Trees are Watching Me: Flowers of a Moment in Translation

On October 9th, it was announced that French author Patrick Modiano will be the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature.  In the wake of this news, many in South Korea’s literary circles are once again asking themselves when a Korean author will claim the coveted prize.  Since 1901 the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to 111 Laureates, yet a Korean author has never collected the honor.

In discussions with foreign publishers, Korean literary agent Joseph Lee discovered that Nobel Prize winning authors generally have two things in common:  Usually, their works have been translated into at least 15-20 languages AND they have a “loyal readership in their own country.”   Journalist Chung Ah-young has reported that over the last five years the average Korean spends only 26 minutes per day reading.  How can Korea promote their literature to a global audience if they are having a hard time doing so at home?  Fortunately, the quantity and quality of translations of Korean literature are improving every year, something which has often been a stumbling block in gaining more recognition and a larger readership from the global community.

Ko Un (81) is frequently mentioned as a favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  So much so, that reporters usually camp outside Ko’s home ahead of the yearly Nobel recipient announcement.  Ko is a prolific poet and novelist whose career has spanned over five decades.  His work has been influenced by the traumas which he experienced during the Korean War, his involvement with the Democracy Movement of the 1970’s and early 80’s, as well as by the ten years that he spent living as a Buddhist monk before he began writing in earnest.

Almost every article I read on South Korea’s prospects of receiving a Nobel Prize in Literature mentioned Ko Un, yet I had never heard of him and his work before last week.  Moreover, I didn’t know any of the other Korean writers who are also considered to be strong contenders for the Literature Prize, authors such as Hwang Sok-yong and Lee Seung-u.   2008 Nobel Laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio has mentioned both Hwang and Lee as possible future recipients of the Nobel Literature Prize.

After learning about who South Korea’s most esteemed authors are, I had a strong desire to investigate their work.  My Korean language study has now progressed to a point where reading Korean books without translation can realistically be used as a learning tool rather than as an exercise in frustration and dictionary hopping.  I am not yet at a stage where I can pick up any book and read it from front to back without a translator, but I am certainly able to read for pleasure with occasional rest stops for clarification and meaning.

Due to Ko Un’s standing as Korea’s most promising bet for the Nobel Prize in Literature, I decided to start with his work.  I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew as I am currently engaged in several other time-consuming writing and Korean study projects.  I elected to begin with a collection of 185 short poems entitled Flowers of a Moment (순간의 꽃), put out by Munhakdongne Publishing Company.  It is a slender volume of 118 pages and most of those pages only contain between six and eight lines of verse.  Ko sets the tone for the collection with the following brief introduction:

해가 진다

내 소원 하나
살찐 보름달 아래 늑대 되리

the sun sinks.

my only wish
is to be a wolf under a corpulent full  moon.


As I delved further into Ko’s poems, it occurred to me that I could kill two birds with one stone by using them to study for the TOPIK II Korean Language exam, which I hope to take in the Spring of 2015.  On account of Flowers of a Moment’s slim size, I believe that it is ideally suited for translation practice and because I write poetry myself, I feel that the translation work will hold my interest for the duration of the project.  This morning I began with the volume’s first four poems.  At this rate, I expect the translation to be completed by the end of December.

In 2006, a translation of Flowers of a Moment by Young-moo Kim was published by BOA Editions Ltd.  For me, the exciting aspect of this translation project is that an English translation already exists.  You see, I am not a translator by trade.  I don’t have a degree in Korean Language or a certification that would qualify me to do this kind of work professionally.  Yes, I did pass the Basic Level Korean Language Exam, but so have many other language hobbyists who share my interest in Korean.  After I finish my work, I plan to compare it with the BOA edition in order to see if the essence of my translation is truthful.  I will be curious to examine how my work holds up, if it does at all.

I am still learning Korean and translation is not an exact science, therefore if my version of Flowers of a Moment falls short of being a passable translation, I won’t judge myself too harshly.  During this journey, I may occasionally post a snippet of whatever poem I happen to be working on at the time.  In January, when the work is finished, I will update the blog with an analysis of the project.

For now I leave you with the first poem from Flowers of a Moment.

today was spent in somebody’s story

on the path home,
trees are watching me


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