What’s Lost and Found in Translation: Korean Poetry and the Case of Ko Un



Yu Jin Ko

Wellesley College

What’s Lost and Found in Translation:
Korean Poetry and the Case of Ko Un


One way or another, all translators of poetry contend with Robert Frost’s quip that poetry is “that which is lost…in translation” (Conversations on the Craft of Poetry).  The farther apart the original and transfer languages are, the more translators no doubt have to struggle to minimize what’s lost.  As translation editor of the poetry on this site, I have been privileged to get a first-hand view of that effort and thus have come to appreciate more fully the difficulty of capturing the poetic qualities of the Korean originals in a language that is so distant from Korean.  Although the translations of each poet differ in their verbal features, all the translations come out of a shared struggle to carry over into English properties that distinguish the Korean language but for which adequate equivalents in English do not exist.  Hence, the translations on this site represent efforts in a transaction that inevitably involves loss.  This sense of loss is something that even I – a 1.5 generation Korean-American whose Korean remains rather stuck in early development – can feel acutely.  Nonetheless, what I also recognize equally acutely is that translation can also entail gains that are made possible by the distinctive characteristics of the transfer language.  As many others before me have recognized, if we put aside the (unachievable) goal of perfectly replicating the original through strict verbal fidelity, we can celebrate the fact that translation can also involve a transformation that reshapes and recreates the original into a unique, or untranslatable, work.  At the simplest level, translations can possess distinctive verbal features – reflective as they may be of the original – that cannot be translated back into the original language.  Translation then becomes a dialogue that allows us to see that poetry is also what is found in translation.

Some examples from this site can illustrate this point, beginning with the following poem by Jae-mu Lee and its translation by Seung-Hee Jeon:

슬픔에게 무릎을 꿇다

어항 속 물을
물로 씻어내듯이
슬픔을 슬픔으로
문질러 닦는다
슬픔은 생활의 아버지
두손 모아 고개 조아려
지혜를 경청한다

I Surrender to Sadness

As we wash the water in a fish tank
with water,
I scrub my sadness
with sadness.
Sadness is the father of life.
I gather my hands and bow,
And I listen to its wisdom.

The translation begins with a casual oddity that exists in the original, though to a lesser degree: water is said to be used to “wash” the water in a tank.  One might “wash” the tank itself or “cleanse” the water with water, but how does one wash water with water?  The verb in the original (씻어내다) might more literally be translated as “wash away,” which isn’t quite as odd, though it can also be used simply to mean “wash” or “clean.” The unusual use of “wash” subtly throws off the matter of fact ease of the opening clause and its semblance of introducing something perfectly ordinary.  In the second clause, the translation picks up the offhand surprise of “wash” with “scrub” (“I scrub my sadness/ with sadness”).  “Scrub” is a quite direct translation of the original verb (문질러 닦다) and conveys its (unexpected) quotidian register and tactile feel very well.  However, the word “scrub” also adds a certain abrasiveness, especially in its sound, that roughens the feel of the action being evoked.  In the final three lines of the original especially, the verbal register and tone shift somewhat to conjure the posture of acquiescent prayer.  What I would point out about the translation is that it repeats the first-person subject (I) in the final line, even though it is not strictly necessary (“I gather my hands and bow,/ And I listen to its wisdom”).  Because the subject is customarily implied in Korean sentences, “I” does not appear at all in the final two lines of the original.  Inserting and repeating the subject would make the final sentence sound rather awkward.  In contrast, the repetition of “I” in the translation emphasizes the deliberate, self-aware nature of the “surrender” that is adduced in the poem’s translated title.  The original poem is wonderful in the way it mixes casual and simple lyricism with abstract, philosophical meditation.  The translation clearly tries to capture the mood created by this mix, but it does so by drawing on nuanced resources of English that do not quite translate back into Korean.

One other poem will illustrate some further points: “Salt,” by SeokJoo Chang, translated by Clara Soonhee Kwon-Tatum and Matthew Lewis:


아주 깊이 아파본  사람마냥
바닷 물은 과묵하다
사랑은 증오보다 조금 더 아픈 것이다
현무암 보다 오래된  물의 육체를 물고 늘어지는
저 땡볕을 보아라
바다가 말없이 품고 있던 것을

햇빛이 키우는 것은 단 하나다
한 방울의 물마저 탈수한 끝에 생긴
저 단단한 물의 흰 뼈들
저 벌판 에 낭자한 물의 흰  피들

염전이 익히는 물의 석류를 보며
비로소 고백 한다, 증오가
사랑보다 조금 더 아픈 것이었음을

아주 오래  깊이 아파본  사람이
염전 옆을 천천히 지나간다
어쩌면 그는 증오보다 사랑을 키워가는
사람일지도 모른다





Like someone who is deeply scarred
The ocean is heavy with silence.
Loving is more painful than hating.
Look at the glare of the summer heat
Biting the ocean’s body (older than basalt) and hanging on.
The ocean vomits up
what once it silently embraced.

What sunshine breeds is single thing,
Created by the drying of even a drop of water:
The hard water’s white bones
The dots of white blood, scattered across the plains

Of a salt field, baking in the sun
Looking like pomegranate seeds.
I finally confess,
Hatred was a little more painful than love.

A person, in pain for so long,
Passes slowly by the salt field.
Maybe he is the kind who will breed
More love than hatred.


This poem also contains an element of abstract meditation as the poet contemplates the traces left behind by sea water drying in the sun in a salt field.  For the poet, the salt residues – “white bones” and “dots of white blood” – serve as emblems of what lies deepest in the ocean and in his heart: the pain of hating, which, he eventually confesses, surpasses by a “little” the pain of loving.  The original is a powerful lyric that, somewhat like the previous poem, combines sonorous meditation with striking images and turns of phrases that fluidly move between epic utterance and colloquial conversation.  Truth be told, that lyric power and the particular cadences that define the poem’s voice don’t quite carry over in translation.  Yet it is also true that the translation departs from the original at numerous points and adds nuances that give the translation its own character.  In the second line in the original, for instance, the sea is said to be과묵하다, which could be glossed as “taciturn.” The translation interestingly takes the association of ponderous gravitas that Koreans often associate with taciturnity and renders the line as, “The ocean is heavy with silence.”  The physicality of the word “heavy” resonates with the sense that the sea is heavily burdened by the weight of emotion.  The sea is further animated by the mixed and somewhat quixotic metaphor (present in the original and reminiscent of Metaphysical poets) of the sun’s glare “biting the ocean’s body,” as if the sun and sea were engaged in an entangled physical battle.  Indeed, whereas the original indicates that the sun sinks or droops in exhaustion, the translation says that the sun, with the ocean’s body in its teeth, “hang[s] on,” as if determined to fight to the end.  Hence it is that, in the poetic logic of the sequence, “the ocean vomits up” what it held in heavy silence deep inside.  What’s disgorged turns out, however, to be “the hard water’s white bone.”  “Hard” is the translation of “단단한,” which can range in meaning from firm to strong; but “hard water” also glances at the expression for water with high mineral content (경수).  That is, the phrase “the hard water’s white bone” contains (at least the potential for) very subdued wordplay that is not present in the original.  Ocean water takes on many guises in this poem, eventually evaporating to yield the ocean’s deepest secrets.  Of course something is lost in translation, but something is also found.


Nonetheless, it would be disingenuous to avoid talking altogether about what gets lost in translation when a poem is rendered into English.  To get at this subject, I would like to turn to the poetry of perhaps the best known poet in Korea, Ko Un, whose monumental thirty-volume series of poems called Ten Thousand Lives (만인보) has reached Western audiences. The existing translations of his poetry are valiant attempts with many admirable qualities that nonetheless remain unsatisfactory at a basic level, not only because of the remarkable nature of Ko Un’s poetry, but because of the nature of the Korean language.

Ko Un is above all a vernacular poet.  As is fitting for a work like Ten Thousand Lives (or Maninbo) that chronicles and gives voice to literally thousands of individual lives, he writes in the language of the people.  However, poetry still retains a special place in Korean culture, at once populist and privileged, as indicated by the existence of a separate best-seller list for poetry, on the one hand, and the pervasive expectation that poets give voice to oracular wisdom, on the other.  Hence, to speak in the vernacular for Ko Un involves not only reaching a wide audience in an accessible, demotic language, but also assimilating the many roles he has taken on in his life that require different linguistic registers: the imprisoned dissident, the public activist, the erstwhile Buddhist monk who encounters the world with deep wonder and understanding, the familiar uncle dispensing folk wisdom, the roistering troubadour who is the repository of humble histories, the prophetic sage, the epic historian, among many others.  Capturing the sheer variety of linguistic registers, tones and keys would be a formidable task for a translator from any language, but this task is considerably complicated by features of the Korean language and the uses that Ko Un makes of them.

1) The distinctive voice—or voices, more properly—of Ko Un’s poetry is informed first of all by the layered intricacies of the honorific form in Korean.  Unlike German or French, in which the formal case exists only for the second person, a far more nuanced and varied formal case exists for all utterances in all cases.  For a simple third-person sentence like “He is eating,” the verb inflection will differ significantly, depending on the social situation: who the subject is, who is being addressed and who is speaking.  Because social stratification is far more intricate than it is in the West, and because language is far more embedded in those stratifications, the sheer variety of verb inflections that indicate different levels of formality and familiarity is dizzying.  Indeed, a special verb inflection exists that is reserved solely for addressing the sovereign or a deity—again whether directly in the second person, or simply when making a third-person declarative sentence.  The relational nature of identity and speech is indicated very clearly by the sheer number of Ko’s poems that announce their subject’s social identity in the title, as in “Old Jaedong’s Youngest Son,” or “Chin-ja’s Older Brother.”  One of the distinctive features of Ko Un’s poetry is the mastery with which he combines intimacy with subtly discriminated degrees of formality.

Two contrasting examples can serve to illustrate one simple way that Ko Un makes use of forms of formality.  In the early poem “Azaleas” from Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives, Vol 1-10, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-moo Kim and Gary Gach), the narration uses a standard and very public form of the honorific, which contrasts with the subject being narrated and recalled:

Halmi Hill used to be ablaze with azaleas
until I was four years old.
After that, for several years running
we were reduced to grubbing out the azalea roots
and burning them to heat the rooms in winter.
Those were hard times.

할미산에 진달래 활활 타올랐으나
그건 내가 다섯살 때였습니다
그뒤로 몇해 지나는 동안
진달래 뿌리까지 다 캐어다가
겨울 방고래 데워야 하는 신세였으니
딱한 세월이여

The first two sentences relate the shared history of poverty (a recurring theme) using colloquial diction but with formal verb inflections, so that the feel of a historical saga produced by the underlying formality is accompanied by a certain intimacy.  The third sentence (“Those were hard times”) shifts somewhat in tenor, as Ko uses a more poetic form of address—akin to an apostrophe in literary terms—to set off and memorialize the “hard times” (“O, hard times!” might be a more direct rendering).  What makes the utterance in Korean stand out and resonate even more is that the poetic formality of the address contrasts with the colloquial sensibility of the phrase that is translated as “hard times” (딱한 세월).  It is the kind of phrase that those who suffered the hungry, harsh winters around Halmi Hill would have used.  In fact, it is a feature of Ko Un’s poetry that it modulates verbally with the presence of the subjects beings depicted.  This is a grammatical, aesthetic and ethical feature of the poetry in that it embodies, in Maninbo in particular, the effort to bear witness to the ten thousand (or 4,001) lives and give those lives a voice.  In “Azaleas,” the modulations extend further.  This poem is one of many in Maninbo that ends with a marked shift in linguistic register, in this case by introducing the voice of a girl who comes upon an azalea bush in bloom that survived the winter uprooting and builds a stone fence around it:

“Gosh!  What am I doing, still here?  Gracious,

goodness gracious!”

오마나! 여태 내가 여기 있었네 어쩌나 어쩌나

The English translation doesn’t quite capture the voice of the little girl, with its wonderfully colloquial lilt.  Further, the grammatical informality (in contrast to the narration’s general formality) adds to the moment’s spontaneous immediacy and helps to bring the reader into the girl’s world.  It’s the entry of the girl’s chatty voice that brings the poem to a close while creating that characteristic sense at the end of many of Ko’s poems of a continuing, breathing life left in suspension.

In contrast, “Samdok’s Grandmother in Wondang-ri” tells the story of Samdok’s rather compulsively tidy grandmother in a conversationally familiar (grammatical) form:

If you pass behind the bier-shed, on past

Wondang-ri village,

at the top of the young pine grove in Wondang-ri
stands Samdok’s family house.

상엿집 돌아 원당리 넘어가면
원당리 잔솥발머리


The narration is very casual, with the first sentence being a fragment that lacks a main verb (no equivalent of “stands”) and all the other verb forms (“if you pass”) being informal.  As is very often the case in Korean, the subject is implied, though the translators’ choice to use “you” in a conversational way is apt.  We are told that the grandmother’s nickname is “Dusting” (걸레질),  though in Korean the phrase referred to is literally scrubbing with a rag, which gives a different picture of a grandmother wet-mopping on her hands and knees.  The ensuing descriptions further combine pathos and gentle comic irony as we’re told with folksy, informal inflections,

If her son’s father-in-law comes on a visit from his distant home,

as soon as he leaves she dusts the place where he sat

and dusts it again the next day,

muttering at the least excuse, “It’s dirty here, it’s dirty here.”

Everywhere is spotless – corners of rooms,

the yard outside – without exception anywhere.


먼 데 바깥사돈만 왔다 가도

그 손님 앉았던 자리 걸레질하고

걸핏하면 여기 더럽다 저기더럽다 하며

방구석이나 마당이나

어디 한 군데 할 것 없이 말짱하다

However, in a tragically ironic twist, this spotless house gets infected by smallpox, which ultimately kills the grandmother.  The poem ends with the son’s voice wailing at the funeral as he slips a few dirty rags into his mother’s coffin: “Mother, Dust away up there to your heart’s content” (어머니! 저승 가서도 걸레질 실컷 하소!).  A part of what’s so moving and authentic about this last sentence is that the verb switches in inflection to a slightly more formal case—more formal, that is, than the narration—though it is one that is at once intimate and redolent of days gone by (somewhat akin to Elizabethan inflections like “doest” or “doth”).  One still hears these inflections in use today, though they tend to be used by older generations, especially when they want to maintain a degree of formality while establishing familiarity.  In the context of this poem, the switch in verbal register at the end adds an element of an ineffably more dignified sense of pathos to the story, even as the content of the sentence—scrubbing away to her heart’s content in heaven—is so materially ordinary.  It would not be an overstatement to say that the full humanity of Ko Un as a poet, and the full humanity of the people whom he has given voice to in his poems, cannot fully be heard without hearing the particular verb inflections of the voices.

2) The two poems above, along with literally thousands of others, also illustrate the difficulty of translating another feature of Ko Un’s poetry that is integral to his mission of embodying the voices that people Korea: the regional character of speech.  Though by land mass Korea is relatively small, it is home to numerous dialects that differ quite significantly, from accent to idiom and even grammar.  The instances when regional dialect enter the poetry are far too numerous to detail, though two simple examples can serve to illustrate some of the characteristic effects.  One notices that place names play a large role in the naming of poems (“The Wife from Suregi,” etc.), because Ko Un is very much a chronicler who tries to capture and preserve the spirit and material flavor of the countless little places and spaces that define the texture of Korean history and its living landscape.  Hence, direct dialogue or indirect discourse will always be colored by the distinctive accents and idioms of the region, though in English it will all come across as simply standard speech, as in this reported dialogue between a butcher and his customers from “Kim T’aesik the Butcher,” which is very specifically set in Shinp’ung-ri, a village in the Choong-Chung Province:

And when they exclaim: “Why thank you,

that’s very generous of you,” he replies,

“Here you go, Boil it up and eat it!”

헤에 고마웁네유 인심 후하네유 하면

어서 가서 끓여 잡수시오

One misses entirely the Choong-Chung accent (which is as pronounced as a Southern or Mid-Western accent, for example) that is indicated in the different verb inflections.  (Imagine reading Huckleberry Finn with all the accents and idioms normalized.)  At the same time, a part of what makes this dialogue so gently comic is the ostentatiously polite geniality of the customers’ words; in fact, the previous section of the poem had indicated that the butcher will slice off the “best steak” and throw in “some soup bones for good measure” only if the customers speak in the formal mode (존댓말 쓰면).

One other quick and subtle example will have to suffice.  “The Wife from Kaesari” tells the story of an uncommonly silent woman with a “tiny voice” whose only words amount to replies of a “reluctant mmm” in a “tiny sound” that is “eager to quickly crawl back” to her lips again.  She finally does get a few dying sentences out on her death bed just before expiring as her three sons attend her, but they turn out to be mundane reminders about how “the lid of the soy-sauce jar up on the terrace/ ought to be opened to the daylight,” or how “the lining in father’s jacket ought to be replaced” (느이 아버님 옷솜 새로 틀어다 넣어야 할 텐데).  Inaudible and invisible as she was in life, we do know from the hint of dialect that creeps into her speech (느이is dialect for “your”) that her speech was at least distinguished by the region of her origins.  Ko Un’s poetry shares something with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in offering a sweeping picture of a nation; what’s distinctive about Ko Un is that the picture is created by countless but individual voices.

3) Related to the two above features is another distinctive feature of the Korean language that Ko Un makes fresh, masterful use of, namely, the onomatopoeic characteristic of the language.  It is not simply that words and phrases re-enact sounds; onomatopoeia extends in Korean to capturing the experience of all the senses as well as the emotions.  Onomatopoeia is more properly a verbal form that often uses pure Korean words  (as opposed to words with Chinese origins and etymology) to recreate a sensory experience.  Each of the poems cited above contains instances that are integral to the rhythmic, aural and sensuous feel of the poems.  The azaleas in “Azaleas” are “ablaze,” which translates a phrase (활활) that conveys the experience of something bursting and extending and which is sometimes used when someone wants to demonstrate physically how to open one’s arms wide.  Such phrases are often doublets (akin to “hocus-pocus” or “hurly-burly”) that convey meaning as much through sensuous rhythm as their sense.  Samdok’s mother lies “lingering in her sickness,” which translates an adverbial phrase (시름시름) which indicates the gently wobbling motion of someone who slowly collapses. The quiet wife from Kaesari’s end comes suddenly: “Then in a flash she expired” (그냥 꼴칵 숨넘어갔네).  The key phrase is the adverbial꼴칵, an onomatopoeia that refers most often to the sinuous sound made in the throat when swallowing something whole; the death might be said to have taken place (to twist the idiom) in one quick gulp.  To take a minor example from another poem, “Chae-hak’s Finger” tells the story of a man who has a “special talent for making liquor,” but who is missing a finger because he had cut it off to give blood to his dead friend’s father while the latter was lying sick:

Even without one finger,

if he swirled the mix with his hand as he made it,

the savor of that makkolli or hooch would cleave to the weary palate.

The final clause is그 막걸리 그 모주 술맛이 곤한 혀에 딱 붙는다, which includes the adverbial intensifier 딱, which can be used to mean “exactly” or  “just right,” but which can also be used to indicate a sharp sound like a clack, or the slapping sound of something that sticks.  The taste of the makkolli (a rural rice wine) then sticks with just the right clack to the palate.  When the material realities of village life are depicted in Ko Un’s poems, Korean onomatopoeia helps to bring alive their smells, tastes, sounds, and feel—their sensory texture—in ways that recall Seamus Heaney’s remarkable capacity to use sound to bring the texture of his Irish landscape and emotional terrain alive.  The rootedness of Ko Un’s poetry in the vernacular lives of people is part of what makes him a historian who captures what histories miss.

4) Korean onomatopoeia, broadly defined, could be considered a subset of the much larger category that might rather too broadly be labeled “idiomatic expressions.”  To say that Ko Un is a vernacular poet is also to say that he deploys idiomatic expressions with uncanny precision and nuance.  Ko can be linguistically adventurous and highly inventive, especially in his poems that have Buddhist underpinnings.  The often mystical and elusive nature of the spiritual experiences that he explores in such poems leads him to invent enigmatic figures and expressions.  However, one might make the case that Ko Un is equally inventive in using idiomatic expressions to poetic effect.  In “The Wife from Suregi,” Ko Un depicts a scene in which the sound of frogs at an embankment prevents the sound of a woman weeping in honor of her dead husband (in a ritual called jae-sa) from reaching him:

The wife from Suregi is weeping there,

but the croaking of frogs drowns out her weeping.


수레기댁 우는 소리 있으나마나

I should point out that the Korean word for frog is itself an onomatopoeia and the place name Suregi is a near palindrome for “the croaking of frogs” (개구리소리), so that one hears the weeping of the wife blending into – or being drowned out by – the croaking of the frogs.  However, the original does not include a verb that means “drown out.”  Rather, a fragmentary idiomatic expression is used that might be literally rendered as, “With the sound of the frogs/ No use whether the wife from Suregi weeps or not.”  That phrasing returns at the end of the poem:

At Frog Embankment

she weeps but the croaking of frogs drowns out her weeping.

It’s no use to her dead husband’s ears.

개구리 방죽

개구리소리에 울으나마나

죽은 영감 들으나마나

Once again, a literal rendering might be something like, “With the sound of the frogs/ No use whether she weeps or not/ No use whether the dead old man listens or not.”  The idiomatic construction carries with it a sense of futility and irrelevance – it’s as though the actions (weeping, listening) were both inconsequential and interchangeable.  So much of the pathos lies, that is, in the construction itself, as though the poem was focused on the nature of mourning and futility, rather than the circumstantial agency of frogs drowning out other sounds.  One should add that the poem also alludes indirectly to a very famous story (heard in childhood and read in grade school, and reinforced thereafter) about a green-frog that doesn’t listen to his mother and eventually spends his time during monsoons weeping that his mother’s grave may get washed away by rains.  The word for a recalcitrant and contrary child is “green-frog.”  The tragic irony in the poem is that the wife genuinely mourns – though able to offer only the poorest fare for the ritual – but it is no use whether she does or not.

One might say that all the poems I’ve cited are minor poems, but the collection that they are from—Maninbo—is a living record of the details and humanity of the thousands of minor lives that make up the human landscape of Korea…or any other nation.  Those details are captured in the distinctive verbal texture of each poem, but a part of what makes the texture distinctive is that it gets easily lost in translation.  What all this means is that translators will always face a daunting, perhaps impossible, task when trying to communicate the full  experience produced by the poetry of someone with Ko Un’s remarkable artistry.  But then they can also take heart in knowing that they are themselves artists with the distinctive powers of another language at their disposal.




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