A Hesitant Treason: Langit, Angin, Bintang, dan Puisi by Yun Dong-ju

  • onJune 21, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • byNirwan Dewanto
Langit, Angin, Bintang, dan Puisi (Sky, Wind, Stars, and Poetry)
Tr. Shin Young Duk & Nenden Lilis A.

Yun Dong-ju’s poems open up their contents, their “innards,” to the reader directly and immediately. To my ear, Yun has passed through the way of the classical poets of East Asia: he was a poet who wrote verses about nature. But in my second reading and so on, it soon becomes apparent that the various elements of nature in his poems turn into metaphors for questioning his identity and the identity of his people.

Yun’s poems seem to be easily paraphrased because each of them contains the shadow of a story, autobiographical or otherwise. In each poem, there is the “I” speaker who, no matter how critical and piercing, will communicate his meditations to the people of his nation. For anyone who is familiar with experimentalism and avant-gardism of twentieth-century world poetry, Yun’s poems (and those by other Korean poets from his generation, I would think) are—to borrow Yun’s phrase—the ones “that came easily” or “that are composed easily.” I would say that Yun is a poet for the people, not a poet for writers.

Poems such as “Self-Portrait” and “Easily Composed Poem” are good examples of how his poetic temperament and lyricism are revealed. Here, poetry is a kind of peace treaty between the poet and his alter-ego after both have disputed over whether to resent or accept the world—an impure, defective world in which modernization and Japanese colonialism severely shatter cultural origin and social bonding.

However, Yun chose free verse (and prose poetry) as his main form, and the “I” speaker and the world he depicts in the poems remain “rounded,” coherent, and stable. His poetry only implements the non sequitur device very slightly, in contrast to twentieth-century modern poetry that employed the technique to the maximum. To my taste, Yun’s poems are more likely to be “classical,” almost as classical as Chinese poems from the Tang Dynasty, for example.

This could be due to the fact that the two translators have transferred, intentionally or not, the poetry into the most prosaic, “readable” Indonesian possible. Yun’s poems become “fatty”: their phrases lengthy and redundant, resulting in the poems becoming something like narrative outlines; meanwhile, a number of abstract nouns and the use of old-fashioned diction seem to make the poems slow-moving, and the lines (and line breaks) diminish poetic incisiveness and integrity.

In the introduction, the translators draw similarities between Yun (1917–1945) and Chairil Anwar (1922–1949), the most influential poet in our language. They indeed share almost identical non-poetic variables: Both went through repression under the Japanese occupation and died at the relatively same young age; and both are poets of great national significance. In my opinion, however, the comparison is far from completely accurate.

I would say that, when compared to Yun’s poetry, Anwar’s is far more radical in utilizing non sequiturs and collage techniques. While the Korean poet still presents persistent beauty and a coherent vision of the world, the Indonesian poet delivers “ugliness,” which is so opposed to coherence, philosophical or otherwise. In my assessment, Yun is neo-romantic in poetic temperament, while Anwar is better understood as anti-romantic.

While the lyrical “I” in Yun’s poetry is an extension of the poet’s personality, Anwar’s poems, anticipating the future of poetic craftsmanship in Indonesia, initiated the “escape from” personality, a dictum he adopted from the international avant-garde vocabulary of his time. With such a modernist attitude, he cut off modern Indonesian poetry from its Malay past. Far from being a literary comparatist—only being able to read modern Korean poetry in English (and Indonesian) translations—I venture to say that modern Korean poetry, instead of being avid for experimentalism and avant-gardism, is still the legitimate offspring of its classical past.

In such a way, South Korea is a fortunate land: its artistic modernism is in line with its social modernization. Accordingly, the nation has easily secured a place for those poets of national importance who have reflected and do reflect the national consciousness in the most accessible way possible, from the dawn of modern Korean literature to the present day—from Kim Sowol and Yun Dongju to Kim Ji-ha and Ko Un, for instance. The best Indonesian poets are generally avant-gardists in nature, whose works run contrary to the common taste. Each of them is—to borrow a phrase from Anwar—“a wild beast driven away from the herd”; yes, they have been driven out, alienated, and marginalized, as their modernist nature has been quarreling with social modernization along with the “communicative” jargon employed by the political establishment. It took a much longer time for our poets to be recognized as national poets.

But avant-gardist or otherwise, poetry is a verbal art whose task is to push language to the furthest boundary possible, to embrace the abundance of meaning much more than to burden itself with the literal. And translating poems has to carry out this principle too. That is why every translation is a treasonous act, because being faithful to the original is impossible, as idioms and metaphors in a language cannot be transposed into another language. Without constant, fully conscious acts of betrayal, the translations are only pale, flimsy poems. In this sense, it would seem there is no other way for the translators to re-conceive Yun’s poems as new, fresh poems in present-day Indonesian literary language.

But that is not the case. The translators are in love with descriptive, lengthy phrasings instead of suggestive, crystalline ones—so much so that they, voluntarily or not, place the message, the content or the “philosophy,” ahead of the eloquence of form. (And this is too much in correspondence with the core of their introduction: the full effort in extracting what the poet is about to say in his poems, and in stating that his poetic enterprise is a sheer response to Japanese occupation.) The absence of verbal compression, of sharp diction, of empty pauses, of honest formalism, have made the Indonesian versions not only poems of yesterday, but also half-hearted poeticized versions of paraphrased prose, so much so that the translation is a “hesitant treason.” 


by Nirwan Dewanto

Poet, Museum of Pure Desire (2017)
Curator, Cultural Critic


Author's Profile

Yun Dong-ju (1917–1945) graduated from Yeonhui College, Seoul, and moved to Tokyo for further studies where he was arrested on charges of participating in the anti-Japanese independence movement. He died from torture at Fukuoka Prison in 1945. A collection of his poetry was published posthumously in 1948 as Sky, Wind, and Stars. “Foreword” and “Self-Portrait” are among his most famous poems. Sky, Wind, and Stars has been published in the US, France, Spain, Russia, China, and Japan.