Scholar dreams of taking pansori to the world

2012-02-07 19:09

Korean literature professor leads English translation of all pansori lyrics

Pansori, a traditional form of narrative music performed by a solo singer, was added to UNESCO’s world heritage list nearly 10 years ago. But promoting pansori overseas has not been easy ― partly because there was no way for the foreign audience to understand the words during the performance.

To facilitate better appreciation of pansori performances, Choe Tong-hyon, Korean Language and Literature professor at Kunsan National University in North Jeolla Province, recently completed the translation of all texts of the five surviving pansori ― “Simcheongga,” “Heungbuga,” “Jeokbyeokga,” “Chunhyangga” and “Suggungga” ― a project that took five years.

“The amount of work was overwhelming. I thought I would die before I finished the work,” Choe told The Korea Herald in a telephone interview. The work was enormous for he was dedicated to translating all different “badi,” or versions, of each pansori. In all, he translated six different versions of each pansori on average which led him to publish a total of 21 books with 250-300 pages each.

The project was initially about publishing a book on pansori in English. But providing brief translation of summarized pansori stories does not mean anything, Choe said “The essence of the traditional narrative songs is bringing all sorts of emotions on the stage.”
Choe Tong-hyon, Korean language and literature professor at Kunsan National University (Yonhap News)

Pansori is a traditional form of narrative music, performed by a solo singer, who plays all the characters of a story, and a “gosu” who provides rhythms on a barrel drum and “chuimsae,” or improvised calls. The audience plays an important role by contributing their own “chuimsae,” such as “eolssigu!” (hurrah!) or “jotta!” (whoopee!). These encourage the singer and make the performance more enjoyable.

“I thought we should at least help foreigners understand what the singer is singing about or what the drum sound means in a particular context,” the 60-year-old scholar who dedicated his whole academic career to studying pansori said.

For an example, Choe translated “Duridungtung Duridungtung Quegaengmae Quengmae Quengmae,” ― some of the verbal drum sounds made by the singer during Sung Woo-hyang’s version of “Chunhyangga,” as “How wonderful life is.”

“The meaning of the verbal drum sounds differs according to what the story is about. When the drum is used in a war context, it is about the army marching toward the enemy. But when it is to portray a person’s feeling, we have to tell exactly what she or he is trying to share with the audience,” he said.

Funded by the North Jeolla Provincial Government and the Culture Ministry, Choe led a team of three, including an English language and literature professor at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and a technician for data processing. The team received 50 million won ($44,500) per year to translate 21 different versions of the five pansori, even though he knew that translating just one pansori piece cost more than 10 million won. Money didn’t mean anything to Choe and his friends, he said. All he wanted to do was to build a foundation to bring pansori to the world.

He hopes that the work would inspire others to translate the texts into other languages such as French, German and Spanish.

“I did this job not because the story of pansori is interesting and unique. I wanted to do something for the growing number of foreigners who are interested in pansori so that at least they are able to understand the meaning,” he said.

Choe said that although he is about to retire, there is one more thing he wants to do ― write a pansori dictionary in Korean.

“I am too old, what more can I do? But I hope that future generations can further develop the work that I have done. Now it is time for me to work on a pansori dictionary.”

The books and CDs on translated pansori texts are available form the organizing committee for the Jeonju International Sori Festival.

For more information, call (063) 232-8398 or visit

By Cho Chung-un
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