Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Byung-rul Lee

The hour hand blankly moves, in spite of the dangling minute hand with a loose screw.

In a society where emotional restraint is prized, interactions can all of a sudden grow stilted or become suffused with a great silence as disappointment sinks in. In these exemplary poems by Korean poet Byung-rul Lee, tone and imagery hint at the emotional tumult hidden underneath the surface.

Great Sadness

Truly, an emotion the size of a single juice pack.

Something is stuck and will not come out.
A woman’s face full of the image of an afternoon garden,
sturdy roots of a tree growing through a wall,
a swarm of ants climbing up a pillar in lines,
that do not fall off or get brushed off, even when shaken.

The waist of a flower has accepted signs of death,
blood and murderous intent,
forearms holding up the breath of love

The hour hand blankly moves,
in spite of the dangling minute hand with a loose screw.
A metaphor hidden in the naked flesh of the picture.

I cannot give up this abyss.
If I wanted to hide it,
I would have to measure to see if I can take it out again.

As molten iron, once welded on, does not fall off,
this sadness, seared by fire, does not fall off.
Since it is my turn to step back a bit,
please, anybody, share some wine with my brothers.


The restaurant in front of the station was crowded with people.
I went into the restaurant and took a seat.

A woman shared the table with me.
After I ordered a dish, I shuffled a newspaper, not knowing where to look.

Our separate dishes were laid in front of each of us.
The server must have thought we were together, she only brought one set of side dishes.

A bee repeatedly banged its head against the window screen.
Maybe it was trying to come in, or it couldn’t help itself.

Did all those people also make sounds of tossing anxiety in their bowls?
Did their hearts also flutter, unfamiliar like newly installed furniture?

To fill the stomach is
to erase unexpected underlinings, but

Until the end of our meal
the woman and I did not touch the side dishes.

Byung-rul Lee was born in 1967 in Jaechoen, South Korea. He studied creative writing at Seoul Institute of the Arts. He started his writing career by winning a literary contest organized by The Hankook Ilbo (a Korean newspaper) in 1995. He also won the 11th award of the poetry magazine Contemporary Poetics in 2006 and wrote for the MBC radio program, FM Music City with Sora Lee. Currently, he is the representative of “Dal”, a branch company of Moonhak Dongnae (a Korean publishing company), and a member of “Sihim” (a Korean poetry society).

Soyoung Park is a visual artist and dancer residing in Canada. She has revised Korean translations of A History of the World in 100 Objects (a history book by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum), All the Light We Cannot See (a novel by Anthony Doerr) and Oscar and Lucinda (a novel by Peter Carey). She was a translator and research assistant for Paul Fischer on his recent book, A Kim Jong-Il Production. She is currently working on a Korean translation of Dorothy Parker’s Short Stories.


Read More Poetry in Translation: