by David McCann
My best translations from Korean poetry are poems that I have memorized in Korean. I can recite them at the drop of a hat. I wrote a poem once in Korean, about what it was like to go into town with the teachers at the school, to get through a few bowls of makkôli, and then head out for home down those paddy fields paths. How the pigs would wake up and start grunting when I came range of their hearing. But I couldn’t for the life of me translate that poem into English.
I translated a modern but early poem by the great Cho Chihun into kagok, a way to sing traditional Korean verse. This poetry into a Korean song; in company of a number of Korean professors who where most indulgent of my efforts, by that point of the evening. They said Great Job! I also translated a different modern Korean poem into Korean writing in numerous occasions, when it was my turn to perform something at a winehouse. More than thirty years ago. It was difficult for the others in the room to figure out what I was doing because I was left-handed, and nobody else in Korea was. Two days driving around the island of Cheju with the poet Ko Un, the novelist O Sangch’an and a younger writer who was our driver, listening to Ko’s tales about life on the island thirty years ago, his getting arrested by the South Korean police, interrogated, led to a narrative poem that closed with Ko’s advice to the young writer: “Send me only your very best. Anything else, I will blow my nose on it.”
For a writing assignment in a creative writing class “Write a poem about a work of art in some other medium”, I translated Donatello’s statue of David into Michelangelo’s by way of a little story about Florentine guilds and their sexual politics.
There are a number of fine poets in Korea, most of them unknown outside of that country. And fewer still known from north of the 38th parallel. Most of the poems I have translated are poets I have met, or to whose works I have been introduced by someone who was clearly nuts about them. How could anyone refuse the call of such works ?
There once was a translation group, a circle, in Ithaca. Called itself OSIP, for Osip Mandelstam, and an acronym for The Organization for Singing International Poetry. Basic premise of the outfit was that the job’s not done until the poem is read in translation to an audience. So we had readings, every once in a while, and thought abour some day doing an anthology of our work. But in the interval, went on having monthly meetings where we read and heard translations of modern Greek poetry, Serbo Croatian poetry, Swedish and German poetry, Palestinian poetry, Korean poetry. Another group in Ithaca, a bunch of poets, met every once in a while and read our poems, and less frequently, went down and did readings. There’s one fellow in Korea, named Brother Anthony. I think of him as Bad Ass ‘B.A. because he once translated and published a poem by the famous early twentieth century writer Sowôl six different ways ! Here, he wrote, is the poem as a modern Korean poem. Here it is as the lyric to a pop song. Now here it is as a post-modernist poem. Or again… Ourtrageous ! There are at least fifteen distinct ways to read the famous poem by Sowôl, so how could one ever be satisfied with any given translation ?
The poem keeps moving, turning aside, regressing, transgressing how you read it, how you did read it, how it was taught as meaning, what it was taught to mean. The only way to translate is to memorize it, so how a translator ever feel any special pride at some choice phrase, some felicitous turn of the linguistic lip ? It’s all just news. Somebody wants to get it on the broadcast at ten so it can make the current Nobel Prize committee pile of deliberations. Chinese poems de seem to inspire Deeps Thoughts. « Before the bed the bright moon shines ». Just try writing those five characters almost anywhere in Asia ! Folks will be impressed, and they will able to finish out the other three lines, and they will say « Oh for away from home, are you ? » Imitation is the highest praise ? Bad translations are nothing but products. So why do we think so highly of Basho on his perigrinations ? Quoting other writers all the time, and stuffing the names of his sponsors into his book of travel verse. Narrow Road to the Deep North is an advertising banner, flapping behind the little two-footed entourage. Here comes the poet. Whoa, we’re gonna get cryptic tonight. Haiku translates the Chinese ideogram into syntax. For exemple, the famous one about « Old pond frog jump water sound » could have been a chinese character, the way person plus tree becomes resting. Person under tree is resting. Or tree plus tree becomes forest. Add another tree and it is a dense forest. But it takes three of a woman to make adultery.
The poet Sô Chôngju wrote a book titled Unforgettable Things. I agreed to translate it, and then discovered, well into the collection, a poem titled David McCann, Translator of my poems and the town of Andong. The poet misremenbered our first conversation, but in translating the poem, I didn’t correct this mistake about me, the translator of his poem. I also tried to preserve my somewhat stilted Korean.
« It was in 1974, summertime, when an American who seemed about thirty years old came out to my house by Kwan’ak Mountain. When he introduced himself as someone who believed the most important thing he could do was translating my poems, I asked him why, with all the countries in this world, he happened to choose Korean poetry. « Well », he said, « I graduated from Harvard College, in the United States, and entered the Peace Corps. I hoped to go to Korea, and eventually was assigned as an English teacher at the Agricultural and Forestry High School in Andong ». McCann had replied with a reasonnable fluency in the language, smiling as he did. He went on : « To speak frankly, I still didn’t know then just what there was that could be called a real literature in Korean, so I asked one of the reachers at the high school about it. Well, that teacher just blew up at me. « Is that what you think of our country ? Why isn’t there any good literature in Korea ? Is that what you think ? No more talking about it. I’ll teach you, starting with the sijo. I want you to learn one of them every day. » For three years I stayed at the school, I worked hard at studying Korean literature, and have come to comprehend the extent to which Korea is indeed a country with good poetry. On another occasion, he read my translation of one his eary lyrics and said that I had a phrase wrong. But he liked it. « Leave it this way », he said. So I did. It is amazing how many very well known poets have translated from so many different languages. And not just any old languages, the usual ones like French or Italian or German or Spanish. No. Polish. Chinese. Russian. Where do they find the time to learn those languages, read the poems, and work through the long process of translating ? Where do they ?
On the other hand, someone who is really good at poetry in a language like English probably can do an efficient and effective job of taking a rough translation that someone else has worked up from the original, and turning it into a translation. There is an interesting letter from Ezra Pound to some Japanese pal of his in which Pound sends him some lines from a poem, his idea of a Japanese Chinese Oriental Asian poem of some sort, and asks his corecpondant to « ideograph it ». A technique that would collapse etymology into a kitchen table crossword game, and turn it inside-out into the bargain.
Tony Barnstone writes : « From a set of monosyllabic, largely pictographic characters calligraphically sketched on a Chinese Painting, fan or scoll, the poem goes through a hall of mirrors, reappearing on the orther side of time, culture and language as a few bites of memory laser-etched on a white page in our own polysyllabic, phonetic speech ». I guess I could be cosy and say I don’t get it. Must be because he’s writing about Chinese poetry, ’cause I’ve never hit a pile like that in Korean. But then, if I were to be translating a Chinese scroll painting, I would think of translating it into a scroll. Painting. The first time in public that I wrote out the line to that poem by Li Po, « Before the Bed the Bright Moon Shines », I was sitting in a restaurant in Seoul with a bunch of other people who had assisted Professor Kim Chong-gil with the preparation of the Korea University English language edition of the course catalogue. Professor Kim treated us to diner, and plenty of delicious wine, and then introduced the very famous calligrapher who was there in our company. The calligrapher did a piece of calligraphy for each of us. In preparation he took out his inkstone, poured some water, rubbed the stick, wetted the brush, and then went at it. Someone suggested : Why don’t we give it a try, ha ha. So of course we all were made to have a go at something with the brush. My turn came, Oh no, Oh no ; but I had watched the way he would get the brush sopping wet with ink, slam it down onto the paper, draw down that first bold stroke, then the rest of the character, with a pause at each brush stroke end, a flourish of the brush at each resting place. It was a dance ! Down the page, with the arm, the body, no wrist ! Great, they all said. Not about my characters, but my dance with the brush. I really gave at my all, with flourish, and for the interval while it was happening, I was translating the poem from Ancient Chinese into the moment. Time is the page where performance is written. Worst thing that ever happened to Korean literature, so much of it gets translated quite badly, put up in things called books, for want of a better word, and shipped out around the world, mostly from Korean publishing houses. Those who might now be interested in one of the really fine translations of Korean fiction by Kyung Ja Chun, or by Bruce and Chu-Chan Fulton, or poems by B. A. and Kim Young Mu or by Kevin O’Rourke, may already have seen Korean literature, may even have read it in translation, and won’t go near the stuff now. The well has been poisoned.