In 1932 a new Asian country suddenly came into being in northeastern China. It was named Manchukuo, and it had been created as a result of the so-called “Mukden Incident”, in which Japanese soldiers had detonated a small charge of dynamite on a Japanese-built railway line and then claimed that Chinese dissidents had done it.
Translating poetry gives rise to a number of problems which may not be present in prose. Poetic language is different from that of prose; it employs many more literary devices. Furthermore, its rhythms may be quite different or varied. Then there is the question of rendering form and meter, not to mention rhyme, if it’s present, which brings on more language difficulties. Poetry may aslo indirectly allude to things through symbols, and these, too, have to be conveyed meaningfully to the reader. Factor in the translator’s own emotional response to the work and what may be perceived as the poet’s “intentions” (often rather opaque), and you have a formidable obstacle to overcome. In short, what medium is best suited to the translation of verse?
“Pardon me for asking,” says an elderly lady called Kaoru (a unisexual Japanese name meaning “perfume” or “fragrance”) to the protagonist, Mitsuki Katsura, and another hotel guest, “but has either of you come here to commit suicide?”
Ah, Tibet! This is the land of stupendous mountain vistas, prayer flags flapping in the breeze, monasteries perched precariously on hillsides and gentle orange-clad lamas chanting Buddhist prayers in incense-filled temples. And then, along comes Tsering Döndrup to spoil it all.
Before I read this wonderfully quirky book of stories, I had never given much thought to such things as trainer bras or lucky dry fruit, both of which feature in two of May-Lee Chai’s stories about Chinese immigrants and their reactions to their experiences in new countries.
“I certainly was not born to history,” Paul Cohen tells us at the very beginning of his book; indeed he wasn’t. He didn’t want to follow his father’s men’s clothing trade, and gave up engineering after one year in university to study the humanities, and even then he did not concentrate on any one part of it. He thought about architecture, then psychiatry and finally the army. None of these, on consideration, were very satisfying, and involved long hours of what seemed to Cohen very boring work.
The Kuunmong, to give this book its Korean title, is described by its new translator as “the most elegant of Korea’s literary novels and one of the most beloved masterpieces of Korean literature.”