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[Lee Kyong-hee] A brief tribute to Korea’s precious friends

The first time I met Kevin L. O’Rourke the Columban priest had just won a prize for his translation of “The Poetry of John” by Chang Yong-hak, a short story depicting postwar existentialism in South Korean society.

That was in November 1971, the second year of the Modern Korean Literature Translation Awards given by the Korea Times, the only such honors at that time. By then
, awareness had ripened that exemplary translations of Korean literary works should be recognized. Yasunari Kawabata had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, and Edward Seidensticker, an eminent scholar and translator of Japanese literature, was credited with engendering international recognition of the Japanese novelist.

Translation of Korean literature, until that time, had largely been a labor of love among a handful of individuals, whether Korean or foreign. In the case of foreigners, Christian missionaries from English-speaking countries were most active. The passing of professor O’Rourke on Oct. 23 naturally took me back to those days when translation of Korean literary works was “personal fun” or “missionary vocation,” as the Irishman himself said during an interview last year.

Before O’Rourke, there was a lineage of scholar-missionaries who laid the foundation of what is now known as “Korean studies.” They included James Scarth Gale, Homer B. Hulbert, George Heber Jones and Anglican bishops Mark Napier Trollope and Richard Rutt -- all important names who made landmark achievements in studies of Korean culture and society.

And then US Peace Corps volunteers arrived. Fluent in Korean, hundreds of the young men and women chose to remain in Korea after finishing their assignment. Some made significant efforts toward literary translation despite the absence of institutional support. The increase in Korean literary exports in recent years, reportedly surpassing 300 volumes last year, truly marks a sea change.

O’Rourke arrived in 1964 for a lifetime assignment in Korea. “Despite great changes in the 1940s to early ‘60s, Ireland was still a backwater when I left. I did not realize this for a long time because 1960s Ireland was a paradise compared to 1960s Korea,” he recalled in his book “My Korea: 40 Years Without a Horsehair Hat” (Renaissance Books, 2013). He remembered the day of his arrival as follows:

“We drove from Kimpo (Gimpo Airport) to Columban Headquarters in Tonamdong by a long tortuous route, some of which was paved, more of it unpaved, all of it full of potholes, diversions and various minor discomforts. Very little of Korea’s 5,000-year cultural tradition appeared to the eye: there were no laughing Immortals, no beautiful temples.”

The next 5 1/2 decades saw O’Rourke translating around 2,000 works of Korean literature – including poems, short stories and novels – published in scores of volumes in and outside of Korea. “The numbers are a little confusing,” he said. Instead of numerical count, he probably wanted us to look into the worlds of the poets and writers of the original works he travailed to put into another language.

Maybe for personal reasons, I couldn’t help but link the passing of the Rev. O’Rourke with that of Brian A. Barry, a third-generation Irish American, four years ago. Barry also spent his life in Korea, finding the object of his passion in Buddhism -- more specifically temple painting and international evangelism.

A native of Boston and a political science major at the University of Connecticut, Barry first arrived in Korea in 1967 as a Peace Corps volunteer. His mission was health care service in a village in Buan County, North Jeolla Province. In view of O’Rourke’s recollection of Seoul in the 1960s, it isn’t difficult to imagine the environment of Barry’s service in the faraway rural village. But he fell in love with that village and its residents, especially the landlord family of his boarding house.

He returned home after finishing his service, but longed for the smell of sea breeze and the warmth of hearts in Buan. Therefore, after graduating college he volunteered for a two-year stint as an administrator at the Peace Corps Korea headquarters in Seoul. The ensuing years he supported himself by teaching English and translating and gravitated toward Buddhism amid spiritual and financial difficulties.

In 1986, karma eventually led him to his teacher, the master monk artist Manbong at Bongwon Temple. Barry visited the temple with an American architect who required his translation skills. The moment Barry saw the dancheong painting on the wooden pavilions, he felt his heart stopped.

That was how he began training under the Ven. Manbong, who was a state-designated “living cultural treasure.” The basic requirement was making 3,000 underdrawings of the Ten Kings of Hell. After nearly quitting several times, Barry finally completed the mandatory course in two years and continued his training to become one of Manbong’s top students. When the monk passed away in 2006, his family asked Barry to complete the several paintings he left unfinished.

It was during his years at the temple Bongwonsa that I first met Barry on my visit to interview his teacher. My sporadic working relationship with Barry enabled me to watch him painting a door of the main hall in the Thai royal temple, Wat Suthat Thepwararam, in Bangkok in 1999. In 2002, amid the World Cup fever and the rising Templestay boom, he wrote beautiful articles about Korea’s major Buddhist temples for The Korea Herald.

While painting, Barry translated several important books written by revered monks, such as Seongcheol, Beopjeong and Ilta. He donated his paintings to many temples inside and outside of Korea, including Munsusa in his hometown of Wakefield, in Greater Boston. In accordance with his wishes, his cremated remains are buried in the graveyard of his landlord family in Buan.

Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts, published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.