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The Silence of My Beloved (Translation)

The Silence of My Beloved

Han Yong-Un*

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.

님의 침묵(沈默)


님은 갔습니다. 아아, 사랑하는 나의 님은 갔습니다.
푸른 산빛을 깨치고 단풍나무 숲을 향하여 난 작은 길을 걸어서, 차마 떨치고 갔습니다.
황금(黃金)의 꽃같이 굳고 빛나든 옛 맹서(盟誓)는 차디찬 티끌이 되어서 한숨의 미풍(微風)에 날아갔습니다.
날카로운 첫 키스의 추억(追憶)은 나의 운명(運命)의 지침(指針)을 돌려 놓고, 뒷걸음쳐서 사라졌습니다.
나는 향기로운 님의 말소리에 귀먹고, 꽃다운 님의 얼굴에 눈멀었습니다.
사랑도 사람의 일이라, 만날 때에 미리 떠날 것을 염려하고 경계하지 아니한 것은 아니지만, 이별은 뜻밖의 일이 되고, 놀란 가슴은 새로운 슬픔에 터집니다.
그러나 이별을 쓸데없는 눈물의 원천(源泉)을 만들고 마는 것은 스스로 사랑을 깨치는 것인 줄 아는 까닭에, 걷잡을 수 없는 슬픔의 힘을 옮겨서 새 희망(希望)의 정수박이에 들어부었습니다.
우리는 만날 때에 떠날 것을 염려하는 것과 같이, 떠날 때에 다시 만날 것을 믿습니다.
아아, 님은 갔지마는 나는 님을 보내지 아니하였습니다.
제 곡조를 못 이기는 사랑의 노래는 님의 침묵(沈默)을 휩싸고 돕니다.

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.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 1st, 2012 12:54 am (UTC)
Major, major apologies in advance because I don't know Korean and I'm only going by what you're saying here, but I had to comment anyway because reasons.

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.

I have no idea what this refers to. I get that you're punning "strait" and "straight" but the Biblical part goes right over my head. So much for several years of church and a Theology minor. >.< *epic fail*

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.

Nickname? I understand that's not quite right either, as (at least in America) nicknames are often assigned to a person at a young age by others, not chosen by the person at adulthood (though there are exceptions, of course).

"I took up the unbearable power of sorrow and poured it down onto the crown of new hope."

This sounds like baptism. You were using Biblical imagery before...

I don't want to assume things of Korean culture and the metaphors used in the language but I can't deny that was the first thing to pop into my head.

The line about unions and parting works really well because of how the two clauses mirror each other. I thought that was the best line.

Overall, this is a beautiful and melodious poem, and if you believe you maintained the true spirit of the original even though the details aren't exact, I think that's what counts.

(Though I wouldn't know that the beloved in the poem was anything other than a literal lover without your notes. Sorry.)

Aug. 1st, 2012 01:34 am (UTC)
No need to apologize! I'm just happy to have comments, and you raise great points. :D

The reference was to Matthew 7:14, "strait is the gate and narrow is the way." Maybe I should just say "narrow path" or "narrow way" instead?

The traditional Korean system of names and epithets could get pretty elaborate. In addition to given names and epithets, some people also had childhood names, the closest to nicknames. But no doubt they had less formal nicknames, too. A childhood name was one of the person's official names, though there was a custom of not calling the child anything too exalted in case bad spirits took an interest. Frex the childhood name of Gojong, the second-to-last king of Korea, was, um, "dog turd." I swear this is not as derisory in Korean as it sounds in English. It's a friendly sort of derisory, kind of like "Chubby." But Gojong had his country taken over and his wife murdered by the Japanese, so maybe the name was foreshadowing.

Adulthood epithets on the other hand were self-chosen for sound, meaning, and auspiciousness. Sometimes a respected mentor might give their student an epithet, or one could seek out a professional namer for a good epithet. Whatever the route, it's supposed to reflect the person you have grown into, so think of it like a true name of sorts.

Or just think of it as an online handle. :P That's the closest modern equivalent anyway. These self-chosen epithets have largely fallen out of use, but I still see them from time to time with people who are into Korean literature. My aunt, for instance, a Korean literature teacher, has chosen Yulim ("chestnut forest") for herself.

Ooh, I never thought of the baptism angle. Baptized in sorrow, that's a pretty good image. Thanks for the compliment! :)

(Though I wouldn't know that the beloved in the poem was anything other than a literal lover without your notes. Sorry.)

That's the idea! :D The height of Japanese imperial rule wasn't exactly the high watermark of freedom of speech, so Manhae couldn't write openly about Korean independence.

Also, Manhae was hardly a celibate ascetic. Japan has a tradition of married Buddhist monks, so it was acceptable practice during Japanese rule in Korea. (I believe they were phased out after independence, except in tiny pockets here and there.) The guy was married--twice!--and some believe the beloved in the poem was an actual person. His daughter, who seems like an awesome no-nonsense lady, had this to say about the theory in an interview earlier this year:

Interviewer: There's a theory that the beloved in "The Silence of My Beloved" is not his country, but rather his actual lover.

Han Yeong-suk: I am disappointed you would even mention that tripe to me. (laughs at interviewer's embarrassment) No no, if you're curious you should get it out. Independence fighters are men and human beings too. Who knows, maybe there was someone in my father's life. But he wasn't the kind of man to write about his private life in a poetry collection for everyone to see.
Aug. 1st, 2012 04:33 am (UTC)
Ah, poetry analysis. This does bring back memories as an English Major. Like Amy, not speaking Korean, I can't really compare your translation to the original, but I think you did a good job of maintaining the feel of the poetic imagery. I also missed the Biblical connection you were going for and think "narrow way" might have been a better if less poetic word choice. What I love about your translation though is the way it reminds me of some Irish ballads and poetry the connection between lover and homeland is something that blurs a lot in that culture too. Take the song "Bonny Portmore" for example. Is it about lost love, culture devistation by the English, or even environmentalism?

Some of your translation choices also reminded me of analysis I've done in college of one of my favorite poets in one of the few other languages I know enough of to compare and contrast the original with English translation - German to English of some of Rainer Maria Rilke's stuff. Do you preseve the image or try to make it fit with a rhyme, make it more flowing, etc.

It can be hard to know where to sacrifce and where to expand and how to bring out the subtleties. I've seen dilemmas with this even between medival and modern English. Medieval English poetry can sometimes be very suble in it's rude imagery if you don't know what it's saying exactly like a lovely tretise on spring and all the animals sounds so lovely and pastoral until you realize a phase like "bukke verteth" means "breaking wind" and the poem your reading has fart jokes. Simlarly Chaucer's Sir Topas may be one of the most annoyingly hilalrious things ever written in the English language when you hear it recited orally with its intentionally horid rhythym structure and it's talk of a guy "pricking here and pricking there all over the wood."

But anyway, this poem reminds me of the song translations you did recently for me and it's great to see you stretch yourself from song lyrics to poetry. And while Silence of My Beloved analysis may make the school children of Korea groan every year, at least they don't have to analyze Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess." ;-)
Aug. 1st, 2012 08:16 am (UTC)
Changed to "narrow way" by popular acclaim! (Hey, two out of two...) I think it makes for a better cadence, too.

That's fascinating about the connections between poems from different cultures. I've heard the Loreena McKennitt version of Bonny Portmore and the ambiguity you mentioned makes it all the more fascinating. It seems pretty common to pose lofty sentiments like patriotism and spirituality in the earthier form of love songs. Maybe because it's more accessible and immediate that way, and also avoided pesky censors in the case of The Silence of My Beloved. :)

The eternal dilemma of translation between accuracy and readability is even more acute in poetry. In "The Elements of Style: An Introduction to Literary Criticism," (I'm almost sorry I found this book purely by accident; it's very good) David Watson Rannie devotes a chapter to translation of verse and strongly argues that translated poetry should work as poetry in the target language. And I've always fallen on the side of readability when it comes to my own translation work. Still, there's always some guilt in cutting away or changing parts of the original and I try to leave notes on major alterations, partly to alert non-Korean-speakers and partly to cover my bases in case Korean speakers stumble onto this.

HAHAHAHA that is great with the dirty poetry! Keep it classy, medieval poets. It reminds me of Korean traditional masked performances that had all sorts of hilarious vulgarity going on. The 2005 Korean movie "The King and the Clown" has some scenes of these transgressive and satirical performances. (Ironically the movie itself is a tragedy.) I don't know how well they translated the jokes, but the great thing about humor below the waist is its universality. I doubt "do you want your upper or lower mouth filled?" requires any cultural background. :D

I went and looked up "My Last Duchess" and I can see why kids would hate it. From the standpoint of someone whose grades don't depend on it, though, the Duke is a fascinating jerk. Gotta love the way literary education bleeds actually interesting subjects of color and drama. Maybe Mr. Bradbury was right and we should just teach 'em to read then turn them loose in libraries.
Aug. 1st, 2012 02:56 pm (UTC)
I have about five or six different versions of "Bonny Portmore" on my mp3 player, including McKennitt's. Guess it comes from being a big Highlander fan. Odd though how an Irish song is used to represent Scotland in that show, but the Celtic connection of what the English did to both countries still works very well.

The notes were very helpful. I always like it when writers take the time to do that. I love when it brings to light something I didn't know before and I can say "oh now that was clever of the author."

"My Last Duchess" was hardly one of the worst poems I had to study, rather it's how often I had to study it that irked me, both in high school and college and one of those big tests, SAT's I think.

All of this dicussion reminds me that I really should post some of my opinions on Shakepeare sometime. While he was certainly one of the greatest writers the English language has ever had, he also is overated, a terrible propoganist, a guy who liked to change the original scource material, and also wrote some pretty bad stuff, Not to mention having to read essays about his work with interpretations I disagreed with that in the end I realized was essentially Shakespearean fanwank. But because of who it was written by gets passed off as "scholarly gospel truth" even when the teachers were good at trying to say it was just one interpretation, the idea that the cirriculum considered some of that crap worth wasting my time on just mad me mad and opened my eyes to one of the sad but hilarious truths of literary analysis in the world of academia. It truly was an epiphany moment.
Aug. 2nd, 2012 08:25 am (UTC)
I'm always wary of conflating neighboring groups who look alike from the outside . I'd be pretty offended if someone used Japanese cultural elements to represent Korea, and the reverse is probably true as well. Then again Bonny Portmore is about the English being jerks, which I'm pretty sure Scotland can sympathize with as you say.

I would love to see your Shakespeare commentary. I haven't come across enough tough critique of his writing, and sacred cows make the best hamburger patties.
Aug. 2nd, 2012 05:31 pm (UTC)
It annoys me too. I wasn't meaning to imply that one should be able to pass for the other culture, merely suggest a commonality of why the third movie and show may have chosen to go with it. I'm guessing it was the movie people who made the initial cultural mistake and the TV show just kinda inherited the song and did the best they could with it, churning out another beautifully sung version. And I would have never become the big McKennitt fan I am if it hadn't been for hearing it in the movie, so at least something good came out of the mix up.

As for Shakespeare yes, a little hamburger to go with a sideorder of praise is always good. Here's a nice comedic clip that parodies the English speaking world's love-hate relationship with the Bard of Avon.

Sorry I keep hitting the general reply button instead of the reply to a single comment button, it's kinda small and tiny to spot. And I've gotten rather off topic, sorry about that too.

Edited at 2012-08-03 05:07 am (UTC)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


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