- Paradise Lost A Translator’s Note
The following translations are based on Yi Sang’s six prose pieces, published in the magazine Chogwang (朝光) in February 1939, two years after the author’s tragic death in Tokyo at age 27. Collected under the main heading “Sillagwŏn (失樂園),” these six compositions are individually titled, and one of them shares the heading’s name, which also happens to be the literary Chinese title for John Milton’s English epic, Paradise Lost (1667). I have translated the Korean title into English as such.
At the time of their publication, these pieces were introduced as sinsanmun (新散文), which can be roughly translated as a “new type of prose.” It is unclear if Yi Sang had meant to group these six individual compositions under the same heading. However, Yi Sang often published his poems in series or in sequence under the same main title, the most well known example being his infamous Ogamdo (烏瞰圖/Crow’s Eye View) poems.
My translation is based on the originals as they first appeared, and I have consulted annotated texts from Kwŏn Yŏngmin’s Yisang Chŏnjip 4: sup’il (The Collected Works of Yi Sang 4: Letters and Essays) (Seoul: Ppul 2009) and Kim Chuhyŏn’s Chŭngbo chŏngbon Yi Sang munhak chŏnjip 1: si (Revised Original Collected Literary Works of Yi Sang 1: Poetry) (Seoul: Somyŏng [End Page 335] Ch’ulp’an 2009). The former categorizes the originals as prose, while the latter considers them poems.
The ambiguous way in which these pieces were introduced after Yi Sang’s death has made it difficult to identify them with a typical genre. Any attempt to do so is further confounded by Yi Sang’s consistent attempt during his literary career to blur the lines between the commonly received characteristics of memoir, fiction, and poetry with his writing.
What is certain is that these six compositions are much more like the works published as poems during Yi Sang’s life in their subject matter, imagery, and style. Unlike the apparent essays such as Yi Sang’s Tokyo or Lingering Impressions of a Mountain Village (John Frankl’s translations of these were previously published in Azalea), the pieces of Yi Sang’s Paradise Lost do not seem to deal directly with the poet’s life experiences. They do not recollect or represent anything concrete; they merely present deeply emotional statements about the “girl,” blood relations, poisonous angels, the mirror where a heroic poet-scholar appears, a self-portrait that broods on one’s connection to the origin and downfall of an ancient civilization, and the falling moon that brings about the end of the world. These are images we find in his published poems. These pieces are, in short, lyrical in that they express the author’s impassioned feelings in a private and opaque language, toward no apparent listener other than the one in the author’s mind.
In Korean literary scholarship there have been numerous interpretations of Yi Sang’s life and work. While it would be fruitful in its own way to review these biographical, psychoanalytical, modern, and post-modern readings, I would like to suggest an approach to the compositions of Paradise Lost for a reader not familiar with the author or the period in which they were written.
The first piece, “Girl,” can be read as the author’s statement about his relationship with the imagination. The text tells of a girl who suffers from someone’s “pencil trick.” She is not made by creative writing, but manipulated by it. She is initially presented as a [End Page 336] kind of photograph, a visual image, then as a page of a book, and her lingering presence can be sensed even in the metal type that printed the pages. The girl seems to be made by a writer and a printer, but at the same time, she is her own presence. In fact, she is not made, but she can be made to do things, or become things by a creative act.
The speaker argues that he and the girl are not related or married, even though it could be...