Brother Anthony of Taizé is an educator and translator of Korean literature who has lived in Seoul since 1980. Brother Anthony has published 25 volumes of translations, and he has edited several anthologies of Korean literature. I spoke with Brother Anthony about his influences, his translation projects, and editing literary anthologies.
Dan: Who are some writers who interested you in your early years?
Brother Anthony: As an only child living in the countryside with no other children nearby, I spent a large part of my childhood reading. But I would find it hard to list particularly significant authors. Arthur Ransome? Jules Verne? Shakespeare? I enjoyed non-fiction as much as fiction, I think, I recall books about distant countries and cultures, about ancient Egypt and the pyramids, so perhaps they helped prepare me to leave Cornwall and England.
Dan: How did you decide to join the Taizé order?
Brother Anthony: While I was living in France doing dissertation research in the later 1960s I was able to visit the village of Taizé for a weekend. The Community there had been founded by Brother Roger in the 1940s, during and after the war and I had already heard about it, its concern for reconciliation among divided Christian churches and divided human communities in general. I went back for a longer visit, and one thing led to another. It seemed clear to me that this was where my life lay. The community was very forward-looking while England seemed stuck in the past.
Dan: How did you decide to move to Korea?
Brother Anthony: In 1977 I went with a few other brothers of our community to live in a slum in the southern Philippines. That was a challenging experience! During that time, an invitation came to the community from Cardinal Kim, the Catholic archbishop of Seoul (Korea), asking for brothers to be sent to Korea. Slum-living did not seem to be a long-term option for us and when our Prior, Brother Roger, asked if I might move to Seoul, I was ready to say yes.
Dan: When did you move to Seoul?
Brother Anthony: I arrived in Seoul in May 1980, just a few days before the military coup of that year. Arriving there, it was at once clear that without speaking Korean there would be nothing for us, so I set about studying Korean while I also had to start teaching, something I had never done, because it was the only way I could help earn our living. We were 4-5 members of the community and one of our rules is not to accept gifts. Fortunately, I was invited to teach in Sogang University, a Catholic institution founded by American Jesuit priests in 1960 with a high academic level that I found just right. After a few years, I found myself a full member of faculty, teaching medieval and early-modern English literature. Luckily all the classes were taught in English!
Dan: Why did you decide to become a Korean citizen?
Brother Anthony: If you have spent 12 years in a country and see no end in sight, I think it is reasonable to think about naturalizing. I wanted to be more fully part of Korean life. In those days very few people saw any need to naturalize, but I knew one American Jesuit who had done it, so I thought I should too. When I went to ask at the Justice Ministry about the process, the civil servant I was talking too suddenly said, “People take Korean citizenship for various reasons, but you are the first person I ever saw who wanted to do it because he loves our country.” I was touched. Certainly, by that time I had begun to develop an intense affection for Korea, its (traditional) culture, and its people. By that time I had already published several volumes of translated Korean poetry, too.
Dan: What are some aspects of Korean culture that you find particularly interesting?
Brother Anthony: Perhaps it is my English inheritance, but I was always attracted to traditional Korean culture, although the process of 'modernization' in which the country has been embarked since the end of the Korean War if not before has always operated by abolishing the old Korean life-styles and replacing them by “modern,” more western-looking ones. Industrialization during the 1970s drained all the young people from the villages, where traditional values had survived, and by the 1980s Seoul was sprouting thousands of modern apartment-blocks, radios were blaring pop-songs, children were learning the piano or violin. Traditional Korean buildings, music, ways of life were being lost without many people feeling any regrets. I love the vocal and instrumental sounds of traditional Korean music, I love visiting temples and staying in old Korean homes. I love Korean food, too, while today Korean children demand nothing but hamburgers and pizzas.
Dan: What compelled / inspired you to first decide to translate Korean literature into English?
Brother Anthony: I had been living in Korea for nearly 10 years, and was busily teaching Korean students about English literature, mostly poetry, when I told a Korean colleague that I would like to read and perhaps translate some Korean poetry, in exchange, so to speak. I had translated from French into English during my years at Taizé, I knew that I enjoyed translating.
Dan: Who was the first Korean whose writings you translated?
Brother Anthony: That professor introduced me to the work of Ku Sang, a poet whom she knew personally and admired. It was a good choice, his poems are simple and unaffected, simple evocations of direct experience with comments inspired by the poet's Catholic faith (his brother had been a Catholic priest in North Korea, executed at the start of the war) and delicately influenced by the Asian religious philosophy he had studied in his youth.
Dan: What do you remember about some of your early attempts to translate Korean literature -- in terms of some of the joys and challenges that you encountered?
Brother Anthony: In the early days I was blessedly innocent of the difficulties involved in translating Korean. Else I might never have dared start. I was also very lucky to discover Forest Books in England at that time, a small publisher set up to publish the unpublishable – translations of unknown poets from unknown countries. Thanks to Brenda Walker, the founder, several early volumes got published, which made Koreans very happy. Then I found that Cornell East Asia Series was also open to Korean poetry in translation, which was very helpful, though they too very extremely small, not even having proper distribution in the early days. I was lucky to have a friend, another professor, Young-Moo Kim, who encouraged and helped me, especially when I started to work on Ko Un, whom he knew and admired.
Dan: What would you say are some principles you’ve been thinking about over the years, in terms of translation, so you can capture the essence of the language, and to remain true to the writer’s intention -- especially being mindful of the fact that Korean and English have so many linguistic differences?
Brother Anthony: Koreans are as convinced of the untranslatability of their language as Russians like Brodsky or Nabokov. If a Korean poem depends for its effect on the rhythms and cultural or historical associations of the words, it will have to become a very different poem in order to work in English, and that is a major issue. I see my role as that of an interpreter rather than as a creative writer and I cannot set out to radically rewrite Korean in order to make a translation that will attract attention in English. This issue of 'faithfulness' versus 'readability' is a big one, universally, but since I live in Korea, I am on the side of the Koreans who, when they say, “You have made this Korean poet sound like a Californian Beat poet,” are complaining, not complimenting. I would like Korean writers to sound like Korean writers in translation, which does not mean making them sound incapable of correct English, of course. Some other translators opt for a much freer rewriting approach, but I aim to give English readers access to the text as nearly as possible as it stands on the page. The main obstacle is always going to be the significance of the Korean culture and history that is assumed by the Korean writer but is totally unfamiliar to an American or European one. You cannot foot-note every line!
Dan: You have done so many amazing translations of Korean poetry. How did you first decide to translate Ch’on Sang Pyong’s poetry? What do you find so interesting about his work?
Brother Anthony: You probably recall his work because we used to meet in the café run by his widow? It is sure that his life-story, full of pain and poverty, is immensely touching and the simple sincerity of his writing is unmatched. It is one of the characteristics of the Korean spirit that people do not let suffering overwhelm and crush them; after all the injustice of being arrested, tortured and imprisoned for no other reason than having friends (who tried to contact North Korea at a time when that was forbidden), in 1970 when he thought he was dying, he wrote “Back to Heaven” which ends “At the end of my outing to this beautiful world / I'll go back and say: That was beautiful!” Not a trace of self-pity or resentment.
Dan: One thing that is interesting about Ch’on’s poetry is how much of an outsider he was, and I think I remember reading somewhere that the literary establishment in Korea didn’t see his poetry as great, because of the language that he used, etc. Would you comment on Ch’on’s poetry, in relation to the literary establishment? For instance, has that relationship changed over the past several decades?
Brother Anthony: He is still widely read and admired, for his child-like heart, I think. He is not the only poet I have translated who refused to write 'difficult' or 'decorative' poetry. Ku Sang and Kim Kwang-kyu too were disregarded by the literary establishment because they did not write in order to be admired for their refined style. It is no accident that Ku Sang was fond of Chon and other 'marginal' figures whom the elite looked down on for their roughness, or their refusal to kowtow to 'famous' figures. Korean poets usually have to be approved by an already famous senior poet before their poems can be published in reviews. This is a very bad system, since it tends to discourage originality and sincerity. Ko Un, too, has never accepted it. Individualism is not a virtue in collective cultures such as those of Korea or Japan.
Dan: How did you first decide to translate Ko Un’s poetry? What are some aspects of his poetry that you find interesting?
Brother Anthony: Ko Un was famous by the end of the 1980s as a dissident, a leading spokesman for the groups demanding democracy and workers' rights. He had often been arrested and there were directives aimed at preventing the translation of his work. Another dissident poet, Kim Chi-ha, had become a world-famous symbol of oppression because a few of his poems had been translated (badly) and published abroad. By the late 1980s he had come out of prison, married, moved away from Seoul and the tide had turned, truly democratic elections were on the horizon, and a volume had been published containing selections of his poetry from all the collections published before 1990. Kim Young-Moo suggested that we should select the most interesting poems from that for translation, which we did. That was published by Cornell EAS as The Sound of My Waves.
Dan: "The Sound of My Waves" is an amazing poetry collection. Would you comment on some highlights of your experience working on that translation project?
Brother Anthony: I am proud to have published the first translated volume of poems by Ko Un, certainly. Actually I consider it to have been superseded and it is no longer available. The collection “Songs for Tomorrow” published by Green Integer a couple of years back contains revised versions of many of the poems found there, together with a vast selection from the many volumes Ko Un published in the 1990s. In addition we published a couple of years prior to that a selection from the first ten volumes of Maninbo, “Ten Thousand Lives” which are some of the most attractive poems Ko Un ever wrote, little narrative poems about the people among whom he grew up in rural Korea. There are also his Zen poems published by Parallax as “What?” and they also published his great Buddhist novel, “Little Pilgrim” which ought to be better known. He recently completed the 30 volumes of Maninbo, so we have a lot of work ahead, and Green Integer will soon publish “Himalaya Poems” inspired by his epic visit to Tibet in 1999. Ko Un is so prolific and he is far better known overseas than any other Korean writer, he has tremendous appeal when he reads his work, which is very unusual with a Korean writer.
Dan: It was great meeting you when I was living in Korea, and it was an honor that you could be part of the international arts festival that we did in Olympic Park, back in ’97. What would you say are some characteristics of how Koreans and expatriates have commingled, in the arts scene in Seoul?
Brother Anthony: The readings and performances you organized then were great. I failed to keep in touch with them after you left, and I think there has not been much activity in recent years. If there has been, it has not come to my notice but that might be in part a matter of age! Korean writers are not naturally inclined to perform in public and the expats currently in Seoul are so numerous that they might not always be looking for Korean participation in anything they organize. A couple of rather official “Young Writers” weeks have been organized, with 20 young(ish) writers from 20 countries coming to Korea and spending a week with 20 Korean writers of a similar age. That is very good, but not very frequent.
Dan: Thanks for participating in Chicago Calling. How did you meet Dr. Kyeong-Hee Choi? What were some impressions that you had of those experiences, in terms of those bilingual / international poetry readings?
Brother Anthony: I have known Professor Choi from when she was studying under Kim Young-Moo, and then we lost touch until she started coming back to Korea as a professor of Korean literature in Chicago. It was good to see her again. It is fun, reading by telephone to an invisible audience. Of course, it would be better to be there and see the faces! But Chicago is a ong way from Seoul.
Dan: Who would you say are some of the most interesting contemporary writers in Korea? Have you translated any of their writings? If so, what are the titles of those collections?
Brother Anthony: Oh dear. I have published 25 volumes, which are listed in my home page, along with some poetry and fiction that I've translated. Those might be of interest, but I confess that I have mainly translated older (and therefore often now deceased) poets. A few younger poets I have translated and published in New Writing from Korea.
Dan: "New Writing from Korea" is an interesting collection. How did you get involved with that project?
Brother Anthony: It was an interesting collection that had two issues, but I fear it will not continue. It was published by the Korea Literature Translation Institute, a government-funded body that does a lot of good things, but it takes a lot of work by several committees to select writers and works, then find translators, then design the volume, and it was simply sent out to individuals or publishers, without any clear directions, simply hoping to make younger writers better known. They probably feel that it is cheaper and easier to send the writers abroad, although the impact might be more limited. I suppose that the solution would be to make such an anthology a commercial venture, but who would buy it? “Korea? Do they have writers there?” is the main obstacle we are faced with, worldwide.
Dan: What other projects have you been working on?
Brother Anthony: This year I expect to publish four volumes. Two are out, “Until Peonies Bloom” the complete poems of Kim Yeong-Nang (MerwinAsia), and “Korean Tea Classics” (Seoul Selection). Kim Yeong-Nang was killed by an exploding shell in 1950, he was a powerful lyric poet who was later rather neglected in Korea because he was dead at a time when those alive were re-inventing Korean poetry after the silence of the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation, when Korean language was mostly side-lined. Korean Tea Classics follows on from my book about Korea's green tea culture, “The Korean Way of Tea” (Seoul Selection, 2008) and contains English translations of 3 Classical Chinese texts about tea that were written in Korea in the 15th and 19th centuries, with the Chinese included, and some nice photos. In the autumn Cornell EAS should be producing a volume of poems by a feminist surrealist, Kim Seung-Hee, “Walking on a Washing Line,” and Green Integer will be publishing Ko Un's “Himalaya Poems” as I mentioned before. There are other volumes to follow, including one by Yi Shi-Yong. The most important work I have done recently has been for a large anthology of 2oth-century Korean literature, sponsored by the KLTI and soon to be published (I hope) by Princeton UP. I have translated several important short stories for that, as well as a lot of poems. The piece there that I am proudest of is a new version of Kim Chi-ha's “Five Bandits,” a truly raucous piece of social satire that earned him years in prison and ought to be made into a musical. But I doubt if it will. People tell me that I have retired, but I did not notice it and do not want to.