MPT FEATURE

Brother Anthony of Taizé: On Translating Korean into English

2016 Number 3 - The Blue Vein

Koreans with limited English find it very hard to understand the way translators change the order of phrases in a complex sentence. It is simply the case that the phrases which come first in a complex Korean sentence will more often than not have to come last in a corresponding English statement with the same meaning.

Brother Anthony of Taizé has lived in Korea since 1980. He is a leading translator of Korean literature, having published more than 40 volumes, including 10 of work by Ko Un. In this essay, Brother Anthony discusses the cultural and linguistic challenges of translating Korean literature into English. 

Read Brother Anthony's translations of Ko Un in MPT 'The Blue Vein'.


Korean is not a language which many non-Koreans study in depth, compared to other North-East-Asian languages such as Japanese and Chinese. Certainly, the popularity of Korean pop music in recent years has provoked a considerable number of young people across the world to sign up for basic Korean classes wherever they are offered, but probably few of them will go on to the higher levels of language acquisition, or come to Korea for extended periods of exposure to the everyday use of the language and begin to read lengthy literary works. Rare indeed are those who not only master colloquial Korean but also acquire an in-depth knowledge of the Sino-Korean vocabulary (and the underlying Chinese characters) which still forms the foundation of academic and intellectual discourse in Korea, beyond the many ‘Chinese’ words used in everyday speech. Today, indeed, rare are the Koreans who have more than a minimal knowledge of the Chinese characters themselves, while almost nobody is able to read the Classical Chinese in which Korean literati and governments expressed themselves in centuries past.

It should be said at the outset that when it come to literary translation, a solid sense of English literary style is surely much more important than a large memorized Korean vocabulary. Dictionaries, printed or online, can supplement weak memories, but they cannot produce good style. The popular Korean superstition that absolutely every ‘native speaker’ of English has total ability in using the language and can therefore write it to perfection is familiar to anyone who lives in Korea for long. Still, the most important question is what we are going to do with a Korean literary text when we translate it into English. Why are we translating into English works written in Korean? Who are our translations intended for? Then comes the little question of how we are going to do it.

Beneath: Ko Un and Brother Anthony

The contemporary world of media sees literature mainly as a branch of the 'entertainment industry' and it is usually under the 'Entertainment' rubric that we will find book reviews, news of literary prizes and obituaries of dead writers. In today’s world, 'literary quality' too often tends to be judged in terms of 'fun' and 'sales' rather than being decided on the basis of strict critical appreciation, of familiarity with the classics of English-language literature. Koreans always talk about translating 'Korean literature' but in the British and American bookstores the shelves are marked 'Crime Fiction' 'Thrillers' 'Science Fiction' if not 'ChickLit.' 'Literature' is limited to the boring old stuff round the back.

A work is normally chosen for translation by a publisher (or translator) because it is felt it will appeal to readers in its new land. The way it is translated (and style-edited) will be designed to maximize that appeal. In the process, the specifically Korean qualities of the original count for little. The commercial and cultural pressures to domesticate an originally very foreign text encourage inaccurate translation. The Korean inclination to want to see overseas publishers take translations of the Korean works which have been successful in Korea is putting the cart before the horse. A commercial publisher in the West will always want to know if the work will sell well in its new dress, irrespective of what Koreans made of it.

Koreans also tend to insist strongly on the priority to be given to accuracy in a translation. The work in translation is expected to be the 'same' work as the Korean original, only using other words but saying the same thing. But is 'accurate translation' from Korean possible? It is hard to describe the detailed problems facing a translator from Korean for readers who cannot read the alphabet, Hangeul, in which Korean is written. Still, here are some general examples of simple challenges facing the translator who wants to be be 'faithful.' Korean does not have one word for 'I' because identity is not individual but social. Therefore, the word used to designate 'myself' will change significantly, depending on the relative level of speaker and audience. If the speaker is addressing people who by age or social ranking or by situation are to be considered as 'superior' to him-her, a self-lowering, polite word will be used. If the speaker is asserting his superior position to a younger or subservient audience, or simple friends, a more confident, self-assertive word is employed. The translator does not dispose of alternative forms of 'I' in English by which to render that very significant feature of Korean speech. To make matters worse, there is quite often no explicit pronoun in a printed sentence, the reader is expected to sense who the subject of a sentence is without one.

Beyond that, the entire world of verbal endings in Korean is unlike anything in English. The grammatical endings (multiple syllables) used for verbs (which come at the end of the sentence, after the object and everything else) are highly indicative, again, of the relative social ranking of speaker and audience. A person speaking 'up' from a self-deprecating 'inferior' position uses various polite, formal endings; a person speaking 'down' uses simpler, curt, informal endings. The main deciding factor in the social relationship is age, but relative social rank in a company or regiment or organization can also play a role. The most significant crux for the translator is in dialogue where a person deliberately uses the informal, 'familiar' endings when addressing someone who should be addressed 'politely' using formal style This is provocative, insulting, and cannot be indicated by anything corresponding in English grammar. The slap on the cheek which might follow is also not a familiar part of English or American social intercourse. In Korea, grammar really matters.

Related to this is the fact that Koreans very rarely address each other using their given names. Instead they use social markers of relationship or position. Within a family there is no equivalent to 'my brother' 'my sister' because it makes a huge difference if your sibling is older than you ('above') or younger ('below'). There are separate titles (forms of address) for younger / older brother and sister, and also separate words for designating them to others. Jokingly (only it might well be true) it is said that the first of twins to emerge from the womb is for ever the elder and has to be addressed by the younger using suitable 'honorific' grammatical forms of respect. In translating, it is not elegant in English to have dialogue where people keep referring to each other by relationship-markers: 'Yes, older sister . . .' 'No, maternal grandmother . . .' and the only solution is to leave the word out, which can sound odd. Koreans also do not much use terms of endearment, although a wife will often use the word 'Yobo,' to address her husband, in all sorts of situations, not all of them tender loving ones. It often presages trouble. At the same time, the same family-relationship terms are also used for people who are not family members but simply friends, work-colleagues, or just casual acquaintances. 'Grandmother' is the standard word for indicating any elderly woman, even a complete stranger, and for addressing her, while the terms used to indicate a middle-aged man or woman mean 'uncle' and 'aunt.'

Koreans with limited English find it very hard to understand the way translators change the order of phrases in a complex sentence. It is simply the case that the phrases which come first in a complex Korean sentence will more often than not have to come last in a corresponding English statement with the same meaning. The grammatical links and the stresses given to significant terms are simply totally different in the two languages. Therefore, already at the level of a sentence, a translation cannot possibly be 'faithful' in the strict sense. 

The ultimate strangeness comes from the way in which a lengthy Korean sentence may have at its very end a negating verb; it is only with the last word of all that the hearer can be sure (although tone might suggest it) that the sentence being spoken is a negative one. Simultaneous interpreters from Korean are much to be pitied. They have to wait a long time before they can start. Korean also has the beauty of a negating verb which is not a negation of a positive verb. In English the opposite of 'there is' or 'I have' is formed by using an additional 'not', but in Korean there is a distinct, positive verb (the same verb) for saying 'there is not' or 'I do not have’. To make the matter even less simple, there is a different verb for saying that someone older or respected is present (or not). No translator from Korean can (or would want to) make 'not' the last word in a sentence, yet it is a fundamental aspect of the way the language works, and the way Koreans think.

It is hardly worth mentioning the innumerable words in Korean which have no English equivalent. Cultures are different. Korean food starts with 'kimchi' and rice, but 'rice' is not represented by a single Korean word since uncooked rice and cooked rice have different names, to say nothing of unhulled rice, sticky rice, and the gruel made by mixing a little water with the scorched rice sticking to the bottom of the cauldron, while there are multiple varieties of kimchi made using different kinds of vegetable, each with its own name. Restaurants in tourist zones in Seoul are notorious for the weird names they use to designate (or describe) familiar Korean dishes; the government plans to establish an authorized list but ultimately the names cannot be translated, they can only be described in a miniature recipe. Which is not elegant in the middle of a novel or poem. It is not only the names which are problematic, however. The more serious question is how to suggest in a translation the taste, smell and associations of familiar foods the reader has no experience of. A jelly made of acorns? The same is true of many other aspects of the cultural references in a work written for a Korean readership. 'We' is quite often used to mean 'all Koreans' and the name 'Korea' is less often used than the term 'our nation.' A strong communal sense of nationhood is assumed in many Korean works and it cannot, of course, be carried across when the readers are going to be people for whom Korea is not 'our' land. The 'our' becomes 'their' in translation and everything changes.

Koreans now live in apartment blocks, which fortunately have a universal appearance and vocabulary. But references to the features of a traditional Korean house are a nightmare for the translator, they are so totally unlike anything seen in the West. Large houses were divided into several buildings, including one where the men could read, drink and meet friends and one for the women to do housekeeping in. There were no corridors, a narrow raised wooden platform running round the outside served as a porch to each room and there was often a space covered by the roof but open in front, with a wooden floor, with its own name of course. The poorer houses were thatched with rice straw, much looser and more prone to rot than the thatch of English cottages. Gourds and pumpkins would ripen on such roofs, children would steal eggs from sparrows’ nests buried in the eaves. Meals were never taken communally, each of the menfolk would be brought a little table with the rice, soup, kimchi, in his room. The women were allowed to eat what was left over. All of this is assumed to be familiar.

All of that is merely a foretaste of the difficulties arising when we translate Korean. It is impossible to translate Korean 'accurately' in the way French or other western languages can be. Still, that does not in itself mean that translators can go sliding over all the little words in the Korean text without bothering about their role in the overall economy of the sentence and writing an English sentence which is a simplifed paraphrase, perhaps decorated with some added features corresponding to nothing in the original to make it sound more 'natural.' I think it is to betray the translator’s duty to represent the original text as it was written. It is a form of cultural appropriation more than anything else. There was more than one Korean translator in olden times, thirty or so years ago when 'native-speaker' translators did not exist, who omitted entire paragraphs, claiming that the material left out was 'redundant.'

Finally, here is one example I often quote of the difficulty of translating Korean poetry. It is the start of the poem 'Masan-po' by Kim Soo-Bok. The title itself is problematic. This is a real, sea-side place name. It lies on the west coast of Korea just south of Incheon, but it is a village of such obscurity that few Koreans have heard of it. It was used briefly as a landing-place by the Chinese in the later 19th century. The poet writes about it because in his youth he was a school-teacher in a nearby town and would visit Masanpo in his free time. The poem is an elegaic work of personal memory. The ending –po means 'harbor' but if we translate the title as 'Masan Harbor' that will cause confusion, there being a large, well-known city and port of Masan on the south-eastern coast near Busan. But without explanations no non-Korean will even connect the place name with the sea.

The challenge in translating this poem lies in the very great difference between Korean and English grammar and word-order. Especially the first stanza, if seen in its Korean word order, seems quite incoherent: 'In Masan-po now sea is not. / That ample breast exposed used to lie / to the evening sea going path / fog clearing / into the path whole body thrusting / used to enter / wharf tavern yard / ankles used to soak / evening sea is not.' This is a particularly vivid example of the way in which Korean word-order and grammar do not at all correspond to standard English word-order and grammar. It is only after much pondering that a possibly acceptable, more coherent phrasing emerges in English: 'There is no sea now in Masan-po. The path leading to the evening sea, which used to lie with its ample breast exposed and then, as the fog cleared, come surging boldly up the path to the wharfside tavern yard and there soak my ankles, that evening sea is no more.'

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