An Expelled Tongue: Translating Kim Hyesoon

Poet Don Mee Choi discusses the myth of fluency and what happens when translation is allowed to be hysterical.

Don Mee Choi is a translator of feminist South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon—most recently of Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (Action Books, 2014), which was shortlisted for the 2015 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. The author of The Morning News Is Exciting(Action Books, 2010), Choi has received a Whiting Writers Award and the 2012 Lucien Stryk Translation Prize. Her most recent works include a chapbook, Petite Manifesto (Vagabond Press, 2014), and a pamphlet, Freely Frayed, ?=q, Race=Nation (Wave Books, 2014). Her second book of poems, Hardly War, is forthcoming from Wave Books in April 2016.

In the following interview with Margins Poetry Editor Emily Yoon, Choi talks about the failing and afflailing tongue, the position of history and politics in translation, and the American tendency to insist on joy, among other things. Choi proclaims, “If you’re not already, you’ll soon be a junkie of Kim’s adorable, often bloody, rat, cat, pig, hole allegories of patriarchy, dictatorship, neoliberal economy, and neocolonial domination.” Read two of Don Mee Choi’s translations of Kim Hyesoon’s poems in The Margins. And look out for a series of essays and short reflections on Kim’s work later this week.

READ THE INTERVIEW HERE  Asian American Writers’ Workshop – An Expelled Tongue: Translating Kim Hyesoon

(Image: Detached ??, by Daehyun Kim. 29.7 × 42 cm, Pigment liner and marker on a paper, 2014)

Art Commission Winner Announcement

The judging panel is delighted to award the PoetTrio art commission to Martin Heslop

Heslop fought off exceedingly tough competition from 75 other proposals to win the £3000 commission. 

The artwork will be unveiled on the 3rd May at the 2018 Newcastle Poetry Festival at the Sage Theatre. 

Thanks to all entrants for their proposals which were of extremely high quality. We regret that we are unable to provide feedback about unsuccessful proposals. 

Art Commission Shortlist

We were overwhelmed by the response to the extended call for proposals for the AHRC-funded art commission, with 76 entries and a very high standard overall.  After some long hard thinking the judging panel led by Sinéad Morrissey, with W.N. Herbert and Rebecca May Johnson, in consultation with the PoetTrio principal investigator Professor Francis Jones, have managed to whittle down the list of 76 to a shortlist of six, named here in alphabetical order:

We will be announcing the winner shortly.

Thanks to all entrants for their proposals which were of extremely high quality.

We regret that we are unable to provide feedback about unsuccessful proposals. 

Menno Wigman (1966-2018)

It is with great sadness and shock that we have to announce that the eminent Dutch poet Menno Wigman passed away suddenly yesterday in Amsterdam. He was just 51.

Menno Wigman’s prizewinning poetry combines a return to traditional forms – tight rhythm and full or half-rhyme – with a modern, big-city bite that goes to the heart of the turn-of-our-century human condition. This gained him not only enormous respect from his peers, critics and editors, but also popularity among a wider poetry-loving public.

On the PoetTrio project we had the privilege of working with Menno Wigman during our translation workshops. He was one of the three Dutch poets who co-translated their UK counterparts’ work into Dutch, and whose work was translated into English.

IMG_0028 Menno workshop

The rest of the team of poets, translators and researchers remember with affection his quiet, quizzical insights. And not only the energy of his own poems, but also the tight, incisive poetic skill that he brought to bear while translating. We will miss him enormously.

Menno Wigman has one published volume in English: Window-cleaner Sees Paintings, translated by David Colmer (Arc Press). Poetry International Web hosts an English-language selection of his work, translated by John Irons. Here is a video of Menno reading after our workshops in Newcastle last July. 

Los Angeles Review of Books | What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation

This article originally appeared on the Los Angeles Review of books on the 11th January 2018

visit the original article here:  What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation – Los Angeles Review of Books

by Deborah Smith


OVER THE PAST few years, literary translation has enjoyed a surge in popularity in both the United States and, perhaps especially, in the United Kingdom, and it’s this new climate that saw the Man Booker International Prize revamped to give author and translator equal recognition. When its inaugural year awarded Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, literary translation was thrown into the spotlight in South Korea, too. Naturally, there’s no consensus, with some South Korean critics bemoaning others’ tendency to treat foreign prizes as some sort of referendum on the quality of Korean literature as a whole. But there are two anxieties at play in The Vegetarian’s reception at home and abroad: over the cultural politics of prize-giving, and over the nature and status of translation. The increased attention and appreciation afforded both translation and the translator undermines the myth of unmediated access to an original, a fantasy in which both readers of the translation and of the original have a stake. To put it plainly, people like to believe that they’ve read War and Peace, not “an English translation of War and Peace,” and that the thing they love — be it an individual book or a culture — is really the thing being acclaimed. All of these anxieties are compounded by the fact that translation is a profoundly strange and often counterintuitive art. It’s also perhaps the only art that can be not just bad, but wrong, and will never not be flawed.

To say that my English translation of The Vegetarian is a “completely different book” from the Korean original is, of course, in one sense, entirely correct. Since there is no such thing as a truly literal translation — no two languages’ grammars match, their vocabularies diverge, even punctuation has a different weight — there can be no such thing as a translation that is not “creative.” And while most of us translators think of ourselves as “faithful,” definitions of faithfulness can differ. Because languages function differently, much of translation is about achieving a similar effect by different means; not only are difference, change, and interpretation completely normal, but they are in fact an integral part of faithfulness.

To imagine that The Vegetarian must have been improved in translation because the original didn’t garner anywhere near the same level of success involves a level of selective thinking. After all, its middle section won the Yi Sang Literary Award, South Korea’s most prestigious literary award. More than anything else, there simply is no success comparable to that bestowed by the Man Booker brand; the Korean literary establishment puts far more stock in international than domestic literary prizes. By most other standards, Chaesikjuuija (The Vegetarian’s Korean title) was a success, with 20,000 copies sold (and in its 14th reprint) by the time my English translation came out, a full seven years after the Korean original. In that time, translations were published in China, Argentina, Poland, and Vietnam — highly unusual for a Korean book. But again, cultural imperialism means that none of those non-English translations, however well received, could catapult the book to international success. More significant in my eyes is that each resulted, just as my English version did, from a translator falling in love with the book sufficiently to want to dedicate their time to it.

Something else happened during those seven years — South Korea criminalized marital rape. So it’s not difficult to see why a book that exposes this pervasive structural violence might have been received differently by the (mostly older male) literary establishment than by the many Korean women who didn’t consider it “extreme and bizarre” at all. Perhaps the overwhelming focus on The Vegetarian’s aesthetics is a way of avoiding talking about its politics?

Han Kang has received extraordinarily high praise for things that have nothing to do with the translator, such as The Vegetarian’s “potent images” (the Guardian), “[brilliant] three-part structure” and “crushing climax, phantasmagoric yet emotionally true” (Publishers Weekly). Structure, plot, themes, characterization, et cetera, are all the work of the author. Translators, in the great majority of cases, do the language: style, tone, rhythm. And Han Kang’s Korean readers have always singled out her “poetic” style. A 2011 article introduces her as having “received attention for her lyrical style and detailed structuring”; a 2017 article in the Kyunghyang Shinmun comments that Han’s fiction “resembles poetry,” which is appropriate for the prose of someone who is also a published poet, and speaks of her “characteristic delicate and sensual style.” It’s true that this lyricism is less pronounced in The Vegetarian than in Human Acts, and especially than in her latest work, The White Book, which is almost a series of prose poems, but it’s still definitely there — a subtly poetic style that’s also spare and understated. I certainly wasn’t trying to produce an overblown, ornate style in English (though novels tend not to be one-note, but have moments of greater and lesser intensity), and I don’t think it happened unconsciously, either. Readers and reviewers described the writing style of the translation as “subtle” (Independent), “precise and spare” (Irish Times), and “bone-spare” (New Statesman). They spoke of its poetry, too, with no sense that these might be mutually exclusive — the author Deborah Levy called it “poetic yet matter-of-fact.”

Still, some people believe that my translation “overly poeticized” an original that was spare and understated rather than, not as well as, poetic. As translators, we’re usually our own harshest critics; I think there’s plenty to criticize in my translation. What makes me worry is when the desire to prove a particular argument about a translation encourages a misleading view of the original — in this case, overlooking the poetry I and many others see in Han’s writing. Literary style is not simply a mark of identity, like a fingerprint — it also has a function and a significance. Function is the easy part: the cool, understated prose of The Vegetarian functions to offset the feverish violence, to prevent it from seeming sensationalistic and over-the-top, a reminder that the darkest horrors are found in the everyday. Significance is trickier, because it depends on context: What styles are used by this author’s contemporaries? What’s the mainstream? What tends to garner praise, get labeled “modern,” “original,” “experimental,” or even just “literary”? Translating from Korean into English involves moving from a language more accommodating of ambiguity, repetition, and plain prose, to one that favors precision, concision, and lyricism.

This is simultaneously a gross generalization and an observable phenomenon. Because each author’s individual style distinguishes itself by the degree to which it diverges from this middle ground, and because the significance of style is therefore inextricable from language, translating it seems impossible. What we can do, at least, is to recognize that the “pole” of what registers as, for example, repetition or poetic prose is set at different heights in the source and target languages — and also that if source language conventions are transferred just as they are, they will likely be mistaken for authorial idiosyncrasy, or worse, simply bad writing. Quality is yet another thing translators can choose to be faithful to; many also believe that we ought, where possible, to resist domestication, and Madhu Kaza’s editorial for Kitchen Table Translation is a must-read on the generative politics of “errant, disobedient translation.” With The Vegetarian, I was mindful that straying too far from the conventions of English literary language would diminish and distract from the force of the writing as a whole, which itself has considerable disruptive power.

Every translation’s raison d’être is the readers who couldn’t otherwise access the original. And so, as Daniel Hahn, shortlisted for the 2016 MBI and a judge in 2017, explains, judges “aren’t comparing the original and the translation and evaluating the process (the decisions, the ingenuities, the slips…) of going from the one to the other,” but are attempting “to evaluate the finished English-language work on their own terms.” This is one way of assessing translation quality; it is not the only one. Literary translation can both resist and perpetuate cultural imperialism; as translators, we need to stay aware of our own biases, and of the plurality of approaches advocated by those whose biases and aims are other than ours. Winning a prize doesn’t make my approach to translation the best or only way, and there’s politics, too, in the fact that it will have been largely shaped by living and working in the United Kingdom, where that coveted (by some) success is determined.

Partly because assessing literary translations in South Korea does usually involve comparison, some people couldn’t understand why those “slips” that Hahn mentions hadn’t disqualified my translation from praise and awards. All translators care deeply about accuracy; all translators slip up, because we’re human. For a first-timer, being bombarded with mistake-listing articles and emails left me pretty shaken. Was it true that I’d betrayed Han Kang’s work through negligence or arrogance? Not consciously, because I love her to the point of reverence and think her work is stone-cold genius, but by daring to translate from a language I hadn’t yet mastered? It’s now four years since I translated The Vegetarian, seven since I started learning Korean, and I understand now what I didn’t then: that learning a language is not a progression toward “mastery,” and that nothing teaches you to translate like actually doing it. I’m glad to have brought the work of a brilliant writer to an international audience, in sufficiently faithful a way for a qualitatively, if not quantitatively, similar reception. Some people tell me I ought to be proud, but to be honest I’m happy to feel conflicted — such an attitude is more useful for those of us in positions of privilege, encouraging us to act responsibly and generously towards texts, authors, and other translators.

Still, if I’d at least gotten closer to that impossible perfection, would critics have been forced to engage more with the book itself? Will they, now that Han and I have finally found time to correct the text for future printings? Perhaps, perhaps not, given that some of what was filed under “mistake” was actually just difference. Han herself has consistently taken the time to explain that translators consult both with editors and the author themselves, and that she has read my translation and loved it most for capturing the tone of her own writing — yet that hasn’t stopped some people from talking over her. 

Translations should be critiqued, absolutely; lively, informed critical engagement is all part of a flourishing translation culture. But without taking into consideration how translation norms vary between countries and contexts, and how this might shape individual approaches, it’s hard to move on to the point of difference rather than just pointing it out. At this stage, what a given critic pronounces as admissible doesn’t tell us much beyond personal preference. It’s also difficult, and almost certainly misleading, to assess effect by back-translating into the language of the original, or by comparison with an imagined literal translation; after all, both of those alternative methods involve just as much subjectivity as a translation deemed especially free or creative.

I hope we all keep talking about translation, because there’s always more to say, especially about what a joy it is, and because we need to put our heads together if we’re to ensure that it lives up to its potential — to disrupt hegemonies, work across difference without erasing it, and challenge the myth of the lone genius — while also enabling new audiences for voices and perspectives that might otherwise be silenced or spoken over, and works of art without which all our lives would be diminished. As translators, we must build on these recent gains, which have a direct impact on our ability to command a living wage, rather than being bullied back into our lanes. It’s this combination of low wages justified by dismissal of creativity and an insistence on “humility” that means translation is often spoken of as a feminized profession. Humility does not equal self-effacement; it’s not arrogant to be proud of your work.

There’s no best way to translate, but there are a few propositions regarding translation that, if generally accepted, might make for more constructive conversations: change is not betrayal; editors exist, generally with quite firm opinions; to praise the translation is not to devalue the original. Finally, no translation is definitive — it’s simply a way to “Fail again. Fail better.” I think I failed okay.


Deborah Smith is a British translator of Korean fiction. Her translation of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian won her and the author the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. In 2015, Smith founded Tilted Axis Press, a nonprofit publishing house focusing on contemporary fiction specifically from Asia. Her book-length essay on translation, Fidelity, will be published in the UK by Peninsula Press.

Ocean Vuong awarded TS Eliot Prize by judging panel chaired by PoetTrio poet and researcher, W. N. Herbert

– as reported in The Guardian

TS Eliot prize goes to Ocean Vuong’s ‘compellingly assured’ debut collection

Night Sky With Exit Wounds, the debut collection by a poet who is the first literate person in his family, hailed as ‘the definitive arrival of a significant voice’

Ocean Vuong Forward Arts Prizes 2017 Royal Festival Hall London UK

After becoming the first literate person in his family and a prize-winning poet festooned with awards, Ocean Vuong has now won perhaps his most prestigious accolade yet for his debut collection: the TS Eliot prize.

Reflecting on the aftermath of war over three generations, 29-year-old Vuong’s first collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, has already landed the Forward prize for best first collection, as well as the Whiting and the Thom Gunn awards. The book has also been critically acclaimed, with Observer critic Kate Kellaway describing it as “a conduit for a life in which violence and delicacy collide”, and the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani praising Vuong’s “tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work, combined with a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like appreciation for the sound and rhythms of words”.

Vuong is only the second debut poet to win the TS Eliot prize, two years after Sarah Howe became the first, winning for Loop of Jade in 2016.

Before announcing Vuong as the winner at a ceremony at the Wallace Collection in London on Monday evening, chair of judges Bill Herbert called Night Sky With Exit Wounds “a compellingly assured debut, the definitive arrival of a significant voice”.

“There is an incredible power in the story of this collection,” said Herbert. “There is a mystery at the heart of the book about generational karma, this migrant figure coming to terms with his relationship with his past, his relationship with his father and his relationship with his sexuality. All of that is borne out in some quite extraordinary imagery. The view of the world from this book is quite stunning.”

READ the rest of the article here: