Longing for the Purest Language in the World: In the Shadow of Quietness by Kim Huran

  • onJune 28, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byAnne Posten
Im Schatten der Stille (In the Shadow of Quietness)
Tr. Kim Kyung-hee

Im Schatten der Stille, a collection of poems by the acclaimed and prolific Korean poet Kim Huran, signals its primary theme as early as the title (in English, In the shadow of quietness): the majority of the volume’s poems deal with nature, and the peace, solace, and wisdom it offers to the sensitive observer. In the poems, translated into German by Kim Kyung-hee and Theodore Ickler, a waterfall is a model mother, a star reaches down its “long arms” to caress the shoulder of a weeping person, and a tree’s embrace of summer rain inspires the poet to leave behind the language of sorrow for “the purest language in the world.” Rather than sorrow, however, most of Kim’s poems are filled with a sense of unshakeable joy and faith in the beauty of life. Even through pain or feelings of melancholy caused by the consciousness of transience—which are also present in these texts—Kim turns to love, to the pleasures of family life, and above all to nature, and finds comfort. This comfort is then passed on to the reader in the form of subtle, delicate poems written in Kim’s consistently tender tone and simple, clear language. Though the volume is arranged in reverse chronological order and some of the poems are from quite early in the poet’s career, one has the sense throughout of a wise older woman who wishes to pass her wisdom to the world in the form of poetry.

Any poem in translation writes itself into and joins the tradition of its new language—and in the best case, given an open and engaged readership, influences it. Several elements of Kim’s work are, or seem, recognizable to a reader of German poetry. In this translation, Kim’s work suggests a certain kinship with Romantic nature poetry as many of Kim’s poems—across decades—revolve around typical natural motifs such as Nebel (fog), Wind (wind), and Sterne (stars). Even more striking is a title like Sehnsucht (a word often considered “untranslatable” but frequently translated as “longing”), a concept inextricably connected with the Romantic zeitgeist. As much as this comparison seems inevitable, it is also biased by the very fact of translation: for the German reader, the Korean text on the facing pages serves as a constant reminder that in fact these poems do not refer to the same fog, wind, and stars that we know from German Romanticism, for we are reading a translation from Korean where the associations and cultural values of these terms may be different; where in fact, entirely different functions may be asked of poetry itself. Where Romantic poetry is highly formal, Kim and Icker’s translations are in free verse, with the sound of language not a prominent feature. Neither do these poems bear strong resemblance to contemporary German nature poetry, which often considers the “made-ness” of human surroundings, and tends to avoid thematic and linguistic territory “occupied” by Romanticism. Somewhat paradoxically, it feels refreshing to read a book that begins with a poem about a rose, a motif considered irredeemably hackneyed in the Western canon. What more could we wish of poetry than that it reminds us not to discount, not to take for granted the beauty all around us simply because we’re not the first to see it?

In reading literature in translation—perhaps in reading literature in general—one often seeks an encounter with something new, something out of the realm of one’s own experience. But how is such an encounter to proceed? On what grounds is the new to be met, let alone judged, if it truly is outside the realm of one’s own experience? What is it that we’re reading when we read the German texts which are an outgrowth of Kim Huran’s Korean texts? In reading Im Schatten der Stille, my strongest impression was that of a text that demanded it be read on its own terms, whose pleasures could tempt and fascinate a reader in translation, but could not be fully grasped. It is a challenge to encounter a text that brings up so many questions—a text that asks the reader to question her expectations and to wonder without satisfactory conclusions, but it is a challenge well worth accepting in the interest of broadening our horizons of poetry and the world.

by Anne Posten, Translator of Contemporary German Literature
and Christoph Roeber, Translation Scholar, Hochschule der Künste, Bern