The Word for ‘여’, and the Korean for ‘About Raindrops’ – Ra Hee-duk at the KCC Literature workshop

In 21 October, 2009 KCC hosted a Korea Literature Workshop in the presence of Ch’oe Yun of ‘There a Petal silently falls’. The session, facilitated by Dr Jo Elfving-Hwang of Sheffield University, turned out to be a ‘creative’ response to the aspects of the author’s work. It was something of a deja vu to turn up almost 3 years later on 26 June 2012 to a further Korean Literature Workshop this time on Translation. The setting now though was in the grander theatre space at KCC rather than a crabbier room down below. Grander too were the refreshments on the tables and the range of materials for one’s own, or one’s tables’ ‘creative’ response. Seated at the front, too, were an academic expert in translation theory, a renowned translator and a poetess. It seemed a feast had been prepared in more senses than one.

Perhaps not surprisingly a lecture, somewhat academic in style and academic in content opened the session, although for me it was somewhat difficult to fix on the full range of concepts without the traditional academic support of a blackboard, or more latterly in academic circles, the Powerpoint lecture. Nevertheless, an important argument was made for a much needed focus on literary values – form, structure, content – exploring the human condition and human experience and not simply the deconstruction, one might almost say the ‘destruction’, of texts through prioritising relevance and socio-political context. Explored, too, albeit briefly, was the role of literary texts in constructing and reconstructing a cultural ‘identity’ if such can be identified, raising the question of the sense, if any, in which we can talk of a world literature, obviously made available through translation. What then followed was a touching autobiographical account by Agnita Tennant, the translator of ‘Land’, of her 40 years choices as a translator, almost for her a vocation. Agnita had little problem with “the quintessential” Englishness and Koreanness of respective literature, raising the question of whether translation could ever compensate for “unbridgeable differences”. Two copies of poems by the poetess Ra Hee-duk were then handed with what seemed to be translations into English alongside.

Ra Hee-duk

The main event in terms of time allocated (60%) then followed. Ra Hee-Duk read one of her translated poems “The Word for ‘Yeo'” (literally ‘The word called Yeo’) a little sotto voce in the Korean version ‘여, 라는 말’. Our task, then, in groups on our 4 tables was to respond to this poem using the panoply of pens, papers, coloured cards, crayons, sticky labels and post-it notes available. If we had no Korean we had the English. Just as Ch’oe Yun before her, Ra Hee-duk was presented with the audience’s ‘creative responses’ before this time elaborating on her own – and very illuminating – rationale for the poem in its original setting on seas off villages on the West coast of Korea where different villages used the Korean sound/word ‘여’ differently. Her account of the origins and meaning of the poem unfortunately only served to highlight the misleading nature of the English translation which had simply failed to take the honorific slightly archaic overtone of the sound in Korean. To translate the Korean ‘여’ as ‘yeo’ is simply misleading. ‘yeo’ in English does not, as neither does the Korean 여, have any reference to an object, but is rather “a voice calling upon” a natural phenomenon not to be lost for ever. The process of naming reverently draws upon associations, the various stories, behind 여. But the sound ‘yeo’ in an English context gives no sense of awe. There are echoes rather of the country bumpkin.

But the biggest surprise of the evening was yet to come. A further two poems had been distributed with the first Korean-English pair and it was natural to assume that one was the translation of the other, as indeed it was. But now, at the end the whole session, Ra hee-duk revealed to us that we had a poem, ‘About Raindrops’ written by her in English in 2007 with again, in what might be a feature of her work, references to the local geography. And then – a real surprise! – her own translation into Korean in 2009 of her own English poem as 빗방울에 대하여. But nothing happened, no reading, no discussion, no analysis. Nothing. What amazing material for a workshop on translation! What an amazing opportunity for the author of two original poems in two very different languages to give her own account of what had been done and why in the company of a distinguished translator and an academic specialist. Missing such opportunities is somewhat saddening, and calls for some evaluation. Audience participation is one thing, getting the order of a workshop right is another.

Peter has a fascination for understanding Korean society and culture, low-brow or hi, present and historical – is now doing research on the history, organisation and culture of Korean Catholicism – otherwise manages community projects, is a member of Anglo-Korean Society Committee, and now prefers to teach English Academic Wrting – to whoever wants to pay.

2 thoughts on “The Word for ‘여’, and the Korean for ‘About Raindrops’ – Ra Hee-duk at the KCC Literature workshop

  1. I agree with you that form, structure and content are very important considerations in comparing different literatures. These aspects are important to deconstruct (although it should be remembered that deconstruction is originally Western concept, so how it applies in a Korean context is significant in itself).

  2. I agree with you that form, structure and content are very important considerations in comparing different literatures. These aspects are important to deconstruct (although it should be remembered that deconstruction is originally Western concept, so how it applies in a Korean context is signficant in itself).

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