Yi Kwang-su's "The Soil" and its translators Horace Jeffery Hodges and Hwang Sun-ae
'The Soil,' 'Magnolia and Lotus' selected as WLT's notable works
By Chung Ah-young
Korean literary translations have been recognized as one of the 75 Notable Translations by World Literature Today (WLT), a U.S. magazine of international literature and culture in its December issue.
Yi Kwang-su's "The Soil" and Hyesim's "Magnolia and Lotus" were translated into English in the United States this year. Both of them were published with the support of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI).
Introducing a variety of international literature to its worldwide readers, the journal was first established in 1927 as Book Abroad and then changed its name into the current World Literature Today in 1977. The magazine is the second oldest periodical in the U.S., becoming a channel for understanding other cultures through literature under the motto of "Light from Abroad."
The Soil is one of the Library of Korean Literature Series published by the Dalkey Archive Press in November consisting of 10 Korean modern literary works.
Translated by Hwang Sun-ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges, the book tells the story of an idealist who dedicates his life to helping the inhabitants of the rural community in which he grew up during Japanese colonial era. It's about enlightening the poor farmers of the time in order to protect their fortunes, help them become self-reliant, and ultimately change the reality of colonial life on the Korean peninsula. The book is regarded as a crucial novel that shows the social conditions of the time, an equivalent to such English-language novels as Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."
"Yi is a very important writer, but his work has not been translated much, aside from ‘Heartless,' the first modern Korean novel. The Soil was on the Literature Translation Institute of Korea recommendation book list, and we thought the novel was still significant and informative about an extremely difficult time in Korean history. Yi's oeuvre has been largely ignored because of his ambiguous relationship to Japan, but we felt that his supposed politics should not prevent his literary standing from being recognized," said Hwang, a translator.
Hyesim's "Magnolia and Lotus" and its translators Ian Haight, above, and Ho Tae-young
Hwang and Hodges also worked on Jang Jung-il's "When Adam Opens His Eyes" in the Dalkey series. Hwang said that Yi's novel was written in the Japanese colonial period, so some of the words were unfamiliar in contemporary Korean, but even harder was retaining the original sense while rendering the novel in a literary style readable for contemporary English speakers. "The best translation stays close to the original text but uses language natural for the foreign reader," she said.
"It's a great honor for us, and we are also very happy that Korean literature is getting some attention worldwide. This honor shows the importance of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea in supporting translators through grants. Without their support, we would not have been able to undertake such a project," Hwang said.
Hyesim's Magnolia and Lotus was translated by Ian Haight and Ho Tae-young. The book consists of 58 poems by the Zen poet (1178-1234) from the Goryeo period. The book is also part of the Korean Voices Series published by the White Pine Press in February.
"To earn this recognition for me, personally, is incredibly gratifying. I've had my translation work published and reviewed in America, but this is the first time a book I was involved with won recognition of this order," Haight said.
Translation notes for the poems were a bit hard because the translators had to search history to get the context of the poems right. Hyesim made some Buddhist references in the poems which could be read four or five different ways, keeping a literal meaning that was still multi-layered for these references was difficult, he said. "I think the best translation acts as a bridge ― not just as a bridge to the culture the original literary work came from, but as a bridge to understanding and enjoying something about life I wasn't aware of," he said.
Hyesim was the second Patriarch of the Korean Buddhist Jogye Order and first Zen Master dedicated to poetry in Korea. Haight noticed imagery in the poetry of Hyesim that resembled imagery in the poetry of Ven. Seongcheol. "I believe Seongcheol was a monk of some achievement in meditation, and so I explored Hyesim, thinking he might also have had some significant achievement in meditation. As I read Hyesim's poetry more, it did seem like Hyesim wrote poems about his meditation practice, like Seongcheol did. Poems about meditation always interest me," he said.
"I was also attracted to the life I found in the poems. Hyesim lived more than 800 years ago, but at times it felt like he was sitting in the room with me, having a cup of tea. These things helped me decide to translate his poems and be committed to the work," he said.
Haight believes that of all Hyesim's poems, Magnolia and Lotus best captures the voice of Hyesim. "These poems feel very Buddhist. The poems in this collection present a world observed with reverence and admiration by a monk who lived more than 800 years ago. It feels natural to identify the collection as the unified voice of Hyesim," he said.
The poems in the book are built around an imagined life of Hyesim and his purpose for writing poems. Each of the translated poems, attentive to the nuances of Hyesim's Buddhist and Confucian background as well as the landscape of Korea, keeps the point of view of Hyesim, his voice, and his time. "My hope is that this collection ― utilizing metaphor, rhythmic language and imagery ― invites a reader into relaxed companionship with Hyesim and his life," he said.
Haight was a co-organizer and translator at the UN's global poetry readings held annually in Busan, Korea, from 2002 to 2004. He is the editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea (2010), and along with Ho Tae-young, the translator of "Borderland Roads: Selected Poems of Ho Kyun" (2009) both from White Pine Press.