How Should We Review Translations? Part II

Above all, the translated poem allows us into its world—which exists somewhere between a language we don’t know and a language that we do.

In this second installment of our forum on reviewing translations, Lauren Albin and Sue Hyon Bae, two of the translators of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, reflect on their engagements with both the poet’s work and the culture in which it was produced. They highlight the dangers of adopting the role of an interrogator and emphasize the need for good faith in any encounter with a translated work. Today we also feature a contribution from Matt Reeck, who takes the opportunity to reflect on the ways that reviews might take into account contexts of reception and underscores how the idea of world literature can restrict our ability to understand local specificity as it attempts to develop a global framework. If you missed the first installment of this forum, be sure to check it out here, and stay tuned for tomorrow’s contributions from Katherine Hedeen and Johannes Göransson.

I want to point out this sentence in Matt Reeck’s review of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, which becomes the foregrounding reason for his question of whether Korean poetry should be made more Korean in translation: “Kim’s poems are not confessional (which might make them indicative of the writer’s life and culture), nor are they written in a style that’s reflective of a social reality.” The reviewer’s desire for the poet’s confession quickly brings to mind one of the seminal poems of Kim’s collection—“Cultural Revolution in My Dream”—where Ms. Photon, a symbol of the bright light used by an interrogator to extract confessions, uploads a confessional software to the poet’s body. What I mean to say in drawing this comparison is that, Reeck got it wrong. Kim’s poems are confessional, but perhaps, they are not the confession that the reviewer wishes to hear—a situation that recalls Ms. Photon, who keeps on interrogating the poet even after there are no real crimes left but only a continuously generated confession. Therefore, the reviewer rejects Kim’s poems and along with them he rejects Kim’s social reality and Kim’s Korea, asking for translations that are more Korean than the originals and pressing for a false confession. 

Moving away from Reeck’s review, when the reviewer of translated work plays at interrogator, the perspective of the translated poet is immediately endangered. The interrogator is a figure employed by repressive regimes to reconstruct narratives, to revise the truth, to rewrite what actually happened, and to reconstruct history. Interrogators often already know what story they wish to tell and work to illuminate only that reality. An interrogator is also someone who has inherent power over another. While Ms. Photon extracts false confessions, the sun, in Kim’s “Lady Yuhwa,” “streaming like a searchlight / pursues and violates the woman” of the poem. A reviewer who steps into the role of interrogator assumes power over the poem and violates it intentionally or unintentionally by forcing it to conform to their own ideas about what it should be; silencing the poem, instead of allowing the work to speak in its own language of idea, even when that language seems to push at the boundaries of our minds. 

Every time I read Kim’s poetry, I remember again that the Korea that I thought I knew, the one I built in my mind, was not really Korea at all—how could it be! That idea is knocked over, expanded, turned inside out, it dies and then is reborn, changed in someway by engaging with the voice of the poet—with the poet’s Korea, with the poet’s reality, which I can only glimpse through the eyes of the poem and nothing more. Above all, the translated poem allows us into its world—which exists somewhere between a language we don’t know and a language that we do. Once welcomed into such a place, it’s our job, as diligent readers, to seek out the things that are seemingly unfamiliar and to listen while remaining open to being changed, moved or completely bowled over. Of course, the poem may do all of these things or none of these things—it’s a living thing and can do what it wants outside of any expectation.

At the end of Kim’s “Weather Update,” in response to the you’s question of “What are you thinking?”, the poet “quickly pushe[s] an earlobe dripping blood” between the you’s lips while saying “I’m not thinking of anything.” The ear is an image that makes an appearance in almost all the poems in this collection and when it’s not the ear it’s sound, reverberation, echo, or silence. What does a review look like when the poet reaches through the poem only to push an earlobe dripping with blood between the reviewer’s lips? That ear that holds the collective echoes of all those who ever lived, real or mythical, in the long and living history of that place, perhaps even the voices of those who have yet to be born, blended with the individual shout of the poet. A reviewer who tastes that ear is tasked with the lifetime work of learning those voices, or in the limited scope of a review, admitting what they don’t know while pointing future readers to a place where they can take up that work for themselves. Only by holding such a sound in the mouth, can a reviewer clearly position themselves in relation to the translated work and the truth of that work at all.

— Lauren Albin


As I translate, I have three main concerns.

  1. What am I? A poet—one who happens to be bilingual, translating poetry I like, working for little reward because I enjoy doing it—but primarily a poet. In this frame of mind, my focus is making poems that are good poems. When I spoke to Kim Hyesoon while working on Red Mirror, this too seemed to be her advice: the translated poems should be good poems in the target language. So we translators spent time reading aloud both the Korean poems and our translations: Lauren and I put our poets’ ears to work as we discussed connotations and where to put line breaks; I angsted ad nauseam about punctuation.
  1. But I am also obsessed with what I think of as accuracy but is really a vague and obstinate faithfulness to my gut feelings. I don’t mean something as basic as knowing all the words in Korean but rather getting across the correct tone. Of course, a translation will never be perfect in that way, and since everyone reads a work of art differently there is no such thing as a correct reading. But I know that when I read a poem, I feel a certain way. It gives me a certain creepiness, or sublime breathlessness, or what have you, and its cause cannot be pinpointed but is instead a sum of all its parts—its word choices and grammar and even punctuation and its shape on the page. This leads me to obsess about how to translate the effect. For example, the Yi Sang quotes in “Mixer & Juicer” w e r e s p a c e d l i k e t h i s because I decided after experimentation that this was the best way to show the disorienting effect of Yi Sang’s spaceless writing with a similar level of readability. If ever you wonder, as you read Red Mirror, why a poem is unpunctuated until a lone comma appears at the very end, that was probably me, insisting on preserving the same punctuation as the original poem for the sake of preserving the poem’s visual impression.
  1. I would like for the above two concerns to be the only ones, but even though I resist it, a third always creeps in, both in my own poetry and translation: what about the reader? I want to work without thinking of any reader. I want to work for myself. Yet I can’t help but ask, Would the reader understand what I mean? There seems to be an archetype of the Reader that lives in my subconscious mind. I feel compelled to explain things to the Reader, but only things that don’t belong to the mainstream white American culture. I don’t like that the Reader is like this, because I don’t believe that white American culture should be held up as the norm—yet I can’t help asking, Would the Reader be turned off because he doesn’t know this reference to Korean mythology (the Reader is always a he)? Would the Reader think my English is poor because I’ve chosen to use comma splices for a certain effect? I try not to cater to the Reader, I tell myself I have nothing to prove and no reason to appeal to the Reader, but if I want my work to be published, there does need to be some catering. Anybody could end up being the actual reader, maybe even someone like me. But I think about the editors, the reviewers, and so the Reader remains someone unlike me. In fact, we did capitulate to the Reader and add endnotes that did not exist in  잔의 붉은 거울.

So I spent some years thinking about all of this as Red Mirror slowly took shape in English, recognizing that these were not new concerns and that I would not be the person to answer them. I knew that many of the decisions that took hours of discussion might seem trivial or end up unsatisfactory to all involved because we each had slightly different visions. But those discussions still happened because we cared enough to argue for our own concerns.

Having been through this, I believe that reading translations requires good faith. I trust that translators have done their utmost to create a work that meets their standards—whatever those may be—and that I, in turn, should approach this work with no preconceived expectations, with alertness, with occasional Google searches if necessary. I may dislike the translation because I do not like the work itself, or because the theory of translation applied to the text is not my theory, but I always assume that the work has something that appealed to the translator, and that the translator does have some consistent theory. What Nabokov said about readers of fiction in “Good Readers and Good Writers” applies to translation as well, and doubly so since there are at least two minds involved: “the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense” who approaches each work as “something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know.” Reviewers and academics have a habit of categorizing everything they read into Schools, eras, movements, but I doubt writers set out with the intention of fitting into categories; I certainly have never written a deliberately Korean-American poem, even though that’s how my work is inevitably described. We are not trying to write travelogues, ethnographies, dissertations demonstrating our knowledge of world literatures, or textbook examples of a genre; we make art. If I could change one thing about the unwanted Reader in my mind, I wish he would understand that any failure to meet his expectations is for the sake of creating and translating good poetry.

— Sue Hyon Bae


Reviews of translations would seem to have to perform four contradictory tasks at once: speak of the original as though it were present, speak of the translation as though it were a facsimile of the original, speak of the quality of the translation across cultures and languages, and then speak of the translation as a standalone book in its own right.

Usually, the question of how to balance these tasks is answered by the publication in which the review appears. But other factors can also come into play: Is the source-language text well known in the new cultural context of the target language? Are other translations of the same text widely available? If the book might be a bestseller, will it be read as though it were for all intents and purposes an English-language book? Is the original language included in any way in the translation? And in what reading contexts might the translation most likely be encountered? 

It’s this last question that interests me the most because a book without a reader is not really a book. As the publishing practice of pulping non-selling books makes clear, a book without a reader is ultimately just dirty paper. And since translations are not usually among the most-read books, imagining the life of a translation means considering the contexts in which the book might be read.

One area where translations are often read is university English or comparative literature courses. I remember in college reading short stories from an anthology of women’s writing from India. Almost everything was in translation (and yet we never discussed translation in class). That was before the advent of world literature discourse and the proliferation of world literature anthologies. But there is one significant difference between that anthology of Indian women’s writing and a typical world literature anthology. The narrower scope of the anthology—a single nation-state (India) and a single gender (women)—means that the expectations for readers can be more specific as well.

World literature discourse is now the primary academic framework shaping such classes. Its anthologies typically have an overly broad mandate: to represent the best of world literature translated into English. This mandate is troubling due to its seeming impossibility and to the drastic foreshortening necessary to make the task close to possible. Literature classes that mean to cover the world tend to elide the local or specific aesthetics that make literary and cultural histories unique. These courses bent on breadth simply don’t have the time for depth. And since these aesthetics have been elided, they are often replaced by Western literary terms (which are by no means solely Western at this point) that are more familiar to students who may grasp the general ebb and flow of Western aesthetic history but not the finer points.

For the reviewer thinking of such world literature readers—and I was thinking of them in my review of Kim Hyesoon’s poetry—two questions arise. How will the reading context shape their act of reading this translation? And what aid does that context—as well as the book itself—give to readers so that they understand the aesthetics that shape its expression?

One of my critiques of world literature discourse that I tried to convey in the review centers on the fact that it creates an implicit pressure on translated works to demonstrate in some clear fashion the national history or purported ethos of that country. The danger, of course, is that ideas of a national stereotype are often shaped in equal measure by colonial powers, the modern nation-state, and other outside forces. That Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in 1913 for his self-translated poetry—a first case study of world literature discourse—would substantiate this claim: the universalist spiritualism of his Gitanjali reiterated for the West its own exotically spiritual version of India. Another example of the effects of such stereotyping lenses is Salman Rushdie’s preposterous claim that the only “vernacular” writer from South Asia that one need bother reading (in translation) is Saadat Hasan Manto. Though a fan of Manto’s prose style, what Rushdie highlights are Manto’s allegories of Partition, where colonial and modern histories impinge. The result is that exile, nostalgia, loss, and history become the implicit and reductive framework through which South Asian fiction becomes read abroad.

Since the scope of world literature anthologies often prevents them from explaining local aesthetic terms and cultural histories, global ones are implicitly proposed and followed. But even simple terms can prove immensely problematic. “Modernism” is a case in point. Scholars have renounced the term for “modernisms”—thereby stressing the differences between Italian Futurism and Dadaism—and South Asia modernism cannot be understood through the same chronology of cliques, coteries, and revolutions often used to explain modernisms elsewhere. There it constantly vied with long-dominant forms of social realism for cultural, political, and institutional capital.

As a result of these tensions between local and global terminologies, world literature discourse seems to unfairly restrict its attention to only those translated works whose style readers could understand through aesthetic concepts from Western literary and artistic history. But even the reminder that European terms and histories have become global doesn’t resolve the problem that cultural contexts “localize” these terms in ways most readers would not necessarily understand.

As they try to find a place in an English or comparative literature classroom, or in an anthology shaped by the world literature framework, translations confront a series of challenges. In the first instance, they face the unnecessary and unfair burden of revealing the history and ethos of the country of the writer of the source-language text. As I mentioned before, I believe this burden comes from  processes involving the reductive consolidation of national ethos in modern nation-states as well as contemporary offshoots of this nineteenth and twentieth century history that are evident in the circulation of cultural tropes in popular media. The legacy of these processes is the expectation, within world literature discourse, either for modern works of social realism or for works that reveal historical situations over intensely imaginative, personal, or hermetic works. Translations that do not meet these expectations may fail to gain a foothold in this specific reading community, but those that succeed in doing so could show these covert structures that unfairly limit the reception of translations. 

In the second instance, the question of the scope and relevance of historically Western aesthetic categories comes to the forefront. Here, the book itself is the best guide. Most translations have paratextual materials—a foreword, an afterword, a translator’s note—that provide an aesthetic framework capable of orienting readers. It can include local aesthetic terms, ones common to the lay reader, or even ones that are geared toward situating the work with respect to Western aesthetics.

To me, the most interesting aspect of reviewing a translation—above and beyond the accurate and thoughtful accounting of the book in question that all reviews require—is imagining how it will affect and be affected by its reception within the standards of specific reading communities. Or to put it another way: how the translation speaks to the context of a reading community and how that community speaks to the translation.

— Matt Reeck


Lauren Albin received her MFA from Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Her original poetry and translations have appeared in Korean Literature Now, The Malahat Review, and The Southeast Review. She co-translated Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror (Action Books, 2019) with Sue Hyon Bae and Jiwon Shin, and currently works as a Visiting Professor of English at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.

Sue Hyon Bae was raised in South Korea, Malaysia, and Texas. Her co-translation of A Drink of Red Mirror was published this year, and her collection of poetry, Truce Country, is forthcoming.

Matt Reeck is a recipient of Fulbright, PEN/Heim, and NEA fellowships, and has translated from the French, Urdu, Hindi, and Korean. Forthcoming translations include French Guiana: Memory Traces of the Penal Colony from the French of Patrick Chamoiseau (Wesleyan University Press), and The Chronicle from the Urdu of Intizar Husain (Penguin-India).


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