Younghoon Jeong and Saagar Asnani on translating Kim Sowol

Younghoon Jeong and Saagar Asnani

on translating Kim Sowol

Approaching Kim Sowol’s poetry was a uniquely challenging task because of its ties to Korean folk songs, its economical use of language, and its tight metrical structure. Though it is composed of but eight short lines, Kim takes the reader on a journey of heartbreak, inner conflict, and eventual catharsis through the poem. While translating, we wanted to preserve three key elements of the original: the decasyllabic metrical structure, the alternating end repetition of the conditional tense with the word “forgot” (잊었노라), and the facile movement between narration and direct speech. We hoped to bring out his nuanced emotions in English without obfuscating the beautiful Korean words from which they arose.

While translating, one difficulty that came up was the translation of the title. 먼 후일 (derived from the Chinese character 後日) is an idiomatic expression that differs from the commonly used Korean word for future, 미래, in that it indicates a far-off day, a day that comes later, or one that will never come to pass. Though our initial instinct was to translate it as “future day,” that would have effaced its semantic clarity through the idiom, so we chose to use “Some later day”: one which may or may not ever occur. Kim also uses the word 흣날 in the body of the poem, which is very close to 후일, but with a greater emphasis on time elapsed. Since a literal translation could easily become very wordy here (e.g. “on a far off day that is yet to come”), we instead chose the phrase “distant future” to stand in for the multiplicity of 흣날.

We would also like to thank our good friend, Jennifer Ye Ji Cho, for her insightful feedback and nuanced comments on how to capture the poetic Korean in English.

about the author

Born in 1902 in Kwaksan, North Pyong’an Province (located in present-day North Korea), Kim Sowol (김소월) is one of Korea’s most treasured poets. Through his writings during the Japanese colonial period, he revived the spirit of Korean folk traditions. He lived a short, but prolific, life in which he published poetry that encapsulates the spirit of Korean folk songs; its rhythm, pitch, and meter lead to a blurring between language and song. This makes translating Kim Sowol’s poetry particularly difficult, due to the culture-specific references and its ties to Korean folk music. His magnum opus, Azalea (진달래 꽃), poignantly captures the speech of a woman to her soon-to-be separated lover. His poetry was also famous for employing the concept of “반어법,” or “opposite practice,” in which he wrote the opposite of what he meant to convey. Some translators work around this by providing multiple versions of the translation, each capturing a specific mood or aspect of the original. Kim passed away in 1934 from a suspected opium overdose, although the exact cause of and motive for his death have never been determined; some speculate it was suicide, others a simple miscalculation of his daily painkillers. What we do know is that he left behind a body of poetry that we can appreciate for its frankness and clever manipulation of linguistic and musical elements. He left behind poetry that conveys heartfelt sentiments.

about the translator

Younghoon Jeong is a masters candidate at Sogang University, located in Seoul, Korea. He studies natural language processing, and is especially interested in ethical considerations of AI. He loves to code, and often finds himself doing so at midnight while enjoying lo-fi music. Younghoon received his BA as a double major in Chinese culture and computer science. While studying abroad at Tsinghua University (Beijing, China), he realized that he loves interacting with people of varying cultural backgrounds; this has been a huge inspiration for him to take on learning foreign languages like English and Mandarin Chinese, as well as travel across the world (before COVID-19). In his free time, Younghoon likes to rap, play badminton, and drink pu’er tea.

Saagar Asnani (C’19) is a PhD student in musicology at the University of California, Berkeley. A medievalist, linguist, and poetry enthusiast, Saagar is fascinated by how music and language overlap, interact, and work together in myriad ways within our world. A scholar of medieval French musical genres, he believes that by studying the soundscapes of the past we can learn more about the structures and dynamics of human communication and perception today. He has been learning Korean for the past five years, and this is his first foray into translating Korean poetry to English. His research on medieval music has also immersed him in Latin and Middle French. As a graduating senior at Penn in 2019, he was awarded the Clifton C. Cherpack Prize in French Studies. In his free time, Saagar enjoys playing viola and is an active member of UC Berkeley’s Symphony Orchestra.