“A Chunk of Charcoal” by Ahn Do-hyun

Episode 12 of the K-drama Extraordinary Attorney Woo features a powerful poem about putting others first, from author Ahn Do-hyun’s 2004 collection Lonely High Solitary (외롭고 높고 쓸쓸한). I couldn’t get the powerful imagery off my mind: in Korea even today, people fight off the winter cold with charcoal briquettes. Charcoal dust and ash is sprinkled on ice (like salt) to make walking less treacherous. The poet takes this simple reality and uses it as a metaphor for the selflessness that can be so hard for us to attain.

A Chunk of Charcoal

There are many ways to say it,
but the meaning of life
is to become a chunk of charcoal,
willingly, for someone else.

From the day floors must be heated until spring arrives,
the most beautiful sight on the glorious streets of Korea
is a truck, loaded with charcoal,
struggling up a hill.

As if it knows its purpose,
charcoal burns on and on
once its body catches fire.
I refused to grasp the lesson
though I ate hot soup and rice each day,
for I was afraid that after loving
with all of my being, I’d be left alone—
just a lump of ash.

So far, I’ve never become charcoal for anyone.

Yet when I think about it,
life is about being broken
into chunks.

I never thought to spread myself upon the ice
so others might walk more safely
when the world is slippery
with early morning snow.

—Translated by David Bowles
August 5, 2022

Original Korean

연탄 한 장

또 다른 말도 많고 많지만
나 아닌 그 누구에게
기꺼이 연탄 한 장 되는 것.

방구들 선득선득해지는 날부터 봄까지
조선 팔도 거리에서 제일 아름다운 것은
연탄차가 부릉부릉
힘쓰며 언덕길 오르는 거라네.
해야 할 일이 무엇인가를 알고 있다는 듯이
연탄은, 일단 제 몸에 불이 옮겨 붙었다 하면
하염없이 뜨거워지는 것
매일 따스한 밥과 국물 퍼먹으면서도 몰랐네.
온몸으로 사랑하고 나면
한 덩이 재로 쓸쓸하게 남는 게 두려워

여태껏 나는 그 누구에게 연탄 한 장도 되지 못하였네.

나를 산산이 으깨는 일.

눈 내려 세상이 미끄러운 어느 이른 아침에
나 아닌 그 누가 마음 놓고 걸어갈
그 길을 만들 줄도 몰랐었네, 나는.

― 안도현



  1. Spectacular translation and meaning – thank you kindly

  2. Christine Kravetz

    My husband and I rushed to find this poem after hearing it on Extraordinary Attorney Woo. It’s a wonderful example of the way poetry leads to cross-cultural understanding.

    • I also loved this poem and transcribed it. I like the netflix translation better! I was really moved. she read it so beautifully! I agree about the cross cultural understand!!

  3. Thank you for this translation! Much more poetic than the Netflix translation.

  4. gracias , hermoso poema, también tiene una sobre la pobreza, cuando puedas y quieras lo espero….graciass..

  5. An amalgam of the Netflix and Mr. Bowles’ translation:

    Though there are many ways of saying it,
    Life is to gladly become a piece of coal,
    For someone other than myself.

    From the day the floors must be heated
    To the day spring comes,
    The most beautiful thing
    In all the streets of korea,
    Is a truck fervidly climbing up a hill,
    With coal.

    As if it knows what it has to do,
    Coal burns endlessly
    Once its body catches fire.
    But I remained oblivious
    Though I ate hot soup and rice everyday,
    For I feared
    After having loved with my whole being,
    I would become a lonely handful
    Of ash.

    I have not become coal for anyone, still.

    When I think about it,
    Life is to shatter myself
    into pieces.

    I had never thought to spread myself on the streets
    For others to tread
    When the world is slippery
    From the morning snow.

    ~please pardon my presumptuousness, I love the poem so much.

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