A paper presented at a conference about translation held in Dongguk University, Seoul, November 29, 2008.

This paper is largely inspired by an essay written in French and delivered in Germany in 1996 by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, published in English after his death with the title ‘Translation as challenge and source of happiness’ (In: Paul Ricoeur, On Translation. Routledge. 2006). He proposes to elaborate on what Walter Benjamin long ago called ‘the translator’s task’ by referring to two notions drawn from Freud, the ‘work of remembering’ and the ‘work of mourning.’ He refers to the title of an essay by a French translator and theorist, the late Antoine Berman (1942-1991), ‘The Trials (or tests) of the Foreign,’ as he explains that, in translation, ‘work is advanced with some salvaging, some acceptance of loss. Salvaging of what? Loss of what? That is the question that the term ‘foreign’ poses in Berman’s title. In reality, two partners are connected through the act of translating, the foreign—a term that covers the work, the author, his language—and the reader.’ Ricoeur next mentions the German Jewish thinker and biblical translator Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), who said that the translator has ‘to serve two masters: the foreigner with his work, the reader with his desire for appropriation,’ before indicating that translation represents a paradox and a problematic: ‘doubly sanctioned by a vow of faithfulness and a suspicion of betrayal.’ Earlier, the German philosopher Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Ricoeur says, had broken the paradox into two phrases: ‘bringing the reader to the author,’ and ‘bringing the author to the reader.’ The work of the translator is situated between the two: the work of remembering the original in another language, the work of mourning what in the original can never be said in any other language.

In other words, we might think, the translator seems doomed to failure no matter what s/he does, since from the point of view of the source culture, a translator will usually be seen as the potential agent of a transmission as nearly complete as possible of the original in all its complexity of reputation, its style and resonance; from the point of view of the target culture, a translator is expected to serve as the agent of an appropriation and adaptation by which a literary text from elsewhere is transmuted into a work that will be attractively exotic, perhaps, but not too disconcertingly foreign in its new context and language. Neither expectation can ever be fully satisfied.

In a paper I gave this summer, I elaborated on the nature of the foreignness of Korean literature, and the resulting test for the translator. During my presentation today, I will repeat portions of that reflection, returning to Ricoeur from time to time.

Generally speaking, people in Korea seem to think that works of Korean poetry and fiction can be ‘globalized’ or ‘universalized’ simply by replacing their Korean language with the corresponding words and grammar of other languages. However, the features making a work of literature specifically ‘Korean’ go far beyond the language in which it is composed; rather they depend on the specific space, geographic and historic or cultural, in which it was written, published, read and received.

We need to remember that whenever a literary work from one culture or nation is refashioned into another language and published in another cultural space, it leaves its home context and reputation behind and undergoes an entirely new process of reading and reception in that new space and context. If the transfer succeeds, the translated work will have become part of that target nation’s literature. If some of the essential characteristics of a nation’s literature resist attempts to ‘export’ them, that is often a result of the ‘foreignness’ of the literary space in which the work arose in relation to the target space.

Korean poets naturally exploit the resources of the vocabulary, grammar and rhetoric, rhythm and style of the Korean language to create works that will be accessible to a Korean readership. They produce poems designed to evoke situations and emotions which they expect Korean readers to respond to readily. The subject of Korean literature is almost always an experience of Korean reality; that reality is normally located in a Korean space, in Korean geography and history. Where the setting of a work lies outside of Korea, the narrator and main characters are still almost always Korean.

We must remember that before any work, written in any language, can be viewed as ‘an achieved work of literature,’ it has to undergo multiple processes beyond being written. What turns a raw text, be it play, novel, or poem, into a ‘work of literature’ is not the mere fact of having been written. It has also to be published, distributed, read and received. Without publication and reception, it is nothing more than a latent ‘textual object,’ rather similar to an embryo in the womb. These things are true of every nation’s literature. Most works of literature are written first of all for reception within a specific space, a national, or even local, regional context and ‘culture.’ So although a very few languages, English or Spanish, especially, are spoken and written in more than one country or continent, usually even works of literature written in such languages have deep roots in a specific culture, history, geography, and in a particular national or regional identity, which is far more than a matter of language.

One corollary of this is that there is and can be no such thing as unconditioned ‘universality’ in literature. Living works of literature are bound to be limited, rooted in specific particularities of national space, in place and time. A particular space can never claim to be universal, its experienced history can never be considered universal, and so, too, its literature can never be universal. The fact that English is used in more countries than most languages does not make any real difference to the limited, regional referentiality of most of what is written in it. An Irish writer (for example) is usually clearly writing within an Irish space, and to that extent remains distinct from a British, an Australian, or a Canadian writer. Where the readers who identify with a given space can say ‘this is our story,’ every other reader will have to say ‘this is their story.’

We may now return to Ricoeur’s meditation. He focuses particularly on the difficulty of translating philosophical texts, where the ‘great primary words’ are ‘summaries of long textuality where whole contexts are mirrored. (. . .) Not only are the semantic fields not superimposed on one another, but the syntaxes are not equivalent, the turns of phrase do not serve as a vehicle for the same cultural legacies, and what is to be said about the half-silent connotations, which alter the best-defined denotations of the original vocabulary. (. . .) It is to this heterogeneity that the foreign text owes its resistance to translation and, in this sense, its intermittent untranslatability.’ The problem is that it is impossible to say exactly the same thing in two languages, simply because they are different. Therefore, Ricoeur urges us to ‘give up the ideal of the perfect translation. This renunciation alone makes it possible to take on the two supposedly conflicting tasks of ‘bringing the author to the reader’ and ‘bringing the reader to the author’.’

He explains that the dream of the perfect translation is in fact equivalent to dreaming of a single, perfect, universal language capable of expressing ‘a rationality fully released from cultural constraints and community restrictions.’ This dream is equivalent to ‘the wish that translation would gain, gain without losing. It is this gain without loss that we must mourn until we reach an acceptance of the impassable difference of the peculiar and the foreign.’ With great wisdom, Ricoeur ends by establishing a new harmony: ‘it is this mourning for the absolute translation that produces the happiness associated with translating. (. . .) When the translator acknowledges and assumes the irreducibility of the pair, the peculiar and the foreign, he finds his reward in the recognition of the impassable status of the dialogicality of the act of translating as the reasonable horizon of the desire to translate. In spite of the agonistics that make a drama of the translator’s task, he can find his happiness in what I would like to call linguistic hospitality.

‘So its scheme is definitely that of a correspondence without adequacy. (. . .) just as in the act of telling a story, we can translate differently, without hope of filling the gap between equivalence and total adequacy. Linguistic hospitality, then, where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one’s own welcoming house.’
I will now return briefly to my reflections on the reception after translation of works created in foreign literary spaces:

A poem written in another culture, if it is simply translated ‘word by word,’ very often bewilders foreign readers, who cannot hear what it is saying because it is not talking to them. This is the heart of the problem of mutually incomprehending spaces that I have been addressing. This is the untranslatability of poetry. There is hope, however. Those non-Korean readers who have learned to read Korean poetry in translation, not looking for the thrill of exotic novelty, for quick pleasure, or for magical entertainment, but intent on discovering the specifically Korean experience and vision of human life expressed there, and familiar with recent Korean history, soon learn to recognize the significance of the poems’ concerns, and the humane sensitivity of the poets. To that extent, at least, such readers are able, by their informed imagination and power of human sympathy, to enter the Korean poetic space. Convinced that we are all members of one human family, they readily understand that the pain through which history has drawn the Korean nation during the past 120 or more years has given birth to a poetry that frequently explores ways of expressing the unspeakable, the intolerable and the perpetually repeated loss of significance the Korean people have had to endure.
[To be continued]

[A NOTE ON BROTHER ANTHONY OF TAIZE. Born in Truro (Cornwall, U. K.) in 1942, he studied Medieval and Modern Languages at The Queen's College, in the University of Oxford, from 1960 until 1969. In 1969 he joined the monastic Community of Taizé (France), to which he made a Life Commitment at Easter 1974. He came to Korea in May 1980, and since then he has continued to live in Seoul with other Brothers from Taizé. Over that time he has both taught medieval and renaissance English literature and culture at Sogang University and become one of our principal translators of modern Korean literature into English, most notably through his well known translations of the poems and fiction of Ko Un. Naturalized as a Korean citizen in 1994 with the Korean name An Sonjae, he is now emeritus professor at Sogang University, chair-professor at Dankook University, and President of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch. In 2008 he was awarded the Korean government's Order of Merit for Culture. His well-stocked web site can be found by clicking here.]

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