Translator's notes

Five poems by Yi Sang


In the summer of 1934, after pestering and begging his well established literary friends for months, Yi Sang was finally able to convince them to publish his strange poems in the arts section of Chosun Chungang Ilbo, one of the few Korean-language newspapers in Japanese-colonized Korea. Initially a print run of 30 poems was planned. The new serial was titled ‘Crow’s Eye View’ and scans of the original accompany these translations.

The early reaction was a mix of puzzlement and exasperation. The printers complained about the odd diagrams and weird words. Some asked how such nonsense could be called poems. Even the title was unheard of: people knew what a ‘bird’s eye view’ was, but what was a ‘Crow’s Eye View’? Nothing like Yi Sang’s poems had ever been seen before in Korean literature. Soon enough readers were making angry phone calls, and the newspaper’s office was flooded with letters. They all threatened to boycott the paper unless it stopped publishing this madman’s rambling. The editor of the arts section, one of Yi Sang’s friends, carried around a letter of resignation in his suit pocket. In the end, the newspaper called it quits, and pulled the series after the fifteenth poem.

Yi Sang later addressed his detractors in an unpublished editorial: ‘Why do you all say I am crazy? We are decades behind others, and you think it’s okay to be complacent? […] I sweated picking these 30 poems out of 2000 pieces […] I am sorry that a er putting out a dragon’s head, I won’t even be able to attach a snake’s tail, let alone a rat’s tail […] I guess this is a foreshadowing of my new path, and I will not bow to anyone, but I pity this wasteland where I can hear no echo.’

The ‘Crow’s Eye View’ scandal is the most notorious literary debut in the history of modern Korean literature. Yi Sang went on

to publish more poems, as well as short stories and essays, but he never officially finished his series. He was a pariah until his early death at age 27. Since then, thousands of academic papers have been written about him, and his writings have inspired and influenced countless artists. The unfinished ‘Crow’s Eye View’ cycle is one of his crowning achievements. The open nature of its poems has led to a great variety of different interpretations from Freudian psychoanalysis to allegorical reading of the colonial reality.

Yi Sang’s haunting poems have captured many readers with their intense sense of immediacy and contemporariness. In the translated interview included in this issue, the poet Kim Hyesoon discusses Yi Sang’s ‘Crow’s Eye View: Poem No. 1’, in which terrified children rush down a blocked-off alley. Kim strongly identifies the poem with the death of hundreds of high school students in the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014, which was a tragedy caused not only by mechanical failings but also by social failings. After the disaster, Kim testifies that the poem no longer worked for her as a metaphor; it had become reality itself. She demonstrates how ‘Crow’s Eye View’ allows us to see our current predicament in its dark, foreboding imagery.

One of the prominent images that recur throughout ‘Crow’s Eye’ View series is the mirror, and the images on these mirrors are not just reflections of their maker, the poet. In our engagement with Yi Sang’s language, we find that the mirrors also reflect us, the readers: we become the terrified children; our faces become numbers; we become what we are afraid of, the secret conspirator plotting our downfall. If we let ourselves get lost in each poem’s world, we end up facing something that terrifies us most about our humanity. Still, the way Yi Sang forces us to encounter our worst fears becomes a strangely freeing experience. They help us see the prison we have built for ourselves, and how we’ve become monsters in such a dungeon. This act of recognition, if we choose, can become our first steps toward freedom.

In this translation of ‘Crow’s Eye View’, I have tried to make each poem sound as if it was written today in English, while also being faithful to the oddness of diction and syntax in the original. For example, my version of the first line of ‘Poem No. 1’ is ‘13 children speed towards the way’. A more casual translation would be ‘13 children are running to a street’. However, the word for the street in Korean is 도로 (doro), which in Classical Chinese is 道路. English readers may be more familiar with the Chinese character 道 as dao/ tao, as in Daoist or Tao Te Ching, the Book of Changes. 道 by itself translates as ‘the principle’ or literally ‘the right way’. I wanted to convey this sense of higher value in my translation. The children are trying to approach something transcendent, but the space they inhabit stops them from getting there. However, the poem still expresses their intense, recurring motion toward the way, and in that action, we may also find ourselves attempting to do the same.

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