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Poetry

Earning My Keep

By Jeong Ho-Seung
Translated from Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé & Susan Hwang
From one of Korea's best-known poets, a dramatic monologue about going to work in "Hell."

Mother,
I think I’ll go pay a visit to Hell.
No matter how far away,
I’ll set off as if leaving for work in the morning
then come back as if coming off work in the evening.
Don’t skip meals, chew your food well before swallowing,
be sure to turn off the gas when you step out,
and don’t worry too much about me.
Hell too must be a place where people live,
so if I go to Hell to earn my keep
at last I’ll be able to become a human being.


밥값,,from 밥값. © Jeong Ho-seung. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Susan Hwang. All rights reserved.

 

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Mother,
I think I’ll go pay a visit to Hell.
No matter how far away,
I’ll set off as if leaving for work in the morning
then come back as if coming off work in the evening.
Don’t skip meals, chew your food well before swallowing,
be sure to turn off the gas when you step out,
and don’t worry too much about me.
Hell too must be a place where people live,
so if I go to Hell to earn my keep
at last I’ll be able to become a human being.


밥값,,from 밥값. © Jeong Ho-seung. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Susan Hwang. All rights reserved.

 

Jeong Ho-Seung

Jeong Ho-Seung (born 1950) is probably Korea’s most popular poet. His poetry collections are Seulpeumi gippeumege (Sorrow to Joy, 1979), Seoului yesu (Seoul’s Jesus, 1982), Saebyeok pyeonji (Dawn Letter, 1987), Byeolteureun ttatteuthada (Stars Are Warm, 1990), Saranghadaga jugeobeoryeora (Love, Then Die, 1997), Oerounikka saramida (Human Because Lonely, 1998), Nunmuri namyeon gichareul tara (If Tears Flow, Take a Train, 1999), I jalbeun sigan dongan (During this Short Moment, 2004), Poong (Embrace, 2007), Bapgap (Rice-Price, 2010), and Yeohaeng (Journey, 2013). He has received the Seoul City Literary Award, the Jeong Ji-yong Literary Award, the Pyeonun Literary Award, the Sanghwa Poetry Award, and the Gongcho Literary Award.

Brother Anthony of Taizé

Brother Anthony of Taizé

Brother Anthony of Taizé was born in Cornwall (U.K.) in 1942. He studied medieval European literature at the University of Oxford. A member of the Community of Taizé since 1969, he has been living in Korea since 1980. He is now an Emeritus Professor of Sogang University (Seoul) and a Chair-Professor at Dankook University. A prolific translator, since 1990 he has published some 50 volumes of translations of Korean literature, mostly contemporary poetry. He took Korean citizenship in 1994. He received the Korean government’s Award of Merit (Culture) in 2008. In 2015 he was awarded an honorary MBE by Queen Elizabeth.

Meet the Author and Translator

Watch Jeong Ho-Seung and Brother Anthony read his poems in Korean and English at L.A.’s Korean Cultural Center. You can find translations of the poems, “The People That I Love” and “Flower-falling Evening,” on Brother Anthony’s website.

Then find out how Brother Anthony came to live in Korea in this article from his blog. And read an interview in which he explains why there is no such thing as a “perfect” translation, published in Asymptote magazine.

Finally, find out about co-translator Susan Hwang’s particular areas of interest in her academic profile on the University of Indiana’s website.

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Korean terms in this story, read aloud by WWB Campus graduate intern Olan Munson.

Words Without Borders Campus · EarningMyKeep Audio

Then, listen to the full poem in Korean, also read by Olan Munson.

A Scholar's Notes

 

Read what Brother Anthony of Taizé writes about this poem in his introduction to Korean literature:

The humorous poem “Earning My Keep,” by the popular poet Jeong Ho-Seung, has a lighter tone [than “Grass”], but perhaps a similar attitude toward the future. It is in part a reflection of the challenges many Korean men faced as they left their village homes to find work in the cities, often facing hellish conditions.

In an article for Voices magazine, Brother Anthony writes that: “older poets such as Jeong Ho-seung enjoy tremendous popularity with poems that gently express nostalgia and melancholy at life’s transience and love’s uncertainty.”

"Hell" Elsewhere in Korean Culture

Large numbers of young adults in South Korea call the country “hell” — is this a sign of  “global middle class angst, a uniquely Korean malaise – or mere talk?” Find out in an article from the Asia Times.

Then, look at the satirical “Marketing I – Hell Painting” (1980) by O Yoon, part of the “Minjung” art movement that emerged after the brutal suppression of  a pro-democracy protest in Gwangju, Korea, in 1980. (The death toll quoted in the Tate article has been disputed by human rights groups. For more on Gwangu, see the resources posted for the essay “A Meal of Solitude for a Restless Heart.”

Working Life—and Death
Park Chung Hee
President Park Chung Hee, by Ludwig Wegmann. License: CC BY-SA 3.0.  

Learn how former President Park’s program of rapid industrialization allowed for workers to be exploited in this article from the Asia Society. The article also explains how a philosophy called “neo-Confusianism” continues to shape Korean working life.

Next, find out why literally “working yourself to death” continues to be a possibility today – both in Korea and in the worldwide gig economy.

Finally, find out about worldwide efforts to create more opportunities for  “decent work”  in this fact sheet for the  U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal #8: Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Background on Korea
Street painting in Seoul
Street painting in Seoul, by leifbr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0.

New to learning about Korea? Read the BBC’s country profile or a more detailed article on the country’s history from the Asia Society.

More from the Author (and Translators)

Read more poems from Jeong Ho-seung’s collection “Earning My Keep,” also translated into English by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Susan Hwang. We especially recommend these poems, which, like “Earning My Keep,” invite readers to imagine something we have not seen: Adoption, Angels, Fine Singing Pavilion, and A Mirror.

“Do not wait in vain for the phone call that never comes.” Read Ho-seung’s words of advice to
daffodils, and other poems of his published in the Korea Times

"A Host of Golden Daffodils"
“A Host of Golden Daffodils” by Tony Hammond. License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. 

Many musicians in Korea set Jeong Ho-seung’s poems to music—listen to Ahn Chi Hwan’s interpretation of “The People I Love,” which is the first of the  translations on this page from Brother Anthony’s website.

More from the Translator
  • Read the poem “Injeolmi Rice Cakes,” about childhood memories, also translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Susan Hwang.
  • Learn more about Korean poetry in this article by Brother Anthony of Taizé, who also wrote the introduction to the collection of Korean literature on this site, as well as an article providing a brief history of Korean literature.
  • Take a look at two books of “children’s stories for adults” that Brother Anthony has translated, both by Jeong Ho-seung: Loving and The Lonesome Jar.

If you have half an hour or more:

  • Watch Susan Hwang’s lecture about the role of a famous Korean song in “The Politics of Resistance.”
  • Listen to a podcast Interview with Brother Anthony about a different Korean poet, Ko Un.
A Hip-Hop "Earning My Keep"

Listen to a song from Korean rapper Nucksal, also entitled “Earning My Keep” or “Bapgap” (“밥값”)

WWB Campus graduate intern Olan Munson translated the hook:  “Money, money, money to keep me warm.” Her translation of the song’s last stanza is below:

Can barely lift my spoon, can’t eat more than two bites/ Staring at me, my mom and a bowl of rice/ Doesn’t matter if I win or lose / when I turn the cold doorknob and come inside / there’s always food waiting for me—but what’s the cost? / Alone in that cold dark room, a far-off winter land / working hard at his dreams / What’s the cost of his zeal? / A world that doesn’t mind if he wins or loses / and the food on his table every morning—what’s the cost?

(Korean speakers: to see the last stanza in both Korean and English, click here.)

More on Work Around the World
Kimchi Preparers
Kimchi preparers in the U.S. by TheeErin. License: CC BY-SA 2.0.
"Work" on the Big Screen

For a classic Korean film about trying to make a living “under vicious, inhuman circumstances,” try “Aimless Bullet (or Oblaton),” described in the New Yorker as one of the best films in a “golden age” of Korean filmmaking that began in the 1960s. “Aimless Bullet” is available in full, with subtitles, from the Korean Film Archives.

A Vision of "Industry"
Detroit Industry Murals
Detroit Industry Murals, by Diego Rivera. License: C.C. by 2.0.

Take a closer look at Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals, which reviewers called “a slander to Detroit workmen” and “un-American” when they were first painted.

Visions of Hell
"Christ's Descent into Hell"
“Christ’s Descent into Hell” by follower of Hieronymus Bosch. License: CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

Look at a few examples of how artists have imagined Hell over the past 600 years:

  • The Last Judgment” (1440) by Jan van Eyck (Hell is in the bottom half)
  • Hell” (1490) by Hieronymus Bosch, and an Atlantic article about how “Bosch’s Hell lives on today
  • The Punishment of the Thieves” (1824-7), by William Blake
  • Self-Portrait in Hell” (1903), by Edvard Munch, published in Google Arts and Culturean article beneath the painting comments that the subject “is totally aware of his horrible situation, but has decided not to succumb,” like the speaker of “Earning My Keep”
  • Coffee House Painting” (2009) by Shoja Azar, described in Art in America as “a meditation on current, living versions of hell.”
Visiting Someone Else's Hell
The cover of The Disaster Tourist by Yo Ko-Eun, translated by Lizzie Buehler

Read about The Disaster Tourist, a novel by Korean writer Yo Ko-Eun that tells the story of a woman whose job is to organize people’s excursions into various “hells.”

More Disorienting Writing**

Poems on WWB Campus:

  • I Spat Out This Poem: A Pakistani poem that begins with a shocking line
  • Do Not Tremble, by Japanese poet Hirato Toshiko: Written in response to the disastrous 2011 earthquake in Japan, this poem gives a sense of the shock of its arrival.
  • Notes on a Zombie Cataclysm, by Luis Felipe Fabre: Another poem with a surprising, eye-opening metaphor, “Notes” compares Mexico’s drug wars to a zombie apocalypse.

Poems Elsewhere:

**For Teaching Idea 1

More Poems That Defy Conventional Wisdom**

Kharkov 1981 Kassy kinoteatra Ukraina

A line outside a cinema in Kharkov, the Ukraine, USSR, 1981. By Л.П. Джепко

**For Teaching Idea 2

Key Points
1. Disorienting the Reader
2. Poetry vs. Conventional Wisdom
To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English Korean

Mother,
I think I’ll go pay a visit to Hell.
No matter how far away,
I’ll set off as if leaving for work in the morning
then come back as if coming off work in the evening.
Don’t skip meals, chew your food well before swallowing,
be sure to turn off the gas when you step out,
and don’t worry too much about me.
Hell too must be a place where people live,
so if I go to Hell to earn my keep
at last I’ll be able to become a human being.


밥값,,from 밥값. © Jeong Ho-seung. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Susan Hwang. All rights reserved.

 

밥값

어머니

아무래도 제가 지옥에 한번 다녀오겠습니다

아무리 멀어도

아침에 출근하듯이 갔다가

저녁에 퇴근하듯이 다녀오겠습니다

식사 거르지 마시고 꼭꼭 씹어서 잡수시고

외출하실 때는 가스불 꼭 잠그시고

너무 염려하지는 마세요

지옥도 사람 사는 곳이겠지요

지금이라도 밥값을 하러 지옥에 가면

비로소 제가 인간이 될 수 있을 겁니다.

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