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The Translator Relay: Don Mee Choi

By Words Without Borders

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator every few months. The current month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For September's installment, Kristin Dykstra passed the baton to Don Mee Choi, who translates between Korean and English.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

Korean is my first language. I grew up with it in South Korea and also later in Hong Kong. I arrived alone in the US, so the only way I could stay connected to it was through reading, which eventually led to translating.  


Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

Poet Kim Hyesoon frequently uses duplicatives in her poems for various rhythmic effects. These are Korean adverbs or adjectives that are repeated to form a pair. Such doubling is the norm in Korean, and it accentuates the sounds, which can also have the phonetic or mimetic effects of onomatopoeia. Here are two examples (underlined):

This is the title of a poem from Autobiography of Death (New Directions, 2018):

우글우글 죽음

Death Swarmsswarms
Day Thirty-Four

This is from “Red Scissors Woman” in All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (Action Books, 2011):

눈 폭풍 다녀간 아침 자꾸만 찢어지는 하늘
뒤뚱뒤뚱 걸어가는 저 여자를 따라가는
눈이 시리도록 밝은 섬광
눈부신 천국의 뚜껑이 열렸다 닫히네

The sky keeps tearing the morning after the snowstorm
A blind flash of light
follows the waddlewaddling woman
Heaven’s lid glimmers and opens then closes


Do you have any translating rituals? 

I like to have my tiny writing room and desk tidied to some degree before I start translating. Cleaning in general helps to clear my mind, so I can start new work. Then things get very untidy and chaotic for a long time. I used to have a poodle that lived with me for eighteen years, and she loved tearing up any paper I crinkled and threw on the floor. It was great fun for her, shredding my bad translations. Now that I don’t have my poodle anymore, I have to do all the shredding, and it’s no fun at all. 


Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

I recently had an email from Mia You, who is translating poems by Kim Haengsook. Mia wrote of the translation process: “I spent many days just listening and watching interviews (thank you for sending yours!) and watching videos of Kim Haengsook reading her work to try to get into her voice. But then her reading voice is so different from how I experience the voice(s) of her poems.”

My response to Mia: “The poems have to live inside us and they are changed by being inside our bodies. Not too different from the voices of the dead that are channeled through the vocal cords of a shaman.”

Sometimes Kim Hyesoon’s poems dream inside my dreams. I think they may even lay eggs. So I also think of a translator as an incubator. I often have no idea what will hatch from the eggs.


Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

Right now, I’m working on Kim Hyesoon’s new collection of poems. The new poems act, speak, and dream very differently from her previous books. I have no words for them at the moment because they are still incubating inside me. But what’s clear is that I am learning a new poetic language invented by Kim. She is so remarkable in this way—she’s relentlessly inventing, reinventing. Keeping up with all her eggs can be a nightmare. I feel so cooped up—no pun intended. I’m still in that torturous phase.


And Kristin's question for you: You’ve published award-winning literary translations, such as Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon. While her poetry is edgy, these books are still the sort of object that a general audience would expect literary translators to produce: a book first written by an author in an original language, then transitioned to English by the translator, for circulation in other locations. But unlike many translators, you’ve moved in quite different directions: taking translation as a mode of existence, a mode of exploration, tampering with the familiar structures defining conventional “translated” objects. 

I’d like to ask you about this aspect of your work for the Translator Relay. For example, I’m thinking of your 2020 collection, DMZ Colony. It is a book-object involving translation, but of a very different sort than many of the books discussed elsewhere in this series. You are the “original” author of DMZ Colony; furthermore, it’s a hybrid work incorporating images as well as text. How did you arrive at the point where you could articulate the possibilities of translation as a device for interdisciplinary creation, including visual art? Could you discuss one or more examples of how translation may tie into your current visual thinking?

I have never consciously set out to use translation as a poetic device in my own poetry. But in DMZ Colony (Wave Books, 2020), I have decided to foreground translation as a mode of writing more than I have done in my previous books, Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016) and The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010). This was a conscious choice. Translating contemporary Korean women’s poetry is what led me to write my own poetry. Translation helped me to find my language, just as I had to create language for the poets I was translating. So the act of translation and the act of writing something “original” are often intertwined and indistinguishable for me. It’s a doubled act. It’s like I’m writing all in duplicatives, meaning language is always doubled for me. As a child, living outside of South Korea, I imagined myself living in Hong Kong and South Korea simultaneously. For me, the translation mode of existence is the doubling of home, doubling of world, doubling of history, doubling of tongue. And the doubling easily leads me to other modes, such as visual language/thinking, as well. I studied visual arts, so I think this may be why I can’t help weaving images into my work. This kind of interdisciplinary/hybrid mode feels very normal to me. Also, I am translating Korea’s contemporary history through my father’s photographs and memory, which means I’m thinking and moving through familial and documentary language too. In DMZ Colony, translation wasn’t a device for speaking for others—the victims of history. Translation was used as a device for closing the gap between myself and others, myself and history, myself and historical trauma. Translation as a mode for doubling and resisting.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Don Mee Choi is the author of DMZ Colony (Wave Books, 2020), Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016), The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010), and several chapbooks and pamphlets of poems and essays. She has received a Whiting Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, the Lucien Stryk Translation Prize, and a DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Fellowship. She has translated several collections of Kim Hyesoon's poetry, including Autobiography of Death (New Directions, 2018), which received the 2019 International Griffin Poetry Prize.

Related Reading:

"Hysteria" by Yi Yŏn-ju, translated by Don Mee Choi

An Interview with WWB Poetry Contest Winners Lee Young-Ju and Jae Kim

The Translator Relay: Kristin Dykstra

Published Sep 23, 2020   Copyright 2020 Words Without Borders

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