In The Guest, poet and literary translator Robin Myers explores poetry translation as process, practice, vocation, meditation, and craft. Drawing both on her own projects-in-progress and the work of other translators, The Guest is a kind of diary, a thinking-out-loud about the pleasures, challenges, and decisions required—and invited—by bringing poems into another language. To do them justice and to make them new.
A Labor of Love
is a phrase we use to describe something we do for pleasure, not reward. Especially not for material reward. If you translate poetry, you know all about it. About pleasure, about labor whose recompense nothing to do with market logic.
And about love. I’ve been thinking about it—love, translator-love. I recently read a book of poems so beautiful that I burst into tears as soon as I reached the last word. Not out of sorrow, but in wonder, as Czeslaw Milosz would say, in his co-translation with Lillian Vallee. If it had been a text I’d read in English, I would have dried my eyes and gone about my business, letting my wonder (love) leave its tracks on my memory. But I read it in Spanish, the language I translate from, and I instantly felt the stirring of a plan: I want to translate this book.
Labor born of love; love looking for labor.
Some years ago, I went to a reading by the poet Olena Kalytiak Davis, who perched on the edge of a desk in the tiny auditorium and peered hard at us and asked, not quite rhetorically, “Do you want to be impressive, or do you want to engage?”
Translation isn’t, translators aren’t, immune from the desire to be impressive. As artists, we’re all faced with the temptation to fetishize our sensibility. But I truly believe—unromantically, undramatically—that translation is a special practice of engagement. A practice, why not, of love.
When I contacted Jae Kim, who translates from Korean, in hopes of speaking with him for this column, he responded with a series of reflections I’ve held close in the weeks since.
“I’ll start from Plato’s idea that love ‘is a medium between ignorance and knowledge,’” he writes. “I’m getting this secondhand from Giorgio Agamben’s Taste. Two thoughts that come to mind immediately: (1) How true that without love, I would remain ignorant; (2) The translator’s love, as well as the reader’s love, is the medium between ignorance and knowledge of the reader—and of the translator? What is the translator’s ignorance?”
Paradoxically, Agamben elaborates, Plato’s theory of love “guarantees the relation (the unity as well as the difference) between beauty and truth, or between that which is most visible and the invisible evidence of the idea.” And Jae follows: isn’t “invisible evidence of the Idea” a great way to think about “the original”?
“The original,” after all, is not only the author’s text, static in time and space, a solid block of words that the translator takes into their own hands. “The original” is also the author’s references and registers, their personal canons and colloquialisms, whatever else they were reading and alluding to and suffusing themselves with as they wrote. Obsessions the translator may not know about or share.
(Maybe the translator’s ignorance could be described as the impossible balance between research and intuition. Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs also come to mind.)
Back to love, though. Here’s the beginning of “Mama’s Marmalade,” Jae’s translation of a prose-poem that made him want to translate Lee Young-ju’s work:
Though I leave the door open, you just don’t know to come out. Like the stone that has knead the sweet fruit, kneaded until the tender, sweet-smelling flesh has thoroughly disappeared.
“I really like how this translation turned out,” Jae writes, “and it gives me a sense of pride and fulfillment, but my love is oriented toward엄마의 과일청: “문을 열어놓아도 당신은 나올 줄을 모릅니다. 달큰한 과육을 꾹꾹 눌러놓은 돌처럼. Similarly, Lee Young-ju’s love is oriented toward the inspiration for the poem, rather than the poem. For example, this quote from Moriguchi Mitsuru’s The Reason We Pick Up Corpses, with which Lee begins [another poem titled] ‘Rapunzel’: ‘I see once upon a time you were jaw bones.’ And Moriguchi has nothing to do with me.
“And at the end of this chain of ignorance and beauty is someone who loves my translation: the reader.
“Thinking about translation this way puts me at ease because it flattens everyone onto the same plane. No verticality/hierarchy. And our roles—writer, translator, filmmaker, reader—don’t matter a whole lot. We’re all just ignorant and in love.”
We’re all just ignorant and in love—the only possible last word. Or, actually, the first.
Jae Kim is a writer and translator based in St. Louis. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, Guernica, NOON, Chicago Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Tupelo Press Anthology Four Quartets: Poetry in the Pandemic. His translation of a collection of Lee Young-ju’s poetry will be published by Black Ocean in 2021.