Image: Phases of the Moon. (CC0 Public Domain.)
Insofar as a translator can be “well-known,” I am not the most well-known gay translator of Korean literature. I am not even the second most well-known, or the third. In fact, one of my sisters-at-arms, Jamie Chang, already contributed a “From the Translator” article before me. This preponderance of Korean gay translators made a lesbian colleague and I muse, What’s with all the queers in Korean literary translation? There are gay people everywhere, of course, but what is it about Korean literary translation that makes us self-select for this work?
Lots of professions, whether we admit it or not, seem to have disproportionate representation of queer folk; in Korea, for example, rumor has it that an early women truckers’ association served as a de facto networking group for queer women. The history of literature also features many queer writers, from the out to the suspected to the fluid. I once read a Korean bestseller and wondered at its homoerotic undertones; I went as far as to ask one of the author’s translators whether I was imagining it. In fact, the translator had already picked up on the subtext, and asked the writer if it was intentional, only to be met with vehement negation. (It is, of course, not the negation itself but the vehemence that is telling.)
One can—and no doubt many have—come up with reasons why so many queers translate. I suspect, in the case of my own language combination, that the closeted nature of Korean literature kindles the translator’s desire to fling open the closet doors. Passing the work into another language allows the translator to “expose” the work while maintaining its integrity as a closet narrative. A critic of queer readings can perhaps attempt a more blatant exposition of what parts of the story are “queer,” but these can only be suggestions, collections of tantalizing circumstantial evidence. The closet is there, but it can never really be opened. Translators need to be more subtle with the desire to open the closet: we have to open it by not opening it.
When I first read “Genesis,” I was overwhelmed with a desire I am sure I share with many other translators, the desire to render my reading into my target language. I saw how the main character’s act of telling her own story, erasing it, and then writing down the story of her unrequited love on the immortal surface of the Moon was at once the story of being a queer person and also that of being a translator. Queer people and translators are more often than not invisible, but we are, more often than not, here. We write the words you read, the very words that make you think and feel and cry and laugh. You may not always see us, but sometimes, if you are reading very closely, you will sense us. We cannot come out of the closet, but perhaps, with your help, we can be read out of it.
This essay is the story I erased before engraving the story of Lia, my fictional sister-at-arms, on the Moon. (Words without Borders is, of course, an allusion to “world without borders,” and what is the Moon but a world without borders?) As surely as the story “Genesis” itself is a dedication to Lia, these words are for her, and for all my sisters.