Window on Culture; on Translating Korean Classical Literature

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), March 9, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Window on Culture; on Translating Korean Classical Literature


A conference on translating Korean classical literature held recently at the Yonsei University Translation Institute was very informative and offered fexcellent opportunity to reflect on my ideas about the subject.

Even though we lament the loss of much ancient Korean writing, the existing classical literature, as a whole, is doubtless a treasure of writing to be translated and introduced properly to readers around the world. Translating literature far removed in time and place, and in the cultural and historical context, creates much more difficulties than other types of literary translation. For one thing, the significance of the original work is lost and forgotten if not entirely dead in many instances.

Speaking of poetry, it appears that Korean poets of the old wrote with different purposes and preoccupations in mind. Many sijo poets of the Chosun dynasty were primarily concerned with extolling Confucian ideals and precepts; Son (Zen) poets versified in the full knowledge -- and despite it -- that the use of language was futile in leading to the Truth. Other poets were interested in promoting political, religious or ritualistic aims. Equating their poetic impulses, inspiration and poetics with those of poets of other times and places would be misleading. The stuff of poetry differs from place to place.

Specifically, the diction used in classical poems like Choyong-ga ([unknown characters] [unknown characters]) or Guji-ga ([unknown characters]), for instance, is not ordinary literary language; it's obviously a language of incantation and ritual as well. The poems are thus highly intense, symbolic and elliptic, and therefore would require thorough research, reading and interpretation on the part of the translator before translation is undertaken. In an ideal situation, the translator would be able to discern the author's intent and figure out the workings of his/her mind, heart and soul in the creative process.

In introducing our classical literature, we should encourage all available forms and modes of translation including versions and adaptations. Each in its own way would contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of the original work and to putting the original text in proper place and perspective.

Rendering Korean classical poetry into a foreign language in a manner that would render it intelligible and readable for modern readers is a big challenge and requires all possible means of aiding the readers' comprehension and of putting the original text in proper place and perspective.

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