lies the essential silence within the poet’s mind out of which poems are born. That silence is informed by the murmur of all the poems previously written by the poet as well as all those by other poets heard in the space of its composition. At the same time, once written a poem joins its voice to the great chorus of voices filling each regional, literary space, echoing and responding to the pains and joys, hopes and despairs of the people living there. This is a formidable frontier, very hard to cross. The reader coming from another space, familiar with very different voices and experiences, will be as much at a loss how to read and understand the works encountered as a visitor to a foreign land who knows nothing of the language and gestures. The things unsaid and the inner silences, the murmurs and cries, the joys and pains, all that goes to make up the background to and the inner essence of a poem, constitute a language that cannot be translated, for by definition it cannot exist as such in another space. Korean poetry, again, is not Korean because of the language it is written in but because of the Korean space in which it arose, the Korean silence in which it was born, the Korean life-experience by which it is inspired and finds meaning.

A poem written in another culture, if it is simply translated from word to word, very often bewilders foreign readers, who cannot hear what it is saying because it is not talking to them. This is the heart of the problem of mutually incomprehending spaces that I have been addressing. This is the untranslatability of poetry. There is hope, however. Those non-Korean readers who have learned to read Korean poetry in translation, not looking for the thrill of exotic novelty, for quick pleasure, or for magical entertainment, but intent on discovering the specifically Korean vision of human life expressed there, and familiar with recent Korean history, soon learn to recognize the humanity of the poems’ concerns, and the humane sensitivity of the writers. To that extent, at least, such readers are able, by their informed imagination and power of human sympathy, to enter the Korean poetic space. Convinced that we are all members of one human family, they readily understand that the pain through which history has drawn the Korean nation during the past 120 or more years has given birth to a poetry that frequently explores ways of expressing the unspeakable, the intolerable and the perpetually repeated loss of significance people have had to endure.

It remains true that non-Koreans will never be able, and should not be expected, to experience the same immediate, intense response to Korean poetry as Korean readers do, no matter how well it is translated. Non-Koreans cannot share the Korean sense of ‘we-ness,’ the specifically Korean self-identification with the spaces, persons, events and feelings evoked by Korean poets. The literature of Korea, once translated, will always be read and received in other national, cultural spaces on radically different terms, with radically different criteria of quality and interest, to those it encountered in its country of origin. Exactly the same problem exists in reverse; contemporary British or American poets or novelists are for the most part unknown in Korea, their works are not translated and published, for to ordinary Korean readers they seem utterly opaque and unappealing, too intensely ‘foreign.’

Likewise, we all know how few literary works from other continents are published in the English-speaking world. The publishers claim it is because there is no demand for it. They are right, in that narrow insularity is a hallmark of many English-speaking societies. Few people in the UK or the US make the effort to look beyond the familiar literary landscapes of home. Until that changes, we are obliged to set our translations of Korean poetry adrift on the waves as best we can, like the bottled letters of shipwrecked sailors. Just occasionally, from far away, we hear someone exclaim, ‘How beautiful! How truly human!’ Then we know that a Korean poem has spoken in a new space in its new language, has been heard as a living voice, and has been understood. Translators can hope for no greater reward.