Dedicated to a poetic Korea

Kevin O'Rourke
6 May 2009

Koreans have been described as ‘the Irish of Asia’, and after translating 2,000 of their poems, Fr Kevin O’Rourke is in a position to judge, writes DAVID McNEILL

IN HIS COURTING days, Kevin O’Rourke once walked the 17-mile journey from Cavan town to Clones, in nearby Co Monaghan, in pursuit of a girl. Adventures like that, in the countryside that inspired W Percy French, Patrick Kavanagh, Patrick McCabe and other writers may unwittingly have prepared him for his unusual path: becoming the world’s greatest translator of Korean poetry.

O’Rourke (70) gave up girls, Ireland and much else besides to achieve his task. “I set out to put out the entire Korean poetry tradition in English,” he says from his home in the Korean capital, Seoul. Nearly 45 years later, the job is almost done. Now a semi-retired Columban priest, O’Rourke is part of a tiny but renowned Irish group of Asian scholars, including Dublin-raised Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) and Co Mayo-born Eileen Kato, who died last year.

Fr O’Rourke’s journey from Cavan to professor of English literature in Kyung Hee University, Seoul, began after he was ordained in 1964. He plunged into his adopted culture, becoming the first foreigner to be awarded a doctorate in Korean literature at a local college in 1982. Early missionary work in a region that was recovering from the Korean war of 1950-53 was a delight, he recalls. “Every day was a new adventure, getting to these remote places in the countryside. Modernisation took a lot of fun out of it, to be honest.”

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Like many translators, he was struck by similarities between his new language and the one he left behind. Ten years ago, he began working on the poems of the vagabond satirist, Kim Sak-kat (1807-1863), a deposed aristocrat who took to the road, recalling the wandering Gaelic poets of 16th-century Ireland.

“He earned his food, lodging and booze off his pen,” says Fr O’Rourke. “So when he went to your house and asked you for a bed and something to eat, he’d be very nice to you. But if you refused, he’d let you have both barrels and hang the result on your front gate, like the poets who went to the big houses in Ireland.”

The Koreans, with their history of colonialism, have been described as “the Irish of Asia” – not entirely complimentarily, he points out. “It means we’re rowdy, drink too much, a bit dirty in our habits, cry at the drop of a hat, and so on. But we do get along with them.”

Bringing Kim to the English-speaking world is part of an enormous labour of love that has made Fr O’Rourke a local celebrity. Over the years, he has translated about 2,000 poems, as well as stories and other literature, a task requiring a working knowledge of thousands of Chinese characters. Much of it has been published, but he is still grappling with his idea for an anthology of the collected poems, divided into two volumes, classical and post-1910.

“Korean poetry doesn’t sell, for some reason,” he says. “East Asian literature is occupied by Japanese and Chinese.”

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He is also trying to finish a book that is a miscellany of his story, his own poems and lessons on “how to survive in an alien culture like Korea for 45 years”.

Every year, he makes the journey from the Missionary Society of St Columban in Seongbuk, northern Seoul, to Cavan, for the visitation of the local graves, and Rosslare, where he stays in his brother’s holiday home. The dictionaries stay on his desk in Seoul. “It’s difficult in Rosslare. The golf club is five minutes up the road and the sea is close by.”

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