These translations initially began as a personal interest. My main goal for this project was to unearth some rarely translated medieval and contemporary Korean poems that have strong cultural reflection and historical depth. A challenging part about this project was working with poems written in Old Korean and not the modern Korean we know of today. Up until the early 20th century, due to the long history of Chinese colonization of Korea, modern Korean alphabets were not considered official written language. Thus, poems like “Prince Grass” and “Storm Roaring at the Castle Roof,” were originally written in Chinese characters instead of modern Korean alphabets, and were later translated into modern Korean.
I selected three poems from three different distinctive poets: Jeong-Ju Seo, Myung-Han Lee and King Gwanghae of Joseon Dynasty. Despite the difference in their time period, their poems all deal with feelings of loss and isolation one feels under the weight of history. Moreover, their reflective nature further demonstrates particular cultural aspect of “Han.”
“Han” is a unique Korean cultural trait and is implied or explicit, is in every aspect of Korean life and culture. “Han” can be understood as an overwhelming sense of sorrow and melancholy equivalent to African-Americans’ blues. “Han” is central to understanding Korean-ness because of Korea’s history of frequent foreign invasion and oppressive colonial experiences. The three poets all similarly express personal and historical “Han” in one way or another.
The first poet, Jeong-Ju Seo, is a controversial figure within Korean literary community because of his history as a Pro-Japanese activist. However, among western readers, he is better known as the founding father of modern Korean poetry. He was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize. He lived from 1915 to 2000. His inspiration primarily came from history, foreign poets such as Baudelaire, and his experience of living under Japanese occupation during early 20th century. Baudelaire’s influence can be seen in Seo’s poem “Leper.”As Baudelaire attempted to explore beauty coming from the place of darkness, Seo, too, explored human desire for life through leper’s perspective as he committed an unspeakable crime. His depiction of beauty through symbolic color red, which represents life the leper desperately desires, invites cross-cultural empathy.
What took the most effort in translating “Leper” was translating the cultural references only Korean readers may be familiar with. In Korea, there was an old wives’ tale about eating a child’s liver and how it could cure leprosy. There are no known origins for this tale; however, many lepers who already felt persecuted by society actually carried these gruesome crimes out. Although this had been out of practice for decades before Jeong-Ju Seo’s time, it appears that the myth surrounding these incidents still survived and had inspired him to reference it in his poem. Aside from Seo’s interest in folklore and cultural identity, Seo’s apparent sympathy for the leper and his feeling of isolation and helplessness stems from his experience as a colonial subject under Japanese rule.
The second poet, Myung-Han Lee, served as a civil servant in the Royal Court of the Yi Dynasty during 15th century Korea. He was known for his fervent loyalty to the Ming Dynasty despite their declining state at the time. He was held captive in Manchu Qing Empire with the Crown Prince of Korea. During this ordeal, he served as the Crown Prince’s advisor. He returned to Korea with the Crown Prince in 1643. His poem “Prince Grass” was written on his return journey to Korea.
In the second poem “Prince Grass,” there is a subtle historical reference to the first and second Manchu invasion of Korea which had occurred from 1627 to1636. Due to Korea’s deeply rooted loyalty to the Ming Dynasty, Manchu Qing Empire found it necessary to conquer Korea by force. The two invasions left Korea in ruins and ended in an unfair peace treaty which resulted in the Qing Empire taking the Crown Prince and his brother Grand Prince as hostages to Shenyang. This was a turbulent time in Korean history, politically as well as personally, with violent change forced upon many government officials who considered themselves loyal to the teachings of Confucius and the Han principles of China. The transfer of power from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty disrupted this political order. Lee’s poem successfully captures the “Han” of this particular time period through the perspective of a captive returning home alone.
For this poem, I worked with a previously translated version as the piece was originally written in Chinese. When translating this poem, one of the difficulties I faced was finding an appropriate name for what the poet calls prince grass. According to Dr. Min Jung in his book, Woori Hanshi Sambaeksoo (Our Three-Hundred Chinese Poetry), prince grass is another name for Angelica, also known as Dong Quai. Both Chinese and Korean locals have called them prince grass because they believed it invoked the image of sadness in its scenery. Prince grass is often found in northern parts of Korea and various places in China but mostly nearby Shenyang’s Taizi River as referenced in the poem. It resonated well with the overall tone and theme of the poem to literally translate the name as prince grass instead of using its Latin name Angelica, which may be more familiar to Western readers.
The last poet, King Gwanghae, was the fifteenth king of Joseon Dynasty. He lived from 1575 to 1641 and reigned from 1608 to 1623. His most notable accomplishments included restoration of official documents destroyed during the Seven Years War, which lasted from 1592 to 1598 and reconstruction after the war. He was also heavily criticized by the conservatives for his neutral diplomatic stance between the Qing and Ming dynasties. His neutral stance resulted from his own traumatic experience of Seven Years of War. He was later dethroned in a coup staged by his nephew, who was an avid supporter of the Ming dynasty and died in exile. His poem “Storm at the Castle Roof” was written during his time in exile on Jeju Island.
In “Storm Roaring at the Castle Roof,” there are some references to Jeju Island to which the poet was exiled after being dethroned. This reference is not as clearly implied as the poet often jumps back from his daydreams and reality. However, his overall nostalgic tone in the poem points to his deep “Han,” resulting from his dethronement and subsequent foreign invasions Korea suffered. While translating language-wise was not an inconvenience, the help from my writer’s group was crucial in translating the feel of the poem from Korean to English. Their feedback was essential in guiding me in determining what sounded right and if it had successfully transferred the feelings that poets had originally intended. Directly translating sentences from Korean to English made the meter and rhyme sound quite different. Instead, I took liberty with the rhythm and translated it to its current version. For example, in “The Leper,” my main issue was tense. Originally the poem was written in past tense in Korean, but I chose to translate it into present tense in English, as the present tense seems to represent the leper’s despair better.
The main goal of this project was to transfer the historical, cultural and emotional aspect of Korean poems to life in English. As mentioned earlier, “Han” is an important aspect of Korean history and culture and it is my hope that through my reinterpretation of these poems from Korean to English, Western readers will hopefully be able to gain a new perspective of Korean culture and history.
by Jeong-Ju Seo
Translation by Heejung Sim
The sun, the light, the sky
The leper, deep in sorrow.
At moon rise, in the barley field,
He devours a child [1. During Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), there was a popular belief in Korea that eating innocent children could cure leprosy. Lepers were then often blamed for the disappearance of children in towns and faced punishment by angry mobs.].
He weeps: cries of crimson colored flowers.
– 未堂 서 정 주 –
해와 하늘빛이문둥이는 서러워
보리밭에 달 뜨면 애기 하나 먹고
꽃처럼 붉은 울음을 밤새 울었다.
Prince Grass: Returning from Shenyang
by Myung-Han Lee
Translation by Heejung Sim
Exuberant wild Prince grass,
Leisurely flowing Taizi River [2. A river located in Shenyang, roughly translated: the Crown Prince River.]
Lonely subject on his way back home [3. This is a reference to Crown Prince Sohyeon who was taken as a hostage in the Manchu Court during the Qing Dynasty at Shenyang by the terms of a peace treaty after War in 1636. He was kidnapped to Shenyang with his wife, two children and his brother, Prince Bongrim.],
For whom does that spring light shine so delicately?
漠漠王孫草(막막왕손초) : 왕손 풀은 아득하고
悠悠太子河(유유태자하) : 태자 물은 유유히 흐른다
孤臣獨歸路(고신독귀로) : 외로운 신하 홀로 돌아오는 길에
春色爲誰多(춘색위수다) : 봄빛은 누굴 위해 이리도 짙은가
Storm Roaring At The Castle Roof
by King Gwanghae
Translation by Heejung Sim
Humid air fills the town.
Day has already turned to night
As the roaring current rolls in.
Wild green mountains’ worrisome air surrounds the clear autumn.
Desperate to return,
I have seen too many wild Prince grass,
But without promise, this vagabond dreams of the Capital City.
Hardly any word from home,
A lonely boat on a foggy lake floats ceaselessly.
궂은 비바람이 성머리에 불고
습하고 역한 공기 백 척 누각에 가득한데
창해의 파도 속에 날은 이미 어스름
푸른 산 근심어린 기운이 맑은 가을을 둘러싸네
돌아가고 싶어 왕손초를 신물나게 보았고
나그네의 꿈에는 제자주(서울)가 자주 보이네
고국의 존망은 소식조차 끊어지고
안개 자욱한 강 위에 외딴 배 누웠구나