Review & Commentary
Summer 2000


Gary G. Gach 

ARTLESS ART: On Translation and
Co-Translating Ko Un


We all become

TRANSLATION is, for me, a way of seeing, thus a practice, a path, an active principle embracing human possibility. Expanding my horizons; of what I'd define as family, the family of humanity.

For me, translation is an aesthetic and a philosophy, like phenomenology or dada -- creation-as-transformation, America-as-a-translation), as well as a vital poetic craft.

Having been translated into Greek, Czech, Italian and Arabic, my translators have been ideal readers. A translator's questions to an author often throws into relief what was unconscious in creation. Other times a translator's questions exhume structural problems left unresolved in the original.

It's also more fun than, say, stamp collecting, as Rexroth explained to me. The joy of finding a word that unlocks a gridlock of text is like getting a letter in the mail with a stamp which completes a page in an album. Just yesterday, I pulled out a draft of one of Ko Un's poems, I'd already gone over a dozen times when it hit me, like a bolt out of the blue, right between the brows: unrotting could easily be imperishable and the rest of my questions all resolved around that.
I started translating in 1967 because there wasn't any English version available of poetry and essays of Rene Daumal. Translation as Do-It-Yourself. A decade later, I was invited to translate Chinese poetry with C. H. Kwock, a seamless relationship enduring as I write.

True, I don't know 50,000 Chinese characters. Like Arthur Waley, I can use a lexicon and have studied classical Chinese grammar.

Moreover, I've found Ipossess a proficiency in what Asia-hands call "polishing." To the degree that it advances a paraphrase to a translation, then I've been a co-translator, more recently, of the work of a marvelous Korean author, Ko Un. Maybe it's just glorified editing; but then one of my mentors is Pound (cf. the facsimile edition of The Wasteland, particularly the sections on Cathay, as well as, more directly, George Oppen.

[A paraphrase is a word-by-word translation, such as Confucius' "new day day new." A translation might be "Sing a new song unto the Lord." A better translation -- by Pound: "make it new." (Canto LII.)

Conveying the brevity and concision of the original.

Or translate the epigram which paraphrases, character-by-character, as "OPEN DOOR SEE MOUNTAIN." "He who hesitates is lost"? Just do it.

Ideally, you don't notice it. If it's good, you don't say, "This poem translates well" anymore than "This poem is nicely typeset." You notice it's a good poem; better, it transforms your world.

KO UN first came across my radar screen as a complete fluke. 1995, I'd sent out a call over the Internet for submissions of poetry influenced by Buddhism for an anthology I was gathering, [now What Book!?]. From the void of cyberspace a few dozen remarkable poems materialized on my monitor, like this:


Look! Do all the ripples move
because one ripple starts to move?
It's just that all the ripples move at once.

Everything's been askew from the start.

Enigmatic, in your face, deft, wry and slightly lunatic, like those riddles zen buddhists call "ko ans." And the poet's name was Ko Un. (In Korea, "zen" is called "son," where it flourished for a century before migrating to Japan.)
The translations, by An Sonjae?Brother Anthony and Prof. Kim Young-moo, went down like a hot knife through butter. Brother Anthony later asked me if I could recommend the manuscript to my publisher, and the result, Beyond Self sold 3,000 copies in the first month.

I'd combed through the whole ms., at his invitation, for minor tweakings. "Pshaw!" (rather than, say "Ugh!") for example, reflected Brother Anthony's grounding in British poetry -- of Geoffrey Hill, R.S.Thomas, Seamus Heaney, and Jon Silkin (He was born in Cornwall and has lived in Korean 20 years, naturalized in 1994). But when he sent longer poems, and prose, I began to roll up my sleeves.

As I'm learning, Korean can be a difficult language, such that at times Prof Kim, the native speaker, has had to consult Brother Anthony's initial English draft as an aid to figure out what the Korean means. So, I begin as referee. First, I look at diction, phrasing, and logical order of thought. Once I had my paws on a page that I had marked up more three or four times, then I'd open it out to see if a variant reading might be possible. Much querying back and forth over the Net and by post, between co-translators, and, ultimately, the poet, himself. The original remains the final arbiter, especially the tone and cadence. And the silences.

Ko Un and I spent some quality time together while he was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley last year. Shoehorning his career into a paragraph or two is like trying to negotiate reunification of North and South Korea with plastic paperclips as diplomats.
Nevertheless -- Ko Un (b. 1933, North Cholla Province, southwest Korea) became a Buddhist monk at 19, two years after the outbreak of the Korean War. Following a period of dark nihilism, he was a leading spokesperson for artists and writers opposed to the dictatorial regimes of the '70s and '80s, for which he was jailed four times.
Imprisoned from '80-82, (along with Kim Dae-jung, now President of South Korea), following the brutal, tragic massacre of the Kwangju Democratic
Movement, he conceived of an epic cycle, Ten Thousand Lives, to include every person he'd ever met. Fifteen volumes published, an equal number remain to be seen in Korean.
The publication in '98 of his 60-volume collected works may be a premature inventory. Ko Un himself does not know how many volumes he has published, but guesses about 120. Prof. Kim notes, "He's simply pouring out, doesn't care about style, and rarely revises. While other Korean poems are far too aesthetic or designed to be looked at, Ko Un's poems are widely read and recited."

Here's a typical example, in English, with which we began:


The wind blows
You are grass.
You are a tree.

The wind blows some more.
The twilight sea
crashes on the shore.

We all become

His poetry's return to his Buddhist roots is utterly and refreshingly nondogmatic, more akin to the universality of most all native spiritualities:


Winter's coldest days have come
and gone. Spring is already near.
The last snow lies wretched in the ditches.

If you are human, human
or animal, surely you're a child of clay.
Listen hard.
Hear the drumbeats in the clay?

At least once a month, you should lie
on the ground and listen hard.
Hear your grandfather ringing like a bell
inside the clay?

Could Clay bear a message about reunification? How could it not! It's all intimately bound up with the intertwined attentions of poetry, meditation, and activism. When he was in America, Ko Un stated:
Reunification is our destiny. It's beyond theories. But when reunified,
our lives are likely to be trouble-ridden since the vast differences
between the North and South will come to a head. So we need to make
sufficient preparations so that refunification emerges in the renewing
process of history.

So the work of preparation for such passage, translation, is implicit in his life, inherent in his poetry.


I was drawing maps again today. I drew
the North Sea between England and Norway
and the shores of the Gulf of Pohai in the east.
Then I tore up all my maps. This was
not it, I felt. This
just wasn't it. The wind
spoke at just the right moment,
knocking at my window. "Poor
little guy, you should draw a new world,
not the contemporary, everyday one." Not only
wind, but wind and rain spoke
together, knocking at my window. Trying to ignore
my growling stomach, I began
drawing maps again.
Not like before,
but tomorrow's maps,
with no America ... or Asia ...
For the inaugural launch of an international magazine, such a map might be an apt terminus, for now.

Translations in progress by Ko Un herein are from a forthcoming selection of poems The Eyes of Sailors' Wives. Works in English by Ko Un (b.1933) include The Sound of My Waves -- Selected Poems 1960-1986 (Cornell East Asia Series, 1993) and Beyond Self -- 108

Korean Zen Poems (Parallax Press, 1997). Brother Anthony of Taize is Professor at Sogang University, teaching Emedieval and Renaissance English literature and culture. Professor Prof. Kim Young-moo, Seoul National University, is a well-known in Korea as a literary critic and has published two volumes of his own poetry. Together they have co-translated and published poems by Ch'on Sang-Pyong, Kim Kwang-kyu, So Chong-Ju, Shin Kyong-Nim, as well as a gathering of poems by Kim Su-Young, Shin Kyong-Nim, and Lee Si-Young. Gary Gach is most recently editor of What Book!? -- Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award, 1999). Celestial Arts will publish his next book of poems, tentatively entitled Black Snow.


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