Translation and cultural uniqueness – another take on the KCC Literature workshop

I’ve long been interested in knowing more about modern Korean literature. So I learnt with interest about the Korean literature workshop (Tuesday, June 26, 5-7pm) and looked forward to it as I arrived for the event at the Korean Cultural Centre on London’s Strand.

The evening began with a talk by Dr Grace Koh of London University’s School of Oriental & African Studies. She spoke about the emergence of modern Korean literature during the twentieth century, from the more classical literature which hitherto dominated Korea. The emergence of short stories, novels and poems, as well as the use of the Hangeul alphabetical script represented a breakaway from classical Chinese Confucian traditions. Dr Koh also spoke about literature’s role in defining national identity: Korean literature was a means of looking within oneself for self expression, in the context of growing foreign influences, she said. On the question of why Korean literature had so far lacked an international readership she stated: “The lack of popularity of reception of Korean literature in translation has as much to do with how different cultures see ideas and aesthetics, as any inferiority or otherwise of quality.”

Agnita Tennant was next to address the audience with the question: “Why translate?” She has published several works on translation, including “Evening Glow” & “Language, Culture & Translation” (which she co-authored with James Huntley). She told us how as an immigrant to the UK in the late 1960s, she had felt the need to impress her UK friends with Korean culture & literature, in what she referred to as a “naive patriotism”. On translating, she said both English literature and Korean literature described a quintessential essence in their respective cultures. This quality of cultural uniqueness made the task of translation from one language to another much more difficult.

A group presents its creative response to Ra Hee-duk's poem
A group presents its creative response to Ra Hee-duk’s poem (photo courtesy of the KCCUK)

There followed a workshop, in which an English translation of part of a poem by Ra Hee-duk (‘Scale & Stairs’: the Word for Yeo) was worked upon by groups on each of the tables. I was on the same table as the novelist Margaret Drabble, who both helped and contributed to our table’s discussion. Afterwards each table’s observations and reflections was read out. Finally Ra Heeduk herself explained her poem to the audience, with Dr Koh’s translating. She concluded about her poem: “I feel that even if you’re in a situation that you believe everything is lost, the word yeoh will conjure up hope.”

I thought the evening worked well because the audience had participated in the process, as well as listening to expert opinion. Overall it was a good contribution to London’s Poetry Parnassus festival. I enjoyed myself, and also gained some new knowledge of modern Korean culture.

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