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What language and translation mean for 2 Korean-born poets

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Poet Kim Hye-soon, center, and Korean American poet and translator Don Mee Choi, right, speak during the writers' talk session,
Poet Kim Hye-soon, center, and Korean American poet and translator Don Mee Choi, right, speak during the writers' talk session, "Languages Walking Side by Side," at the Seoul Community Cultural Center Seogyo in Mapo District, Sept. 24, as part of this year's Seoul International Writers' Festival. Courtesy of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea

Award-winning literary duo ― Kim Hye-soon and Don Mee Choi ― reunites at Seoul Int'l Writers' Festival

By Park Han-sol

"Languages Walking Side by Side," the title of the Sept. 24 talk session between poets Kim Hye-soon and Don Mee Choi at this year's Seoul International Writers' Festival, couldn't have been more of a fitting descriptor for the literary duo's relationship.

Kim made headlines in 2019 as the first Asian woman to be named the winner of the prestigious International Griffin Poetry Prize for her "Autobiography of Death," the words of which muse on the nature of individual and collective historical traumas, which were masterfully translated into English at the hands of Choi.

The pair's collaboration has continued in Kim's other pieces, including: "Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers," "Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream," "I'm OK, I'm Pig!" and the forthcoming "Phantom Pain Wings."

Choi has focused on the role and power of translation as a device to navigate complex historical layers in her own works, notably "DMZ Colony," that nabbed the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry.

The duo's reunion at the Seoul Community Cultural Center Seogyo in Mapo District last week offered a peek into their years-long journey utilizing their lived experiences and memories as a launchpad to achieve what they call "doing" poetry and translation.

The cover of 'Autobiography of Death' (2018), written by Kim Hye-soon and translated by Don Mee Choi / Courtesy of New Directions
The cover of 'Autobiography of Death' (2018), written by Kim Hye-soon and translated by Don Mee Choi / Courtesy of New Directions
"In my high school years, as the words of other great authors (and later, my own experiences, suffering and memories) gradually filled my body and started to overflow, it was only natural that I began putting my versions of expressions on paper," Kim said, as she started the talk with a mix of insight and wit.

It was Kim's writing that helped Choi "rediscover her own voice" that had been lost since she left Korea at the age of 10 with her family in 1972, the year former President Park Chung-hee declared martial law. Since then, her family "scattered all over … like birds" to West Germany, Australia and the United States.

"For a long time, I lived without a language; I could neither speak nor write. It wasn't until I encountered Kim's poems that I found my voice," the poet-cum-translator said.

According to Choi, when she translated Kim's work, she found her thoughts drifting back to her birthplace in Korea, a small house with a "giwa" roof (tiled roof) tucked away in the now redeveloped Seoul neighborhood of Bon-dong, Noryangjin.

"My younger self was waiting for me at the house, shouting 'come back' like migrating snow geese on a journey of return. Then, I saw Kim waiting there as well," she continued. "As I conversed with her and translated the words, I discovered my long-lost language and soon began writing down my words in the tongue of a wanderer in exile."

For her, translation is an act of retrieving such traces of forgotten voices ― not only her own but those belonging to individuals written out of the official discourses of Korean history. Such efforts are witnessed in "DMZ Colony" as she "translates" ― both linguistically and culturally ― the oral history of a long-term political prisoner in Korea, who was locked behind bars from 1953 to 1995, and that of eight orphans, who survived the 1951 Sancheong-Hamyang massacre of unarmed civilians during the 1950-53 Korean War.

The cover of Don Mee Choi's 'DMZ Colony
The cover of Don Mee Choi's 'DMZ Colony" (2020) / Courtesy of Wave Books
Kim then chimed in with her poetic description of Choi as "someone who's in between two worlds ― like an angel between heaven and Earth, like a preposition or postposition in grammar between two words."

"She's a poet who set out to translate not only my own poems but also history and time," she added.

Like many other fellow creatives, COVID-19 proved to be one of the most life-altering experiences for the two. But the pandemic never put an abrupt stop to their creative endeavors.

Recalling how she caught the virus from her daughter earlier this year, Kim said the days suffering in pain ironically provided her with timely food for thought.

"I came to realize how my infected body became linked with other bodies from all four corners of the world, thus forming one singular existence. My symptoms were being shared by the ones next to me, in front of me and those across the continent. My body, in other words, was no longer entirely mine alone," she noted.

"I believe the pandemic has prompted humankind to seek another means of collective existence as we go beyond the idea of 'me, me, me' and instead begin to look at our individual bodies as those of multitudes."

For Choi, the pandemic and its restrictions gave her time to work on the translation of Kim's "Phantom Pain Wings."

"During this time, I sent Kim a number of questions via email and her words in return became a great source of comfort," the poet said.

She added that her time in isolation also pushed her to keep a diary on her translation process for the first time ever, the content of which will be published in the coming years.

Park Han-sol


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