Beyond To Live or To Die: Hamlet in Korean Translation, Part 1

Translation is interpretation. It is creation as well as dismissal. It is a series of choices that are hard to count, even harder to overestimate.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1676, Source: Horace Howard Furness Memorial Library, via Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image (public domain)

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1676, Source: Horace Howard Furness Memorial Library, via Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image (public domain)

I once again was reminded of this practical fact while browsing through a number of Korean translations of Hamlet, a bit of research I did for a short interview on Shakespeare in Korea earlier this year. Since the 1920s, Shakespeare is read, translated, and staged in Korea. The first “translations” of Shakespeare were in fact prose renderings based on Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare (also available as an audio book at Libri Vox), until Hyeon Cheol used the Japanese translation of the drama by his teacher Shoyo Tsubouchi from 1909 as a source. His complete translation of Hamlet, the very first in Korean, albeit not directly from the original, was first serialized in the magazine Gaebyeok (개벽 開闢, “Creation”), volumes 11–30 in 1921 and 22, and then in full in 1923 (현철, 하믈레트, 박문서관 1923).

But since the first Korean translation of Hamlet from the English original by Seol Jeong-sik in 1949 (설정식, 하므렡, 백양당), closely followed by a “scholarly” translation by Choe Jae-seo (최재서, 햄릿, 연희춘추, 1954, two years later re-published as a bilingual edition at 한일문화사) and a translation for the stage by Han Ro-dan (한로단, 하므렡, 동문, 1954, for ensemble Sinhyeop 신협, the de-facto national theatre company at that time), the work has been translated countless times. The various ways of spelling the title, too, were soon standardized to “햄릿” (Haemlit), stressing the original English (or American?) pronounciation rather than the Japanese-sounding multi-syllable forms of “하믈레트” (Hameulleteu) or “하므렡” (Hameulet) that rather follow spelling than pronounciation.

anonymous, Edwin Booth as Hamlet, color lithograph, 1873 Source: Library of Congress (public domain)

anonymous, Edwin Booth as Hamlet, color lithograph, 1873
Source: Library of Congress (public domain)

A book published in 2005 by the Scholars for English Studies in Korea (SESK, 영미문학연구회) is of great help when – thus the title – “In Search of Good Translations of English and American Classics” (영미문학연구회 엮음, 영미 명작 좋은 번역을 찾아서, 창비 2005, publisher’s site, available at Google Books). The authors of this tome evaluate relevant translations of fourteen US-American and twenty-two British works, from Poe and Melville to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, from Chaucer, Milton, Dickens, and the Brontës to Conrad, Joyce, and Woolf. (A second volume published in 2007 including two more plays, Waiting for Godot and A Streetcar Named Desire) Shakespeare comes last, with chapters on all four “big” tragedies. The one on Hamlet (pp. 543–79) goes into detail about the merits of the different versions and provides the following top-ten list:

  1. 최재서, 햄맅, 연희춘추사 1954.
  2. 설정식, 하므렡, 백양당 1949.
  3. 한로단, 하므렡, 동문사 1954.
  4. 김재남, 햄릿, 을지서적 1995 (1st: 을유문화사 1961)
  5. 여석기, 햄릿, 동화출판공사 1970.
  6. 이경식, 햄릿, 서울대학교 출판부 1996, 1998 (1st: 대양서적 1974)
  7. 신정옥, 햄릿, 진예원 1989, 2002.
  8. 이덕수, 햄리트, 형설출판사 1990, 2002.
  9. 최종철, 햄릿, 민음사 1994, 2002.
  10. 김종환, 햄릿, 계명대학교출판부 1997, 2001.

(tldr: nothing beats the post-war pioneers!)

The chapter also includes the following statistics (as of 2005?): * Hamlet has been published in 112 different editions, by 59 different translators, including two who co-translators. * The chapter compares 31 publications (by 32 translators), of which, again, 13 items are categorized as “more or less close plagiats”, leaving 18 original translations. * The version plagiarized the most times is Kim Jae-nam’s translation, first published in 1961 (김재남, 햄릿, 을유문화). * “Special cases” include prose translations (this time not from the Lambs’ Tales, but from Shakespeare) by Kim Ji-ho (김지호, 햄릿, 베니스의 상인, 한국파스퇴르 2001) and Han Yong-hwan (한용환, 함레트, 멕베드, 신문화 1974), both bundled with another work; and verse translations (운문 번역) by Choe Chong-jeol (최종철, 1994) and Kim Jong-hwan (김종환, 1997).

The World Literature, Shakespeare-Volume 1, inc. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Samseongdang, 1983.

The World Literature, Shakespeare-Volume 1, inc. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Samseongdang, 1983.

For a comprehensive account on how “Shakespeare Came to Korea”, Shin Jeong-ok’s eponimous book (신정옥, 셰익스피어 한국에 오다, 백산출판사, 1998) from 1998, although based on a number of articles from the 80s, is still the first place to look. In English, some information on Shakespeare’s reception in Korea is available, too. Jong-hwan Kim did a PhD on “Shakespeare in Korea” at the University of Nebraska in 1992, focusing on translations, productions, and scholarship between 1906 (the first mention of Shakespeare’s name in a modernist magazine) and 1989. He condensed his results into an article (“Shakespeare in a Korean Cultural Context”, Asian Theatre Journal 12.1, (1995), 37–49, PDF at JStor), probably the most accessible general account of Shakespeare in Korea.

The earliest Korean versions of Hamlet available at my university’s library date to the 1970s and 80s. They are often published in large volumes as parts of series such as “World’s Famous Classic” (Geumseong 1990), “The World Literature” (Samseong-dang 1974, 1983), or “Great Books” (Hak Won, 1983). In Korean, the title of these series is inevitably 세계문학[대]전집 / 世界文學[大]全集 (“[Big] Complete Edition of World Literature”) and the volumes dedicated to Shakespeare usually include Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare, Hamlet, translated by Sim Jeong-ok, Jeonyewon World Literature Series Vol. 301, 1989.

Shakespeare, Hamlet, translated by Sim Jeong-ok, Jeonyewon World Literature Series Vol. 301, 1989.

Later, books like Four Tragedies of Shakespeare (4대 비극, transl. Gwon Eung-ho [권응호], published by Hyewon in 1993) or single volumes, sometimes as cheap editions in educational series (by 전예원, 지만지, 민음사 etc.) became common. There are also a few books that collect (and re-translate) famous phrases or soliloquies from various of Shakespeare’s works (e.g. the bi-langual Soliloquies and Speeches [독백과 대사], transl. Song Ok [송옥], published by Dong-in in 2014).

This overview on available Korean translations of Hamlet turned out longer than expected. I thus have to postpone a closer discussion of the actual translations to next time –

– 10 May 2016 (火)

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The First Half of 2016: Activities from April to July

For the bi-annual newsletter of the Association for Korean Music Research, I listed my recent activities. Here, I provide some more links for those interested:

newsletter-oct-2016-copyThis year I am focusing on wrapping up my PhD-dissertation on “Creating Communities in Contemporary Pansori”. These are some other (more or less) academic activities related to music and theatre:

– 15 Oct. 2016 (土)

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(One of) the First Theatre(s) in Seoul was Here!

I had been on the lookout for this for quite a while, knowing it must be somewhere around Gwanghwamun, but I couldn’t find it, until today. Running for the bus, I almost missed it again. But then I stopped and took a closer look.

wongaksa memorial stone located on Saeanmoon-ro, in front of Saemoonan Presbyterian ChurchThis memorial stone, installed in 1991, is located a bit down the Saemunan Road (새문안로), from Gwanghwamun station (exit 7) to the West, in front of Saemoonan Presbyterian Church (새문안 교회), to be exact at 37.570184°N 126.973816°E. This information is from the homepage of the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA, 한국콘텐츠진흥원), which provides some cursory details in addition to the following inscription:

원각사 터 圓覺社 址 우리 나라에서 처음으로 세워진 극장 원각사 있었던 곳. 1909년 이인직(李人稙1882–1916)의 설중매, 은세계등이 공연되었음.

Location of the Wongaksa [This is] the place where the Wongaksa was, the first theatre built in Korea. In the year 1909, the pieces Seoljungmae (“New Year’s Wedding Brokerage”), Eunsegye (“Silver World”), and others by Yi In-jik (1882–1916) were performed here.

As almost all historical works on theatre in Korea note, however, the Wongaksa (원각사, “circle theatre”) was not the very first Western-style theatre (see, for example, Suh Yon-ho’s Korean Theatre History: Modern Theatre, 2003, pp. 48–51). Andrew Killick, in his book on changgeuk, mentions several other indoor theatres that operated in early 20th-century Seoul. He mentions the Huidae (희대), run by the Hyeomnyulsa (협률사, “a special office […] set up within the royal court to oversee its operation”, p. 57, often used as a stand-in for the theatre itself) that opened in 1902, the Gwangmudae (광무대), run by the Seoul Electric Company, the Danseongsa (단성사, June 1907; Seo considers it a cinema, p. 39), the Yeonheungsa (연흥사, Dec. 1907), the Jangansa (장안사, 1907/08; Seo gives July 1908, p. 51), and, possibly and probably, theatres of the Japanese and Chinese communities (see Killick, In Search of Korean Traditional Opera, 2010, pp. 52).

Nevertheless, it is difficult to understate the importance of the Wongaksa as a venue for dramatic innovation. I did not know about the first production mentioned on the memorial sign, but Silver World is, according to Killick’s definition, the first documented changgeuk-performance (p. 61, see the following pages for details on Silver World). I saw a 100th-anniversary-production in 2009, not a remake of the piece itself but the story of its production circumstances. I wrote a review for OhmyNews about it back then, and it is still available!

Like this rather romanticized period piece, history is subject of reinterpretation and, sometimes, rediscovery. An article from 2013 notes that the exact position of the Wongaksa has been discovered: It was not located directly at Saemoonan Presbyterian Church, but rather in a small alley between the church and the adjacent Kumho Art Hall (금호아트홀), now (or, in 2013) occupied by a parking space (주간경향 1046호, 2013–10–15, 윤호우 선임기자).

– 11 Aug. 2015 (火)

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Daehangno Poster Session 6

After lunch at 이모네 and before seeing the interesting production of Brecht’s Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis by Hyoungjin Im (임형진) and his ensemble “Theaterraum” (테아터라움 철학하는 몸), once again some more posters caught my eye…

In descending order:

5. Hamlet – the Play (햄릿 – 더 플레이)

Maybe in 2016 producing another Hamlet (although this time not – so much – after Shakespeare, it seems) does not merit a prize for creativity, but this poster does (still on show at Chungmu Arts Center until Oct. 16, tickets via Interpark).


4. Nude King (누드왕)

This play (an adaptation of Hans-Christian Andersen?) receives an award for its stark iconography. (Unfortunately, the curtain fell on Aug. 7)


3. Avant-garde Sinpa-geuk (아방가르드 신파극)

A production for theatre scholars? Sinpa (신파) is a localized form of Japanese shimpa, modernized kabuki, that had its heydays in the early 20th century. It might even have been considered avant-garde until naturalist drama (singeuk, “new drama”) based on European models received that label. So “avant-garde sinpa-geuk” is an oxymoron? Or maybe not? (Sept. 7–11 at Namsan Drama Center)


2. Archive Platform 2016 by the National Contemporary Dance Company (국립현대무용단 아카이브 플랫폼 2016)

Besides the nice “material-design”, this showcase of three young choreographers is awarded second prize for including pink factory-participant Hye-jin Shin (신혜진) and her piece “Skirt-ology” (스커트-올로지) – looking forward!


1. The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent – Why are You so Tired? (Das Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis – Warum bist du so müde? 동의에 관한 바덴의 학습극 – 무엇이 당신을 소진시키는가)

Of course – a little big performance of an early piece by Brecht, when he was still more interested in the politics of acting than staging a spectacular (epic) piece of theatre. Same here!


– 21 Aug. 2016 (日)

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Eurasia, Steppe, Shamanism: Kim Sangdon in Sculptor Kwon Jinkyu’s Atelier

On my way home after work, I dropped off the bus at Sungshin Women’s University. After some up and down some stairs, we finally found “Kwon Jinkyu’s Atelier” (권진규 아틀리에, site no. 5 on the English homepage), a small workshop with an even smaller sleeping chamber, supplemented by a traditional-style annex.

Kwon Jinkyu (1922–1973) was one of the pioneers of realist sculpture in Korea (see an article on the occasion of his last retrospective in Koreana). After studies in Japan, he returned to Korea and received recognition only a few years before his dead by suicide. Mostly working in sculpture, with terracotta and lacquer (he also made some beautiful drawings), he mostly depicts humans, often focusing on faces, heads, and busts, but also animals, in particular horses. Deeply influenced by Western classic aesthetics, as well as modernist sculptors during his studies, his interests later turned towards “Eurasian” relations between Korean and other shamanist cultures, connected by the vast plains also known as “steppe”.

IMG_6685His little home, located in Dongseon-dong (동선동) in Northern Seoul, had been donated by his younger sister to the National Trust Cultural Heritage Fund Korea (한국 내셔널 트러스트 문화유산기금) in 2006 and, after one year of restoration, is now recognized as “Citizen Cultural Heritage No. 3” (my translation, 시민문화유산 제 3호).

I was especially happy to meet artist Kim Sangdon (김상돈, *1973, see a short bio at the New Museum), who holds a special place in my heart. But I also like his work very much, and there were some things to see here. Kim Sangdon is currently artist-in-residence at Kwon Jinkyu’s Atelier and on the occasion of the memorial of Kwon Jin-kyu’s 42nd day of death (권진규 선생 42주기 추모 행사), he presented a small exhibition that pays homage to Kwon’s work. The aluminium sculpture that emerges from a black plastic bag and is actually made of disposed kimbap-wrappings alludes to Kwon’s busts. The “egghead” is another way of re-interpreting the sculptural depictions of human heads. The third work which resembles a stylized barbell bench press includes a reference to Joseph Beuys, another champion of Eurasian energy.

We stayed until night fell and some of Kwon’s favorite pieces were performed on the violin.

– 4 May 2015 (月)

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Discussing New Pansori, Theatre, and Tradition in Berlin (Korea-Madang)

There was no empty chair at PGBerlin. I hadn’t expected that so many people – more than twenty – were interested in talking about “New Pansori Works from Korea”. Korea Verband (한독협회) had done great promotion and I got more and more excited as the chairs filled. For one hour, I discussed a variety of recent productions, complete with images and videos.

Foto: Korea Verband

Foto: Korea Verband


This is my presentation, just the bare bones, without images and video:


Some of the videos that I showed are not available online, but the following links should help you get an idea of what this talk was about.

These are the performances I talked about:

  • Badak Sori’s wonderful anti-war-piece “Song of the Smart Bomb” (바닥소리, 스마트폭탄가, video at Daum)
  • Lee Jaram’s Sacheon-ga (이자람, 사천가), on which I have talked in detail on several occasions (1 2)
  • Taroo’s “Pansori Hamlet Project” (타루, 판소리 햄릿 프로젝트), which I reviewed recently
  • A pansori-version of Anne Frank’s Diary by ensemble Pansori Hada (판소리 하다, 안네의 일기, an excerpt is available on Youtube
  • “Comic Variety Pansori” But:too by Gugak Nuri (국악누리, 바투), which I reviewed for the Jeonju Sori Festival-blog (in Korean) years ago, a trailer can be seen on Youtube
  • The recently revived “Insa-dong Street Soripan”, on which I have written extensively on this blog (1 2 3 4)

The discussion that followed my talk, hosted by Kai Köhler (specialist on Korean literature in German translation) was great: Many comments, questions, and hypotheses that spawned an in-depth discussion.

Some guests saw more potential for creative storytelling in pansori than my examples had shown. Others stressed the essential minimalism of pansori which, stimulating the spectators’ imagination, makes fancy costumes or spectacular stage design unnecessary.

We also talked about the way pansori is taught at school – until recently not very much –, and how this influences popular perception of the art. Some guests who attended school in Korea of the 50s and 60s remembered that music education exclusively focused on Western songs and classical music. Nowadays, things have changed a bit, with professional performers teaching at schools (Lee Jaram’s Sacheon-ga has even become textbook material), but not entirely.

An interesting comment contrasted the perceived general disinterest in tradition (whether in Korea or elsewhere) with the successful “Plattsounds” band contest in Northern Germany that presents songs in Plattdeutsch (Low German) dialect, not least because my grandparents spoke Plattdeutsch (I can’t, though). I found this recontextualization, which in some ways mirrors attempts to modernize and popularize traditional arts in Korea by means of “fusion”, particularly noteworthy, given that Germany adopted an official system for the recognition and support of “immaterial heritage” just a few years ago – fifty years after Korea (see my two blogpost on that matter 1 2).

Photo: Korea Verband

Photo: Korea Verband

The talk concluded with an ad-hoc duet performance by Soogi Kang of Berlin-based Theater Salpuri (also on Facebook) and a young pansori singer, followed by some wine and snacks. It was a great evening, thanks to Korea Verband, discutant Kai Köhler, and the people who joined our discussion!

– 27 July 2016 (水)

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A Tale of Two Hamlets: Taroo’s “Pansori Hamlet Project” and Tuida’s “Hamlet Cantabile”

Hamlet, once again! My double review of two Korean productions has just been published in the online journal Borrowers and Lenders.

Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

Pansori Hamlet Project © Taroo

I have been intrigued by Taroo’s ongoing “Pansori Hamlet Project” (국악뮤지컬집단 타루, 판소리 햄릿 프로젝트) for quite a while, from the first showcase at Doosan Art Center, through a second one at Seoul Theater Center, to the final production that, with each revival, is slightly revised and refined. The pansori singers of Taroo, together with guest actors, attempt to relate to Shakespeare’s classic from a decidedly contemporary perspective, paradoxically?, with the singing-storytelling art of pansori.

In contrast, I have seen Tuida’s “Hamlet Cantabile” (공연창작집단 뛰다, 노래하듯이 햄릿), which likewise boasts an impressive performance history (since its premiere in 2005), only one time, at Tuida’s home in rural Gangwon-do last year. Changing between hilarious and somber, this production employs Korean tradition much less obviously and draws on other performing arts as well, such as commedia dell’arte. Nevertheless, in a more mystique, grotesque, sometimes ecstatic way, “Hamlet Cantabile” likewise presents a new perspective on the seemingly indestructible drama.

See my review, including many images of both productions, online or read it (without the pictures) as a PDF-file. Thank you to Christy Desmet for suggesting “Hamlet Cantabile” to me and for commissioning this review!

Hamlet Cantabile © Tuida

Hamlet Cantabile © Tuida

– 27 June 2016 (月)

  • Jan Creutzenberg, “Hamlet Redux: Two Korean Productions that Re-stage Shakespeare’s Play between Tradition and Today”, Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation X.1 (spring/summer 2016), eds. Maurizio Calbi and Stephen O’Neill, available online.
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