Translating in mirrors

Photo of Don Mee Choi ©Photographer SONG Got, courtesy of Don Mee Choi.
Photo of Don Mee Choi ©Photographer SONG Got, courtesy of Don Mee Choi.

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

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

Don Mee Choi

Ugly Duckling Presse 2020, 24 pages, $10.00 ISBN 978-1937027971

The title of Don Mee Choi’s new pamphlet, Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial mode, contains a “=” mark, a symbol that is not written language and yet conveys a recognizable meaning. The equal sign establishes equivalency: the “=” holds a mirror to the first clause, showing a second clause that’s not an exact replica, yet is in some ways a reflection. The “=” achieves what Choi approaches in her pamphlet: translation as a twinning language. As Choi writes on the first page of her pamphlet, “I come from such twoness. I speak as a twin.”[1]

The pamphlet comes from a series of twenty Ugly Duckling Presse commissioned for 2020 “on subjects close to UDP’s commitments — collective work, translation, performance, pedagogy, poetics, and small press publishing.” Other authors include Aditi Machado, Magdalena Zurawski, and Tinashe Mushakavanhu. Choi’s pamphlet orbits translation — exploring the impression colonialism and subsequent translations of one culture to another have had on translation itself and the relationship between the English and the Korean languages. Embedded with black-and-white uncaptioned images that twin and elaborate on her text like another “=” gesture, Choi’s pamphlet ranges from film criticism, to etymology, to personal history, to discussion of Choi’s translation of contemporary Korean feminist poets as an anti-neocolonial stance.

The United States’s occupation of the Republic of Korea began in 1945 and has yet to end. Ju-Hyun Park recently wrote in The New Inquiry,“the fact remains that all of us born since the war’s purported end have lived our lives in wartime. The war lives on as a material fact, not just as a haunting, or a legal condition.” Choi describes this protracted occupation in her pamphlet as a neocolonization. She writes, “In a time of war, the US military has operational control over South Korean forces. Since we are technically at war, we are also technically and perpetually under US military command. I come from such a neocolony” (2). Choi does not define the term neocolony in Translation is a Mode. Sylvia Wynter writes about a different geographic region, the Caribbean, but some of her thinking is helpful in exploring Choi’s interest in an anti-neocolonial mode. Wynter describes how Walter Mignolo and Jacob Pandian have enabled us to understand white colonizers’ “disregard” for Indigenous practices as a strategy of colonization.[2] Choi points to this type of colonialist disregard, and eventual supplanting of language, when she outlines the history of the Korean word oksusuppang.

In the neocolony Choi describes, language is already inflected with the history of occupation. For Choi, translation is not a process of one-to-one meaning; translation also conveys intention, style, emotion, mood, history, and politics. Choi uses the analogy of a translation as a map, not a tracing. In discussion of Walter Benjamin’s notion of “pure language” in his essay “Translation” Choi writes, 

Benjamin leads us to his notion of “pure language,” the sum of all the languages of the world with Brot and pain as examples of words that have “different modes of intention” but “mean the very same thing.” But if I were to dislocate Benjamin’s Brot and pain into Korea’s neocolonial zone, they would probably encounter another word for bread, ppang [빵]. The Korean word for bread, ppang, is obviously a transformation or deformation of the French word pain. It is most likely that it arrived in Korea already deformed, through the Japanese deformation zone. And if I were to add oksusu [옥수수], which means corn, in front of ppang — it becomes oksusuppang [옥수수빵]. Cornbread and oksusuppang do intend the same object, and may even taste the same, except that they arise from very different historical and political intentions. Oksusuppang was fed to school children in South Korea after the Korean War — it was intended as food aid from the US. So my tongue even before it had ever encountered the English language was a site of power takeover, war, wound, deformation, and, ultimately and already, motherless. (5) 

Even if the words oksusuppang and cornbread convey the same meaning, the translation provides historical context to language’s deformations. We see how the Korean word oksusuppang reveals the historical intention of the United States toward Korea — the linguistic history of colonization reveals the motherless tongue Choi describes in this pamphlet. In providing a history for the translation of oksusuppang that traveled through the French and Japanese deformation zones, in the English language, Choi speaks back to the neocolonial power that made her tongue “already, motherless.”

Though Choi primarily draws from the work of Walter Benjamin, Giles Deleuze, Joyelle McSweeney, and Johannes Göransson for this essay, when she wrote “motherless tongue,” in my head I heard a snippet from a video of M. NourbeSe Philip reading her poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language” from her book She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Philip says, “English / is my mother tongue. / A mother tongue is not / not a foreign lan lan lang / language / l/anguish / anguish / — a foreign anguish.”[3] In her performance of the poem, Philip repeats sections and loops back, like a series of mirrors reflecting lines and making the lines, the words, the anguish prismatic. Philip, a Black Canadian poet born in Tobago, investigates a different neocolonial effect of colonization in the Caribbean. The mother tongue, the history of the spread of the English language, creates an anguish in the use of language. There’s a twin thinking here in both Philip’s and Choi’s work that tracks language’s lineage, which has “deformed” the “mother(less) tongue.” Mother tongue = motherless tongue. 

Both Choi and Philip draw their reader’s attention to an assumed lineage in language. The idiom “mother tongue,” one’s native or first language, was first used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in approximately 1425 CE. The phrase implies that language comes from one’s parents. If the “mother” tongue has been, to use Choi’s word, “deformed” by another culture — take, for example, oksusuppang — then one must rethink linguistic “inheritance.” Instead of an ancestral line tracing one word’s etymology back in time, we encounter a matrix. The matrix contains war, occupation, colonization, and their enduring imprints. In speaking the language of one’s parents — the mother tongue — one speaks with a neocolonial inflection. The word itself is painful. The mother tongue is motherless, distorted and occupied by another language.

In addition to examining the “motherless tongue,” Choi spends some time thinking about the use of mirrors in the films of Ingmar Bergman and in the poetry of Kim Hyesoon, four volumes of which she has translated. In Kim Hyesoon’s work, Choi describes the use of mirrors as a place where “intense crossings” happen (11). In Kim Hyesoon’s poem “Memories of Giving Birth to a Daughter” the speaker enters a mirror and “mother is inside;” she enters a mirror again and “grandmother is inside;” the speaker repeats the action going back generations (11). The mirror is a place of lineage and repetition. The mirror reflects history into the present and contains more than what sits before it, looking. Choi writes, “Kim’s mirrors are translation surfaces — they house mothers with motherless tongues, making endless crossings from one generation to another, from woman to woman, from language to language” (13).

This acute pamphlet helped me, someone who is not a translator, think about the transformation translation allows. The use of photographs in the pamphlet, a formal choice reminiscent of Choi’s book Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016), also felt like these “intense crossings.” The images, uncaptioned but contextualized by the prose, provided a new fragment of understanding each time I encountered one. They acted as mirrors for the text, making visual language = the words. I began to think about these embedded images as an inverted ekphrasis. Instead of putting language to an image, as a traditional ekphrastic poem does, these photos provide a visual expansion of the verbal field. The images in Choi’s pamphlet are black and white. The pictures include: a map of both North and South Korea superimposed by arrows demonstrating the paths occupying forces took in 1950; a sculpture of King Sejong, who had a team of linguists invent Hangul, the Korean vernacular script, which one can see carved into the sculpture’s plinth; a battleship; four stills from Bergman’s film The Silence;an image of a young girl in front of an airplane window; an image of four people in military dress. Although the images are uncaptioned, they clearly accompany and elaborate on the text. It’s been exciting to see contemporary poets explore this visual field (I’m thinking of Diana Khoi Nguyen [Ghost Of], Nora Claire Miller [LULL],andKrista Franklin [Under the Knife], among others), to let image act as an adjacent means of communication, one that opens language into a broader gesture in order to convey something whose precision is beyond what can be spoken. The image and the word can act in solidarity. As Choi navigates thinking about translation as a transformative practice — the adjacent but unequal equations that sit on either side of her “=” mark — I found that the placement of these images functioned similarly. One would lose the full intimation of the image by describing it, by pinning the visual down in words. In letting the images expand the borders of language, and our idea of what a pamphlet might contain, Choi’s essay delivers a complex and expansive formal argument.

Toward the end of the pamphlet, Choi writes about a scene in the Bergman film The Silence;in it, a character opens a compact case that “is empty, so she didn’t really open it to powder her face, but to translate, and what’s mirrored is her own eye, a variation of her eye. She’s not a translator, but her eye is already a site of variations” (14). Choi’s pamphlet is like that compact mirror — small, yet able to reflect these variations, the wide and specific potential of translation. 

1. Don Mee Choi, Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020), 1.

2. Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation — An Argument,” The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 256.

3. M. NourbeSe Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1989; repr. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015), 30. Citation refers to the Wesleyan edition.