Between Korea and France: Adventures in Literatures

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Vol.16 Summer 2012
  • byClaude Mouchard

“Oh gentle sound of the rain
On the ground and on the roofs!”
– Paul Verlaine

“Outside the noise of the rain started
again, pouring
down even more heavily,
and the dogs began to vie with the rain,
barking ever more loudly. The rain was
at its height now and from the storage
platform came the
clanging sound of
metal hitting the ground. It must be the
aluminum pail hanging on the wall.”
– Yun Heunggil

One evening, while I was at home in Orléans, in the middle of France, I read these phrases, these phrases from La Mousson1, a collection of short stories by the novelist Yun Heunggil2. It was raining. Somewhere off in the distance a dog barked. What I was reading, even though written by a Korean author, resembled what I was actually hearing. I could almost hear the sound of the rain hitting against a metal pail….But “the storage platform”? Nothing of the sort, obviously, where I was. Any normal French reader would need an explanatory note at this point: “a place behind a house where the pots containing fermented products to be used in flavoring various dishes such as soybean paste, kimchi (a Korean spicy cabbage dish)…”3

(One might point out, in passing, that it is not sufficient to translate a novel or poems: these need to be extended by explanatory notes, or a preface, or by some other means—and this is an art, a very subtle art.)

Another rain sound: that of raindrops drumming on large, tall earthenware pots, placed outside, against a wall. It is not the same sound that Yun Heunggil talks of. This drumming of the rain on the pots came back to me while reading La Mousson that night in Orléans—I was remembering some moments of an evening I had spent two or three years earlier, somewhere in the southern part of Korea. Where exactly? I don’t know. When I experienced those moments, I only knew that I was on a mountain in Korea: exhausted and a bit drunk—and in any case strangely happy.

That was during my first stay in Korea. Seven or eight of us were at a restaurant, brought together by Yi Chong-Jun. I had read, in French or in English, several novels or short stories of this marvelous writer. And in France I had seen the film Sopyonje, directed by Im Kwon-taek, which was based on one of Yi Chong-Jun’s novels.

Yi Chong-Jun abruptly asked me, at that very moment, as I was discovering Korea, to say what was the most “different.”

I could have answered that it was obviously the language. Or the food, or the fact that people sit on the floor to eat, or I could have mentioned the door serving as a partition, made of white paper, that made a soft sound when it was slid open or closed.

Perhaps I should have found a way to talk about one of the “political phenomena” that a foreigner feels when experiencing the details of the time-space tensions that are the daily fare of the hosts.

But I just mentioned, not knowing exactly why, the steady and calm sound that one could hear coming from outside: that of the rain falling on the pots.




Several months prior to that, Yi Chong-Jun had come to my house. It was an early summer evening, in Orléans. He arrived unannounced, along with three other Koreans. Enjoying some wine, we had talked about literature until late at night (of course, we had had to translate, or communicate in English). Everyone slept over at my house.

In the morning, we all had tea or coffee in the kitchen. Outside in the garden, it was gently raining. Then suddenly, Yi Chong-Jun went outside. A few moments later he returned, a bit wet. He sat down and said with a smile, “Life begins at 60.”


The adventure had started at the University of Paris 8, where I was a professor of general and comparative literature. I had asked the international students (of which there were many in the department) to select texts from their own literature and to present these to the other students. The Korean students immediately became the most active—both quick and generous at the same time. We began to translate Korean poems, not only at the university, but also in cafés or at my home. So many discoveries! Yi Sang, for example, had not yet been translated into French at that point.

After that several poets and novelists came to the class: Ko Un, who stimulated the class with his talk, his readings, his singing, and Hwang Sok-yong, who introduced the students to 20th century Korean history and its ravages.

It was around this time that I proposed to dedicate a special volume of the magazine Po&sie to 20th century Korean poetry. One year later, in Volume 88, published in 1999, French readers were able to discover 12 twentieth century Korean poets.4 In the years that followed, various publishing houses finally began to translate several Korean poets: Yi Sang, Kim Soo-young and Hwang Ji-u at William Blake, Ko Un, Hwang Tong-gyu, Ki Hyongdo at Circé, Lee Seong-Bok and Ko Un at Belin, Yi Sang, again, at Zulma, then at Imago.5

I have had several occasions to talk about Hwang Ji-u in France, and in particular on the occasion of the Primo Levi colloquium: his poems, which are sometimes connected to political or social upheaval, have a universal appeal in today’s world.

Another shock: the discovery of the strong work of Kim Hyesoon. None of her poems have been translated and published in France, to my knowledge, although she has been widely translated into English… But it is, generally speaking, from the poetry written by women in Korea (or in the Korean diaspora) that the world’s poets can receive liberating impulses.


For the past three or four years, at least, Ju Hyounjin (who was a student at Paris 8) and I have been working on (along with several translators, notable among whom is Kim Hyun-ja) a new volume of the magazine Po&sie which will be devoted to Korean poetry. In this volume of 300 pages (which will appear at the end of May 2012), French readers will be able to discover the works of 27 contemporary Korean poets, all selected by Professor Jeong Myeong-kyo, from Park In-hui or Ko Un to Kang Jeong or Ha Jae-yun, as well as Kim Kyung Ju.

In March 2012, the oldest French magazine, La Revue des Deux Mondes, devoted—with contributions from various specialists and with a contribution from the French Nobel Prize winner J.M.G. le Clézio—a special volume on Korea, with an emphasis on contemporary Korean literature (with Choi Mikyung and Jean- Noël Juttet, and Ju Hyounjin and Claude Mouchard).

In June—coinciding with the publication of this special volume of Po&sie—four Korean poets will be in France and will present their poems in Paris. On June 2nd, in this wonderful setting, Kim Hyesoon, Hwang Ji-u, Gwak Hyo-hwan, and Kang Jeong (accompanied by Jeong Myeong-kyo) will read their poems.


Can a French reader today obtain a comprehensive overview of contemporary Korean poetry? That would be illusory. The diversity of the poets defies description. Or, rather, it can be said that it is the multiplicity of their poetic positions that is significant and creative. If I may be so bold as to claim that I have a somewhat accurate overview of contemporary Korean poetry, I would say that it is characterized by the irreducible individuality of the poets, or by the intense divisions separating their positions.


It is raining in the early hours of the morning as I write these lines, in Orléans, and I am thinking again of Yi Chong-Jun, the poet-novelist. I was in Korea when he passed away. Overwhelmed, I went to a ceremony where I found some of his friends—in particular Yi In-seong, another poet—among his books.

Poetry cannot be constricted. It lives in novels, in paintings, in photos, in theatre or in dance. Or in film. The film Poetry by Lee Chang-dong was wildly popular in France: just a few days ago, in fact, a young French poet told me he had been deeply moved by this film.

The presence of Korean poetry in France will take its course, thanks to the many translations. I am thinking of the Korean students who, 15 years ago, led me to discover the poems of their country. They were participating, already, in the thrust—the complex thrust, and in some ways the contradictory thrust—which is today carrying Korea towards and into the world.


1 The English title is The Rainy Spell [English translator’s note].
2 translated by Im Hye-gyong and Cathy Rapin (Autres Temps 2004)
3 translators’ note in the French original
4 Yi Sang, Kim Chunsu, Ko Un, Hwang Tong-gyu, Chong Hyon-jong, Lee Seunghoon, Cho Jeonggwon, Lee Seong-Bok, Choi Seungho, Song Chanho, Nam Jin-woo, and Ki Hyongdo
5 The translators were Kim Bona, No Mi-sug and Alain Génetiot, Gilles Cyr and Han Daekyun, Choe Ae-young and Jean Bellemin-Noël, Chung Ye-young and Laurent Zimmermann, and others.

* Claude Mouchard is a French poet and professor emeritus of comparative literature at Paris VIII University. He is also an editor of Po&sie, a literary quarterly. The magazine featured the poetry of Korean poets in the 1999 summer edition, marking the first time for the journal to exclusively focus on one country's poetry in depth. The special coverage led to an invitation for a trip to Korea from LTI Korea. He teamed up with Ju Hyounjin to translate poems of Ki Hyongdo and Yi Sang, and wrote an introduction for the books, which were published by Circé and Les Petits Matins, respectively. Mouchard’s poetry collections include Loss, The Air, Here, and Papers!