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Don Mee Choi

Book Review

Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode

by on August 5, 2020

In several reviews on this website, I have expressed my view on the value of literature; namely, it is a necessary vehicle used to share human perspective and an intensely potent tool for empathy. If this is true, then there may be no purer manifestation of that value than that of literature in translation. It represents the crossing of borders and boundaries beyond the physical. It is often a deeply collaborative effort, as even authors who translate their own work must adopt hybridized linguistic and cultural perspectives. It, by its very existence, forces the reader to confront the existence of those they might otherwise be encouraged to label “alien”, “foreign”, or even just “different”. So maybe I am not in what one might consider a sufficiently objective mindset to examine Don Mee Choi’s essay “Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode”, but I do not care, because it is a fascinating and provocative distillation of the power of translation, and a vital framing device for how we must proceed.

I seek mirrors through which I can also traverse, in order to map out the neocolonial history of my home, to translate myself.

The heart of this essay is giving translation its proper context. Beauty can often be found in the wake of tragedy, and while said beauty never justifies said tragedy, you can never understand one without the other. Most translation is no different. Much of it is born of and necessitated by the inconceivably cruel legacy of colonialism. But when we look at that legacy, especially those of us who are the descendants of colonization, we have a nasty tendency to treat it as a barbaric ancestral practice that we have left behind. The truth is that colonialism, like so many other forms of oppression, has merely adapted to new circumstances. Neocolonialism, which is the invasion and enslavement of cultures by or on behalf of capitalist corporations in the name of profiteering, is its latest incarnation and the one Choi specifically confronts in the essay.

I am not content to just go from Korean to English. I am not content to uphold the notion of national literature – the notion that literature outside of the Western canon is always bound to national borders.

She takes the time to explore the intense relationship between translation and identity, of how work in translation can resonate with someone who is of two or more worlds, with someone who can still feel the amputated connections to multiple cultural pasts. She shows how translation can take the very impetus behind neocolonialism and repurpose it as a tool of resistance; where neocolonialism ignores boundaries and consent in its insatiable need to destroy, work in translation travels back along its rubble-strewn wake to undermine it at the source. She helps us experience the tragic beauty of translation in our modern context, namely the regretful necessity of its existence as an imperfect tool of preservation and communication. For Choi, translation is not merely a political act, but a defiant one, resisting not only human greed but the advance of time itself, and questioning the assumed inexorability of both.

But my tongue deforms, it disobeys. I translate this longing, entangled with neocolonial dependency, as homesickness, which is a form of illness, a form of intensity.

On a slightly more personal level, I can say that Choi’s manner of essay writing is one that makes me deeply regret the argumentative techniques being taught in most schools. I would not be against showing this essay to any number of professors and department chairs as an example of how it is more than possible to make a persuasive written argument that is profoundly informative, deeply emotional, and a joy to read. Especially in the latter half of the essay I found myself pausing after several sentences and bemoaning the notion that so many students are taught to approach non-fiction and academic writing divorced from their own personal perspectives, as if such a thing was even possible. Choi’s writing is clear and powerful, poignant and elegant. She takes hold of an utterly daunting beast, that being the infinitely stacking layers of identity and legacy at the heart of her essay, and renders it intelligible without sacrificing scale or impact.

My tongue and your tongue are already an aggregate, a site of multiple and collective enunciation.

It is no coincidence that violence and militarism are so intimately tied with Choi’s subject matter. Neocolonialism is tautologically violent, and as it faces growing resistance around the world, it shows that violence through continued attempts at cultural erasure, police and military brutality, and economic exploitation. It can only ever respond to challenges with cruelty and dehumanization. And what is literature in translation other than an attempt to acknowledge someone else’s humanity? I do not think Choi is arguing that translation is some silver bullet (even our metaphors are violent) that will save us from greed and hubris and hate. But she makes the best case I have ever seen for the necessity of translation in fighting that terrible hydra. Her essay reminds me that translation doesn’t merely grow in the wake of tragedy. It is a manifestation of the existential human need for connection and acknowledgment.

“Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode” is part of Ugly Duckling Presse‘s 2020 Pamphlet Series.

Book Review

Hardly War

by on September 27, 2016

hardly_war_final_for_website_largeHardly War by Don Mee Choi

 

Hardly War is Korean-American poet Don Mee Choi’s latest offering and is a work that is boundless in its formal scope and the traumatic history it details.

The collection chronicles the Korean War through poetry, short prose, photographs, bits of letters, a postcard – and remarkably – an opera. Hardly War is a text that is in perpetual conversation with other texts, other histories, other forms. Choi alludes to and cites Korean avant-garde poet Yi Sang, children’s songs, films, Gertrude Stein, and French literary theorists. The dizzying degree of self-aware and referential academia within the collection might prove troublesome for some readers, but  combined with the hybridity of the forms, and the accretion of allusions, quotes, and snippets, Hardly War becomes something more elevated than your typical literary experience. Hardly War is a brilliantly prismatic work, that proves itself to be a challenging but ultimately rewarding book.

At times Hardly War feels vaguely intrusive and deeply voyeuristic. Almost like Choi is giving the reader access to her family’s deepest and most wounded personal artifacts. The accumulation of the various hybrid forms and pieces of postcards and photographs – some with little to no translation or caption – amount to something like a vicious and mad index of the Korean war. The result is a deeply intimate look at the geopolitical climate and national identity of a Korea in turmoil during the 40’s and 50’s.

The photographs that scatter across Hardly War were taken by Choi’s father on his various trips as a war photographer throughout Southeast Asia during the Vietnam and Korean wars. Many of the photographs used in the collection don’t depict the violence of war, leaving one to wonder how much violence Choi’s father saw – or rather – was able to capture. Many of the photographs depict the faces of children or high ranking military officials. There are relatively little images of death – apart from some men posing with a tranquilized tiger – and nothing of explosions or gunfire. The closest we get to a semblance of war is a photograph of two expressionless children gazing into the camera, standing in front of a tank. The photograph is neither disturbing nor graphic, and the children don’t appear to be in any immediate danger. We aren’t even sure which side of the war they represent. An uncharacteristic war image to be sure, but as Choi reiterates throughout this collection, this was “hardly war.”

In a prose vignette titled “6.25,” Choi’s father hears the engine of a Yak-9 North Korean fighter jet, and chases after it with his camera in tow. The plane ultimately eludes him and he is unable to capture it on film. This is suggestive and symbolic of her father’s experience as a war photographer and works to illustrate one of the main overarching themes that we take away from Choi’s latest collection. Photographing the actual mechanics and physicality of war in any form seems to be elusive, and all we are left with is a smorgasbord of war time personal effects (i.e. photographs of children, postcards of military ships, etc). Hardly War in this way ultimately challenges our preconceptions of what war is supposed to look like and manifest as. The title itself, Hardly War, defines itself around the irony of what the war experience is supposed to be. For Choi’s father, and many Koreans, the war was “hardly” a war at all: “That late afternoon the yet-to-be nation’s newspapers were in print, but no photos of the war appeared in any of them. After all it was hardly war…”

Their is a heightened degree of playful self-awareness that marks Hardly War from start to finish. This is apparent in the various forms that make up the collection and in Choi’s stylistic choices. One vignette features several lines of Korean script followed by the line “I refuse to translate” repeated five times. This is one of the more rebellious gestures within the text that suggests feelings of resentment and anger towards the imperialistic and colonial nature of translation. The act of translation to English being a kind of western affront; a colonial gesture. However, given that the majority of Hardly War is written in English, Choi is perhaps suggesting that language is rendered moot and unreliable in its attempts to communicate anything in the face of war.

In the short piece titled, “Neocolony’s Colony,” we are given Vietnamese and English translation side by side. Each English line however, ends with an emphatic militarized “Sir!”

Me Binh Tai / Me been there, Sir!

Me Binh Hoa / Me been high, Sir!

The oppressive and imperialistic nature of translation is laid bare in this instance. Here, translation from Vietnamese to English is seen as an act of ultimate obedience, from a Vietnamese soldier to an unnamed high-ranking American military official – we presume. The result of reading the translation from Vietnamese to English across the page creates a dehumanizing effect, and as the piece moves down the page, the lines become more self-deprecating.

Me Phong Nhi & Phong Nhat / Me flunky & fuck that, Sir!

Me Tay Vinh / Me terrible, Sir!

The end of the piece is highlighted by ME ~ OW written in bold and all caps. Choi’s playfulness here touches a sentimental note, as we are given an allusion to the noise a cat makes, but also phonetically the phrase aligns with the crude and vaguely racist English translation of the speaker:

Me flunky…

Me hate milk…

Me terrible…

Hardly War is a brilliant and layered collection that forces us to reexamine the codes of language and our conceptual notions of war. An act of protest in itself, Hardly War gives us a fresh and often complex perspective on a war that is often called the “forgotten war.”

 

Hardly War by Don Mee Choi is available now from Wave Books.

 

 

Book Review

Poor Love Machine

by on September 6, 2016

PLMCover-1-e1460339402418Poor Love Machine by Kim Hyesoon

 

Kim Hyesoon has long been held in high regard as a master of Korean letters. Originally published in Seoul in 1997, Poor Love Machine was chosen for the Kim Su-yŏng Poetry Prize, arguably South Korea’s most coveted accolade. Recently, and with the assistance of another Korean literary luminary in Don Mee Choi, her works have been graciously translated into English. Choi’s recent translation of Hyesoon comes in the form of the poetry collection Poor Love Machine, an eloquent meditation on corporeal misery, and the crushing spaces the body inhabits.

The opening piece in the collection titled “Rat,” is packed with the overarching thematic qualities found in the collection, and is perhaps the most telling and intimate insight into the mind of Hyesoon and the temporal space her subjects reside.

Do people know how much it hurts the darkness when you turn the light on in the middle of the night?

“Rat” meditates on the speaker’s desire for a certain darkness to maintain within their life – specifically the essence of darkness that defines their body. Light is seen as something foreign and destructive to the relative solitude and solace that is found within the speaker’s bodily darkness. In one such attack the light places on the darkness, the speaker equates the experience eloquently to that of a pinned down beatle: “When the light is switched on inside my darkness, I buzz like a beetle pinned down, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, bzzz, and shake my head wildly, my mandibles  holding onto a black string.” The body is not only a source of misery with Hyesoon, but it has also come to represent a symbol of the grotesque.

Choi’s translation of Poor Love Machine is worthy of its own critical review. The English translation of Poor Love Machine can feel opaque – with certain passages being thorny and vaguely impenetrable. This can be explained quite easily by Choi’s careful translation, and devotion to not compromising the inherent playfulness of Hyesoon’s Korean. It would have been easy for Choi to have bypassed the idiosyncratic nature of Hyesoon’s language, and opted for a more streamlined and accessible English text, but she decided to grace us with a wonderful translation that is combative, stunning, and at times challenging.

In the semi-titular poem “Poor Love Machines Trapped in Rain,” the theme of the human body being represented as something that is prone to being destroyed or “crushed” is on display:

The crushed body gets erased / then is crushed again

In Kim Hyesoon’s world the body is a consistent source of misery, and of cosmic constraint and disillusionment. In the piece titled “Driving in the Downpour,” Hyesoon lamentably asks, “why have I lived so long in the same body[?]” There is a strong thread of dissatisfaction with the body in this collection that really propels it forward at a manic, nervous pace. This feeling of neurosis bleeds from the page in pieces like “Sunstroke,” where the stylistic choice to use repetition only adds to its feverish nature:

Get submerged / get submerged in the blazing sun / get submerged in the rippling blazing sun

“Sunstroke” relies heavily on a vaguely Steinian poetic elliptical style. This becomes most apparent in the following three lines:

Hear something as I get submerged in the rippling blazing sun / Hear something then don’t hear then hear again / as I get submerged in the rippling blazing sun

This puts an emphasis once more on the body and the space that it inhabits. “Sunstroke” portrays the sun as a cleansing, almost spiritual entity, where the body is a source of pain and must be purged. Unlike collection opener “Rat,” where light was seen as something intrusive and destructive, Hyesoon attributes the sun to be a kind of corporeal reprieve. The speaker relates the sound of being submerged in the sun to that of a “voice I have wanted to hear for a thousand years.” The longing and insatiable desire for the body to enter a kind of cosmic oblivion free from the violence of the human body is at the heart of “Sunstroke” and Poor Love Machine.

It would be remiss to not highlight the cultural context for this collection’s release in Korea during the 1990’s. It’s release and acclaim represented a trailblazing moment for female Korean writers, and has long been seen as a crucial Korean feminist tome. The concrete misery conveyed by Hyesoon in this collection, is the collective misery of a turbulent Korea during the 1990’s, a country that witnessed vast cultural and social upheaval. Nearly 20 years later, and now with a wonderful English translation, this collection has the promise of being just as important and vital to the world of English letters. 20 years on, in times of great global uncertainty and misery, Poor Love Machine couldn’t feel more relevant.

 

Poor Love Machine is available now through Action Books.