Poetry Day 4 – a bit of “Ko Un” for the soul

Today I’m pondering “Taklamakan Desert” by Ko Un translated by Korean-American poet Suji Kwok Kim.

The poem speaks to me in a way that “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” speaks to me. Ko Un became a Buddhist monk early in his life, and knowing that helps me understand the sentiment expressed in the poem, especially the rejection of worldliness – “greed.”  And the need for escape that I hear in Yeats’ poem is also here.  Except of course Innisfree seems to be a peaceful and life-affirming place while Taklamakan Desert is a desolate, lifeless, water-less, unforgiving place. But then again perhaps the point is that such a desert is preferable – maybe even more life-affirming – than the business of “here,” the modern life.

Translations of poetry are tricky – to do and to read and to understand. I am always wondering what might have been lost in the translation. (Side note: I met a girl from Korea many years ago who was an English major – but she told me she read Shakespeare and Jane Austen in Korean translation, and I’m still wondering… how does that work?)

I am fascinated by the explanation written by Kim and her co-translator on their work:

With “Taklamakan Desert,” we tried to “translate” the translation towards greater spareness. We decided to leave out minor adjectives and phrases (“immense/tremendous/extreme,” “endless/boundless,” etc.) that sounded unnecessary in English, already implied by the words around them.  We translated “명사도  동사도  다” (“all nouns and verbs”) as “all words,” which sounds less awkward in English, and decided not to isolate “there” (“거기”) on its own line, the way it’s isolated in the original, since it would sound overemphatic in English, especially as an ending.  We added “in the Taklamakan Desert” in the penultimate line, for music, and “the silence of” in the last line, for rhythm, so that the last line becomes a line of iambic pentameter, a structural counterpoint to “the cry” in the second stanza, but only because silence is central to Ko Un’s work. (from Poetry Foundation)

For my friends who can read Korean, here’s one of my favorites by Ko Un (with my very literal – and terrible – translation, which I’m sure will not do the poem justice). I hear my own father’s voice in this poem. He would have agreed with the poem’s acceptance of life as is – nothing more and nothing less.

비록 우리가 가진 것이 없더라도 [though we may not have much]
바람 한 점 없이
지는 나무 잎새를 바라볼 일이다 [we must look to the leaves that fall though there be no wind]
또한 바람이 일어나서 [and should the wind rise]
흐득흐득 지는 잎새를 바라볼 일이다 [we must still look to the falling leaves]
우리가 아는 것이 없더라도 [though we may not know much]
물이 왔다가 가는 [as the water comes and goes]
저 오랜 썰물 때에 남아 있을 일이다 [we must stay with the long ocean tide]
젊은 아내여 [young wife]
여기서 사는 동안 [during our life here]
우리가 무엇을 가지며 무엇을 안다고 하겠는가 [what can we say we own or know]
다만 잎새가 지고 물이 왔다가 갈 따름이다 [except the falling leaves and ocean tides]

More about Ko Un – a BBC documentary.


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