Poetry Translation

K2015113000136.jpg(Photo from the prize giving ceremony – courtesy of The Korea Times)

On the 3rd of November I found out that I had been awarded the grand prize for poetry in the 2015 Korea Times Translation Awards. This was the 46th year of the awards and it was amazing to be recognized for translating poetry because I feel like it’s one of the most creative forms of translation.

You can read more about the award and the prize giving ceremony here: http://koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/culture/2015/11/135_192118.html

The poetry prize was awarded for the Korean to English translation of 10 poems by one poet. I chose the ten very carefully from among Jin Eun-young’s poems, selecting those with such such strong images and atmosphere that I knew they would still be powerful in English.

I have to say that when I was translating the poems I felt like I was writing a love letter. Writing a love letter to Jin Eun-young who’s poems I adore, to my fellow students in the Korean Literature department at Ewha who adore her poems too, and somehow to the Korean language itself – the sounds of syllables and pauses. And when it came to editing the English it became an exercise in wonder at the malleability of language.

When the translations appeared on my computer screen they were like a gift. A gift to myself of poems I love forged into my mother tongue with all the extra unnecessary, bitty words weeded out~ smooth shots of distilled English. I know the translations are not perfect, and I hope to correct some of the errors that I made in due course, but I am immensely proud of them and honored that they were recognized as worthy of an award.
Translating poetry is said to be difficult because it’s hard to get it right, and poems are not just about content but sounds, rhythm, echo. It is difficult, yes, but it’s amazingly rewarding, because with a poem each and every line has the potential to alter how you see the world and yourself, to ring true with an experience, a feeling, a windy afternoon, the smell of soju.
I would encourage anyone who knows two languages to have a go at translating a poem they love. Even if you are never satisfied with your translation, you will certainly find yourself loving the poem, and the poet, even more than you did before.
Here are five of the poems. I’ll save my favorite for a future post. The whole lot are available on the Korea Times website, but I find the pop-up ads invasive.
All of This (이 모든 것) 

It’s as if a soap bubble will expand boundlessly with transparent joy.
As if I’ll be able to take you away to a city with a rose-hued palace.
In the space between winter and evening,
it seems I’ll never be able to forget that dizzying kiss fringed in chestnut-brown. Like I’ll be able to conceal everything with the vast velvet of love.
As though all of this is just a lie.
While a hungry seagull sucks violently on the dry teat of the sky,
it’s as if a white bite mark is soaring above the water.

This city is like a child writing out the same sentence over and over eternally.
A shack falls out like a first tooth and is tossed above the red moon.
A liquor bottle blotched with blood and soot rolls this way down a white slope.
It seems I’ll have to put the one abiding line of my first anthology into my last as well.
My youth? Well… it seems to have upped and left already.
It’s as though a soft yellow wing, with thousands of grey bells hung from it
is slowly ascending.

As though gold is sticking its hand down the throat of a poor child and making them throw up everything.
Stars roll in the watery green-tinged vomit,
God seems like a car crash victim feigning injury.
It seems that he hasn’t taken the medicine prescribed him by the angels even once.
It’s as if the green capsules have split and the grains within are spilling out.
Annyeong, annyeong, snow falls above the shattered grey of a slate roof.
It seems that everything I ever saw must have been a lie.
As if shreds of the torn wings of silver bats hanging from the moon are cascading.


Beautiful (아름답다)

If today you are beautiful
it is like the glittering hairpin in the still-growing tresses of a dead girl,
like a picture that captivates the gaze of someone who cannot see,
like the children in muslin pyjamas
wandering past in the mist intoxicated by the scent of cherries,
like the salty taste of the long necked giraffe living in the rainy season savannah,

melting in increments seeping across red cloth
to desiccated white grains
scattered over sandy gills.

if you are beautiful
it’s like the empty chimney of seaweed stench rising up
from the green fog draped above a landfill site.


The Love of a Poet(시인의 사랑) 

If by some chance you were my lover
how lucky you would be.

If you were my lover
I would write you poetry.

You would arrive home
and wash your feet, and then
when you’d fall asleep with head and toes touching the cold parallel walls,
when you’d fall asleep covered with a damp blanket,
I would send a vast fortress ablaze with love into your dreams.

I’d give you the tender breeze that sways the armpits of branches in the May apple-blossom orchard,
the soft hammer of chocolate and peppermint, post boxes and trains
and a country road you’ve never seen before.
A freshly opened wine bottle and fluttering white wings
and the eternal picnic of a body,
I’d write you a line of poetry filled with all those moments, all those things.

I would give you a poem that makes the flow of life feel just like drinking a cup of tea.

If you were my lover, ah!
How lucky you would be.
Because of her, that your heart became the biggest empty house in the world,
nights when black candlewax drips onto your tongue,
poems like night-time dandelion seeds flying off to unknowable places,
there would be no need for you to write like that.


Useless Stories (쓸모없는 이야기)

useless divinity
useless shame
green cherries
the white sail of a big ship in a framed picture
when the wind blows
feelings for you
sunshine warming the windows of an empty house
benevolent machines
the thorns in a tunnel of insanely fragrant roses
by a grave that no one comes to visit
a parchment book
that no one ever opens
newspaper articles on the factory girls’ strike
night and day
two different nights
kisses when you’re fast asleep
green cherries
Das Kapital
rain falling on a forest of dead juniper trees
your ears


Aeroplane Bound for the Moon (달로 가는 비행기)
What kind of propeller will I have to fix to this song?
Am I twenty years old, or ten?

The moon is calling,
baby, baby my baby.

What kind of propeller will I have to fix to my aeroplane?
The plane flying up to the moon
that shines like the glint in mother’s eyes
I want big, sturdy wings
I want a propeller so noisy it could burst your eardrums.

The clamorous aeroplane I drew
flies up towards the shining moon I drew.

The world in the picture is beautiful
I peek inside.
The moon in the picture is like a jaundiced man’s pupils.

Fixed to the plane in the picture are white petals just like a propeller.
At my deep sigh the wind blows inside the picture.
The propeller headed to the moon flies away one petal at a time.
I raise my head having been crying, that aeroplane bound for the moon,
the moon with its long shadow hand
pats it lightly.

Draw again tomorrow


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