Sugungga, Translation and Translatability, and Something Weirdly Beautiful

sugungga imageSugungga (Soo-goong-ga, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the standard form of Korean romanzation, which is as opaque as pinyin to those who cannot read Hangeul) is a pansori, of which I recently bought (a 3-CD set) and to which I have been listening. Yep, that’s the cover to the right. Don’t click that link yet. Read it later. For now, bear with me. People say that this form is “Korean traditional opera” (always “Korean traditional”, not the other way around as we’d say in native-speakers’ English). I understand why they compare it to opera, of course — as the most exalted form of traditional vocal music in Korea, the comparison seems sensible — but the thing is, it’s about as similar to opera as the Beatles is to Wagner. (My point being, not very.)

No, the comparison that makes most sense to me, as a person who studied music intensely for years on end, is that Korean pansori is like the European oratorio… sort of. They’re similar to one another, and different from opera, in that you tend not to get costumes and acting, just music and voice and a story being told by the singer. You’ve got something like the aria — though it’s not all about singing high and pretty, it’s about a kind of hardass, impassioned ripping out of the melody — and you’ve got something a lot like recitative. You’ve even got a little antiphony with the accompanist, who whacks a buk (drum) and calls out responses and encouragment — like blues musicians do, I suppose. “Say it, sister!”, that sort of thing. The audience gets in on it too, grunting and shouting and calling out formulaic supportive phrases to the singer. I swear that the first pansori performance I attended shocked me. I was with a friend, and we were both blown away by the apparent transformation the audience underwent. Suddenly it was like being in a gutbucket blues show or something, noise all around us from the other audience members, the singer just wailing on the melody, her accompanist calling out to her, encouragingly, “Eolshigu!”

Lee Il Ju in action (This is Lee Il Ju, the performer of the CD pictured above, the woman whose voice you’ll hear below, and by the looks of it, she’s in one of those impassioned moments that make pansori so cool to listen to.)

So yeah, by now you can see there are some differences from oratorio, too. The oratorio tends to have more than one singer, and while some pansori get performed that way, it’s not a harmonic-counterpoint thing — at least, the few pansori I’ve seen performed live either had only one singer, or involved several people taking turns singing the different sections or “movements”. The other thing missing from the European oratorio is any kind of an orchestra to accompany the performance. The stress on the pansori soloist is much higher than on a singer performing most Western song forms, because she or he performs most of the functions in the music. The passion, the melody, the frills, the shifts in rhythm, the raising and lowering of dynamics (getting louder and softer)… everything is done by the singer, and the accompanist mostly just accentuates the ends of the phrases, responding a tiny bit. Yes, I imagine that a good accompanist is important — knowing the form, inserting the right kinds of responses, giving the singer something to work with. But the performance basically rides on the shoulders of the soloist in a way unknown in most of Western vocal music.

Which is why it’s so cool. It’s fascinating music. There are these, if you’ll pardon my jazz-isms. “fascinating rhythms” that the singer works through, shifting and hammering them out. There are these kinds of undulations and these weird melodic flip-flops — almost like choosing two drone notes, jumping between them and then changing them or ornamenting it in increasingly complicated ways. I am totally convinced that if I could learn to do this kind of thing on a saxophone, it would be incredibly cool, incredibly worthwhile, and very listenable. Well, to oddballs like me.

And appropriately, there are also many parallels with jazz, or blues, and pansori that get excluded by the comparison to opera. The participation of the audience is really important, or at least that was the sense I got. People were shouting their support to the performers I saw, and in doing so, they seemed to find a special kind of satisfaction in the performances. This is very much the kind of thing we find in jazz music, or blues. A good audience can’t stay still. A good audience simply cannot keep quiet, because the passionate delivery of the singer or soloist drives them to call out in joy, in pain, whatever. If you coarse-grain it enough, you can see a parallel between the ecstatic traditions of the East and the West — the way passion causes people to yell out, the way narratives sometimes take possession of people, the way that those possessions — whether understood literally or enacted figuratively as I suspect is part of the pansori performer’s act as the channel of passion, the speaker for the group, who calls out supportively to her (or him)…

This brings to mind a series of exchanges that I’ve been having, off an on, with Charles from Liminality about issues in translation and translatability, and the emulation of translation in original works set in foreign cultures. As an SF writer, I find the things that are untranslatable the most interesting and important in any culture. Those are usually the core of a story. Is “pansori” an untranslatable word? Not necessarily — I imagine that, having read this, readers will have some idea of what it is. Perhaps in translation what gets limited here is a kind of limited-bandwidth imposed restriction that emerges as part of a form. Mainstream novels, at least, aren’t given to long essay-like expositions on the meaning of a single word. They screw up the flow of the original story, and they annoy the crap out of people who already know the deal, and often bore the people who don’t.

Hypertext may help that in a kind of prosaic way, but there’s something about hypertext that’s also cheap, and will degrade the artistry of the translation. Nobody wants to read a novel that feels more like a day with Wikipedia than it does a story with flow, characters and important motivations in the hearts of those characters.

The way to really understand pansori — something I don’t claim to do — is complicated. You have to know some culture, and certainly more of the language than I do, and be able to grasp the significance of the audience’s interaction with the singer (and vice versa), and, most important, you very likely need to listen to a lot of it. Just as most Westerners don’t really understand jazz music, I imagine most Koreans I pass on the street don’t give pansori much thought. I’ve heard from some Koreans that traditional Korean music sounds “exotic” to them. It’s funny, though, because while kayageum does sound exotic to me, there’s nothing I’ve heard that’s earthier than pansori. Hearing it, in fact, removes all the illusions that accrete when you hear Koreans trying to explain what pansori is. Grabbing understandably at the elevatedness of opera, they lose some of the most important discerning features of the musical material itself. It’s a fascinating case study.

So how would I translate the word pansori? I wouldn’t offer a definition, that’s for sure. If I were working in online media, I would give a sample or play some in the background of my verbal narration. If I were working in a textual medium, I’d probably fall back on what I’ve done above — I’d show, instead of telling.

But since this is online, I’ll give you a teeny sample.

Oh, and on the subject of sugungga and untranslatability, I think that this, in context or out, is one of the weirdest (in a beautiful way) texts I’ve seen anywhere:

Chorus: One upon a time. In the mid-summer of the year A.D. 1344, during the reign or King Soonje of Won Dynasty china, King Gwangnithe Dragon King of the South Sea, held a huge banquet for two or three days to celebrate the building of his new palace, called Youngduk-jun at which all creatures of the court enjoyed themselves with great quantities of food and wine. But, suddenly, the king was taken ill, and all the eminent doctors in the sea assembled at the palace where day and night, they tried to cure the King’s illness, but in vain.

Clam: All his internal organs hurt, so it is urgent that we make them warm and restore his energy, so we mainly gave him 18 grams of sook-ji-hwang first, followed by various kinds of other-herbal medicines, but nothing seems to have worked

Carp: His diarrhea is serious, so it is urgent that we preparega-gam-paek-ch’ool-t’ang for him at once.

Catfish: We gave him 11 grams of fried baek-chool 8 grams of sa-in 3.75 grams each of various kinds of other medicines, and continuously gave him gam-ch’o 8 p’oons and soo one doe, totaling 30 packets in all, but it was to no avail.

Painter: We gave him 7 grams of mahuang , 3.75 grams each of various other kinds of medicines, and continuously gave him gam-ch’o five-p’oons, and water one doe totaling 40 packets in all, but it had no effect.

Turtle: Well, then let’s try acupuncture.

And that’s before Minister Terrapin, Minister Abalone, and the Taoist Immortal even get involved, let alone the “Meeting of the Fur-Bearing Animals,” or the kidnapping of a poor rabbit for the purposes of organ theft! (I kid you not.) I can’t vouch for the reliability or quality of that particular translation, but I certainly assure you, it’s thoroughly entertaining! And yeah, the story really is about the kidnapping of a Brer Rabbit Image From Britannicarabbit whose liver, if extracted and eaten, is supposed to save the life of an ocean kingdom’s ruler. I hope it’s not too much if I give away this much of the ending, after he leads Minister Terrapin onto the land to fetch his liver, which he claims to have left hidden somewhere outside his body:

Rabbit: (Arrogantly [to Minister Terrapin].) Hey you silly, stupid bastard! How can I take out and put back in a liver which is contained in my abdomen? How silly. Your king is an idiot. If I had had his stupidity, I surely would have been killed. I owe my life to my three ass holes. [sic] I’m returning, I’m returning, I’m returning to my beautiful mountain at last.

I don’t know about you, but to me, it brings ol’ Brer rabbit to mind (like in the picture, which is from Britannica online). See what I mean about stories and forms and their roots running deep and strangely similar?

Now, if you’re interested, a more sedate version of the story. The operatic version, let’s call it.

And here’s a movie I’d like to track down sometime, based on another pansori tale.

8 thoughts on “Sugungga, Translation and Translatability, and Something Weirdly Beautiful

  1. “Is “pansori? an untranslatable word? Not necessarily — I imagine that, having read this, readers will have some idea of what it is.”

    Just because you can explain the meaning of a word doesn’t mean it is translatable (although I’m not entirely sure that is what you’re trying to say here…). Attempting to translate the word “pansori” would cause more trouble than it’s worth. We don’t translate it for the same reason we don’t translate “opera.”

    And on a side note, did I tell you I did my MA thesis on Sugungga? Well, the prose version, actually, but the same story.

    (That is one horrendous translation of the story, by the way. I could probably find you a better English translation if you are interested–there was a translation published a few years back that I remember being fairly decent.)

  2. Charles,

    See, that’s the interesting thing about translatability. It seems to me SF geeks are interested in seeing translations of the things that cause more trouble than they seem worth to most people! I think the thing about “translating things that are more trouble than they’re worth to translate” is at the heart of the artform we genre writers call “woldbuilding”.

    It’s horrendous as a translation, but if you look at it as a found text, it’s freaking amazing. :)

    I did not know your MA thesus was on that! I am very curious to know what you discussed. Well, when we finally meet up, I guess?

  3. I’ve been searching in vain for a good English translation of Sugungga. Are you awar of one?

    1. Hi Greg,

      I hadn’t looked into it, so I’m glad you asked!

      A professor named Choe Tong-hyeon spent five years on a translation of all the various pansori lyrics texts to English. (Here’s an old article about the project, from around the time it was completed.) Apparently the translation was completed in 2012, and according to the Seoul Stages website, all the texts were posted to the Jeonju Sori Festival website, for download free of charge. A link was posted at Seoul Stages, but I’ll reproduce it here:

      That should give you an archive titled “” containing everything in PDF format.

      I think this is the first complete translation of all Pansori texts (and, indeed, of all the various versions of each). If anyone stumbles upon this later and the link fails (as I imagine it eventually will), let me know and I may be able to set you up with a copy.

      I hope that’s of some use to you! I’m going to post it to the blog, in case this interests anyone else.

      1. I just went to a live performance in Houston where they had a professional ajaeng player and pansori. The Ajaeng player performed some sanjo (sancho) and The presenter performed a few chapters of the sugung-ga. They did their own percussion accompaniment as well. Which is interesting as most examples I saw after some digging shows a storyteller and a separate drummer for percussion and comment.

        Thank you so much for posting that link!!

        1. That sounds like it was a good time! Most of the pansori performances I’ve seen had a separate accompanist—who yelled encouragement to the singer—but I’ve seen photos of performers who accompanied themselves.

          No worries about the link(s): it was nice to visit this post against after so long.

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