Written by Junchol Lee
Translating Swedenborg’s True Christian Religion into Korean has been a personal, but important, journey for me—twenty-seven years in the making. Though I didn’t set pen to proverbial paper until 2019, the project actually began in 1994 when I took my very first Latin class at Bryn Athyn College. At the time, I had a strong passion to learn Latin so that one day I would be able to translate Swedenborg’s books. However, I never imagined it would take half my life.
Just one year before that first Latin class, I arrived in America for a short visit after a stint in the Korean army with little hope of continuing my college education, much less studying theology. But my family in New York introduced me to Swedenborg, and soon my short visit was extended by months, and eventually years, when I enrolled in Bryn Athyn College, which at the time was the Academy of the New Church College.
I was surprised to learn that the existing Korean translations of Swedenborg’s books were not only quite dated, but, even worse, unreliable. The translations were littered with theological inaccuracies and language errors. Determined to right this wrong, I studied Latin for six years, two in college and another four of one-on-one study at the Swedenborg School of Religion with the esteemed Rev. Dr. George F. Dole. After such intensive studying, one might assume I was already making good progress with my translation project, but quite the opposite was true. In fact, I realized that I did not even enjoy the work of translation.
My classes with George, which should have been primarily linguistic discussions, were often filled with lively theological discourse. I discovered that I enjoyed every moment of analyzing, investigating, and understanding Swedenborg’s theology. Yet, I learned one important truth about the task of translation from George: it’s not about finding a matching word from one language to another but about understanding the meaning of the word in its own context as well as the intention of the writer, and then finding and recreating such a word in another language. In order to do such a complicated task accurately, George often emphasized the importance of knowing and understanding the cultural and philosophical background of both languages.
After my ordination, marriage, relocating multiple times, and starting a family, the project receded to the back of my mind for nearly a decade until I was contacted by a group of Swedenborgians in Incheon, Korea. Seeking guidance, they asked me to help continue their study of Swedenborg’s writings and I agreed to meet with them virtually once per month. From there, my work with Koreans eager to study Swedenborg seemed to snowball, and I found myself leading multiple classes for different groups and individuals. However, it quickly became apparent that I was spending a large amount of time correcting the translations and explaining why they were not accurate. Even so, I had little capacity to pay much attention to the matter and instead soldiered on with the poor translations.
It wasn’t until 2017 that I finally understood and accepted the calling I felt so long ago and for which I spent many years preparing—intentionally or not. One day while visiting Korea, Rev. Keehyun Joh and I were discussing the necessity of having accurate translations of Swedenborg’s books. He pointed out that I was uniquely qualified for the task not just from a linguistic standpoint, but because I studied Eastern philosophies (Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism) alongside Christianity while also reading and teaching Swedenborg’s books in depth as a scholar and minister. Though I felt this truth in my heart, I remained hesitant simply because I knew the challenge that lay ahead.
And so, a few years passed after that realization in Korea. By that time, the Incheon group and I had already read Four Doctrines, Divine Love and Wisdom, and Divine Providence, and I felt they were prepared to study Swedenborg’s only book that is close to systematic theology, True Christian Religion (TCR). When a member shared a translation of TCR that was recently done by a Korean Swedenborgian minister, it became crystal clear to me that it was finally time to begin my translation project. Though I was by no means certain of my ability as a translator above all others, I knew I was fully prepared to provide an accurate translation both linguistically and theologically.
Hearing about my endeavor during a church meeting, the San Francisco Church’s council expressed their desire to support my translations, and we soon discovered that the denomination has a fund to aid such projects. I would like to express my sincere gratitude toward the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church and the Iungerich Fund for acknowledging the importance of this project and their support of it.
Each week, I spend about one hour translating TCR. Though it is a very slow process, there are at least three groups I work with who are actively benefiting from my efforts: the Agapao Church in Santa Ana, California, the Korean Swedenborgian group in Incheon, and Rev. Keehyun Joh and his group in Korea.
To be honest, there are still aspects of the task that give me pause. I wonder if I’ll even be able to finish the whole project and whether it will have much impact for Korean people. At the same time, I recognize the difficulty and challenges I face as a rookie translator. Most interestingly, it has become apparent to me the difference between Eastern and Western minds in their approach to this philosophical and theological material. Despite these hesitations, one thing that I can promise to myself and to my Lord is that I will continue with this project as long as I am alive!
The Swedenborgian Church of North America provides a variety of grants and loans from the Augmentation, Iungerich, Mission, and Building Funds to our ministries. This article highlights one ministry that is benefiting from such grants in 2022.
Meet Rev. Junchol Lee
Rev. Junchol Lee serves the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church as Senior Pastor, and lives in San Francisco, California, with his wife, Heejoung Moon and two children, Roiy and Joan.