[VIEWPOINT]How literature is transcendentEarlier this month, at the Third International Workshop for the Translation and Publication of Korean Literature hosted by the Korea Literature Translation Institute, I had a discussion with Ivana M. Gruberova, a Czech specialist in Korean studies. She had a copy of “The Anthology of Korea’s Chinese Poems” in Czech with her.
“If I had not seen the steep and rocky Korean mountains, the first spring flowers after a long winter and the blaze of fall tints,” Ms. Gruberova said, “I might have thought Koreans were excessively attached to mountains and Korean poems too frequently contained images of flowers and tinted leaves. If I had not talked with Koreans, I might have thought the emotions depicted in the Korean poems were false.”
By happenstance the next day, I landed at Prague’s airport on my way to a trip around Eastern Europe. What I saw after an 11-hour flight and a few more hours on a bus were endless golden fields in the low hills, pastures vanishing beyond the horizon and primitive forests stubbornly resisting being trodden by humans.
Passing by tens of thousands of or hundreds of thousands of wheat and corn fields where there were no paths, I kept recalling what my acquaintance had said the previous day.
I could understand her saying that by coming and seeing directly, she could understand why Korean poets clung to mountains so much and were so sensitive to the changes in season.
I almost mistook her view that if she had not come here, she might have felt their emotions false and exaggerated.
I realized fully that culture comes from the weather and climate. How could we understand the culture of a country without knowing its weather and climate?
Seeing the wheat fields, Antoine de Saint Exupery recalled the blond hair of the little prince, while layers of snowflakes on the jar stand reminded a hungry boy of a bowlful of rice, making his mouth water. When the climate and the environment are different, people cannot think the same way.
It was in 1999 when I was an exchange professor at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. Even when winter came, the dark green natural surrounding did not change. In a Korean composition class, I read a poem called “A Day in a Snowy House” by poet Kim Yong-taek:
After having breakfast, I have another meal.
I open the door and come out on the veranda.
After standing with a spoon in hand
and watching snow falling on the snow,
I go back into the room
and again I have a meal.”
I asked students their impressions. An answer came, “He is a really bored man.”
I was at a loss how to get across to the students, who had never seen snow directly, the scene of the poet standing on the veranda of a country house, which overlooks mountains and villages in front, and watching the white snow falling to cover the ground softly with a blanket.
In understanding another culture, we are bound to face the difficulty of adjustment according to the differences of climate. But voices coming from human nature by far transcend ideologies and climates. Literature and art break through all barriers with one stroke to bridge different things.
On the second day of my trip, I watched a movie “The Pianist” in a bus going to Auschwitz in Poland. There was a scene in which a crazed mother repeated, “Why did I do so then?”
Not to be discovered by the approaching Gestapo officers, she had covered her child’s mouth to stop it from crying and suffocated the baby. What resonated for me was the wailing of a mad mother, who buried her child at sea off the shore of Yongdangpo, Hwanghae province, in the poem “Civilian” by Kim Jong-sam.
An audience member asked Ms. Gruberova, who has translated into Czech and published “The Anthology of the Zen poems” by Korean Zen Buddhists and “The Silence of Lover” by Han Yong-un, “Could you understand such difficult Zen poems? Did you translate them directly from the Chinese original texts?”
She answered, “The Buddha’s teaching, which originated from India, appeals to everyone. There is no problem in communicating the impression the great mind gives. Whenever I translated a verse of the poems, I felt I was watching a pleasant and beautiful scene, and my mind became quite clear. Czechs understand and share my feelings too.”
On that day, from the trip to East Europe after the discussion with her, I learned a great lesson.
*The writer is a professor of Korean literature at Hanyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Chung Min
More in Columns
Room for alignment
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin