Poetry Parnassus: I Sell My Daughter for 100 Won (N. Korea)

Poetry Parnassus is a project of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, hosted at the Southbank Centre in London. It ran from June 26 to July 1, and featured 145 poets from around the world. Here is the Guardian’s interactive map, where you can click on a country and read its poem. I will be posting one a day until they’re done.

I Sell My Daughter for 100 Won, by Jang Jin-sung (N. Korea)

Exhausted, in the midst of the market she stood
“For 100 won, my daughter I sell”
Heavy medallion of sorrow
A cardboard around her neck she had hung
Next to her young daughter
Exhausted, in the midst of the market she stood

A deaf-mute the mother
She gazed down at the ground, just ignoring
The curses the people all threw
As they glared
At the mother who sold
Her motherhood, her own flesh and blood

Her tears dried up
Though her daughter, upon learning
Her mother would perish of a deadly disease
Had buried her face in the mother’s long skirt
And bellowed, and cried
But the mother stood still
And her lips only quivered

Unable she was to give thanks to the soldier
Who slipped a hundred won into her hand
As he uttered
“It is your motherhood,
And not the daughter I’m buying”
She took the money, and ran

A mother she was,
And the 100 won she had taken
She spent on a loaf of wheat bread
Toward her daughter she ran
As fast as she could
And pressed the bread on the child’s lips
“Forgive me, my child”
In the midst of the market she stood
And she wailed.

• Translated from the Korean by Sung Young Soon.

I was expecting an unusual poem from N. Korea, but not something like this. It’s a slice of stark social realism, though not what the poet’s government would have wished. A poor woman, dying from a terminal disease, attempts to sell her young daughter in a market for 100 won. On a basic human level this is deeply shocking behaviour. There’s a real ambiguity in her actions and we don’t quite know where they spring from. Does she want someone to take care of her daughter when she is dead? Whatever her motives, her response to the kindness of the soldier shows that “a mother she was.” Her grief at what fate has brought her to is perfectly expressed in the final line: “And she wailed.”

The poem is extremely direct, almost reportage, so the one metaphor really hits the reader. The cardboard sign round her neck, advertising the shameful offer, is a “heavy medallion of sorrow.” Furthermore, the translation seems slightly clumsy and old-fashioned, erasing any mellifluousness the original Korean might have possessed. If indeed it had any. This might be a very precise translation, true to the spirit of the original. In any case, the English language version perfectly complements the subject matter by not coating the poem in a skin of artifice. An extraordinarily honest and moving poem.

2 thoughts on “Poetry Parnassus: I Sell My Daughter for 100 Won (N. Korea)

  1. Beautiful in austerity. To give up one’s motherhood amidst a society comprised only of the careless healthy and soldiers: what we ask over and over again around the world. This poem touches that always already raw spot.

  2. I’ve read both the Korean and English version of this poem, and it’s a shame that some of the powerful message that is captured in the Korean version (much more succinct by the way) is lost in the English translation.

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