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Korea RPCV David McCann is first Korea Foundation Professor
Korea RPCV David McCann is first Korea Foundation Professor
Poet, translator is first Korea Foundation Professor
Reprinted from the Harvard University Gazette
January 22, 1998
by Ken Gewertz
David McCann's life took a decisive turn 30 years ago when his eye fell on a volume of poetry in a bookstore in Seoul, South Korea.
The book was by Kim So Wol, an important Korean poet of the early 20th century. McCann, who wrote poetry himself, had come to Korea as a member of the Peace Corps and was teaching English conversation.
An immersion program in Korean language and culture had given him the fluency to comprehend Kim's lyrics. The next step seemed obvious; he attempted to translate some of them into English. What happened after that surprised him.
"I discovered that everywhere I went, people were very interested in the fact that I was interested in Korean poetry."
McCann's newfound interest served as a key to the Korean literary world, and through the contacts he made, his acquaintance with Korean writers expanded.
A second crucial event occurred a year later, when a visitor from McCann's hometown of Cambridge, Mass., showed up in Seoul on a recruiting mission. The visitor was Edward Wagner, now professor of Korean studies emeritus. Wagner was looking for potential graduate students for Harvard's fledgling Korean program.
Coming to Harvard after his term in the Peace Corps ended, McCann earned a master's degree in Regional Studies in 1971 and a Ph.D. in Korean literature in 1976. Now, after teaching for more than 20 years at Cornell University, McCann has returned to Harvard as the first Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
McCann's colleagues consider his return an auspicious one.
Carter Eckert, professor of Korean history and director of the Korea Institute, said that McCann's appointment "represents a significant step in the expansion of our Korean and East Asian programs at Harvard, a splendid complement to an already well-established curriculum in Korean language and history, and in other East Asian languages and literatures."
Eckert added that he is "personally delighted to have him here as a colleague," and that "given McCann's reputation in the field, his enthusiasm and dynamism as a scholar and teacher, and his many contacts in Korea, and, indeed, throughout the world, I believe that this appointment will lead quickly to Harvard¼s becoming the premier center for the study of Korean literature and a training ground for the first truly professional generation of scholars, teachers, and translators of Korean literature."
Nicola Di Cosmo, associate professor of Chinese and Inner Asian history, who coordinates the sophomore tutorial, on East Asian Studies, said that McCann has a rare gift for communicating with students, which showed when he delivered two guest lectures on Korean literature and history.
"The lectures he gave were terrific," Di Cosmo said. "The students loved him. He was able to bring out the connections between the past and present in a way that really gave the students a clear sense of Korean cultural identity. It's a great thing to have him here."
In his scholarly work, McCann has maintained a dual interest in traditional and contemporary Korean literature. He has written on traditional forms such as sijo, a three-line verse similar to the Japanese tanka, and on the relationships between Korean poetic practices and comparable movements in Chinese and Japanese literature.
At the same time, he has maintained his ties with the Korean literary world and is one of the foremost translators of contemporary Korean poetry into English. One of his recent publications is the Korean edition of the Anthology of Modern Korean Poetry, which he edited in collaboration with Oh Se Young under the auspices of the International Korean Literature Association, Haenam Press. McCann is now working on an English translation of this work, which will be published by Columbia University Press.
McCann has translated numerous works by 20th century Korean writers such as Kim Namjo, So Chongju, and Kim Chi Ha. Although poetry has been the staple of McCann's translating activities, one important exception was Prison Writings (1987) by Kim Dae Jung, president-elect of South Korea, which McCann translated in collaboration with the late Sung-il Choi.
An enormous amount of translating work remains to be done, McCann said, not only because of the continuing vitality of the contemporary Korean literary world, but because many of the English translations of earlier works were not done right the first time.
McCann believes that having access to the Harvard-Yenching Library's original Korean texts, especially its collection of rare literary journals, will help him accomplish this work, since seeing the way a poem was originally presented on the page can often lead to insights not available otherwise.
Just as new translations are called for, new approaches in the study of Korean literature are also needed, McCann believes. In place of studies on the uniqueness of Korean literature, he would like to see more comparisons with other literary cultures and the use of new interpretive models. Such approaches, he feels, would open up lines of inquiry and discussion in a field that has seemed almost hermetically sealed.
McCann is cheered by the fact that the Harvard students he has worked with, both graduate and undergraduate, show great promise of supplying this scholarly shot in the arm.
"It's very exciting to see all the different perspectives they bring. I see them as the next stage in what's happening in the translation and interpretation of Korean literature."
McCann also makes a special effort to meet and talk with contemporary poets whose works he intends to translate because he feels that this personal contact helps him represent subtle nuances of tone and meaning.
"I find that it really helps to meet them. Having their voice in my mind often allows me to translate their work more faithfully," he said.
Another factor that helps McCann maintain a creative edge as a translator is the fact that he has continued to write poetry himself. He has published a volume of his poetry called Keeping Time (Troubador Press, Chicago, 1980) and is currently putting the finishing touches on a second collection.
His own poetry has often of necessity taken a backseat to his academic and administrative duties (at Cornell he not only taught in the Asian Studies Department but worked in the Development Office). But McCann extols the value of patience in pursuing creative occupations.
"Sometimes marking papers or working on research takes up time, but there's a house on the beach in Maine that I manage to get to a couple of weeks out of the year, and all I do when I'm there is sit out on the front porch and write. It's wonderful."