I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The poet Christian Hawkey is one of the organizers of WeTransist, a multilingual initiative started by a group of translators in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, which aims to use translation as a way to contextualize the current political moment in the US within a broader discussion of colonialism across languages and around the world. Sharing these concerns, the poet Don Mee Choi is currently at work translating, with Joyelle McSweeney, short stories by the Korean modernist writer Yi Sang, who lived under Japanese occupation in the early twentieth century.
The following exchange is part of their ongoing dialogue on translation, colonialism, and “doing political work in the face of constant disaster.” This excerpt spans from August to September 2017, beginning with the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and ending in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Christian Hawkey to Don Mee Choi, August 15, 2017
Thank you for passing along WeTransist’s call for translations. We are so grateful to have it in Korean! With the call translated into a multitude of languages and gorgeous scripts, English becomes one language among many—decentered, displaced, allowing (or this is the hope) links to form between shared global anticolonial and anticapitalist struggles. I’d forgotten you had a connection to Frankfurt. Was your father placed there, working as a wartime photojournalist for Reuters? I wonder if any German came back to you while you were visiting Berlin last month—words stored in the memory/body. A penchant for compounds. Die Sprachkörpererinnerung. Or did your family’s time in Frankfurt precede you?
Berlin is cool and sunny today. I’m watching the news from here, the armed white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, its horror. “Watching.” It feels rather like experiencing yet another tear in the foundational wound that is Amerikkka. And we knew it was coming because it’s always been coming. I’m from Oregon, a state literally founded on white supremacy—from 1857 to 1927 the state’s Bill of Rights prohibited black people from even entering—and I remember groups of “skinheads” coming south to Ashland to recruit members from our town. This was in the late ’80s. So it’s strange, thirty years later, to hear people pointing to current socioeconomic conditions as the cause for resurgent white nationalism. Also, why are so many so-called leftists and conservatives together insisting that it’s the result of identity politics—that such politics “cuts both ways”? It doesn’t cut both ways! To form community as a mode of survival in the face of oppression and to do so in coalitional relation to broader anticapitalist resistances is not the same as those already advantaged by whiteness then claiming a common victimized identity around losing their disavowed privileges. To colonize violently while simultaneously claiming victim status is the psychology of settler colonialism. Trump isn’t an immigrant whose rich dad allowed him to forget his immigrant roots. He’s a settler colonist—sociopathic, extractive, opportunistic.
I’m thinking now of an image from your beautiful reading at Pratt: that white paper dress and the footage you projected onto it: a helicopter from the Vietnam War on fire, spiraling into the ocean. And then your reading in Berlin last month, how you folded image into word and both into music. What instruments was Jay Weaver playing? I remember that reading as a space of ritual, one that moved toward some new, cleansing language, logos tranced out to sonic optics. The chant, too, from Hardly War, “I refuse to translate.” That seems right, especially now, but I wonder what’s at stake, in your mind, in that refusal?
You wrote in an earlier email: “I miss Berlin already. I think of it as a future city of two Koreas. The whole trip was like time travel for me—a return to the past (to Frankfurt where my family lived for several years) and the future (Berlin).” Berlin as the future city of two Koreas! Yes. To some day picnic in the demilitarized zone, the way we all shared a blanket in the middle of Tempelhof Airport, amid the makeshift community gardens and between the runways where planes once landed and took off during the Berlin Airlift. It’s worth imagining because it has been.
DMC to CH, August 23, 2017
I’m very sorry to be late. I’ve been intensively translating (“voices pass through consciousness”—a line from your book Ventrakl) Yi Sang’s short story “Spider&SpiderMeetPigs” (Die Sprach-körpererinnerung). (All the Garbage of the World, Unite!—Kim Hyesoon.) (Yi Sang totally disregarded any conventional spacing between words, so the story is composed of long, long lines of compounded words and phrases.) (Of course, I fell for them.) (He also deploys an abundance of parenthesis.) It’s only a rough draft, but I desperately wanted to have it done for Joyelle McSweeney, who’s co-translating with me, before I replied to you. I’m one of those people who can only do one thing at a time because, in reality, I’m doing many other things outside of writing or translating. I know you’re always juggling, too, as a parent, poet, translator, running an MFA program, and organizing/curating the multilingual WeTransist initiative. It’s truly wonderful co-translating with Joyelle because she strongly connects with Yi Sang (September 14, 1910–April 17, 1937), a Korean modernist. He began his artistic career as an architect, then punned away as a poet and writer despite the colonial censorship during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910–1945).
I came to know Yi Sang’s work because he was my father’s favorite writer. Yi Sang kept him sane during his youth, which was during the Japanese occupation of Korea, a bleak period, needless to say. He said he read Yi Sang late into the night in order to forget his hunger. And as my father was deciphering some of the Chinese characters in his poems for me, he pointed out, fondly, that Yi Sang was a “mad man,” “an iconoclast.” (Last year, when asked what he thought of my book Hardly War, he replied, “She’s not an average writer.” I was hoping he would say, “She’s totally mad.”) (“Madness may be a form of resistance”—from The Morning News Is Exciting.) I also think of Joyelle as an iconoclast poet and critic, keen on pushing the boundaries of poetics and language and at the same time responding to the atrocities of our times. So it’s no surprise she connects with Yi Sang’s madness, his brilliant literary resistance against the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea. Translating Yi Sang is deeply relevant to us both (co-translators conjoined at the torso) (double placenta, double umbilical cord). (Christian Hawkey shares the same birth date with Yi Sang.) I hope it’s all right if I rave a bit more about Yi Sang. In this story, the protagonist wants to “stay endlessly lazy.” I was telling Joyelle that this is Yi Sang’s response to the racist depictions of Koreans during the colonial era as lazy and incompetent and therefore unable to rule themselves, which was ultimately used to justify the colonization. His obsessive use of long dashes is also quite remarkable. He uses them to set free streams of consciousness, streams of contradictions under a colonial rule, which he never spits out explicitly, because it’s already internalized, switching back and forth from third-person narration to first and vice versa, and as a result the tenses and voices get mangled in the process. (“Our own voiced selves and the voiced selves of others, constantly enter and exit, and are changed by our bodies upon entrance, exit.”—Ventrakl)
Thanks to artiCHOKE, a reading series based in Berlin curated by Joel Scott and Charlotte Thiessen, I was able to stop briefly in Frankfurt. I walked around nonstop, but I was really walking around inside my memories of the city. My family moved there in 1983, three years after the Gwangju Massacre. After witnessing the brutal crackdown of the democratic uprising, my father decided we could never return to South Korea. He didn’t believe at the time that South Korea would ever be free from military dictatorship. Weary of always filming wars and refugee crises, my father got himself transferred to Europe, to the ABC News Frankfurt bureau, and so we set up home in a small suburb called Eschborn, which was then a sleepy farming town with beautiful apple orchards. I was already in the US at the time, studying at CalArts, so I went back and forth several times. Many things about Frankfurt made me think of the neighborhood where I grew up in Seoul. The river Main that runs through Frankfurt reminded me of the river Han that runs through Seoul. The house where I grew up in Seoul was just a few blocks from that river. One of the bridges over the Main, Eiserner Steg, which was bombed during the war, reminded me of the bridge across the Han, which was also bombed. (“maintains Bombenbrandschrumpfleichen” —Hardly War) (“brother sun to sister moon”—Ventrakl).
In Berlin, at the reading, Jay was playing a small Korean gong called a kkwaenggwari. I asked if he could create a kind of frenzy sound, like when Korean shamans go into a trance in order to transmit the voices of the dead. He also played a wooden fish, which we found last winter at Jogyesa, a Buddhist temple in downtown Seoul, right behind where I was staying for my month-long translation residency sponsored by LTI Korea. And he played little bells his father had bought at the Hubbell Trading Post at Navajo Nation long ago. Funny thing is that those bells are made in Germany. Navajo tribal members wore them around their ankles during ceremonial dances. I think this is such a beautiful image of migration, a migration of bell sounds, transposed, translated into a Navajo dance.
Long, long ago, I worked at Prescott College in Arizona, for a program that supported Native American classroom instructional aides to become certified bilingual teachers. I was standing outside the Navajo tribal education building and a man, who later introduced himself as a tribal education administrator, came up to me and stared, then he said, “You’re not Navajo.” He was right. I wasn’t. I was a translation. Working with amazing educators on the Tohono O’odham Nation, such as Rosilda Manuel and Camillus Lopez—who were working around the clock to preserve their language and culture—got me interested in translation.Their mode of translation was preservation, which is self-translation, decolonization (“I do! Autotranslation, I do!”—The Morning News Is Exciting), like the mode of the great postcolonial theorist and writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. My mode was homesickness, and still is, but I needed to layer it, dress it (white paper dress) within an anticolonial mode because I came to understand through my interpretation work with the International Women’s Network Against Militarism that South Korea is a neocolony of the US.
(Fuck you!) (Amerikkka.) I agree. We shouldn’t ever forget that this nation was founded and built on colonization, that it was able to accumulate its wealth and grow its military might via the mechanisms of colonization, capitalism’s mightiest engine. Colonization is predominantly racist and classist and sexist, whether we are of the same race or not (whether we are brother and sister) (the people of Gwangju were dehumanized as commies) (the people of Jeju Island, massacred in 1948, were dehumanized as commies) (internalized dehumanization) (nationalization). Domination and exploitation requires dehumanization on all levels, macro or micro, which Aimé Césaire calls “thingification.” So let’s understand white supremacy for what it really is: the deep logic of colonization embedded not only here in the US, but exported and exercised worldwide. (“A more fixed but mutual site is war: my own American English, infiltrated daily by the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”—Ventrakl)
That line—“I refuse to translate”—in Hardly War just came to me in the process of working on the book slowly. I’m unbearably slow. I didn’t ask myself what it meant because I already knew what I meant. It’s not any different than Yi Sang’s protagonist saying he wants to stay endlessly lazy. I refuse to perpetuate the official narratives of the Korean War, which thingifies. I think of refusal as one of the most highly effective modes of resistance. I refuse to be faithful.
How did WeTransist come about? It is really great that its call for submissions now exists in multiple languages. Are you the main curator? How have your thoughts on and practice of translation evolved since Ventrakl? What new voice chambers or holes have you been dwelling in? What new writing are you working on?
Could you show this photo to your daughters? I took this photo on the day of the solar eclipse. Someone brought a colander to our neighborhood park, and this is its shadow. This image of multiple eclipsed suns made me think of decentering English, as you mentioned earlier. I also want to believe that a mermaid rippled through the sky without feet, like the daughter in the poem below by Kim Hyesoon (my translation from Anxiety of Words: Contemporary Poetry by Korean Women). It’s based on an ancient song called “Tosolga,” composed in the Silla period, around 760 CE. Two suns appeared side by side and remained in the sky for ten days; the song was composed to prevent any calamity to the kingdom.
A Song: Tosolga
When my dead mother comes to me
and asks me to lend her my shoes,
I take off my shoes.
When my dead mother comes to me
and asks me to hold her up, for she has no feet,
I take off my feet.
When my dead mother comes to me
And asks to lend me, lend me,
I even rip out my heart.
In the sky, mountains rise, trails rise.
At a place where there is no one
two round moons ascend.
CH to DMC, August 29, 2017
Michel de Certeau writes somewhere about bridges as in-between architecture, architecture that crosses borders, bridges connecting here and not here, home and not home—but I’d add also refuge for those who are unhomed, who are stateless. Two days ago I was walking with my four-year-old daughter over a bridge in our neighborhood. It was early morning. As we neared the end two men crawled up from under the bridge, out of the branches and weeds, their hands first on the bottom railing and then their bodies lifted up and over, faces puffy with sleep, grasses on their clothes. And she stopped as they were coming onto the walkway, saying to them, “Cool, I can do that too” (meaning the feat of throwing oneself over a railing). They didn’t respond, of course. They walked the opposite direction away from us, back over the bridge we had just walked over. They were likely undocumented refugees. They were in a world that requires them to be unseen. Marlena, my daughter, sensing she hadn’t understood something, asked me what they were doing down there. Any world impossible to explain to a child is an unjust one.
WeTransist is the effort of a bunch of local and global translators. Locally, in Brooklyn, after the election, a group of friends got together to meet and share a meal and talk and plan. Since so many of us were translators, we decided to develop a call for translations to place what happened in the election within a broader global colonialist context, creating an exchange in which various anticapitalist and revolutionary energies could be shared and placed in dialogue, without making the US the center, since decolonial discussions have a long history outside of the US—hence the focus on multiple languages. In many cases the goal will be to facilitate translations of selected texts across languages and not just into or out of English. Our group started large but quickly contracted to a small core, with the amazing Mirene Arsanios and Elizabeth Zuba helping a lot, as well as the now fifteen or so translators from other countries who immediately signed on to translate the call—the Brazilian poet Adelaide Ivánova, with whom you read in Berlin, and Georgi Gospodinov from Bulgaria, and so many others, many of whom need to remain anonymous.
Yi Sang. The same birthday, yes! I learned this only many years after falling in love with his poems. There’s something marvelous about how in the shortest of spaces they push at the very edge of what constitutes a poem, such that they seem simultaneously poems and not, which is one mark of the truest poetry—evading any preconceived sense of what a poem is. Perhaps this evasion, or “madness,” as you write, is a strategy of resistance—a refusal to be legible (“right to opacity”—Édouard Glissant) while simultaneously demanding to be read. A colonial relation, or a way out or through that unjust relation. A thing not thingified. A “nothingness,” as Fred Moten writes. Never leaving the bridge. A bridge: the in-between space made place. “At a place where there is no one / two round moons ascend.” So much of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée unfolds via these sets of relation too. That Yi Sang studied or trained as an architect is one entry into his work, how he creates a zone of contact between language/image/number to generate a felt spatiality. There’s something virtual about his work. Feeling as a virtual awareness in space. But bridges—that which connects us—are the first to be bombed. I was once part of a guerrilla bridge-climbing group in New York City. We climbed the Brooklyn Bridge at 3 AM. This was long before 9/11. One could never do this now. I remember arriving alone at the top of the Manhattan-side tower and finding it covered with grass. Roosting seagulls had shat grass seeds, and in the dirt accumulated on and between the bricks a meadow grew. Weeds will inherit the earth. Strategies for resistance. I think of Charlotte Wolff, a German Jewish physician, lesbian, and sexologist who, after being harassed and arrested numerous times by the Nazis—for dressing as a man, for being Jewish—fled the country for Paris, then London, where she reinvented herself as a chirologist and worked as a psychoanalyst. She read the palms of Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Marcel Duchamp—which then led her to write books on chirology and also A Psychology of Gesture, which contains a photographic study of fascist gestures. Trump raising a clenched fist at his inauguration. I was writing to NourbeSe Philip over the summer, just after seeing her in Berlin, where she had thought of visiting a concentration camp but decided against it. The Grenfell Tower fire had just occurred, and she observed that the same issue of the disposability of people is still with us. A link between the camps and Grenfell. Both map brutal biopolitical administrative systems meant to destroy people—they just operated on different time scales. Palestine. Each successive Israeli attack (in response to a few stray rockets) leads to a mass maiming and debilitation of bodies, especially children—I heard Jasbir Puar talk on this in Brooklyn last year—and over time a maimed and dependent population is produced, one in turn dependent on the Israeli state, the medical industry. Also the Brutalist architecture of the Grenfell building: the role aesthetics plays in ensuring debilitated living. I spent time looking at the Grenfell Action Group’s website, which repeatedly documented fire maintenance lapses and hazards, despite harassment and their demands being dismissed. Persistent attentiveness in the face of impending disaster is sometimes not enough. But they are heroes. Somehow I want to connect the role of the Grenfell resident collective (many of whom are, and were, immigrants) to the role of translators as you define it in the pamphlet “Freely Frayed”: “The displaced poetic identity persists in its dislocation, translating itself out of the orders of darkness through the translator, another displaced identity.”
I refuse to translate. What you write, yes. A refusal to perpetuate imperialist narratives. I feel like Hardly War brings such narratives into focus only to the degree that it allows you to undercut them, decolonize them, remediate them, and, in some cases, mock them (“Shitty Kitty”). This is close to how Kim Hyesoon, as you write in your essay “Race=Nation,” instructs us to “subvert the order of power” and it’s also “why translation must also persist like Imamura’s clock to remind us of the hell within and outside of the U.S. empire.” And it suggests, too, that refusing to translate certain narratives is also a mode of survival—the preservation of opacity. Multiple eclipsed suns. Opaque remediation. Remediopacity. “I am trying to fold race into geopolitics and geopolitics into poetry. It involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power.” Geopacity.
I haven’t had a chance to show that image to the girls, but I will. Seattle to Berlin. Sending this back to you, back in time, 2:30 PM here, 5:30 AM there. A bridge. A scale of time.
DMC to CH, September 5, 2017
Another seven days have passed. Hurricane Harvey and other climatic extremes around the world can be understood as the climatic extension of the “brutal biopolitical administrative systems meant to destroy people,” as you put it.
Your translation (with Uljana Wolf) of an Austrian writer, Ilse Aichinger, from “Bad Words”:
I now no longer use better words…. I’m beginning to have a weak spot for the second and third best, in front of which the best hides quite shrewdly, if only with regard to the fourth best, since to the audience it shows itself often. You can’t resent it for that, the audience expects it after all, the best has no choice. Or has it? With regard to the audience couldn’t it hide, and show its face instead to the weaker possibilities? One has to wait and see. There are enough adequate rules—things that are hard to learn—and if I’m relying on the inadequate, that’s my problem.
Aichlinger’s sly insistence on “the second and third best” reveals “the best” for what it really is. In order for it to be best, it has to be brutal—good words or languages are only good because they have killed other words, those “weaker possibilities,” or other languages. She is insisting on translation, I think. Antihegemonic, anticolonial translation is not faithful to power, the best, the brutal, but insists on those weaker possibilities, “the inadequate.” Translation needs to be unfaithful in order to expose what “the best hides.” Translation can allow itself to be “shrewd,” too. It can mimic the best. It can undress the best through a radical writer or poet. I can’t wait to read more by her.
“Brutalist architecture”—this just triggered a memory of an interview with Kim Hyesoon, whose forthcoming book of poems, Autobiography of Death, I worked on:
The incessant energy of the poetic persona, intensifying the faint architecture, became the power that pulled the poems along. Instead of boring through the content and soaring up, I dreamt of a multidimensional map that weeps in hiding. Why? Because that is what the death I was writing about looked like.
Kim Hyesoon’s “faint architecture” is what hides behind the Brutalist architecture you have so aptly referred to. And the “death” she is talking about is not individual death but the collective death a neocolonial-corporate state (such as South Korea) repeatedly carries out.
Here is a rough sketch I made of the candlelight rally I attended with Kim Hyesoon on December 3, 2016 (half moon). A record 2.3 million came out that night to protest against the now impeached and jailed President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, who had enforced nearly two decades, 1963–79, of brutality and perhaps one of the best US-backed dictatorships.
I wish we had the palm prints of Yi Sang, Kim Hyesoon, Ilse Aichinger, and many more, to see whose is faintest of them all.
CH to DMC, September 14, 2017
We made it to Rome, for Uljana’s residency here, and we just returned from a day at the ocean, driving out from Rome to Fregene, an old beach town once favored by Fellini and Pasolini, where the final scene of La Dolce Vita takes place. Rows and rows of blue canvas beach chairs and Italians rotating their bodies under the sun and walking back up to the bar for espressos. It was hard to rest while staring out at an ocean that’s essentially a graveyard, to be on the shore thousands have not reached. The longue durée of colonialism. Wave after wave after wave. Thousands of refugees, those who managed to cross, are in makeshift camps and housing squats all over Rome, with no paperwork, no shelter, nothing—a building here was just brutally cleared last week.
In Berlin last month I met up with Adelaide Ivánova. We were talking about the violence in Charlottesville, the ousting of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, the new austerity measures there, Trump—and she asked, “How do you keep going, keep doing political work in the face of constant disaster, resurgent white supremacy, police brutality, and globally entrenched neoliberalism?” I didn’t have an answer. We were quiet for a few minutes. Part of that quietness has to do with the fact that I don’t know if I believe in a moment of sudden emancipation; the non-arrival of a projected desire can only disappoint, suspend agency. Rather I believe more in daily vigilant care and struggle, struggle without any abstract guarantee. It’s not easy. It reminds me of the early critiques of Occupy or Black Lives Matter: you need a plan, you need a legislative demand! When what’s needed, what it’s about, is treating each other differently, thinking and feeling differently, in ways we can’t yet imagine, but have to. We moved to talking about Didier Eribon’s book Returning to Reims, a memoir of his working-class background and how the mid-century French working classes were communists and socialists with highly developed social structures for relating to each other, for belonging (unions, worker parties, dances, events). Which makes me think again of your reading in Berlin, how poetry readings can recover that sense of ritual social belonging. Hannah Arendt defined modern totalitarianism as the organization of loneliness. Those readings made us present with each other in the world and with each other.
Yours is a beautiful interpretation of Aichinger’s “Bad Words.” It’s true her work insists on translation in the sense you describe—writing in relation in minor languages, minor words, a resistance to dominate cultures/masculinist notions of mastery. She’s also difficult. And often utterly incomprehensible, at least with some of her mid-career work. It’s like the world to which grammar and words normally refer has been scrambled, but in a rigorously consistent way, so that one senses a code refusing to be a code, a voice that is not a voice, words not words. A faint code. A faint logic. It appears to disappear. Eclipses.
I showed your image to my daughter and she said, “A can. Water. A fish. A fish in water! A fish tank with water and a fish… Those are all the things that are there.”
Don Mee Choi is a poet and translator. Born in Seoul, she now lives in Seattle. She is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting, Petite Manifesto, and Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016).
Christian Hawkey is a poet and translator. His books include The Book of Funnels, Citizen Of, and Ventrakl (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010). He is the coordinator of the MFA in Writing program at Pratt Institute.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee