“Roommate, Woman” by Lee Young-ju, translated from Korean by Jae Kim, was one of four winners of WWB’s poetry in translation contest, presented in partnership with the Academy of American Poets. The winning selections will be published in Poem-a-Day and in Words Without Borders every Saturday this September. Join WWB and AAP on September 17 for “World in Verse: A Multilingual Poetry Reading,” a celebration of the contest winners at Word Up Community Bookshop in New York City.
WWB: Lee Young-ju, in your work, do you find that you return to particular ideas or themes? What was the catalyst/inspiration for your poem “Roommate, Woman”?
Lee Young-ju: When I write, I think a lot about the naked faces underneath the peace of modern life. My poems often deal with darker sentiments, which jump out at me, and I write them down.
WWB: Jae Kim, what drew you to Lee Young-ju’s work? What were the challenges and pleasures of translating “Roommate, Woman”?
Jae Kim: I read one of her prose poems in Munjang Webzine, which I’ve translated as “Mama’s Marmalade” and published in Asymptote. The poem, like all her poems, is image-driven, playful yet heartfelt. I feel very lucky to have encountered the poem, as a writer and as a reader. It was the first time I felt compelled to translate a literary work.
“Roommate, Woman” presents many challenges to the translator. Whereas “Mama’s Marmalade” was more lyric and I was more concerned with translating the sounds and the rhythm of the syntax, “Roommate, Woman” is more enigmatic, more compact. The title, “tonggŏnyŏ,” could easily have been translated as “Female Roommate,” but I honored the order of meaning, the rhetorical framing, the emphasis that falls on “nyŏ”—and I’ve had to do this throughout the poem to capture the effect that the poem in Korean has on the reader.
WWB: Lee Young-ju, do you feel that you’re writing within (or against) a specific cultural or linguistic tradition? What authors or works have influenced you?
Lee Young-ju: I’m afraid to place myself in a specific tradition. A poem is and remains ongoing. The authors who have influenced me range from those who wrote during Japanese occupation and developed a unique language to capture the zeitgeist—such as Yi Yuksa, Yun Dong-ju, Baek Seok—to those who wrote in the ’80s about suffering under the dictatorial regime, such as Choi Seung-ja, Kim Hyesoon, Lee Seong-bok, Hwang Ji-u, and Gi Hyeong-do. And foreign authors who, through translation, have stimulated my imagination, such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Sylvia Plath, Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan, and Samuel Beckett.
WWB: Are there contemporary Korean poets who you wish more people were reading?
Lee Young-ju: I want to recommend my contemporaries. These are poets who wrote into the twenty-first century. They became well known for inventing new modes of discourse and engaging with polyphony. I’d recommend Yu Hyung-jin, Kim Geun, and Kim Haengsook, among others. They are each charming in their own distinct worlds.
Lee Young-ju is a contemporary South Korean poet. Her books of poetry include The Hundred-and-Eighth Man (Munhakdongne, 2005), Sister (Minumsa, 2010), and Cold Candies (Moonji, 2014). She has received the Arts Council of Korea’s literature and creative writing grant and the Creativity Award Fellowship from the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture. Lee's fourth collection of poetry is forthcoming with Moonji.
Jae Kim is a writer from South Korea and a translator of Korean and Japanese literature. He earned his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught as a fiction fellow and is currently pursuing a PhD in comparative literature. His short story “South of Here” was published in NOON earlier this year. His translations can be found in Poetry Review, Asymptote, and Azalea.