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15 Mar

Poetry in negotiation – As regular readers of Liminality will know, I don’t comment a lot on current events here, in particular Korean current events. The primary reason for this is that I don’t really stay on top of what goes on in the world, and I try to avoid talking about things I know little about. Take the FTA negotiations between the U.S. and Korea, for example. It sounds like a good idea to me, but I would be lying if I told you that I understood even a fraction of the political and economic implications of the deal. Despite my ability to turn thematic molehills into mountains (that is, carry on at length about subjects of little importance), I don’t think a journal entry on the FTA negotiations would be very interesting, either for me as a writer or you as a reader.

“Frustrated with the lack of headway in FTA negotiations, the Korean side decided that the best way to express their frustration was with a translation of a poem from 7th century Korea.”

My wife, on the other hand, is a lot more aware of current events than I am. This is not because she is an information monger or anything like that, it is simply a function of her job—she uses newspaper articles as teaching materials for her more advanced students (quick note for those not in the know: my wife teaches Korean to non-native speakers). So like it or not she comes face to face with current events every day. On occasion she will come home and tell me about a particularly interesting or absurd development and we’ll talk about it briefly.

Yesterday was such an occasion. Now, I deliberately chose the FTA negotiations as an example up there because it was the topic of the day for her yesterday. We have discussed the FTA negotiations in the past, and even though I don’t know all the ins and outs, I do know this: things haven’t been going too smoothly, in part because the Korean side feels that the American side is making unreasonable demands (for example, the demand that Korea restructure its system of tariffs on automobiles—which currently penalizes larger vehicles—to be more accommodating to the American automotive industry). On the flip side of the coin, I would imagine that the American side feels the Korean side is being excessively recalcitrant, although I don’t know that for certain. I don’t know enough about the details and ramifications of these demands to offer intelligent commentary, but I think it’s safe to say that there is mud, and wheels are being spun in it.

Normally I don’t post journal entries about these little discussions my wife and I have, but I just could not pass on this one. I took a look around the Korean blogosphere (I’m almost at the point where I can use this term without following it with an apologetic parenthetical, but obviously I’m not there yet. At least the vomiting has stopped), which in this case means browsing the Korea Blog Aggregator list over at the Marmot’s Hole (and, of course, the Marmot’s Hole itself), and I haven’t found any posts on it, even though it happened on Monday. I’m guessing that this is mainly because no one cares, but I’ll take what I can get. It’s not often that I get to post on something unique that doesn’t involve my own private neuroses.

I can’t think of any other way to introduce the topic without sounding like a written version of a Salvador Dali painting (this will make sense in a moment), so I’m just going to blurt it out: frustrated with the lack of headway in FTA negotiations, the Korean side decided that the best way to express their frustration to their American counterparts was to present them with a translation of a Chinese-character (hanmun) poem from 7th century Korea. If that sounds completely normal to you, you might want to try putting down the crack pipe and reading it again. For your reading pleasure, this is the translated poem the Korean negotiators gave the American negotiators (apparently without any explanation):

To Sui General Yu Zhongwen

Heaven knows how marvelous you are in your strategy,

Earth knows how shrewd you are in your calculation,

Your name already knows no bounds in this war,

Time to know satisfaction in your toil.

If you’ve put down that crack pipe, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of: “Huh?” If you need to see it for yourself, you can find it in this Dong-A Ilbo article on Yahoo! Korea Media (note: all news articles linked in this entry are in Korean). To make our discussion of the poem and its translation easier, here is an image of the original Chinese-character version along with the particular vernacular Korean translation used by the translator(s).

If you can read Korean, you’ll see that the Korean translation of the Chinese original is accurate (another quick note: the poem is indeed a Korean poem, written by a Korean general; at the time, written Chinese was the common written language of East Asia). The English translation, though, leaves much to be desired. It is grammatically immaculate and even has a poetic feel, but since the intent of this poem (both when it was originally written and on this past Monday) is to convey a message in addition to being a work of art, this translation is ultimately a failure.

Before we get to that, though, a little background is necessary. We can see from the title (yes, that’s the title of the poem up at the top) that it was written to the Sui Chinese general Yu Zhongwen, but by whom, when, and why? At the end of the 6th century, the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo attacked the Chinese Sui Dynasty (see Korea Old and New: A History, page 31). Sui launched an immediate but unsuccessful counterattack and then spent over a decade gathering an army said (in the Book of Sui) to exceed one million men. This army invaded Goguryeo in 612. 300,000 of the Sui troops headed for the Goguryeo capital at Pyeongyang, where the Sui general Yu Zhongwen met the Goguryeo general Eulji Mundeok.

Eulji Mundeok, seeing that the Sui forces were tired from battle and hungry from a lack of supplies, sent the above poem to Yu Zhongwhen. The following is from Dr. Cho Dong-il’s History of Korean Literature (an abridged translation of which I am currently in the process of getting ready for publication… unfortunately this part didn’t make the cut):

The best way for him [Eulji Mundeok] to convey his thoughts to the enemy general was hanmun [that is, Chinese-character] poetry. In only a few lines he was able to make full use of the advantage of a literary work, namely the ability to convey an inner meaning that differs from the surface meaning.

In other words, the poem wasn’t meant to praise the Sui general on his prowess in battle. It was a jab at the pitiful state of his armies and his failures as a general, not to mention a threat of violence. Seeing his untenable position, Yu Zhongwhen retreated and, as the Sui army was crossing a river, Eulji Mundeok and his army ambushed them and reportedly destroyed 99% of their force (the exact figure, which comes from the Book of Tang, is 2,700 survivors). Devastated, the Sui army retreated to China. Weakened by war, the Sui Dynasty lasted only a few years longer before it collapsed and was replaced by the Tang Dynasty.

So, to recap: Large, powerful nation sends massive force to wipe out smaller nation, but they underestimate the smaller nation’s strength and will to fight and are decimated as a result. Hmm.

Back to the poem itself. The first two lines are mistranslated, but in the final analysis this mistranslation isn’t that big of a deal. Working from the original Chinese, one way to translate it would be like this: “Your marvelous strategies have penetrated the secrets of Heaven, / Your exquisite calculations have perceived the principles of the Earth.” It’s a bit more wordy and probably a bit more complicated, but it is truer to the original. However, the mistranslation doesn’t make much of a difference—considering the situation at the time of the writing, it should be evident in either translation that these lines are laden with sarcasm.

The third line is not necessarily mistranslated, but I think it strays unnecessarily from the original. My version: “Your victories in war have already brought you great honor.” Of the four lines, this one is probably the least mistranslated, so maybe it comes down to a matter of taste. Obviously I’m going to prefer my version.

The last line, however, is so badly translated that it is hard to believe it wasn’t intentional. The translator(s) left out the key part of this last line, effectively only translating three out of five Chinese characters. And before I even get to what it should have been, just working from the English alone, is anyone else confused by what exactly this last line is supposed to be saying? If anything, it seems to be indicating surrender, does it not? Anyway, it should have been translated something like this: “I pray that you will be satisfied with this and retire” (The character I translated as “pray,” as in “hope” or “desire,” is actually in the middle of the sentence, but I think it makes sense to translate it like this). It’s that last part that got left off, Eulji Mundeok’s warning to Yu Zhongwen to give up the fight while he still could. Like a good general, of course, Eulji Mundeok had no intention of letting his enemy get away unscathed. The poem was less a warning and more an ominous foretelling of the Sui army’s fate.

To bring everything together, my crude version of the translation is as follows:

Your marvelous strategies have penetrated the secrets of Heaven,

Your exquisite calculations have perceived the principles of the Earth;

Your victories in war have already brought you great honor,

So I pray that you will be satisfied with this and retire.

Now, the whole idea of the Korean negotiators sending a poem in the first place may seem odd to the uninitiated. But this practice has a long history in Korea, especially among diplomatic envoys traveling to China or Japan. Not sharing a common spoken language, these envoys could of course rely on their interpreters, but they often chose to trade poems written in the common written language of the medieval era, written Chinese. (Never mind the fact that this custom has been obsolete for quite some time now.) There is also a long tradition of “recycling” classical phrases and works (a practice known as “yongsa,” literally meaning “to use things” or “to use instances”). Recycling a classical work wholesale, though, shows a lack of imagination and creativity. I think it would have been awesome if they had changed a single character somewhere, like maybe “war” for something else. It still would have been just as pointless, but at least it would have been cool in a geeky sort of way.

If you are not completely confused by this point, you’re probably wondering the same thing I was wondering when I heard about this last night: “What the heck were they thinking?” Seriously. I desperately want to know what the thought process was that led them to think translating this poem and giving it to the American delegation was anything even remotely like a good idea. And if you’re going to deliver a mocking and threatening poem, why chop off the juicy part? Why leave out the demand to cease and desist? I can think of three possible explanations. One is that the translator(s) was/were incompetent. But the final product is not a half bad poem, even if it is inaccurate, so I don’t think that can be the entire explanation. Another possibility is that this was simply a way for the Korean negotiators to blow off some steam—you know, to have a laugh at the expense of the big bully. But this is not child’s play we’re talking about here, and they had to know that eventually the American negotiators would find out the true meaning of the poem and the historical background behind it. Though they probably didn’t know at the time, I’d bet that they know now. Whether they care or not is another story entirely, of course.

The third possibility is that the Korean negotiators misinterpreted the significance and meaning of the poem and didn’t think things through. I think this is the most likely possibility—namely that they looked only at the surface meaning of the poem and didn’t give any thought to the historical background or sarcasm that drips from every word. Most of the articles I read interpreted it as a plea for the U.S. to ease up on its demands, which was most likely their intention but not what the poem was saying. Eulji Mundeok had the Sui general and his army by the balls and he knew it. He wasn't begging for leniency, he was mocking his foe one last time before kicking the everloving crap out of him. This YTN article, at least, seems to get the point: “Sui general Yu Zhongwen, upon reading this poem and realizing that he had fallen prey to a ruse, made a hasty retreat, and when (his army) was about halfway across the Salsu River at which you are now looking [the article includes an aerial photograph of the river], today known as the Cheongcheon River, most of them were drowned by the Goguryeo army.” The article concludes with a cautious statement: “We’ll have to wait until the high-level negotiations are over before we know whether or not our negotiation team has displayed the cleverness of Eulji Mundeok.”

Other articles were less cautious. An article from the Chosun Ilbo contains this sentence: “Yet some commercial experts have wondered if suddenly producing a poem in the midst of grim and fierce negotiations dealing with national interests is not a Quixotic act.” In that Don Quixote had a very tenuous grip on reality, I would agree. The article continues: “They [that is, the commercial experts] say that, in terms of diplomatic custom, it might even upset their counterparts.” Yeah, especially if they figure out what the poem really means. More likely, though, they’ll think that the guys across the negotiating table are a bunch of nuts.

My favorite line is from a Hankook Ilbo article: “Yet in spite of our roundabout pressure strategy, the American side has not retreated an inch.” A similar line appears in the Dong-A Ilbo article I linked to up top: “Yet the United States is still not budging at our roundabout request made with the aid of poetry.” There are two ways to read these lines: either the writers are truly flabbergasted that this strategy failed or they are desperately trying not to burst into laughter as they type. I’m betting on the latter. I can just picture the press conference: a reporter with mock shock on his face raises his hand and says, “Wait a minute. You mean to tell me that you translated a sarcastic poem from 7th century Korea and gave it to them and they still didn’t relent?! How can this be?!”

Now I’m in no position to comment on policy, but you have to wonder if a guy (namely Bae Jongha, the guy in charge of negotiations on the Korean side, whose photo you can see in the Chosun Ilbo article linked to two paragraphs up) who pulls stunts like this is really fit to be in charge of negotiations that may have a lot of influence on the economy of your nation in the near future. This is just so weird and so off-the-wall that I really don’t know what else to say. Actually, there really isn’t that much else I can say, seeing as my interest in the FTA negotiations don’t extend a hair beyond what you see in today’s entry. Mainly I’m just annoyed a) that they were apparently ignorant of the true meaning of a work of literature and yet went ahead and used it anyway as a “strategy” in international negotiations, and b) that they botched the translation so badly, whether it was intentional or not. I’m still trying to figure out which would be worse, an intentional botching or an unintentional botching. At the moment I’m leaning toward intentional being worse, since unintentional is just incompetence, whereas intentional is... well, a number of unpleasant adjectives come to mind, but I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader.

This has been Liminality, your source for slightly delayed reporting on grossly inappropriate uses of classical literature in international negotiations. Until next time.

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