80s-90s / K-L / Poems in Korean Middle School Textbooks / Poetry Translation

Worried about Mom – Ki Hyongdo

Worried about Mom

Ki Hyongdo (1960-1989)

My mom, gone to a market
With thirty bunches of radishes on her head,
Does not return; it’s long been since the sun withered.
Placed like cold rice in the room,
However slow I do my homework,
Mom doesn’t return. Trudge, trudge, footsteps like a cabbage leaf
I can’t hear. It’s dark and frightening.
A silent sound of rain through the crack of a window
Lying on my stomach alone, I whimpered in an empty room

In the very distant past
Those days, the cold floor of my childhood,
still move me to tears

1989
(Translated by Jido Ahn, Jan. 2016)

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learn more about the poet: Ki Hyongdo (1960-1989)

엄마 걱정

기형도 (1960-1989)

열무 삼십 단을 이고
시장에 간 우리 엄마
안 오시네, 해는 시든 지 오래
나는 찬밥처럼 방에 담겨
아무리 천천히 숙제를 해도
엄마 안 오시네, 배추잎 같은 발소리 타박타박
안 들리네. 어둡고 무서워
금간 창 틈으로 고요한 빗소리
빈 방에 혼자 엎드려 훌쩍거리던

아주 먼 옛날
지금도 내 눈시울을 뜨겁게 하는
그 시절, 내 유년의 윗목

1989

This poem appears in middle school first (7th) grade Korean textbook.

This was the hardest translation I’ve ever tried so far. I checked other people’s translations to see how they did, but their translations didn’t satisfy me either. Of course, this comes from syntactical and cultural difference between Korean / Korea and English / English speaking countries, rather than the translation ability of a translator. Line 4,6,7, transition between 6-7, 9,11 troubled me the most, and yes, that’s pretty much a half of the poem. Other lines were also challenging, although more manageable.

Most of the challenges came from syntactical difference. Although I run into this problem every time I translate any poetry, but this poem gave me much harder time than usual. Difficulty in translating Line 6 came from lack of onomatopoeias in English compared to Korean. Most of time, other translators and I replace Korean onomatopoeias with an English verb that can create a similar feeling, but I really wanted to keep this particular onomatopoeia for the poem. Line 11 was hard to difficult because of the cultural difference. There is no remotely similar word to “윗목” (witmok). If this was a prose, I could just italicize “witmok” and make a footnote, or I could even explain it in the text. But hey, this is poetry. We don’t want to lose tension of language. So, I translated it into “cold floor”. Witmok, which literally means “upper part of a floor” is where ondol (Korean traditional floor heating system) doesn’t reach in the room. The opposite is araetmok, literally meaning “lower part of a floor”. It was common to use ondol to heat up rooms until 70s or early 80s, so you will see mention of witmok and araetmok a lot in Korean literature, movies, etc. Usually, they are mentioned in a nostalgic manner, like young siblings quarreling or even fighting to sleep on witmok in winter. If you’re a foreigner and know what witmok and araetmok are, there goes a coolness point: Koreans will be wowed at your knowledge.

I actually planned to post this several days ago, but I ended up spending days thinking what to do with these lines. Still, I’m glad I had spent several days with this poem, since Gi’s poem is worth spending days and weeks.

Check Ki’s other poems in translation:

Jealousy is My Power

A Desert in Water

Empty House

3 thoughts on “Worried about Mom – Ki Hyongdo

  1. I like this poem and 기형도 is a new Korean poet for me, so thanks for introducing him to me! I’m not sure what I would do about 윗목 either…”cold floor” seems good. I would say “thirty BUNCHES of radish” — that sounds more idiomatic in English. Also, there is an onomatopoeic word in English similar to 타박타박. Sometimes “slap, slap” is used to indicate footsteps, but it doesn’t necessarily have the feeling of 힘없이 다리를 조금씩 떼며 느릿느릿 걷는 모양”

    • Thanks for the comment. I thought both “bundle” and “bunches” were used, but the word “bunches” does seem more frequently used. Thanks for the information, and I’ll take that into my translation. And, as you’ve already pointed out, I’m not sure “slap, slap” would be an onomatopoeic word for 타박타박. “Slap, slap” sounds simply like sound of feet (or flip-flop, to be more specific) hitting or slapping the floor. I personally think a word can be considered onomatopoeic only if it carries the same connotation, since that’s the role of onomatopoeic word. So yes, it’s close enough but not good enough. Anyways, the connotation behind 타박타박 is so central to the poem, so I don’t want to sacrifice that. I thought “to trudge” would have the closest meaning to 타박타박. Thanks again for the comment!

    • And definitely check out 기형도. He passed away at a very early age, but his poems were influential enough to make him one of the most renowned poets in Korea. He would’ve been in his mid-50s by now if he had been alive. I first heard about him from my teacher back in Korea– She mentioned names of famous Korean poets from the 80s, and she recited the first three lines of Gi’s poem, 질투는 나의 힘. I was struck by those three lines, so I went back home and searched about him. He’s still one of my favorite poets to this day.

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