Before we started trying to translate this poem as a workshop group, our bridge-translator Mattho Mandersloot gave us three helpful considerations to keep in mind when translating from Korean. Firstly, he explained, Korean is an agglutinative language, meaning that modifiers are usually embedded in the noun. Secondly, Korean is a ‘pro-drop’ language, which means that where the sense is implied in speech the unnecessary elements may be left out (e.g. if two people were speaking together, one might say to the other “go?” rather than “shall we go?” as the person addressed would be implied by the context). Finally, Mattho asked us to remember that Korean is a ‘head-final’ language, meaning that, typically, the description of a noun or verb will precede it.
In this poem, these elements of the language are deftly controlled by Choi to give the poem its slightly disorientating quality. The imposition of a definite tense arrives only in line 11. Likewise, the direct address to an intimate ‘you’ on line 12 is unusual in the Korean (where a speaker would typically take such address as understood); its oddity could drawn out as either a great intimacy or else a slightly over-familiar gesture. This seems to capture the disjunction in the poem between the intensity of feeling that can’t quite articulate itself (‘the thing like thunder / sounds unheard’) and the oddly formal, emotionally distant ending of that architectural salute. This ambivalence of tone is already apparent in the title (and final word) of the poem: annyeong. In our group translation, we have left this word untranslated, or, rather, phonetically rendered into latin script. The word is a greeting that can mean ‘hello’ as well as ‘goodbye’, ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ and also used casually with a certain intimacy like ‘what’s up?’ or ‘how’s it going?’ With only two hours, we had to leave this looping link in the chain of the poem untranslated.
Edward Doegar, Commissioning Editor