From 2016 to 2021 I taught a stylistics class at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. In the class students were asked every week to compare recently published translations of Korean fiction and poetry in English to the original language texts. Because there are only a handful of translators from Korean to English, and also because I teach the same students for several semesters in a row, we often look at multiple books by different authors and a single translator or translator team. The poet Kim Hyesoon’s <한 잔의 붉은 거울>, translated into English as A Drink of Red Mirror and published by Action Books in 2019, is an exceptional case of co-translation. Translated as a class at Arizona State University, but credited primarily to Shin Jiwon, Lauren Albin and Sue Hyon Bae, this book challenges all kinds of ideas about not only the practice of translation, but the idea of ownership and production of translated texts. Although individual poems are credited to different translators, according to interviews and statements by the students involved, this was very much a class project, a whole-team effort. As practicing translators, my students at LTI and I were wonderfully perplexed and inspired by this book. We had many questions.
What happens when that sense of embodiment or intimacy of translating poetry is shared communally? Does that bond between author, text, and translator dissipate? What happens when you divide a book and work on a project as a large team, editing and shaping the voice and style of the translation together? Like one can interpret something otherwise, translators can always translate otherwise. But what happens when we interpret together, translate together? What new riches are there to be discovered? Could communal translation as a practice help liberate the language of the text from the world of property relations? Could it unlock other forms of cooperation we can use in other modes of artistic production? Because translation confounds and complicates concepts like originality, authenticity, authorship, and ownership, it is an artistic mode riddled with anxiety. Anxiety not only for translators who must wrestle with these concepts, but also for a world which tries to define art in terms of ownership and commodity relations.
When you work on a project over several years and in multiples, the communal sense of attachment, or possession, eases the individual translator’s anxiety. Instead of an I-me or an I-we relationship, a community of translators working on a book form an I-we-thou relationship. This is a great mode for translation, as translations exist apriori, in collaboration and in multiples.
The following poems are from a forthcoming selected volume of poems, Human Time by the contemporary poet Kim Haengsook. The poems in the collection were chosen by the author from her books, which span a 20-year career. Initially the manuscript was divided between four students, Leo-Thomas Brylowski, Joanne Park, Hannah Hertzog, Susan K. Additionally, some of the other poems were translated by Soohyun Yang, Soeun Seo and I. After these initial translations, we communally workshopped them, revising and shaping them over and over, once a week, for over a year. Although each poem is attributed to one or two translators who were responsible for the initial translation, all the revisions and subsequent craft choices were made collaboratively as a team, often by vote.
There’s something mysterious about seeing a balloon fly into the sky. The way a rubber balloon no bigger than a palm slowly swells with air, how it slowly grows thinner… the way it’s lost forever the moment it loses hold of a child’s clasped hand…
If we could do that by cupping the palms of our hands on a cold winter night…
Street people will rise and float above roofs, people whose hearts have long been filled with air. Above a roof are a street vendor who lost his cart and a drunk who lost his wallet. The two look like phantoms momentarily frozen midair. “I didn’t know where to go and my feet wouldn’t budge.” “I don’t know how to get home.”
“Hey brother, can you spare a cigarette?” If we could light a fire by rubbing our palms together on a cold winter night…
Each one of us is like a long pointy flame. If we look at the ashes flying into the air like the tails we hide, today must be January 1st. The same as last year. I solicited someone I’d never seen before on the street. He looked at me with a sad face, like the mirror I looked into that morning.
– Léo-Thomas Brylowski
I understood through life
the need for constant rotation.
By rotating around its axis, this machine
somehow manages to produce chocolate.
It’s your lullaby
your fine powdered medicine.
It puts you to sleep.
It begins slowly.
Like soft chocolate
showing rotten teeth.
It’s surprising they can bite.
These kinds of women.
You can’t tell chocolate from the night sky
the sound of screaming gets finely ground.
Without a word
the machine produces.
I want to fall asleep to their lullabies.
You’ve grown into an adult.
It began slowly.
On top of an aluminum disc.
My job is to say, “You can’t do that here.”
My job is to reject your goals.
My job is to reject you the next day, too.
My job is to wait for you the day after the next day so I can reject you.
My job is to wait for you the day after the next day and end up loving you.
So my job is to reject my love.
I write, “I won’t cry because of my vocation.” Sometimes when I write in my diary, I cry.
–Hannah Quinn Hertzog
What’s a home?
I recall my 20th century childhood
and you recall your 21st century childhood.
That’s what a residential street is like these days.
Just like the rules at your mom’s house and the rules at your dad’s house
everyone goes about life differently
though they want to look the same.
People with big dogs depend on their big dogs
and people with small dogs depend on their small dogs.
There must be someone crying with a dog smaller than their head
wrapped tightly in their arms.
Tonight too, that’s what a residential street is like.
A dog squirms.
Does it mean it’s happy, or distressed?
If it was a talking dog, would it bark the truth?
If it was a talking window, it would be a talkative grandma.
But even if it was a kind-hearted grandma
you couldn’t continue your monologue by the window.
What does it mean to escape a residential street at night?
I envy the speed at which cars race toward
the gas station at night.
You walk out of the alley and jump into an alley-less world.
What changes like an illusion?
What do we believe firmly like a perfect illusion?
The night breeze is cool, so I close the windows.
I close the see-through glass window
and the opaque glass window
shutting the curtains, as if angry.
I can’t see either.
I’ll show you on the field trip.
Just chill out.
I like you.
Isn’t it refreshing?
This building’s windows are open like crazy.
The stairs end midair.
The building laughs.
I like you.
Bird droppings drip.
Boys come to fight.
Someone made a fire here.
There’s no second floor.
There’s no self.
In the halls we’ll unwrap our food
and spread the smell.
I’ll show you on the field trip.
The building smiled.
Let’s exit out the back.
Let’s vanish together.
Kim Haengsook is one of the best-known Korean contemporary poets. Her books include Adolescence (2003), The Goodbye Ability (2007), and What Errands Are You Running? (2020), which won the prestigious Daesan Literary Award. An English translation of a selected collection of her poems Human Time is forthcoming at Black Ocean. She is a professor at Kangnam University.
Jake Levine is a poet, translator, and scholar. He has authored, translated, or co-translated over a dozen books, including his co-translation of Kim Yideum’s Hysteria (Action Books 2019), which received the National Translation Award and Lucien Stryk Prize. He edits the Korean poetry series Moon Country at Black Ocean.
Susan K studied English Literature and Linguistics at the University of Toronto. After spending some years teaching English and managing people who teach English, she decided to walk the cold and lonely path of a freelance translator. She completed the Literature Translation fellowship program and the Media Translation fellowship program at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea and currently works as a full-time translator of poetry, web comics, movies, and pretty much anything that interests her. She has also received a grant from the LTI to translate Park Soran’s poetry collection, One Person’s Closed Door. She loves all animals, but especially dogs; she loves all books, but especially mystery thrillers.
Léo-Thomas Brylowski graduated with a BA from the University of British Columbia and went on to complete the two-year LTI Korea Translation Academy fellowship program in Seoul. He was the Grand Prize recipient of the Korea Times Modern Korean Literature Translation Award in 2019 for his translation of Lee Kiho’s short story “Choe Mijin, Where Have You Gone?” and has also received a grant from LTI Korea in 2020 for the translation of a novel by author Park Young (currently in progress; title is yet to be decided upon). He is based in Seoul and works full-time as a webtoon (online comics) translator.
Hannah Quinn Hertzog graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in Korean, Asian Languages and Literature, and Computer Science, then went on to complete both the two-year fellowship program and the summer-long Media Translation fellowship program at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. In 2020, she received the Grand Prize at the 51st Korea Times Modern Korean Literature Translation Awards for her translation of Kim Un-su’s short story “Jab,” as well as the LTI Korea Translation Award for Aspiring Translators for her translation of Hwang Jung-eun’s short story “Gravedig.” She currently works full-time as a software engineer in Seoul.
Joanne Park studied history at Yonsei University and finished the regular course program at LTI Korea. She lives with her cat in Seoul.