The inspiration to translate Magnolia and Lotus came from the possibilities of the material itself. I’d already won two grants to translate and publish two books of poetry, and because I’d had this kind of success I figured I’d like to try again. What was different at the outset of the search for a project was I really had no idea what I would like to translate, whereas before I had been clear about the author and material I wanted to work with.
Korea Literature Translation Institute, a translation grant funding body in Korea, publishes lists of titles and authors that they believe should be translated. I knew I wanted to translate classical poetry for two reasons: first, poetry was my genre of expertise; and second, classical literature was in the public domain so I had nothing to fear in terms of proprietary rights. Beyond these two factors, however, I had no other real requirements for material to translate.
I saw that poetry by the 13th century Buddhist Patriarch, Hyesim, was listed as a desirable text for translation by KLTI. I was interested in the work because I had had a longtime interest in Buddhism and meditation. I also had read some contemporary Buddhist poetry by the Buddhist Patriarch Songchul, a monk who seemed to have achieved a high level of attainment with his meditation practice. Songchul appeared to have written about his meditation practice and experiences in his poetry—at least as I read it—and I was curious if Hyesim had done the same thing.
It took a lot of translation work, research about the poems, and what was happening with Korean Buddhism at the time of Hyesim’s life, but eventually it did begin to appear that Hyesim had written some poems about meditation practice and possibly even meditation experience. These poems were fun to translate and for me personally they are some of the “higher yield” poems because of what they say about spiritual experience. Being able to talk about spiritual experience in meditation in the genre of poetry was really inspiring. After realizing and committing to this possibility, it was very easy to find value in the translation work and be inspired by it.
ABOUT IAN HAIGHT
Ian Haight was a co-organizer and translator for the UN’s global poetry readings held annually in Pusan, Korea, from 2002-4. He has been awarded 5 translation grants from the Daesan Foundation, Korea Literature Translation Institute, and Baroboin Buddhist Foundation for the translation, editing, promotion, and publication of Korean literature. Ian is the editor of Zen Questions and Answers from Korea (2010), and along with T’ae-yŏng Hŏ, the translator ofBorderland Roads: Selected Poems of Kyun Hŏ (2009) both from White Pine Press. Ian’s translations, essays, poems, and interviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Writer’s Chronicle, Barrow Street and Hyundae Buddhist News, among many other publications.
For more information, please visit ianhaight.com.
His latest book is Magnolia and Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim