Modern Pansori à la Française

« Le dit de Sichuan » Editions Imago, 2010

« Le dit de Sichuan » Editions Imago, 2010

After my weekly translation class at the Korean Literature Translation Institute (KLTI, 한국문확번역원), I browsed a bit through the library while waiting for a friend. I was struck when stumbling on a recent release: Le dit de Sichuan, the French translation of Sacheon-ga (사천가), a changjak, i.e. newly created pansori by Lee Jaram that is based on Brecht’s Guter Mensch von Sezuan.

While doing research on this incredible piece of music theatre—the result of which is to be published later this year (click here for an appetizer)—, I did a rough translation myself, based on a working script provided by Lee Jaram. While reading, looking up words, and discussing the text with Korean friends, I was amazed, time and time again, by the highly irritating juxtaposition of sharp comments on contemporary life in Korea, allusions to recurring motives of pansori tradition, and witty remarks about the theatrical situation of a former childstar-turned-ajumma tackling this technically orientalist play by “old B…”.

Published on the occasion of two guest performances in France (Théâtre des Abbesses, Paris [13 March 2011] & Théâtre National Populaire de Villeurbanne [15–18 March 2011]; the former performance was also broadcast by Radio France in the program “Couleurs du monde”; see a few impressions from the book presentation at the Centre Culturel Coréen in Paris), This beautifully edited book also includes various explanatory texts:

  • « La possibilité d’un p’ansori moderne », a mise en perspective by pansori expert KIM Jong-cheol (김종철, Seoul National U, Dep. of Korean Language Education) that briefly considers the rather restricted ways of traditional pansori practice in order to highlight “le succès qu’elle [Lee Jaram] a aussitôt rencontre tant en Corée qu’à l’étranger [Sacheon-ga has been shown in Poland and the US], […] un phénomène tout a fait remarquable dans ce contexte.” Kim notes that, as part of a larger Korean movement of discovering and receiving Western art that began in the early 20th century,  “la manière dont Lee Jaram fait se rencontrer un thème occidental et une forme coréenne est vraiment singulière, et permet d’apporter une respiration nouvelle au p’ansori.” This fresh breeze (as well as the international success of Sacheon-ga) is based both on the generic qualities of pansori (“un mode d’expression à la fois très fort et absolument spécifique”) and the social problems rooted in global developments Lee Jaram sings and talks about (“de la misère au quotidien, de la situation de gens sacrifiés à la dure loi de la concurrence”). “Le Dit de Sichuan peut ainsi toucher aussie bien les Coréens que les autres spectateurs, et le conflit entre richesse matérielle et richesse intérieure que met en scène cette œuvre l’inscrit pleinement dans la tradition du genre.”
  • « Qu’on se le dise ! », an avant-propos by singer-writer LEE Jaram (이자람), that retells how she got in touch with Brecht and what she intrigues her about him: “Brecht est d’abord un auteur satirique, à la fois drôle, ouvert, insoumis comme un enfant rebelle”, and particularly the ‘sharp knives of social criticsm’ she finds in his work, “une parole collective, qui traverse les siècles, passe de voix en voix, parfois plus étouffée, parfois plus incisive, qui transporte et réactualise sans cesse la dénonciation de la cruauté ou de la bouffonnerie du pouvoir.” Her view on pansori as a way of sharpening these knives: “Qu’on se le dise ! [spread the word!] Le p’ansori n’est pas « un truc de vieux auquel on ne comprend rien », c’est un spectacle au présent, où  l’on nous parle de notre vraie vie.”
  • Production notes by director NAM Inwoo (남인우), that elaborate on the characteristics of pansori which allow for its continuing appeal and have to be respected in this “rénovation du p’ansori”: its narrativity, its contemporaneity (“sa capacité de toujours pouvoir parler du monde présente”), its concision (“une forme de minimalisme musical et théâtral essentiel à préserver”). She also talks about the continuing production process—Sacheon-ga premiered in 2007 and has been shown every year in slightly different versions up until today—which began as an experimental ‘new pansori‘. Two years of stabilizing the balance between the two aspects, “à la fois « nouveau » et « p’ansori »”, followed. Since last year, the new course aims to ensure continuity, both by diffusion (touring abroad) and by extension (sharing the experiences with other artists, like in the 2010 edition were two other pansori singers doubled for Lee Jaram).
  • « Le p’ansori en devenir », a postface by co-translator HAN Yumi (한유미) that puts Sacheon-ga into a broad perspective, refering to the history and recent revival of traditional pansori, other attempts of making “new pansori“, the personal history of Lee Jaram, and also touching the reception of Brecht in Korea. According to Han, this ambitious project is both simplified and hindered by the characteristics of pansori—its enormous flexibility (“immense plasticité”) and the resulting complexity that makes it hard to master pansori in a way that is necessary to bend the rules in a meaningful way—which makes Lee Jaram an ideal candidate. The interesting conclusion: “Qu’elle ait choisi d’incarner cette bonne âme du Sichuan dédoublée pour réussir n’est sans doute pas un hasard par rapport à sa situation, à la fois de chanteuse soumise à un genre qu’elle respecte mais qu’elle peut vivre comme un carcan, et qu’elle ne peut bousculer sans risquer de se faire accuser de trahison… au risque de devoir se transformer en son double noir, qui va se battre dans un monde dominé par les hommes pour mener à bien, et faire triompher, son projet.”

On a first view, the French translation by Han Yumi and Hervé Péjaudier seems to keep both the variety of voices and the lyrical unity of the original. They state their approach (also used in translations of various other Korean plays, many of them published in their series Scènes Coréennes at Éditions Imago) as “privilégier l’oralité narrative”, even recommending “une immersion dans la lecture” by reading aloud, “à haute voix.” Consequently, necessary notes on the various references both to contemporary social phenomena in Korea and pansori tradition that are scattered throughout are listed in the annex, as well as brief but precise explanations of the jangdan (장단, rhythmic patterns used in gugak).

Although I cannot yet evaluate the translation, this book (inevitably sponsored by the KLTI) definitely marks an exemplary approach towards presenting Korean theatrical literature abroad, providing both a readable (and playable?) text and plenty of material that is helpful both to “amateurs”, as the translators put it, and readers with a background in pansori, Brecht, or Korean culture.

— 27 Apr. 2011 (水)

  • Lee Jaram, « Le dit de Sichuan » (p’ansori moderne d’après La Bonne Âme du Sichuan de Bertolt Brecht), traduit et présenté par Han Yumi et Hervé Péjaudier, Paris: Éditions Imago (Scènes Coréennes), 2010, 112 pages, 20 €.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
This entry was posted in Exercises in Translation, Pansori and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Modern Pansori à la Française

  1. Anna Yates says:

    Dear Jan Creutzenberg,
    My name is Anna Yates, I am a student at SOAS in London, in the first year of my PhD researching new forms of pansori. I’m very interested in the links you draw between pansori and epic theatre, and would be very interested to see more of your work. I can’t seem to find an e-mail address for you, so I hope communicating like this will work.
    It would be wonderful if we could discuss more about this topic – please get in touch with me at
    Hope to hear from you soon,
    Anna Yates

    • Dear Anna Yates,

      thank you for your comment and your interest!

      In fact, many scholars have drawn connections between pansori and Brecht’s theory of theatre. For example, Kim Daihyun (김대현) has dedicated a whole chapter of his (German) PhD-diss “P’ansori als Aufführungskunst” to this matter, including a detailed comparison. References to Brecht appear again and again in Korean-language research on pansori, too (and as far as I know in works on mask-dance-play, too). Actually, I am a bit sceptical about the idea that pansori _is_ epic theatre — Brecht’s concepts and goals have not that much in common with those of pansori as a traditional performing art (which also differ widely at different times…).

      I would rather argue that, in the case of _Sacheon-ga_, the techniques of pansori have proven quite effective for staging a Brecht-piece.

      Anyway — so far for today, I’ll get in touch soon.

      Best, Jan

  2. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long comment
    but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

  3. Pingback: Talking about Brecht and Pansori in Toronto (AAS 2017) | Seoul Stages

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