A paper presented at a conference about translation held in
It remains true that non-Koreans will never be able, and should not be expected, to experience the same immediate, intense response to Korean poetry as Korean readers do, no matter how ‘well’ it is translated. Non-Koreans cannot share the Korean sense of ‘we-ness,’ the specifically Korean self-identification with the spaces, persons, events and feelings evoked by Korean poets. The literature of
Likewise, we all know how few literary works from other continents are published in the English-speaking world. The publishers claim it is because there is no demand for it. They are right, in that narrow insularity is a hallmark of many English-speaking societies. Few people in the
This level of eqivalence is what Ricoeur in the final essay of his book (‘A ‘passage’: translating the untranslatable’) calls ‘the comparable.’ The translation is not perfect, since not identical with the original, but some degree of appropriation has been sanctioned and the result has been found effective and acceptable, judged by a partial retranslation made by others able to move between the two languages. Yet Ricoeur leaves us with a further challenge, which I will paraphrase. A poem that is offered as a translation of a poem may come very close, at least acceptably close, to giving a comparable meaning to the original. But that does not mean that it is ‘the same poem’, for it does not bridge the divide, since the original poem is a singularity of sound and sense. Language, we should realize, and not only poetic language, is not a Platonic duality where an eternal, essential meaning is temporarily imprisoned in a flesh of words, grammar, rhythms, sounds. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Ricoeur reminds us, treated Ausdruck (expression) as the provisional, external clothing of Bedeutung (meaning). Translating, then, we might say, like philosophy for Socrates/Plato, would be ‘the practice of dying,’ an approximation of detachment from the matter of sound and language for the poem’s eternal sense which is claimed to be its ‘true meaning’ or its essence, its ‘soul.’
We who translate mostly act as though a poem’s sense, its meaning, can indeed be carried over into a new language devoid of and without consideration for its original sounds, because otherwise the translator’s work becomes impossibly challenging. Yet Ricoeur reminds us that ‘excellent translators, modelled on Hölderlin, on Paul Celan and, in the biblical domain, on Meschonnic, [have] fought a campaign against the isolated meaning, the meaning without the letter. They gave up the comfortable shelter of the equivalence of meaning, and ventured into hazardous areas where there would be some talk of tone, of savour, of rhythm, of spacing, of silence between the words, of metrics and of rhyme. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of translators rush to oppose this, without recognizing that translating the isolated meaning means repudiating an achievement of contemporay semiotics, the unity of meaning and sound, of the signified and the signifier.’
Rosenzweig’s ‘serving two masters’ mentioned at the beginning evokes memories of the source of the phrase in the Gospel (Matthew 6:24), where Jesus himself says, ‘No man can serve two masters.’ Alas, then, for the translator, placed in a situation that even Jesus admits is impossible! Certainly, Ricoeur’s essay moves constantly around the Janus-like qualities of the translator, turned simultaneously toward the reticent, opaque source text and the expectant target reader. It would be important, in considering this ‘interface’ within the translator, to mention the topic of ‘preferential options.’ Caught between the impossible ‘perfect, total translation’ and the ‘verbose expansion-paraphrase / approximate equivalent’ not every translator has the same preferences. Those who are truly bilingual often spontaneously, without reflection, give preference to the target reader and language; they readily paraphrase, omit or transform the original in order to facilitate readability. They may even eliminate what they consider ‘redundancies’ in the original work. Those who are less than fluent in the source language, often more strongly aware of the untranslatability of many aspects of the original, may struggle more to retain them, their preference lies with the foreignness of the original. The less-than-fully-bilingual translator whose native tongue is the target language has the advantage of conscious limitations. I know that I need to check, or at least think twice about, the sense of almost every word, and I know that is standard practice among professional translators. The Korean culture of impatience encourages speed above precision in almost every domain, alas, and in translation this is fatal.
For the translator of Korean literature into English, obliged to move between two languages and cultures that are extremely foreign to one another, the implications are daunting. Already we face a great challenge in what seems to be an increasing opposition among Korean readers (evaluators) of our translations to what they see as excessive domestication. The substitution of American (or British) oaths and idioms in dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg. Where Koreans address one another using many relationship markers, 형, 언니, 엄마, 선생님 . . . we in English do not, so we tend simply to omit them as we translate. Should we? In the interests of readability we have little choice but to simplify or assign to glossaries much of the vocabulary of food, traditional culture, clothing. The day may come when a Korean Nabokov or Brodsky, the enemies of excessively British translations of Russian classics, will arise to demand a return to pure, honest Konglish in translation. This is said at a lower stylistic level than the high philosophy of Ricoeur, yet it is the same question. Who, in the end, is authorized to judge whether a translator has achieved an ‘acceptable equivalence’ for the Korean original? The reader who says ‘this is so enjoyable’? Or the reader who says ‘this is so [un]like the original.’? They will always both be correct.
In conclusion, let us remember something that Ricoeur also points out: translation is the process by which any human person ‘understands’ any other human person. We are all of us translators, from the day of our birth, learning to read between one another’s lines, grasp the meaning of the everyday unsaid, sense the implications of ironic or other tones. Ricoeur rightly says that, strictly speaking, the diversity between languages is such that, in theory, translation is not possible at all, there being no definable community of structure or vocabulary between one language and the next. The answer to that is that translation happens, and has always happened, even when there were no dictionaries. People can understand each other very well when they want to, or need to, and dealing with margins of misunderstanding is a standard part of everyone’s life. It is always vexing for a translator of any language to be accused of ‘getting it wrong,’ because we are so aware of the impossibility of getting it right that we would rather be congratulated on getting it much less wrong than we might have done. We are the first to know that there can be no perfect translations. We remember, and we mourn. We are human.