blackbirdonline journalSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
translations and introduction by Suphil Lee Park

On Translation

spacer Hwang Jini
   Parting with Kim
   A Small Cypress Boat

Kim Wooncho
   Advent of April
   A Layered Poem
   Passing by an Old Fortress


Old Korean poetry, or specifically, sijo, is a complex and extremely nuanced verse form that makes even the task of putting it into modern Korean challenging, let alone translation to an entirely different language. Traditional Korean sijo is saturated with Korea’s multifaceted linguistic history—diglossia, cultural and political occupations by different nations, and class divides within the country—and is a verse form that has existed for centuries but is still little known to international readers.

Unlike modern sijo, typically written in Hangul (modern Korean), traditional sijo was written in Old Korean, Hanja (Chinese characters)—which Korea had adopted and used for writing well into the twentieth century. But back in the day, only intellectuals and aristocrats could afford to learn and understand Hanja, making this ancient Korean art of poetry an erudite culture. Owing to this exclusivity, ironically enough, it was also often courtesans, women of the lowest social station, that ended up leaving the most impressive marks as women sijo poets, having gone through rigorous artistic training to entertain noblemen. Kim and Hwang, both courtesan poets, are two great examples.

Korea today—both South and North—still retains traces of its diglossia. Even now, conventional Korean names consist of Chinese characters, including mine and many of my Korean friends’, and are spelled out as such on official documents. Hanja remains part of many Korean public schools’ core curriculum. Korean books and newspapers published around the mid to late twentieth century, while primarily in modern Korean, still included Chinese words in parentheses in order to help readers differentiate phonetically identical words, not unlike the Japanese.

In order to incorporate these cultural linguistic elements, I first translated each original sijo into Hangul, then into English. While modern sijo strays from formal constraints, one defining characteristic of traditional sijo remains: its consistent syllable count throughout the poem, each line having exactly the same number of syllables. Among others, I chose for my translations to single out this formal element, this musicality, as sijo evolved from a form of song. Providing a single translation didn’t feel like doing this complex poetic form justice. So come different versions of translation, three at most, for each of the following poems—the most interpretive, the syllabically faithful, and the strictly word-for-word.

“Passing by an Old Fortress” was one where I could keep the syllable count identical while delivering a sufficiently articulate translation; when I couldn’t, I offered variations instead of resorting to one that compromises an equally important aspect of this verse form—whether interpretive flexibility or musicality. The word-for-word version is intended to give the readers glimpses into how condensed and open-ended a work of sijo can be in the exact format of its original in Hanja—words with no punctuation or space. But when a literal translation could mislead readers instead of providing insights, I skipped it altogether. For example, I chose to omit word-for-word translations of “Passing by an Old Fortress” and “Parting with Kim” as both poems in Hanja include words that, combined and deciphered the right way, signal cultural and historical context crucial to interpretation, but mean entirely different things when read without this knowledge.  end

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