WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator every few months. The current month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.
For December's installment, Don Mee Choi passed the baton to Jack Jung, who translates between Korean and English.
What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
I was born in Seoul, South Korea. Korean was my only language for the first thirteen years of my life. After my mother and I immigrated to the United States in 2001, I started learning English from a volunteer ESL teacher at a Baptist church in a small town in Missouri. Since then, I use English when I am out in the world and remain a Korean speaker at home.
I was not introduced to Korean literature until college. In my first poetry workshop, my teacher recommended translating poetry from another language to study composition. My mother taught me Korean poetry when I asked her about it for this purpose, and one of the poets she showed me was Yi Sang (1910–37). Yi Sang was a painter, architect, poet, and writer of 1930s Korea, when the Korean peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule. He wrote and published in both Korean and Japanese until his early death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-seven, after his imprisonment by the Japanese police for thought crimes in Tokyo. His work shows innovative engagement with European modernism, especially surrealism and Dada. He is considered one of the most experimental writers of Korean modernism.
As I learned more about Korean poetry, especially the poetry of Yi Sang’s time, I realized that translation as mere exercise was not good enough. I also felt a great affinity toward Yi Sang’s voice and set out to translate all of his Korean poetry, hoping to share it with English readers one day.
During that same time in college, I also studied the poets of the English Renaissance and Revolution: John Milton, Andrew Marvell, and the Metaphysical poets, including John Donne. Since then, there has been a strong connection in my mind between the English poets of the Renaissance and the poets of colonial Korea.
First, the grammatical structure of English a few centuries ago is awfully familiar to someone whose first language is Korean—the delayed revelation of subject and action in those old English sentences is a common feature in Korean writing. Second, the cornucopia of new ideas and technological inventions that flooded the minds of poets in both the English Renaissance and colonial Korea expanded their imaginations, and their poems were eager to use new metaphors based on those new concepts. I am thinking of Milton’s famous lines about Satan’s shield, where the brilliant leaps between celestial visions and earthly locations are achieved with the concept of the telescope, “the Optic Glass:”
He scarce had ceas’t when the superior Fiend
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev’ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.
—Paradise Lost, Book 1, Lines 283-291
And in that same vein, I am thinking of Yi Sang’s use of an X-ray lab technician’s language to explore one’s alienation from the self:
We apply liquid silver to the mirror from our side of reality, until the liquid silver permeates over to the other side. (Taking caution against radiation’s penetration). We slowly pull the subject out of anesthesia. We provide the subject with pen and paper (The head researcher must avoid embracing the subject at all cost).
—from Crow’s-Eye View, “Poem No. 8: Anatomy”
These poets share the spirit not only of being in a world that was rapidly changing, but also of being the imaginative forces behind that change. That these poets also had to survive and stand against powers of oppression that pursued their ideas, beliefs, and identities give their words powerful energies that echo one another beyond their time and space.
After college, I went back to Seoul to study modern Korean poetry at Seoul National University. I came back and studied more poetry at Iowa, and during all this time I was almost always at work translating Yi Sang.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
Yi Sang is notorious for his rejection of the “spacing” rule in Korean grammar. The shape of Korean sentences is governed by dividers between words and clauses. English, on the other hand, simply puts spaces between every word.
The spaces in a Korean sentence have a great impact on both its sense and rhythm. This rule is also a modern invention. When you look at the earliest Korean writings, they do not have any spaces. During the colonial era, one of the first Korean newspapers declared in its first issue that it would use the spacing rule for ease of comprehension. The spacing became a common feature in the 1910s. Most Korean poets and writers in Yi Sang’s time also accepted using spacing in their lines.
Yi Sang came along in 1932 and blew this rule up. Two sentences from “Poem No. 9: Muzzle” from the Crow’s-Eye View series look like this in Korean:
And with the spacing rule applied, and the Literary Chinese characters changed into Korean spelling, the sentences would look like this:
나는 내 소화기관에 묵직한 총신을 느끼고 내 다물은 입에 매끈매끈한 총구를 느낀다.
그러더니 나는 총을 쏘듯이 눈을 감으며 한 방 총탄 대신에 나는 참 나의 입으로 무엇을 내뱉었더냐.
For a modern Korean reader, the latter rendition is far easier to understand. But Yi Sang’s refusal to use spacing has many important implications. Don Mee Choi writes that “. . . Yi Sang’s sentences are also compressed, deprived of air, barely leaving any gaps between words, syllabically speaking.” Indeed, in the absence of spacing, there is a torrential rush of sound in Yi Sang’s lines. Each syllable shoots out like bullets from a machine gun. The air turns to fire.
What also makes this compression and speed possible in Korean is that every square block that you see in the sentence directly represents its single syllabic sound. The experience of the rushing, often claustrophobic sound of the poem is direct and impactful. The sense of the sentence might be delayed, but the sound is immediate and almost overwhelming.
In English, however, removing spaces between the words leads to a considerable slowing down of both understanding the sound and the sense of the sentence. The following is an English translation of the two sentences above that removes the spaces.
My experience of reading these lines in Korean was the rushing of syllables, words pushed out in a hurry from the poet’s dying gasps. However, for me, this spaceless version in English feels like a chore to get through. Most of my brain power is wasted parsing through where each word ends and begins. The experience of sound does not come immediately. Many English words also do not have a one-to-one relationship between how they are spelled and how they sound. Ultimately, while there is a visual fidelity in the above version, I believed that translating Yi Sang’s poetry had to prioritize transferring into English the rapid succession of his startling imagery and how these images interact within the poem.
So, I used the spaces in my English versions. And to re-create the sensation of the rapid syllabic movement, I limited myself to using single-syllable words whenever I could. I then added in moments of unexpectedness with punctuation and exclamations. In English, I find it is easier to have short sentences come immediately one after another, swiftly turning the flow of action with an interjection:
I feel in my digestive machinery the heaviness of the barrel, and in my mouth the slick muzzle of a gun. I close my mouth to shoot but instead of a bullet blast—huh? What did I really spit?
What I found necessary in translating Yi Sang into English was to recognize that he had invented his own language, and that bringing him into English needed the translator to transfer his manic energy and to interpret his astounding catalogue of images.
Do you have any translating rituals?
I am not sure if this counts as a ritual, but I do not write or type anything down until I am satisfied with my translation of the first line of a poem in my head. I turn the sentence around this way and that as much as I can before I see it on the page—once I see it there, it is much more difficult to change it afterward.
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
Recently I have been picturing Aeneas carrying his father, Anchises, in Virgil’s Aeneid whenever I think about translation. Translation is carrying over, and the image of a child carrying their parent through a ruinous ending, the death of their home, only to take them toward an uncertain future resonates with me.
Then come, dear father. Arms around my neck:
I’ll take you on my shoulders, no great weight.
Whatever happens, both will face on danger,
Find one safety.
—The Aeneid, Book 2, Lines 921–924, trans. Robert Fitzgerald
What also strikes me about Aeneas carrying his father is that he cannot carry everyone with him. He leaves his wife by mistake. Aeneas gets his young son to hold on to his leg as he fights his way through the Greek army. When he puts his father and son down in safety, he realizes that he has lost his wife, who was following him. He returns to his burning city to look for her, crying and wailing her name in the streets. However, all he meets is her ghost. His voice becomes a “clot” in his throat, but her ghost comforts him, and wishes him a good journey toward his future. Aeneas still tries to hold her, but it is futile.
With this she left me weeping,
Wishing that I could say so many things,
And faded on the tenuous air. Three times
I tried to put my arms around her neck,
Three times enfolded nothing, as the wraith
Slipped through fingers, bodiless as wind,
Or like a flitting dream.
—The Aeneid, Book 2, Lines 106–1032, trans. Robert Fitzgerald
Aeneas realizes he cannot carry everything over. I think translators learn to accept that they cannot bring over what they love most about their source text. All we have left are our attempts to hold onto wraiths, like Aeneas trying three times to enfold his dead wife into himself.
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.
Ever since the beginning of lockdown, I have been translating and posting Korean poetry from the twentieth century on social media. It is exciting to see new readers respond to these poems positively.
Another project I am thinking of is translating Yi Sang’s short stories and one novel. Yi Sang’s stories and essays (some of which are included in Selected Works from Wave Books) are closely related to his poetry. It is difficult to clearly categorize his writings into specific genres. I consider Yi Sang’s stories and essays as his long poems. I would love to return to his world again and carry over whatever I can into English.
And Don Mee’s question for you: You told me recently that you are doing house chores and giving your mom all the nourishment she needs to keep working and surviving as a nurse during the pandemic. This reversal of gender role expectations made me think about Yi Sang's life—he was bed-ridden and supported by his wife while he suffered from tuberculosis. What was it like for you to translate and stay engaged with Yi Sang’s poetry for ten years? And what drew you to his essays?
That is a fascinating parallel Don Mee has brought up about Yi Sang’s life and my current situation that I had not thought about. Having said that, even before the pandemic, throughout our time in the United States, my mother always worked, and I was at home studying and cooking and cleaning. I am always grateful for her love and support.
I am still processing what it has been like working with Yi Sang’s writings for more than a decade. For now, I can safely say that I am not done yet, and that there is still more to be learned and translated.
For instance, because of the pandemic and its isolation, I am more aware of the overwhelming reality of the outside world, and this has led me to relate closely to the poets I love in how they experienced that reality.
I have seen my recent experience in Yi Sang’s essays and stories, as well as in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. These writers who were often limited to (or preferred to) stay in their rooms most of the time experienced extraordinary sensations whenever they ventured forth through their doors—and thankfully for us, they have put that experience into their writing. I think I was drawn to Yi Sang’s essays because they were the records of his time outside, while his poems remain in his tightly designed rooms.
For instance, this moment from Yi Sang’s essay “A Journey into the Mountain Village” is an occasion of the outside:
But, because the air here is crystal clear, I can read my beloved Gospel of Luke with starlight alone. Far away from the city, the stars double their numbers. It is so silent here that I might be able to listen to the celestial movements for the first time in my life.
And here is a stanza from Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins “I taste a liquor never brewed”:
Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue
Whenever I go out briefly for a walk these days, or whenever I take off my mask before coming back in and smell the fresh air for a few seconds, I cannot believe that I ever took all these colors and all these smells for granted. I also think of those who never had a chance to breathe, and who were not allowed to breathe at all.
Jack Jung is a graduate of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States. He received his BA in English from Harvard and MA in Korean language and literature from Seoul National University.