[Bengali] Korean Poetry in Bangla: Seoul to Soul: Poems from Korea by Kang Unkyo et al.

  • onJune 11, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byArunava Sinha
Korear Kobita (Poems from Korea)
Tr. Soroishwarja Muhommod

The forty-two Korean poets included in a new anthology of sixty-eight poems translated into Bangla—Korear Kobita (Poems from Korea)—are part of a complex tapestry of modern Korean poetry whose patterns and colours are far too rich and diverse to be represented by a finite number of verses. And yet, in an undeservedly perverse way, this collection must stand in for work written over a hundred years or more, simply because that is what such anthologies are meant to do: in this case, miraculously distil a deep and wide body of poetry, composed by myriad voices, at different periods of Korea’s history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in numerous poetic forms, into something that “represents” poetry from Korea.

I use the word “undeserved” because there is nothing intrinsically perverse about the enterprise of bringing these sixty-eight poems from Korean into Bangla, a language with which it has no genetic or environmental resemblance. For most of those who read their literature in Bangla and no other language—a significant proportion of the 250 million people divided mainly, though not entirely, between Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India—this may well be their first exposure to modern poetry from Korea. As a result, even if that was the last thing on the minds of the poets who wrote these poems, Korear Kobita will, for all intents and purposes, end up as a surrogate for Korean poetry.

This unwanted burden of repre-sentation, which the poets themselves probably had no intention of shouldering, means that all these poems run the risk of being read as “typical Korean” poetry and not as individually distinct works with, at best, only a few things in common. And the place this poetry may take in the sensibility of the reader reading them in a Bangla version will necessarily be different from its place in the literary landscape of Korea.

There is, however, a way of bringing reality and perception closer, even if they cannot entirely merge, and that is by ensuring that each poem is unique even after translation, not resembling one another in any way, so that the illusion of originating from a single, monolithic cultural system is at least partially dispelled. This needs not only supple rendition skills in the new home for the poems, in this case Bangla, but also a nuanced understanding of the original language—especially of the historical and cultural location of a poem, often revealed in verbal gestures and subtle images—as well as of the poetry from the country.

Of course, the usual reader of a translation has to take these qualities on trust, since they don’t know the original language. Read in this manner, what do we glean from these translations? First—and this is a very important accomplishment—these poems clearly did not originate in the sensibilities that normally lead to poetry in the Bangla language (even if this is a broad and risky generalisation to make about the work of thousands of poets). The poetry here, irrespective of the poet, is distanced to just the right extent from the cadences and idioms of native Bangla to suggest that it has entered through another foreign language. 

As demonstrated, for instance, by lines like Kim Sun-woo’s “With a sweet lullaby it will strip the skin off my hips” (in another of the twists of translated tales, these are English translations of the Bangla translations of the Korean poems) and Kim Ki-taek’s “People say he’s seldom seen to stand / Even during lunch he sits still in his chair”, or Kim Ji-ha’s dramatic ballad “The Five Bandits”, which delves into Korean history, and Kim Hyesoon’s “My Upanishad, Seoul,” which sees the poet in the world and the world in the poet, the Bangla versions host ideas and images, stories and rhetoric, that are relatively rare in poetry originally written in this language.

Even when the landscapes in these translated poems are generically familiar to readers of Bangla poetry, what they read in these translated poems is quite unlike the tone and themes they normally encounter. For instance, since the two Bengals—Bangladesh and West Bengal—are collectively a land of rivers, these feature prominently in its poetry—as they do in some of the poems in this anthology. The effect, however, is quite different: while the former invoke sentiments of beauty, eternity and even spirituality, the latter provide sharp images and associated observations. For instance, in Bangla translation, Kim Yong Taik’s “Seomjin River” is clearly a poem born in a different, even distant, poetic and cultural sensibility.

Indeed, what we get in this collection is an array of poems that appear to be born in a space quite partitioned from the one that has positioned Korea as a technology appliances powerhouse—the country that gave the world Android phones and high-tech refrigerators, for instance—or as the purveyor of K-Pop. Instead, we read of revolution, of urban angst, of battles of survival, of a history of continued occupation, and all of this through forms of expression that are passionate but not shrill, carrying over something that seems exotic (perhaps it’s the music of the Korean tongue?). 

This is why these translations are a significant addition to the experience of reading in Bangla, bringing in as they do a variety of poems that could not have been found in the language. Even if, in the process, this volume ends up as a representation of poetry from Korea, it can only benefit the cause of poetry in general and Korean literature in particular in a different part of the world.

Arunava Sinha
Literary Translator
Assoc. Prof., Creative Writing Department
Ashoka University, India