Austyn Wohlers: How did the two of you get started translating?
Soeun Seo: Kim Yideum was my very first translation project: I was in undergrad, Jake was my professor at the time, Kim Yideum commissioned Jake to translate some of her poems, and I got onto the project. Once we did them, we just kind of continued translating the whole book so that we could publish it. I also realized that I did like the poems, on top of the money we were getting at the time, so we continued. I think we had a lot of ons and offs throughout the year—we didn’t work on Hysteria continuously for three years, but had gaps in the middle. Over time, that gave me a lot of time on my own to be a poet, and so I think I became more and more involved in the artistic choices. I think at first I didn’t really feel like a translator of poetry, but now I feel like—yeah, I translate poems and make them into other poems.
SS: [Laughs] Thank you!
AW: What about you, Hedgie?
Hedgie Choi: I had a very similar start. I was in undergrad, same university as Soeun, and—
SS: Same college.
HC: Yeah! And I started translating, I think, mostly as a way to learn about poetry. Because I was doing translation for other things previously, as a job, or translating for some children’s book translator, or whatever. But I wanted to learn more about poetry. I was taking Jake’s class, and he was like, “Oh! Well, I’m translating some poems, do you want to see what that’s like?” In the beginning it wasn’t Kim Yideum; it was a smattering of other poets that I helped with on and off, and Kim Yideum was the first project where he was like, this is going to be a project, this is like a long term thing. But yeah, for me it was a way to learn about why Jake was making certain choices about translation. I would be like, “Well this says blah-blah-blah flesh blah-blah-blah,” and he’d say, “Well, let’s do blah-blah-blah body instead of flesh,” and I’d be like “Why?” And that was a useful thing for me.
AW: Cool, so it sounds like for both of you the origins were very educational.
SS: Hedgie, I didn’t know this about you—that you started translating in order to learn. That’s wild.
AW: You both touched on this a little bit, but I wanted to ask: Does your translation practice inform your writing practice, or vice versa? And how?
HC: Right, like I said, in the beginning it was very educational for me, so I was figuring out like, why put a line break there, why do this and that, and that’s how I started thinking about poems. And then I was in an MFA, and at that point it kind of switched to where translation wasn’t the main project anymore. Writing my own poems became more of the main project. I think it’s a difficult balance oftentimes in that I find it very tempting to work on translation and not on my own work, because there’s less baggage, maybe, with translation. The content already exists. I don’t have to be sure that I have a thing to say to the world. Someone else has already done that work. So then it does become more centered on craft decisions. It’s the kind of thing where like, yes, translation takes up a very long time, but you see the results of the time you put into it. If you spend six hours today translating, then you’re going to have this many pages of translation done. Poetry, you can sit there and get nothing done.
AW: Right, or you can produce twenty pages and then none of it’s useful.
HC: Yeah, exactly. And I think with translation there’s much less of that risk, so it’s very tempting to just go at it for a while. I translate the best when I’m procrastinating on my own work. In that sense it can be dangerous and bad, but I would also say that it’s been very useful, because I think for poetry, at least for my process of writing poetry, there are a lot of big gaps where it’s not like I’m going to try hard and get something out of it. So it’s important for me to learn how to not write and be calm about it, and for that it’s very useful to have another project that’s related to poetry but works very differently, so that I can kill time without freaking out.
AW: Soeun, did you want to add anything on top of what you’ve already said?
SS: I don’t know if have much to add… Actually, I didn’t start translating for educational purposes, or, I don’t think I was ever consciously trying to learn things from it. Of course, they do seep in, but I think mostly for me I absorb the material and let it happen. I don’t really try to apply a certain skill a poet uses or anything. But I do think that reading Kim Yideum’s work was one of the first works of poetry that introduced me to irritation as something that’s valid in poems, so after that, my poems were much more easily angered and irritated by others. So I guess that’s an influence.
AW: I found that very palpable, reading Hysteria. It was also one of the first times for me I was interested in being, I don’t know, agitated or provoked by what I was reading.
SS: [Laughs] Yeah.
AW: What other media were you looking at or consuming while translating these poems, and did that affect your translation at all?
SS: So, because I started translating Kim Yideum the summer of 2015 and ended in the summer of 2018—I was in the project on and off—I wasn’t really focused on consuming related kinds of media with Hysteria. I don’t really have a specific influence that I can mention. Hedgie, do you?
HC: What comes to mind is that we were doing other translations, also, as this was going on, and that was very interesting just because this does seem very different from a lot of the other smaller translations that I’ve had to do in between.
AW: This might be redundant, given what you’ve both said about how you started working on the project, but was there anything that drew you to Kim Yideum?
SS: Right, my answer is going to be similar to your first question, although I guess if we’re talking about what made me decide to do the whole book rather than just the paid-for first 20 poems, I think what I said earlier about irritation being so present in the poems, and about them being such trivial personal experiences, in a lot of ways made the poetry much more approachable for me. I think that’s what I really liked about Kim Yideum. I don’t know if that exactly led to me choosing to translate her poems, but it’s something I was thinking about.
HC: Yeah, and the direct answer to that question is that Jake chose this and then I was brought on—but I definitely do think that this felt different from a lot of the other translation work that I’ve done. Left to my own devices, I might have been like, oh, I should translate people who are important and canonical in Korean poetry, so old dead men, mostly, and I think it was interesting to have someone be like, well this is the project I’m doing? Because in some sense it legitimizes what the project is. Now, when I think back upon this versus other translations I was interested in doing on my own, this feels much closer to the work that I’m interested in in English.
AW: Was there a moment during translation where everything came together, either for a poem or for the book as a whole, or a moment that was particularly challenging for you?
SS: I do remember one particular moment when I was editing Hysteria. We had done the first round of translations, the literal translation, and then we were each going to look through the entire book to make comments so that later we could come together and have a Skype session. I was doing one of those, I was editing the title poem, and at some point, instead of thinking about the choices I had to make that were in the comments at the time, I just read through the Korean poem once, then got angry, because it’s an angering poem, and tried to be angry as I was translating. Aggressive. It was really fun, and I remember thinking, oh, what if this translation is too loose and Jake and Hedgie don’t like it, but the reactions were really good, and I felt very validated in that method of translating.
HC: I think times when the work seemed together were times we were calling, or times there were more than one of us and we were all working together and throwing out suggestions. I think that can be a really fun experience because when I translate by myself, I tend not to go for the translation that’s fun, I’m like, let’s go for the correct translation, but it’s very freeing if you translate with other people and you get to throw out those suggestions.
SS: We were so receptive to them, too. I think we were especially excited about the radical choices in translation. When any of us tried to be free, we all tried to validate each other, and we were very supportive about it.
AW: Wow, so you were all pushing each other towards that chaotic mode?
HC: Yeah, for sure.
AW: Can you speak more about what it was like working collaboratively between three people?
SS: I was actually going to talk about what Hedgie just talked about, how it takes the pressure off of making decisions, and how when we agree on those decisions together, I feel that much more certain because two other people agree with me. Having constant feedback from other people keeps me interested in the project, too. I think it’s very easy to put this Google Doc aside and never look at it, but if Hedgie’s like “Why did you do this?” a month after I did it, I’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I did that,” and try to explain myself, and Hedgie will be like, “Oh nice,” and I’ll be like, “Wow, this is kind of fun.” Yeah, it keeps me engaged.
HC: Yeah, I wanted to talk a little about the division of labor involved in this book. Like we said, when we first started we were both in undergrad, and I didn’t have any inkling of what a long term project this was going to be. I also definitely did not have any confidence about what poems were, about whether I could write poems. I think in the beginning we worked on the initial translation, the most literal and faithful version of the translation, and then Jake would make artistic decisions about the translation, and so towards the beginning there was the division of labor people typically think about when there’s a native speaker and non-native speaker pair that’s translating a work. And I think there’s this idea that the initial translation is just technical skill, and that there isn’t an artistic decision that goes into it. But I found that that’s not true. Later on, as I was writing my own poems and felt more sure about what I wanted the English translation of these poems to look like, I was arguing for certain things or against certain things, but that didn’t necessarily feel like a huge, dramatic change from what I was doing in the beginning. In the beginning, for pretty much all of the poems, I would have so many lines of the poems that I would translate four or five different ways into English, and I would leave them as options, and I’d be like, “Well, this one works in this way; this one has this element but it’s missing that; this one is close but adds in this extra layer in English that isn’t present in the Korean, and that may be a problem,” so I was explaining all of the different choices that could be made, even if I wasn’t the one making a final decision about what to do about it. And later, when I did feel like I was a part of that final decision, I realized the work I was doing before was valid—it wasn’t like I was just Google Translate in a human body.
AW: It sounds like you gained a lot of confidence as a translator during that process, too.
AW: What projects are y’all currently working on?
SS: We both have a book coming out from Black Ocean, respectively, I think within the next year or so. I’m translating a book called Beautiful and Useless by Kim Min Jeong. And Hedgie…
HC: …is translating Pillar of Books by Moon Bo Young. It feels really different to be working on a project more by myself, and also at a point where I’m like, “Oh yes, I’m a translator,” as opposed to “I don’t know, I’m just like doing things.”
SS: I feel much more possessive about my translation of Kim Min Jeong than I did about Kim Yideum. It was less of a collaboration and I was consciously more active in the artistic decisions. Kim Min Jeong also deals with the trivial and personal experiences, but she’s also hilarious and very interested in awkwardness. I instantly recognized my own poetry in hers—whereas Kim Yideum’s irritability is something I picked up from her, Kim Min Jeong’s poetry was very much like mine from the start. I think this similar vibe made me identify with the book a lot.
Hedgie Choi is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers. She co-translated Hysteria by Kim Yideum, which was shortlisted for both the 2020 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize and the 2020 National Translation Award in poetry. Her translation of Pillar of Books by Moon Bo Young is forthcoming with Black Ocean in 2021, and individual poems from the book can be found on Asymptote, The Adroit Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Columbia Journal, and Copper Nickel. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review Online, Washington Square Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, West Branch, and The Journal.
Soeun Seo is a poet and translator from South Korea and a current fellow at the Michener Center for Writers. They co-translated Kim Yideum’s Hysteria (Action Books, 2019) and is currently co-translating Kim Min Jeong’s Beautiful and Useless which will be coming out in October 2020 with Black Ocean.
An artist from Atlanta, Austyn Wohlers is an assistant editor of Action Books. She is working on a novel about an orchard, and on an album with her band Tomato Flower.