Temporality of Language and Translation of Korean Poetry

Hello readers,

I hope everything’s going well with the things you do. I’ve been extremely busy with finals, and now I’m done with the half of my courses. For one of my courses, I wrote the final paper about how syntactical difference between languages may affect reading experience based on Stanley Fish’s theory about temporal reading experience. I applied his theory to compare two Korean poems and their translations. Through this, I concluded poetic tension is alleviated when a poem is translated from Korean to English, because Korean is S+O+V language while English is S+V+O. I think I’ll let you guys see what conclusion I reached instead of explaining further. (I adjusted the text according to the blog’s format, but the formatting might not be ideal.)

Temporality of Language and Translation of Poetry

Multilingual readers who are attuned to literary language easily acknowledge the intrinsic challenge in translating a literary work. Perhaps because literature is often associated with interpreting an implied meaning, these readers often find a reason from lexical difference between languages. For example, some words that match in denotation may not in connotation, and vice versa. Also prevalently, some words must be explained in a phrase or a sentence, because there is no word with matching denotation and connotation at all. Another popular method to examine the challenge is by exploring sociohistorical context. Even if individual words in a piece have identical denotation and connotation, readers from different history, beliefs, and social systems would interpret the work differently.

With little doubt, these are all effective ways to investigate the challenge. However, a problem rises when the investigation is limited to studying the lexical and sociohistorical difference, because there may be other factors contributing to the challenge. One of the other factors, inferred from Stanley Fish’s “Literature in the Reader,” is the difference in syntax. While some languages from the same language family may have the identical or nearly identical syntax, translation often involves working around languages with different syntax. The syntactic difference between languages is relevant to the challenge, because—according to Fish—readers experience text temporally. As readers experience text word by word, they form an expectation for the remainder. This is especially true in literature, because readers tend to pay more attention to language itself than in mundane statements. Also, literary writers often purposefully manipulate features of language. Therefore, the challenge in translating a literary work between two languages with different syntax cannot be overcome by choosing a right word or minimizing the cultural gap.

This paper will focus on illustrating this challenge by comparing two Korean poems and their English translations with the method Fish used in “Literature in the Readers.” Lines from the poems will be analyzed temporally, and the analysis for the original’s and the translation’s syntax will be compared to assess readers’ reading experience. To minimize other factors that may affect the analysis, poems were chosen based on two criteria: a theme that can be cross-culturally appreciated and a minimal difference in language other than syntax. (Obviously, it was impossible to find poems that meet these criteria perfectly due to the natural difference between Korean and English language and sociohistorical background.) As a generic format for the comparison, the translation of a poem will be presented, followed by the rearrangement of the translation according to the syntax of the original Korean poem (which I will call “the translation” and “the rearrangement” respectively). The purpose of the rearrangement is to simulate the temporal experience of the original poem. Before starting the analysis, however, the it would be helpful to introduce some differences between Korean and English language that pertain to the topic.

Firstly, Korean is “Subject-Object-Verb” language, and English is “Subject-Verb-Object” language. For example, “I go to school” in English would be “I school-to go” in Korean. However, subjects are frequently omitted in Korean, so sentences often end up in the “Object-Verb” form. Moreover, in Korean, objects may be omitted even when verbs are transitive. For example, it is common to see a sentence like “Love.” in place of “X love(s) Y.”  When a sentence takes the “Verb” form like this, it is the readers’ job to identify the subject and the object based on the context. In literature, writers often omit subject and/or object to give readers bigger freedom in interpreting their works. The selected poems were one of the few that did not omit subjects or objects, although not entirely. Also, while subjects and objects are flexible in their placement, the placement of a verb is restricted: Verbs must appear, as they contain information about the existence or the action of subjects; when they appear, they must appear last in the clause. Secondly, in Korean, what is a preposition in English is often a postposition, and it clings to the preceding word, like in “school-to” from the example above. A conjunction may or may not cling to the preceding word, and this is mostly a stylistic choice. When postpositions or conjunctions cling to the preceding words, readers may have different reading experience, because they are exposed to the word and information about the word simultaneously. To mimic this, a hyphen (-) was used to combine a word and a preposition or conjunction when necessary. In case the postpositions do not have an identical meaning in English, they were omitted in the rearrangements. Similarly, “a” is omitted in the rearrangements, because Korean language does not have articles. “The,” however, is retained in the rearrangements, as long as the word that functions similar to “the” is present in the original poem. Lastly, because fewer clauses can be combined without sounding verbose in English compared to Korean, translators occasionally broke the lines where there was no line break. To make the difference between the translations and rearrangements other than syntax minimal, the line breaks in the rearrangement followed the breaks of the translation.

The first example to explore is “That Day,” a poem written by Shin Kyeong-nim and translated by David R. McCann.


Alone, a young woman wept,
following the bier,
a procession without bells
or funeral banner.
Along the fog-shrouded, evening road,
phantom shadows
The wind lifted tree leaves
on a street without doors or windows,
while others watched, hidden
behind phone poles or trees.
No one knew the name
of the one who had died,
that dark day,
with no moon rising.


Young woman alone
bier following wept
funeral banners,
bells without a procession.*
Fog-shrouded, evening road-along
phantom shadows
Doors or windows without street
wind tree leaves lifted-while
others, trees and
phone poles behind, hidden watched.
No one, the dead one’s
name not-knew. moon
rising not,
dark that day.

In the translation, the first line starts with “alone,” which makes readers to expect the subject or further description about “alone” to follow. When the subject (“a young woman”) is introduced, the readers already know that the young woman is alone. Curious readers may inquire why the young woman has such an attribute. After introducing the subject, the action of subject is introduced. This may escalates the curiosity, because “wept” intensifies the impression of “a young woman” which “alone” had established. However, readers cannot reliably guess what will follow, because both subject and its action are already introduced. Therefore, there is no suspension coming from waiting for the part of speech that must appear in the following lines. Similar to the first line, the second line also starts with the word that describes the subject’s action, which adds up to the clarity. On the other hand, in the rearrangement, none of the actions (“following” and “wept”) are introduced until the end of the second line. Also, unlike in the translation, the subject is stated foremost in the rearrangement. This gives even bigger temporal space between the subject and the subject’s action, which intensifies the suspension—as soon as readers start to read the poem, they know that a verb will appear later without a clue what and when it will be. While the suspension persists, readers of the rearrangement are introduced to a conceptual relationship between the woman and the woman’s attribute (“alone”)  through the word “bier” in the beginning of the second line.

The third and fourth line in the translation and rearrangement introduce the nouns in the different order, and readers form imagery in the order of the nouns introduced. Again, in the fifth line of the translation, readers are also introduced to a proposition that assigns the relationship of properties. So, when the noun phrase (“the fog-shrouded, evening road”) follows, its role is less mysterious to readers. In the rearrangement, the noun phrase (which, by the way, incites a dark and mysterious image) is introduced the first, and what role it plays in the poem is kept mysterious until the end of the line. The line seven and eight elaborate how the placement of a verb changes the reading experience. In the translation, the subject is introduced, followed by the verb and the object in the line seven. “On a street” follows in the line eight to describe the attribute of the object  (“the leaves”) and then “without doors or windows” follows to describe the attribute of “a street.” In other words, in the translation, readers are guided from the big picture to small adjunctive details without suspension. While readers may feel suspension at “on” and “without,” the suspension is resolved immediately in the anteceding words. In contrast, in the rearrangement, a noun phrase (“Doors or windows without street”) is introduced first without any postposition, so readers do not have a clue what role the noun phrase plays in the sentence. At the same time, readers anticipate a verb to appear and clarify the existence or action of the noun phrase. In the line eight, the subject of the sentence (“wind”) is introduced followed by the object (“tree leaves”)**, but the verb that describes the action does not appear until the end. Therefore, readers attain information in the order of the smaller details of the setting, the subject, the object, then the verb. This indicates that readers experience the imagery in a profoundly different way. Also, people naturally expect a subject and an action to be introduced when they are informed of a setting. For example, people do not expect a setting to be introduced, when they hear “I played the drum,” although knowing a setting may be helpful. However, people do expect a subject and a verb to be introduced when they hear, “Yesterday, in the music room.” As a result, there is a greater anticipation in the rearrangement than in the translation, which results in greater poetic tension.

The same pattern can be observed in line nine and ten. In the translation, the subject (“others”) directly follows the proposition, and then the verb follows to give the complete picture. In the rearrangement, readers are introduced to the proposition (“while” combined with “lifted” at the end of line eight) and the subject (“others”) first, but then the adjunctive attributes (“trees and phone poles behind, hidden”) follow the subject until the verb is introduced at the end. The rest of the poem shows the similar pattern. The eleventh and twelfth lines loyally follows Subject-Verb-Object and Subject-Object-Verb structure of each language. In the last two lines, the setting (“that dark day,” “dark that day”) and the attribute of the setting (“with no moon rising,” “moon / rising not”) are introduced in the opposite order. Again, tension in the rearrangement is stronger, because readers anticipate the main argument (“day”) of the phrase to appear when they read the adjective phrase (“moon rising no”), but not the other way around.

From analyzing “That Day,” it is clear that the placement of a verb or a main argument in two languages plays a crucial role in creating poetic tension. Based on this observation, the next poem, “From Crow’s-Eye View: POEM NO. I” may be quickly analyzed. The poem was written by Yi Sang, and translated by Walter K. Lew. Unlike Shin, Yi does not focus on creating a vivid imagery in his poem. Rather, Yi focuses on conveying a crude feeling without fully constructing a complete image. Hence, the influence of the temporality of language on poetic tension may become even clearer in Yi’s poem than in Shin’s poem.













In the translation, from line three to fifteen, “says” comes after “Child” and before “it’s frightening.” So, readers know that “frightening” is a statement made by the children, and consequently, the readers become mere observers of the “frightening” experience. Similarly, from line seventeen to twenty, a conditional proposition (“If”) appears the first, informing the readers that what appears the next is a hypothesis, not a real situation. Experience readers have in the rearrangement is profoundly different. From line three to fifteen, the verb (“says”) appears the last. Because readers experience the text temporally, readers go through the “frightening” experience before they are informed that the “frightening” experience is a statement made by the child. Similarly, readers have no clue that “Amongstthem1ChildisfrigteningChild” is a mere hypothesis until the end of the line, so they experience the line as a matter of fact. As a result, the readers of the translation will experience fear less directly than the readers of the the original text or the rearrangement. (The absence of  “it’s” is important, but the discussion about “it’s” will be omitted because it is irrelevant to the purpose of this analysis. Although absence of “it’s” in the rearrangement contributes to the universalization of fear, it is clear that temporality of language matters too.) The line sixteen works in the similar way. For convenience, a part of line sixteen is written again with the space and additional punctuation marks:

Translation: 13 Children were just gathered together like that, as either frightening or frightened Children.

Rearrangement: 13 Children, frightening or frightened Children, just-like-that, gathered together.

In the rearrangement, the noun phrase, “frightening or frightened Children” appears after “Children” (also, a postposition*** further clarifies the relationship between two words), so readers will likely associate children with being frightening and frightened to begin with. In the translation, “Children” are associated with their action (“gathered together”), before their frightening or frightened attributes are introduced. “Just-like-that” and “like that” in two texts indicate another clause will follow, yet in a more adjunctive nature.

This analysis of two poems may sound pessimistic to some readers, because the result of analysis suggests that even if the globalization magically sweeps all the lexical gaps and cultural differences, a perfect translation of a literary text will not be achievable. Syntax is not mere a foundation on which lexicons are arranged in a sensical order. Instead, syntax actively engages and shapes readers’ reading experience. For example, in Korean, parts of speech are arranged in the order of a subject, an object, and a verb. While the order of subjects and objects are more flexible, verbs are suspended until the end in a grammatical sentence. This suspension creates poetic tension, because verbs contain the main message about a clause or a sentence. On the other hand, parts of speech in English appear in the order of a subject, a verb, and an object, so the tension is alleviated sooner than in Korean. However, translators should be cautious when they attempt to reconcile syntactical difference between two languages. One obvious reason is that the translated text may become incomprehensible when syntax is prioritized over semantics. The other reason is that readers of different languages have a different grammatical norm. For example, a sentence like “To home, I went” sound poetic to English readers, because the inversion of a subject and an object is uncommon in mundane language in English. However, if readers regularly use Object+Subject+Verb form in mundane conversation (like in Korean), the readers would not find the same “To home, I went” poetic. Therefore, this analysis does not attempt to argue that the temporality of language between the original and translated text must be reconciled. Rather, this analysis simply reveals that more attention should be paid on how syntax influences reading experience in the study of literary translation.

*  In Korean, the word equivalent to “without” in English (eopneun) introduces arguments in the opposite direction. So, “Y eopneun X” in Korean is equivalent to “X without Y” or “Y-less X” in English.

**  Whether a noun is a subject or an object is made clear through postposition (-eun, -eul) in the original Korean poem.

***In the original poem, the postposition that is combined with “Children” (neun) indicates Children is the main argument and the following is the description. Semantically, neun functions similar to “is,” although it is not a verb.


Crown, Bonnie K. “The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry.” World Literature Today 79.3 (2005): 87. ProQuest. Web. 4 May 2016.

Fish, Stanley. “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics”. New Literary History 2.1 (1970): 123–162.


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