That poem in ‘Because This Is My First Life’

24 comments

There are a lot of reasons I loved Because This Is My First Life. Like, a lot.

One of them is Jiho’s penchant for making literary allusions and using extended metaphors to express her complicated thoughts and feelings. This was a nice bit of character development, I thought; even though Jiho doesn’t work as a writer for a good chunk of the show, that side of her still comes through to the viewer.

There are two main works which Jiho alludes to in the show. One of them is the poem <방문객> (“The Visitor”) by Korean poet 정현종. The poem appears in his 2009 anthology <섬> (Island).

first-life-4

방문객

사람이 온다는 건
실은 어마어마한 일이다.
그는
그의 과거와 현재와
그리고
그의 미래와 함께 오기 때문이다.
한 사람의 일생이 오기 때문이다.
부서지기 쉬운
그래서 부서지기도 했을
마음이 오는 것이다―그 갈피를
아마 바람은 더듬어볼 수 있을
마음,
내 마음이 그런 바람을 흉내낸다면
필경 환대가 될 것이다.

The Visitor

The coming of a person
is, in fact, a tremendous feat.
Because he
comes with his past and present
and
with his future.
Because a person’s whole life comes with him.
Since it is so easily broken
the heart that comes along
would have been broken ― a heart
whose layers the wind will likely be able to trace,
if my heart could mimic that wind
it can become a hospitable place.

[I’m appending a million caveats onto this translation because I feel that translating poetry is sacrilegious unless you truly, truly understand the nuances of the language and the cultural/historical context of the poet — neither of which I can claim to be any kind of expert on… and yet here I am. I did read a few analyses of this poem; while my translation is a little graceless, I think it gets across the main point of poet. Take it with a grain of salt, use with caution, etc. etc.]

For what I know of the poet (Romanized as Chong Hyon-jong), his works reflect the challenges of connecting with oneself and others during this age of materialism, but mostly end on an uplifting note.

The titular poem, for example, poignantly captures this sentiment with just two lines:

사람들 사이에 섬이 있다.
그 섬에 가고 싶다.

Island

There are islands between people.
I want visit that island.

Because This Is My First Life isn’t only about marriage and love in the modern age (though it does do an amazing job at addressing that). Like these poems, I think the show as a whole tries to capture the profundity of human interaction. Knowing oneself isn’t easy. Knowing others is almost impossible. But despite this, the fact that humans are able to come together and communicate and coexist is a truly tremendous feat. Everyone comes with their own ‘baggage’ — their own past, their own present, their own future. It’s not something to downplay or ignore. To accept them as a person is to accept all of their weight; that, perhaps, is the best comfort that one human being can offer another.

24 comments on “That poem in ‘Because This Is My First Life’”

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and your translation! Perhaps it’s because you’re a writer that your translation feels more… polished? I usually take literary translations from drama subtitles with some uncertainty because I feel like subtitling teams tend to translate things literally, but reading your translation makes me feel reassured that I’m getting a version that tries to capture the poem’s main point. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I so agree with you. I am not a poetry person, but her insights, (especially using these poems), were so moving. Her tender growing love for her husband, the defense analogy and than going on offense, were priceless!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much for this post! I’ve been looking for a good translation of this poem for a while (and indeed some more information about the anthology or the author as I am trying to learn Korean myself). I think your translation is the best I have found thus far!

    Just one little note – I think the author of the Island is actually Chul-Woo Lim (임철우), but please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Thank you again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nope, 섬 is definitely written by the poet 정현종. But, interestingly, 임철우 wrote a novel entitled 그 섬에 가고 싶다 so I can see where the two could be mixed up! I wonder if Lim was influenced by the poem? Anyway, thanks for sharing and I’m glad you liked the translation!

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  3. Hi, how are you? I love you translation so much I feel like it grasps the real essence of the poem…
    I have a question though- I wasn’t familiar at all with the word “갈피” when I ‘Navered’ it Iv’e found few meanings which I didn’t fully understood… but from what I sensed 칼피 has the feeling of a small crack, space between two things, so I thought maybe the wind is actually filling the cracks of the broken heart and the poet wish for people to do the same… what do you think? Do the meaning of 갈피 is more ‘layers’ than ‘crack’? I would really like to hear your opinion…
    Thank uou for always getting me super intrigued with the poems you translate…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Dikla! Hope you are doing well and thank you for the sweet comment. :)

      I like your suggestion! That makes sense, since the line before was talking about the heart possibly being broken already. I think “layers” might have been a bit of a stretch, but I went with that word because of the heart’s actual layers (pericardium, epicardium, etc.) — maybe that’s the former scientist in me coming out.

      Actually I’ve revised this translation quite a bit since posting it. I think I did use ‘crack’ once as well as ‘crevice.’ I think I read the poem a little differently every time and that changes how I translate it, probably because I’m still learning!

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  4. Your translation and reflection are so awesome!I wouldn’t be able to come up with such stunning conclusion of Island and Visitor, I got chills reading yours.

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  5. ¡Hola gente! Un placer leerlos.
    Un humildísimo comentario: El visitante podría traducirse como “El huésped” y si traducimos “capas por grietas” y “trazar por transitar” nos quedaríamos con una estructura

    cuyas grietas el viento probablemente podrá transitar,
    si mi corazón pudiera imitar ese viento
    Puede convertirse en un lugar hospitalario.(aquí relacionamos con El Huésped)

    Perdón por el atrevimiento. ¡Saludos!

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  6. I never thought I’d find a thread about this, just decided to randomly gooling ‘A visitor korean poem’. I really like BTML , a lot. I just want to know I very much appreciate what you did here. Thank you..

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Stumbled upon this, Archana. I have a friend with that name too; she’s Indian.

    Thanks for such a beautiful translation. As a wordsmith, I say that your translation of this poem is one of the best I have seen out there.

    I am learning Korean too BTW and have written a bit about my journey and fascination with the culture. I am also a podcast host where i talk Black and Asian culture. I’d love to share your story on my show. Please follow me on IG as @mosibyl.

    I look forward to hearing from you.
    Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for writing this interesting post.
    I’m missing 3 episodes to finish the drama but I loved it so much and especially the fact that the protagonists are sharing their thoughts about these books and how they change over time.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow! What are the chances of finding a person with an Indian name translating a Korean poem I searched for randomly after watching a TV show?! So lovely to read your interpretation. Such profound words… they touched my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hello,
    I really enjoyed watching because this is my first life and the visitor poem is so important in the context of the drama that I’m impressed that I could find the Korean poem Along with the translated English version.

    I would like to read the book island anthology by this poet, however I would not find any .

    I would be glad if you can share me a link to order the book?

    Thanks in Advance,
    Very much pleased for your writings & translation .

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I am on my third go round of watching BTIMFL. I found it surreal and beautiful and funny and touching. I couldn’t imagine anyone else I knew who would be willing to watch it. I final managed to find one friend who was willing to give it a try. She wrote back that she is loving it, and in particular noted the beauty of this poem. I didn’t remember it, and asked her what episode the poem appears in. Then I thought of trying Google and wow! Up came your thoughtful and beautiful translation, and your thoughtful appreciation of the series. Thank you so much. I will forward your post in the hope that that it will bring readers to the poet and viewers to the series.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Archana, I’m hoping that you can answer some questions about Translation or refer me to someone who is Korean and speaks English.
    1. Not only in “Because, but in other Netflix series, lovers who are just beginning their relationship tell one another: “I like you.” In my lifetime in American English/ that meant let’s be friends but NOT lovers. Americans wanting to start a relationship might say something about how attracted they are. Are Koreans reticent about talking about actually desiring one another?

    2. When Ma asks See he [the Landlord] why he got married he replies that [Tenant] is pretty. He doesn’t even say she is very pretty.But when I watched a clip on YouTube, the subtitle says because she is hot. One of my friends said that Netflix was probably more accurate, because she didn’t think that Landlord would such language. However, “hot’ made more sense to me, since it carries a note of intensity, where “pretty” does not.

    What do you think?

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    1. Hi Jay, great questions.

      1. Not to generalize, but I wouldn’t say there’s reticence about expressing one’s feelings. The phrase “I like you” in Korean can convey romantic interest. Usually people will say this when they’re confessing to someone else and wanting to date them and it’s not as heavy as “I love you.” The phrase “I like you” in Korean doesn’t have to be romantic though, although I’m unsure how common it is to hear it naturally in the context of friends — I feel like if you wanted to be friends, you’d say “let’s be friends” or (literally) “let’s get along closely.” In American English, I feel like I rarely hear “I like you” as a romantic confession or proposal of friendship outside of middle school. If you want to date someone because you’re interested in them romantically, you’d just say “Do you want to go out on a date with me” and if you want to be friends with someone, you just say “Hey let’s be friends.” The “I like you” in English is more implicit.

      2. For that scene, “pretty” is most accurate. That is literally the word that he uses in Korean and your friend is right, Se-hee’s character is mild-mannered and precise with his language — I think “hot” sounds out of character. Keep in mind also that early on in their fake relationship, they really didn’t have intense feelings for each other. Se-hee was mostly just saying this to keep his friend from asking deeper questions (the fact that CEO Ma just bought his answer also pokes fun at his character, lol).

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      1. Archana: Hi, It’s Jay again. I just finished watching “Tomorrow with You” a Korean Netflix series that has it’s ups and downs. I found it interesting that when the central couple goes to register their marriage, they find a paper on the desk that quotes from the poem “the Visitor.” I wondered whether this poem appears in two dramatic series has to do with how loved the poet [or just this poem] is in Korea or whether it is the same screen writer. Also, I wonder if you could recommend any thing else of good quality on Netflix. I don’t currently have any other services.

        Like

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