An interview with Brother Anthony of Taizé

Sun Kyoung Yoon

When Walter Benjamin writes of translation as the task to liberate a language imprisoned in a text so that it may flower in a recreation of that work, he could very well be describing the life work of Brother Anthony, arguably South Korea's most renowned translator. Brother Anthony has pursued the 'liberation' of the Korean language, enabling it to organically flourish as he translates tome after tome of Korean literature into English. With over twenty years of experience, he can quite aptly be described as an ambassador of Korean literature.

Born in 1942, the Englishman studied Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford. In 1969, he joined the Taizé Community, a France-based monastic order comprising priests from the Protestant and Catholic traditions dedicated to spreading a message of trust and reconciliation.

He first set foot in South Korea in 1980, following a personal invitation by the late Cardinal Kim Sou-Hwan, the Archbishop of Seoul. He taught English Literature at Sogang University for about thirty years, writing a number of books and articles about literature and translation. But it was not until 1988 that Brother Anthony began to translate modern Korean literature. Since then, he has published 26 English translations of Korean literature, including works by Ku Sang, Ko Un, Ch'on Sang-Pyong, So Chong-Ju, Kim Su-Yong, Shin Kyong-Nim, Yi Si-Young, Kim Kwang-Kyu, and Yi Mun-yol.

His skill and prodigious output as a translator has seen him receive the Korea Times Translation Award, the Daesan Translation Award, the Korean Republic's Literary Award and the Korean PEN Translation Award for his work. In 1994, Brother Anthony was naturalised as a Korean citizen, taking on the Korean name An Sonjae, meaning 'little pilgrim'. He currently lives in Seoul.

You have translated the works of the renowned South Korean author, Ko Un, a strong contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year since 2002, but who has never won. Some have suggested that the reason for this is that his greatness was somehow lost in the process of translation. Arguably, if Ko Un had won, on the other hand, credit would have gone to the author and not any of his translators. Is the translator really destined to be invisible? If so, what keeps you involved with this thankless task?

Well, I certainly do not consider translating to be a thankless task. On the contrary, I find it an immensely satisfying, even fulfilling task. But after all, anyone who does something, whether it be translating Korean literature or some other kind of work, expecting to receive thanks, is very likely to be disappointed. And I would never translate in order to become famous, nor "so that someone can get the Nobel Prize." Ko Un certainly does not write poetry in the hope of receiving it. There are so many fine writers in the world. I reckon that giving a huge sum of money to just one of them each year is not at all a good idea. It does not help that the criteria used by the Swedish Academy are, to say the least, opaque. So long as Ko Un is alive he is eligible for the Nobel Prize in Literature, like anyone else, and not receiving it cannot be termed "failing to receive it," because nobody knows why one writer is chosen rather than another; no shortlists are ever published and sometimes the writer chosen has had almost no works translated. Besides, Ko Un has been translated into 20 or 30 different languages; that's a lot of translators to thank and gratitude is in short supply nowadays.

The role of the translator is, I think, to be the means by which people who are unable to read the original work may gain access to a version of it in a language they know. There are translators who believe that they are equal in significance to the original writer and demand an equal share of royalties but most translators are humbler and more realistic. They know that the quality of the original work is what matters, and that they did nothing to bring that quality into being; they are in a secondary, subservient position. Of course, translators are often humiliated by being badly paid and by having their names printed in small type somewhere out of sight inside a book, with the importance of their role minimized at every step. That too is not good. Translators have to be compulsive translators to keep going despite the challenges and they should not have sensitive egos, because they are often trampled on.

"Poetry is what gets lost in translation," said Robert Frost, implying that translating poetry is an impossible task. What do you think of Frost's judgement on the impossibility of translating poetry?

Well, it is obviously true if it is correctly understood. I think that Frost meant that "a poem does not mean, it is," as Archibald McLeish wrote. His "in translation" mainly refers to the way well-meaning teachers and commentators often try to "explain" an obscure poem by paraphrasing it in the original language, trying to express its "meaning" in other words. The poet refuses that distinction between the words and rhythms (s)he selected when composing a poem and the "meaning" of it. Different words make a different poem, or rather no poem. A poem translated so that it becomes a poem in another language is a different poem, of course. Translation is not anti-poetic as such but the translator of a poem faces multiple challenges. I have often written about the way translated poetry is subject to the same process of "reception" in its new language as any poem originally written in that language. The reputation a poem enjoys in its original language has no significance once it is transplanted into another cultural space; it has to start its career all over again.

We all need to take a close look at what Fitzgerald did to the original contents of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. His magnificent joke, "Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle," is the best possible response to any suggestion that translation is a destructive or "treacherous" activity. Of course, one should translate poetry as poetry but, alas, a translator is not usually "a great poet" and can only hope to become one by osmosis. The most important question when evaluating a translation of poetry, especially, is "Does it live?"

It could be claimed that when famous poets translate/adapt poems from other languages, as they sometime do, they are usually in fact guilty of "appropriation" if not outright plagiarism, because their publishers sell the new poem as an original work by the famous translator-poet and the original author is placed in a secondary position. Worse still, the famous poet is often completely unable to understand the language of the original, simply working on the basis of a paraphrase or draft made by a professional translator whose name is lost in the process. Ezra Pound is the most famous name here, and the most interesting example of admired mistranslations.

A translator's identity can influence the outcome of his or her work. To take the example of a Korean translation, if you are Korean and translate a Korean text into English, you are likely to 'foreignise' the original, to use Venuti's concept, revealing cultural differences. But an English translator would tend to domesticate the original, suppressing the foreign elements and focusing on making the text readable to an English-speaking audience. When I was translating Eun Heekyung's The Gift of a Bird, for instance, I paid particular attention to explaining particularly foreign aspects of Korean culture through footnotes.

I disagree strongly. I do not think that these options have anything to do with a translator's national, cultural identity. It all depends on the nature of the translator's commission from the publisher or the translator's personal decision regarding the best balance between accuracy and readability in any particular case. I have seen a commercially published translation with a sentence along the following lines (I forget the exact wording): "The Chongju daek carried a chopsi of mulmandu into the sarangchae." The book contained no glossary or notes and I do not know what the translator or the publisher thought they were doing, offering such gibberish. Commercially published translated novels do not normally have footnotes and I would never employ them. In extreme cases, a glossary should be included at the end of a volume. If the translation in question is mainly destined to be marketed for study by students, and particularly marked by cultural strangeness, I suppose there might be a case for some kind of notes; it would be a different kind of text from one published for general readers in any case. My volume with the translation of Shin Kyong-Nim's Farmers' Dance poems solved the problem by including an introduction covering the main historical background and describing the significance of such mysterious things as soju, muk and ramyon.

The essential issue here is not one specific to Korea. Every literary text is culturally specific and some words will inevitably have no equivalents in other languages. Food, clothing, drinks, buildings... How do you deal with those exotic things when they are in fact of no great significance in a narrative except as details in the overall cultural landscape? Take a look at the solutions for Turkish words with no English equivalent found by translators of Orhan Pamuk, for example. Certainly, it is a particularly acute problem in stories set in pre-modern or early modern Korea, where everything about the houses and clothing is unfamiliar, even for younger Korean readers, who have never set foot in a traditional Korean house. Yet it was possible to translate Yi Mun-Yol's The Poet without great difficulty, despite the fact that it was set in the first half of the 19th century in completely pre-modern Joseon. Books that pile up untranslatable terminology often prove to have been over-researched and under-structured. The Poet is one of the rare Korean novels I know that communicates its fundamental message convincingly to readers who are completely unfamiliar with Korean culture.

We should not forget that the most specifically cultural aspect of a novel resides not in the words but in the way it consists of a narrative surrounded by silences. The unsaid is always as important as the said; but the Korean unsaid is radically unlike the Scottish unsaid, which is already not the same as the English unsaid. Translators are not inclined to rewrite a work to such an extent that the unsaid is also translated and the result is that even very skilful translations retain a disconcerting aspect, simply because the original arose elsewhere and was written for readers inhabiting that cultural space's inherent silences. One small example might be the phrase: "People said he was a Red," which in the West would most often be a comment on a person's private political options but in the South Korea of the 1940-50s it could easily be equivalent to a death sentence. Every Korean reader knows that, there would be no need to spell it out.

You were born in the United Kingdom but in 1994 became naturalised as a Korean citizen, taking on the Korean name 'An Sonjae'. Has this change in your personal identity affected your attitude towards English and Korean?

You ask about my Korean passport/name but I see no particular connection between them and my activities as a translator. My nose and eyes have not changed shape and I have never felt that narrowly nationalistic attitudes were justified regarding any national identity. I love Korea; some things in it irritate me profoundly, and nothing more so than the "frog-in-a-well" mentality so common there. My native tongue is English, and I am to some degree at home in it. But my name is Sonjae, the Korean form of Sudhana, the "little pilgrim" of the Gandavyuha at the end of the Buddhist Avatamsaka Sutra. Sudhana wanders far from home across the world, meets many people of many kinds, and from each one he receives essential insight. I pass amidst the works of Korean literature as an elderly, overweight Little Pilgrim, and my translations are memorials to moments shared along the way, on a pilgrimage, which has no final destination.

If something is culturally essential to a Korean poem but may not work for what ever reason with Western English readers, how would you resolve this problem? Do you suppress this essential part to cater to the target audience or attempt to be faithful to the original and retain it in English even if it risks alienating Western English readers?

A Korean poem is written in the Korean language. If I translate it into English the result is bound to be a text in English. Nothing at all remains of the original poem as such, except a rough equivalent of the meaning of its words and grammatical structure. Everything is suppressed. Your question is really the theoretical one about the nature of "equivalence" across languages and cultures, which takes us back to Walter Benjamin's Brot/pain/bread distinction, if not the Lord's Prayer when it asks for "daily bread" which sounds odd in countries where bread is a kind of exotic cake for special occasions. In any case, the ultimate reply to your question is: you do the best you can to retain the full meaning of the original. I simply cannot imagine a case of the kind that you refer to, where one would want to omit something to avoid "displeasing western readers."

Once I translated a poem that was to be inscribed on a big stone in the US. An influential Korean-American saw my version and was incensed because the English version did not have the words in the same order as the Korean. He insisted that the only acceptable version was one that remained "faithful" to the Korean line arrangement, as in the following lines:

In even one dark cornerEvil can never set foot againLighting the world and making it pure
That, he affirmed, was obviously a far better translation than my perversion of the original. He simply could not see that it did not mean anything. My original version had said:

Making the world so brightThat evil can never again set footIn even one dark corner
So one person's faithful is many other people's junk, I fear. The most annoying habit certain Korean academics have is the way they plough through a 200-page translation that took you years to finish then triumphantly emerge crying that they have found a mistake. They see no merit in the 199 pages without a mistake, and have nothing to say about them, but they are comforted by finding proof that foreigners cannot possibly understand Korean perfectly. The mistake might be that you have called the sky "blue" when the Korean word also can mean "green," it does not matter. The affirmation of Korean language's unique difficulty is sufficient. Oddly, you can find a similar notion in Japan.

There is a famous case in which a poem's reference to "겨울의 동침이 맛" (the taste of winter radish kimchi) was transformed. A translator confused that with the similar-sounding 同寢 dong-ch'im "in bed together," and translated the line as meaning "in bed with one's lover on winter nights." One Korean professor of French, seemingly unfamiliar with Korean onomatopoeia, translated "나비가 하늘하늘" (nabiga hanŭl-hanŭl, "lightly, lightly the butterfly" from a poem by Kim Ok) as "papillon le ciel le ciel" (hanŭl alone means "sky"). Translating is a risky enough business as it is, without risking the wrath of Koreans by omitting something.

You've produced several English versions of Kim So-wol's poem "Chindallae – kkot", which has been very popular across South Korea for generations. You cited that the reason for producing multiple translations is because there is a difference in terms of the appreciation and perception of the poem between ordinary people and academics. How do you reconcile different expectations in readership here and elsewhere?

I do not reconcile them, I stress them. Korean readers are Koreans, American readers are American. They are different. Their criteria of excellence are different. The things they vibrate to are different. Their literary and human references are different. The translated poem is a different poem, but the fact that it is read by readers who are not Korean readers is even more important. The reason why I produced several versions of that 'famous' poem (take time to reflect on the ways in which fame is constructed in any culture) is simply because there are many possible ways of translating any poem that might deserve translating. No one translation can ever claim to be the one 'correct' 'perfect' 'full' translation, because you can never bring together everything in any one version.

Different accents within the same language are associated with different characters or stereotyped attributes; for example, in South Korea someone speaking with a Chungcheongdo accent is popularly perceived to be comfortable, peaceful, and good-natured, but crude and uneducated, whereas a Seoul accent, regarded as the Korean 'standard', is considered learned, educated, or elegant. When translating from Korean to English, how did you resolve these differences in accent and perceptions of value?

I try not to translate fiction for reasons like that. Universal translation practice says that dialects cannot be represented as such in translation. Obviously. Because there is no correspondence. One well-known translator of Korean poetry uses a vocabulary strongly marked by his own Irish origins. Many North American translators of Korean fiction use familiar American colloquialisms or oaths in dialogues. A British reader reacts negatively to both because she knows that Koreans are neither Irish nor North American and should not be made to speak like either. This is already a major issue between publishers in North America and Britain, when it comes to giving a title to a novel or even to editing its text to make it appeal to the readers on this or that side of the Atlantic.

Before you even reach dialects or accents, the translator from Korean has to face the different levels of address determined mainly by verbal endings indicating relative social status. Up and down are the only two options in a culture (like that of Japan) in which equality is not a concept. A single verb cast in Panmal, the "familiar" downward style, can be intensely insulting in many situations. Korean fiction often fails to indicate who is speaking in passages of rapid dialogue because the verbal endings keep reminding you of the relative age/status/authority of the speakers. Not in English, though. Koreans almost invariably address each other using titles (Seonsaengnim = 'first-born-sir' etc.) and almost never address one another by their given names. Women are usually addressed as "mother of x" where x is their eldest child or eldest son. A young girl talking to an even slightly older colleague will repeat 'onni' (older sister) in almost every sentence. This is where we are especially glad that in the West translators are free to do what they like with the original so long as the translation reads well in the target language. Omission is the only solution.

The translation theorist Susan Bassnett, who was featured in Issue Two of Asymptote, argues that "translation always takes place within a context of power". How do you see the issue of power relations between a global language like English and a marginal one like Korean being inscribed in translation?

I think that Susan Bassnett might have better said that "publication always takes place within a context of power," because a translation is nothing but a computer file in itself, it has to be commodified and marketed before we can make academic meatballs with it.

There is certainly a lot of work to be done before Korea begins to feel like a familiar place in distant lands. You should also remember that 'feels familiar' has more to do with stereotypes than with deep encounters. Internet-reading people of the world now know something about Korea. The first thing that they know is that there are two Koreas, North Korea being the more frequently mentioned. They often have a hard time distinguishing between the two, having heard something about harsh dictators in both. Or else, they might have encountered (South) Korean movies, pop music and television soaps, with positive results—they were entertained. These results will not usually be repeated on encountering Korean fiction or poetry, which do not mostly set out to entertain and dazzle. Grim seriousness has little popular appeal, and that has nothing to do with structures of power.

Of course, many Koreans are currently rejoicing that the novel Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin has become a hit in the US. This has little to do with the accuracy of the translation (almost certainly it is radically domesticating, as it would have to be to be published by Knopf) and it mainly shows that a lot of Koreans are like a lot of Americans, they love a sentimental sob-story about a long-suffering heroic mother figure. The main lesson that we need to learn is that the criteria determining which works of fiction are published and make a hit in the English-speaking world have little or nothing to do with high literary quality. Skillful marketing to a particular segment of the book-buying public, combined with some cozy chats with those who write book reviews, is far more effective. If Korea becomes a familiar stereotype, we can hope to see it being used as the setting for novels by popular western writers. At the moment, the only such novels I know are Margaret Drabble's rather odd The Red Queen, and the very much more appealing "Inspector Oh" detective series; only those last are set, alas, in North Korea and they are really great.

In "The 'Foreignness of Languages' and Literary Translation", you said: "Absolute fidelity in translation is an illusionary ideal reminding us of our archetypal dream of a pre-lapsarian unified tongue". Fidelity seems to have different significance for different translators. This has bearing on the conferring of translation prizes. If you were a judge of a translation competition, what would the main criteria for selecting a successful translation?

I am often asked to judge translation competitions, the Korea Times' annual competition for unpublished translations especially. We say that the winning works should be highly readable, accurate translations of interesting originals. Translations that strive extremely hard to be very accurate are very often unreadable because the translator has not mastered the readability half of the equation, which has a lot to do with sympathy for the non-Korean reader's mindset, or the target language's characteristic narrative or poetic rhythms. We only rarely find an entry that rises above the undergraduate English composition level. Sometimes a version stands out; it is written in a vivid, compelling English, flows well, sounds natural. Unfortunately, it often proves to have omitted a large amount of the detail provided by the original author, sometime whole paragraphs. In a standard translation competition, that cannot be acceptable, I believe. Ideally, at least, the translating and the style editing of a translation should be entirely separate operations done by different people at different points in the publishing process. There is a long tradition of translators doing both but it often goes hand in hand with an inability to translate accurately, a feeling that 'anything goes.'

Korea also has awards for published literary translations. I believe that the deciding voice in such awards should belong to writers or critics from the English-speaking world who know nothing about Korea. A work of Korean literature that has already been published overseas should not now be judged on its 'accuracy,' its verbal faithfulness to the original, but on its ability as a translated work to appeal to and satisfy readers who have access to the finest works being published in today's world. Only so can Korean works be recognized as part of world literature.

In order to make South Korean literature and culture known to an increasingly globalised world, translation becomes an increasingly important endeavor. Although cultural organisations such as the Daesan Foundation and Korea Literature Translation Institute support the translation of South Korean literature, South Korea has a long way to go. As translation is assumed to be a skill dealing purely with languages, many Korean universities approach translation linguistically, overlooking the cultural aspect of translation. In this regard, what would you recommend to publishers, writers and translators respectively to promote the translation of South Korean literature?

I often say that the most important thing, if Korean fiction is to become more widely known and admired, is for Korean writers to read with understanding major works of contemporary world literature, and to write in dialogue with those writers/works. Most Korean writers are happy to accumulate a little fan club among their compatriots, readers, and critics, who often seem to have no idea of what distinguishes facile sentimentality from greatness. That is why there are very few works of Korean fiction that are worth translating. In today's world, literary translation is a minority interest; little or no money can be earned by it, and the literary translator has to spend time reading a lot of modern English-language literature in order to produce powerful translations that come alive in English. People studying translation in universities want to embark on a career; that means becoming a famous business or diplomatic interpreter, there's no room for literature in their lives, let alone in their ambitions.

What would I recommend? When I get irritated, I often say that Koreans should stop thinking that particular works of Korean poetry and fiction or drama deserve to be translated simply because they are admired at home. One part of the problem is that nobody outside of Korea can see if a work written in Korean is worth publishing overseas or not until it is translated; and once it has been translated, the translator is unwilling to rest until it has been published, unprepared to have wasted her time. In this as in many other areas, less is definitely more.

To round up our interview, even though you work solely with English and Korean translation, do you think there is an overarching philosophy to translating or does a translator need to apply different methodologies to different contexts?

If you want to start thinking about translation philosophically, I strongly recommend the three short essays by Paul Ricoeur translated by Eileen Brennan and published by Routledge in 2006 as On Translation. In particular, the first essay, "Translation as challenge and source of happiness," ends with some magnificent, essential insights: "The happiness associated with translating is a gain when, tied to the loss of the linguistic absolute, it acknowledges the difference between adequacy and equivalence, equivalence without adequacy. There is its happiness. When the translator acknowledges and assumes the irreducibility of the pair, the peculiar and the foreign, he finds his reward in the recognition of the impassable status of the dialogicality of the act of translating as the reasonable horizon of the desire to translate. In spite of the agonistics that make a drama of the translator's task, he can find his happiness in what I would like to call linguistic hospitality. (...) Linguistic hospitality, then, where the pleasure of dwelling in the other's language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one's own welcoming house." Magnificent! That says it all.

Photo provided courtesy of author.