My beloved has gone. Ah! The one I love is gone.
He broke the green of summer and walked the narrow way 'cross the autumn wood, and none could stay him.
The old promise, strong and shining as a flower of gold, collapsed to dust blowing in a gentle sigh.
The memory of that first sharp kiss turned the compass of my destiny and backed away, step by fading step.
The scented voice of my love has deafened me; the flower of his beauty blinds me.
Love being a mortal affair, great was the fear of his leaving even as we met. Yet parting stupefies the soul, and my astonished heart bursts anew at this sorrow.
But I know I break my own love if I make of this ending a source of empty tears, and so I took the overbearing force of my grief and poured it out into a wellspring of new hope.
Even as we fear parting in the moment of our union, so do we believe in the union made anew at the moment of our parting.
Ah! My beloved has gone, but I have refused to lose him.
My love song overflows its melody to swirl forevermore around the silence of my beloved.
* Han Yong-Un (1879-1944). Korean Buddhist monk, author, poet, and activist for Korean independence from Japanese rule. One of the thirty-three signers of the Korean Declaration of Independence. Died in 1944, one year before Korean liberation.The Silence of My Beloved was published in 1926, sixteen years into the Japanese imperial rule of Korea.
님은 갔습니다. 아아, 사랑하는 나의 님은 갔습니다.
아아, 님은 갔지마는 나는 님을 보내지 아니하였습니다.
This isn't the actual original text as published in 1926, by the way. The 1926 text is almost unreadable even for Koreans, so I chose a modernized text which became the basis for the translation. (Source: this page.) Many thanks to amyraine for directing me to articles on poetic translation. Aside from giving me pointers, Brother Anthony's words kept me from being an ass and linking other translations to mock them.
Working on Shadow of the Dragon King has been an occasion for me to think about Asian and more specifically Korean themes. In writing the character of Shun in particular, I thought about how loyalty to a person or ideal can resemble romantic love--the passion, the intensity, the sacrifice, the all-consuming nature of the devotion--and that got me thinking about famous works of Korean literature that used the language and tropes of romance to express patriotic fervor. I was thinking for a while about translating some of those works when I saw amanda_violet's post about the homoeroticism of the Napoleonic Wars, and then it was on.
"On" consists of making pages of messy scribbles while my brain screams "I can't do this, I'm not even a literature major!"
The first of these translations is 님의 침묵, which I have chosen to translate as The Silence of My Beloved. This is one of Korea's premier national poems along with Kim So-Wol's Azaleas (Brother Anthony did five different translations of this poem to show the ambiguity inherent in translating verse), the one every Korean schoolkid grows up memorizing and analyzing. The "beloved" has various meanings including the poet's lost country, his people, his religious faith BLAH BLAH BLAH and he takes a woman's voice because the traditional motif of women's suffering and strength symbolizes the suffering of the Korean people OUR CULTURE WOULD RATHER ROMANTICIZE WOMEN'S PAIN THAN DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT WAH WAH.
The educational routine is so trite and repetitive, it's easy to forget how genuinely good this stuff is. Even attempting to translate it felt like a sacrilege in many ways, because for one thing I have zero idea what I'm doing, and for another the beauty of poetic language obviously finds only limited expression in translation. The cadence, the cultural references, the puns... would this literary and cultural treasure turn out to be pathetic, even ridiculous in the harsh light of another language?
In the end, in the words of Wamba the jester from Ivanhoe, a man can but do his best. I tried to be true to the flow of the language while making changes that I thought made the translation sound better, even if I strayed from the original. Such deviations were not taken lightly, and were due to lack of skill and not lack of regard.
For instance, the "strait" path was just a little footpath in the original, but I figured the Biblical imagery would resonate better with the nuance of the text. It was also an attempt to express the sacrifice that "the beloved" is making, something that comes up in the last part of the line but I failed to translate. Manhae (萬海, "ten thousand seas," the poet's chosen epithet**) expressed the beloved's pain with a single adverb, but its closest English equivalent, "reluctantly," would have been hilariously inadequate to convey the depth of emotion. In the end I largely deleted the beloved's pain by translating his departure as "none could stay him," for which a more precise translation should be more like "he cast me off, though he bled for it." (No mention of blood in the original--that's just to show how deep a feeling it is.)
** Ho (號), or epithets, could be an entire essay in themselves. I've seen the word translated into 'pseudonym' or 'nom de plume,' which is just confusing because these names were not meant to be anonymous, nor were they necessarily pen names. A ho is a name that a person could choose for himself or herself as an adult, one that friends and family (but only equals or better) or strangers can use without being overly familiar or rude. It would be extremely improper for me to call the poet "Yong-Un" and it sounds sort of cold and objective to use his full given name, but calling him Manhae is a way to convey emotional warmth without being disrespectful. Yay complicated cultural stuff!
I teetered down this tightrope between mistranslation and unreadability until I came to Line 7, at which point I told myself "screw it" and took a flying leap into plain inaccurate translation. That's the bit about pouring grief into a wellspring of new hope, which Manhae didn't exactly write. What he did write was more like this:
I took up the unbearable power of sorrow and poured it down onto the crown of new hope.
That's crown as in top of the head, not royal crown. This makes complete sense in Korean, where the image of pouring water over the top of one's head coveys a "snap out of it" mood and a new focus. The crown of the head is traditionally the source and the center of the mind, as in the saying "pour water over the crown and it flows to the heel." Additionally, the sound jeong-su-ri (頂수리) for 'crown of the head' (the actual word Manhae used was jeong-su-bag-i, a Gangweon province dialect which I think he chose for the cadence) puns with jeong-su, (精髓), essence, and jeong-su (淨水), pure water. I couldn't get any of this in English using an accurate translation, so I chose to eschew the literal meaning and go with the implied meanings instead.
And "the union made anew at the moment of our parting"--I realize this is ambiguous, as though the poet and the beloved meet again the moment they part, but the ambiguity exists in the original and I amplified it, especially since I chose to go with the idea of a renewed and hopefully better union instead of a simple repetition of the old. This has to do with the fact that Choson was hardly an ideal country (read: it was weak, corrupt, and unjust) at the time it was taken over by Japan, and Koreans had and have a lot of our own flaws and baggage to overcome and national crisis can be a wake-up call, with echoes of the "more perfect union" that many English-speaking readers will be familiar with. So I ended up inserting much of myself and my own beliefs, which is a transgression, but hardly a greater one than attempting this translation in the first place.
"I have refused to lose him" was another part that gave me trouble. If I wanted to be accurate it would be "I have not sent him" or "I have not let him go" but that sounds stalkerish in English, as though the poet were hanging onto some guy and not an ideal. This was doubly true because I already used the male pronoun for the translation, which is not in the original; in the original text the beloved is the beloved throughout, not he or she. Instead I tried to convey the essence, that the parting is not really a loss as long as you refuse to give in to the pain.
"My love song overflows its melody" was another difficulty because there is no English equivalent. The original is more like "The song of love, which cannot bear its own melody." Since both Manhae and I were using a lot of water imagery, I decided to use "overflow" instead. The "forevermore" bit is for rhythmic purposes only and is not in the original, though I think it's in keeping with the atmosphere.
So in sum, small translation, big apologia. I keep expecting the language police to show up at my doorstep for daring to do something like this. (Um, not literally.) I've started working on another classic example of this patriotism-as-romance thing, and it's turning out very... weird.