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[Latest Read] Revolutionary poems from Korea's darkest days published in English decades later

Co-translator says poems show resilience, potential of humanity

June 19, 2024 - 15:31 By Hwang Dong-hee
Cheehyung Harrison Kim speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald, in Seoul, in June. (Slow Walk Book)

A monumental work of Korean labor literature, Park No-hae’s poetry collection “Dawn of Labor” has recently been published in English.

In 1984, Park Ki-pyung, better known by his penname Park No-hae, meaning liberation of laborers in Korean, published a book of poems, “Dawn of Labor,” as a 27-year-old laborer. The book was promptly banned by the authoritarian regime. Despite the ban, about a million copies were published. Its raw, powerful depictions of laborers’ anguish captivated critics and readers, and Park became a symbol of resistance in the repressive 1980s.

“The fact that ‘Dawn of Labor’ came out 40 years ago, at the height of South Korea's authoritarian power, it's remarkable. It is remarkable the most revolutionary poetry book published was published when the authoritarian power was at the greatest,” said Cheehyung Harrison Kim, an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Hawaii, speaking to The Korea Herald in June in Seoul.

Kim, who co-translated the collection with acclaimed translator Brother Anthony, also known as An Seon-jae, undertook his first literary translation project with this book.

An editorial board member at the University of Hawaii Press, Kim received an email from An in January 2021 that he had a rough draft of "Dawn of Labor."

"I couldn’t believe this had not been published yet. So (the University of Hawaii Press) decided to publish the book," Kim said.

The original 1984 edition of "Dawn of Labor" (left) and the English edition of "Dawn of Labor" by Park No-hae, co-translated by Brother Anthony and Cheehyung Harrison Kim (Slow Walk Book, University of Hawaii Press)

The translation process was painstaking, taking three years and many drafts to finalize. Translating historical or highly contextual Korean expressions in particular posed significant challenges.

“The poems themselves required an immense amount of focus. We wanted to make sure each word was the best choice, which was very time-consuming because you are never sure even with an article or a preposition. No translation is perfect,” said Kim.

“But the process was a pure joy and a privilege. Brother Anthony allowed my own creativity to grow and encouraged me to reshape and recreate the poems."

The final English edition includes the original Korean poems in the second half.

Park No-hae at the courthouse on Aug. 19, 1991 (left) and in solitary confinement (Slow Walk Book)

The collection is divided into three parts: suffering and pain, realization, and hope and methods for a new life. The titular poem is in the second section, which Kim describes as particularly brutal.

"Park describes how protests, demonstrations and strikes are happening because there is no other way. The workers are cornered, hungry, and unsupported, so their only way is to fight. He portrays a merciless world where the only way is to face head-on to fight.”

In 1991, after nearly seven years on the run, Park was arrested. He endured 7 years and 6 months in solitary confinement, but the prison walls could not stifle his voice. He published a book of poems “True Beginning” (1993) and an essay collection “Only a Person is Hope” (1997) while in prison. In 1998, he was released under a special amnesty by President Kim Dae-jung.

Kim said Park’s poetry underscored the resilience and potential of ordinary people in difficult circumstances.

"The book shows that despite the extremely harsh conditions, people’s will and spirit cannot be contained.”

“And it also shows the power of literary art,” added Kim. “Very often, the most influential and the most effective thing is art. ‘Dawn of Labor’ testifies to this power of art. We can never forget that art is still relevant and the most important way of understanding, because it cuts through so many layers, it goes straight to the heart.”

Kim and An are set to co-translate two more works by Park that were written during his imprisonment.


In this series, The Korea Herald introduces Korean literature through translated works, offering interviews with authors or translators as well as reviews, inviting readers to explore the vibrant literary landscape of Korea. -- Ed.


"Dawn of Labor"

written by Park No-hae, co-translated by Brother Anthony and Cheehyung Harrison Kim

University of Hawaii Press

May 2024 (US)