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)

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 Bibliographics, Exercises in Translation, Shakespeare and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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