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Korean poems translated into Arabic

2012/10/13 | 207 views |  | Permalink | Source

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Mahmoud Abdul Ghaffar (left) presents poet Ko Un (right) with a copy of his Arabic translation of Ko's anthology Namgwabuk. This photo was taken at the Korean poet's private residence (photo courtesy of Mahmoud Abdul Ghaffar).

"I believe that there is no one home for a piece of art. Every great poet is a poet for all mankind, not just for his nation".

For Mahmoud Abdul Ghaffar, a scholar from Egypt who recently became the first person to translate Korean poetry into his native Arabic, the past several years have been spent putting this belief into action.

Last month, 41-year-old Mahmoud received his doctorate in comparative literature from Myongji University. In order to complete his thesis, Mahmoud, who is also a professor of Arabic at Chosun University, had to create his own research materials, including translations of Korean poems, as few Arabic-language resources were available on his topic.

"My major [in undergraduate and graduate school] was Arabic language and literature, and I like reading poetry and novels from all over the world", said Mahmoud, who told that he first became interested in Korean poetry after reading a book on the topic at a university library in Cairo

"When I read about the background of modern Korean literature, I felt like I was reading about Egypt", he explained. At the time, Mahmoud had been teaching at Cairo University. The first Korean poem to leave an impression on Mahmoud was one by resistance poet Yi Sang-hwa, who wrote during the early 20th century Japanese occupation of Korea.

"'Gashed by the slashing of a harsh season / I was driven at last to the north / Where the bored heaven succumbed to the height / And the black frost cut my flesh'" he recited. "This part almost made me cry".

Mahmoud explained that "it's not saying that my country was colonized and life was hard and I have nowhere to go, but the way of saying that, and the kinds of images and metaphors that make such a way" that resonated with him. "I wanted to read more and more about Korean poetry". With this goal in mind, Mahmoud arrived in Korea in 2006.

"Once I came [to Korea], I bought as many books as I could about modern Korean poetry", said Mahmoud, who began teaching Arabic at Chosun University. "I read almost 4,000 to 5,000 poems".
When he later enrolled as a PhD student at Myongji University, Mahmoud dealt with the lack of adequate Arabic-language reference materials on Korean culture and poetry by producing his own.

Mahmoud Abdul Ghaffar, an Egyptian scholar who recently became the first person to translate Korean poetry into Arabic, recently received his doctorate in comparative literature from Myongji University. The translation project, which Mahmoud started while working on his thesis, took four years to complete (photo courtesy of Mahmoud Abdul Ghaffar).

Mahmoud admitted that his experience was not without its hardships.

"When I first passed through the Incheon Airport arrival gate, it was snowing and I saw high dark mountains. It was all new for me -- difficulties communicating in Korean, differences in the food (I lost ten kilograms during my first two months). But little by little I started to adapt to [Korean] culture and to enjoy it".

As for the difficulties of his translation project, which took almost four years to complete, Mahmoud explained, "Reading poetry in my own language is not easy, and therefore reading poetry in a new language was even harder. But I never gave up".

During four years of classes at the Gwangju International Center, Mahmoud continued reading poetry with the encouragement of his Korean language teacher. "When I started to translate whole volumes of poetry with the Korean professors at Myongji University, I found that my friends on Facebook loved the translations I posted, always asking me to post more".

Mahmoud's translations of poet Ko Un's anthology Namgwabuk (Title of English translation: Abiding Places, Korea North and South) and Kim Kwang-kyu's Sanghaeng are the first Arabic additions to the growing body of Korean poems that have been translated worldwide.

When asked to identify similarities and differences between Korean poetry and Arabic poetry from Egypt, Mahmoud identified several shared themes: "talking about love, looking for lost virtues, seeking to become better human beings, looking back to history to find the ideal model or hero or patriot who can motivate the new generations to work harder for their country".

In terms of stylistic attributes, he remarked that "while Egyptian poets were using the old patterns of Arabic poetry and imitating past poets three decades into the 20th century, with images and metaphors taken from the past, Korean poets were living in the heart of nature, using its every element as an image or metaphor to express their feelings. [This quality] attracted me so much".

Mahmoud is currently working on translating Ko Un's Himalaya Poems, and expressed interest in other prominent poets such as Kim Seung-hee and Chon Sang-pyong.

"I am very lucky to have had the chance to be a pioneer in presenting academic research about Korean poetry to Arab people", shared Mahmoud. "Honestly, I love [Korea]. It has felt like my second country. I wanted to do something to tell my people about the culture and literature of this nation [whose people] had the same hard time under colonialism in the 20th century".

By Kwon Jungyun Staff Writer

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