Language: Korean

In Conversation: Christopher Merrill, Director of The International Writing Program

What persists through every job I have held...is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are
     with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I
     translate into a new tongue.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

This is perhaps the most appropriate introduction to Christopher Merrill, the award-winning poet and translator from Slovenian and Korean who directs the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. Gifted with a style that frequently combines, as Kirkus Reviews called it, “Merrill-the-poet’s gorgeous writing, and Merrill-the-reporter’s sharp eye,” he has risen to greater international prominence in part through his involvement with the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and extensive cultural diplomacy engagement all over the world.

In his recent memoir Self-Portrait with Dogwood, Merrill writes: “The invention of language made possible what we imagine to comprise human experience, for good or ill—agriculture, warfare, religion, government, poetry, philosophy, art, and science, not to mention the emotions that drive individuals, societies, and civilizations. Long ago, under a tree, we learned to express ourselves in a new key, building structures of meaning word by word, phrase by phrase, alert to the necessities of living, to the varieties of love and grief, to the mysteries of faith, quirks of nature, and consolations of storytelling… The musical possibilities encoded in language expanded our understanding of the worlds without and within, giving birth to poetry—and so much more.”

Claire Jacobson: Can you tell me how you got started writing poetry, and translating, and being involved in the international writing community? Basically, what is the origin story of Christopher Merrill?

Christopher Merrill: A writer’s origin story may change over time, especially if the writer’s life takes many forms, as mine has. Thus at different points along the way I have dated the beginning of my literary vocation to a love affair; a serious illness at the age of twenty-four; working as a war correspondent in the Balkans; making pilgrimages on the Holy Mountain of Athos; and so on. But the most enduring story is that as a teenager in New Jersey I wanted to be a soccer player and a poet: two career paths that did not sit well with my parents—which only enhanced their appeal. When I matriculated at Middlebury College, where I was recruited to play soccer and intended to be a French major, I had the good luck to take a poetry workshop with the novelist Thomas Gavin, who became a lifelong friend; his encouragement inspired me to serve what turned into an unusual literary apprenticeship, which included stints as a graduate student, nurseryman, college soccer coach, caretaker, bookstore clerk, director of writers’ conferences, and freelance journalist. What persists through every job I have held, each of which I viewed as a gift regardless of the pay or working conditions, is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below.

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In Review: Sweet Potato by Kim Tong-in

Translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure.

Korean literature in translation has enjoyed newfound popularity in the English-speaking world over the past few years, but most recent publications have been—unsurprisingly—of contemporary literature. With a trend towards temporal and geographic diversity amongst Korean literature available in English (North Korean writer Bandi’s The Accusation being the most well-known divergence from South Korean voices), it is worth taking a look at British publisher Honford Star’s recent collection of the short stories of twentieth-century writer Kim Tong-in. In this anthology, Sweet Potato, translator Grace Jung uses her role to impress upon readers the agency of the translator as a feminist figure in the retranslation of a historical text.  

Sweet Potato takes its name from its most well-known story, also titled “Sweet Potato,” or “Kamja” in Korean. First published in 1925 by the Japanese colonial-era journal Joseon Mundan, the story is one of the seminal texts of twentieth-century Korean literature. In fewer than ten pages, it recounts the life of Pong-nyŏ, a young Pyongyang woman of low social status who is sold to a much older and similarly impoverished widower. When Pong-nyŏ’s husband fails to support the couple financially, Pong-nyŏ turns to prostitution in the slums of Pyongyang in order to earn a living. She is overcome with anger upon learning that the Chinese Mr. Wang, her most frequent customer, plans to marry, but her attempts to kill Wang backfire, ending instead in her own death. The work is emblematic of Kim’s literary realism and has been interpreted to demonstrate that moral “choices” are situational, resulting from external circumstance rather than character flaws. Three quarters of a century after its initial publication, “Sweet Potato” remains popular, with new editions of the story released in 2000 and 2005 by publishers Ch’ŏngmoksa and Ch’angbi, respectively.

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In Review: “The Impossible Fairy Tale” by Han Yujoo

Emma Holland reviews a disturbing, brilliant, "oddly riveting" novel from South Korea.

Han Yujoo’s debut novel is chilling and surreal, raising questions about deep-seated human violence, and the nature of art-making. A review by Asymptote Executive Assistant Emma Holland.

The Impossible Fairytale pulls readers into its disorienting and brutal world, spinning a dark narrative of the nameless Child and her classmates. Later the perspective shifts into a meta-narrative—questioning and twisting ideas concerning language and the restraints of the novel as a literary form. Korean author Han Yujoo’s debut novel, translated by Janet Hong, The Impossible Fairytale is a wildly gripping page-turner, and ultimately a powerful yet unsettling read.

Through the narrative, Han explores the notion that violence is an ingrained part of society. Speaking at the Free Word Centre in London on July 10 at an author discussion hosted by the UK publisher, Titled Axis Press, Han talked of how “from a young age we are exposed to violence, it becomes normalized, a part of our everyday life…eating away at our minds.”

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Translation Tuesday: “The Woman in Tula” by Kang Unkyo

"the sunset which used to come running, when she smiled carefully"

Kang Unkyo is a veteran Korean poet whose poetry, like all great art, has evolved in response to the times. From nihilistic political verse to “People’s Poetry” of abstractions, she has refreshed many traditional forms. Known for her lyrical touch, the poet here creates a sensory pastiche of the woman in Tula. 

That woman in Tula who used to blush,
that woman in Tula who used to ask the menu carefully,
that woman who used to put on a red-apple-patterned apron
and make red salad,
the sunset which used to come running, when she smiled carefully,
the woman in Tula who used to turn over and wipe the reddened tables,
that woman, red glasses, red curtains, red calculator

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Translation Tuesday: Two Poems by Kim Haengsook

My nostrils were buried. I had breakfast in a world which didn’t smell at all.

In these two poems, the acclaimed South Korean poet Kim Haengsook focuses on the human face and its excess of meaning in a world where meaning itself is volatile and unstable. The face, always at the center of human relations, can signify the deepest feelings of happiness, loss and confusion, yet its silent vocabulary collides with the world of objects and our desire to communicate with other people. It is a pleasure to feature Haengsook’s thought-provoking work on Asymptote, translated by Lei Kim. 


The Fall of a Face

The face that stayed with me, like a brother-in-arms, ran away like another brother-in-arms into the skin of the infinite, placid night.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Lee Seong-Bok

That day the sun beat down on the blue china shards, all day long, and the blade of grass, slightly wilted, was a blade of grass.

Courtesy of Literature Translation Institute of Korea, we are pleased to showcase the work of Lee Seong-Bok, translated by Yea Jung Park. Wistful for lost opportunity, these urgent, insistent prose poems hark back to a time of youth, and are sure to evoke strong personal memories.


1) Sister, the boat we rode on that day

My love, my sister,
do dream of the sweet happiness
of going there and living, just the two of us!

— Charles Baudelaire, “Invitation to a Voyage”

That year in late spring, one night spent in the bungalow by the reservoir. Tens of thousands of stars whizzing above the campfire. The night-long cuckoo cry engraved a tattoo on my forearm in the shadow-shape of a heaving wooden ship, and sister, in the morning all those day-lily blossoms, I did not know where to find your eyes among them. Eyes with yellow petals hung like the wings of a fan, eyes rolling like iron hoops to the sound of buzzing. Even now, at the cuckoo’s cry my crazed arms will mimic the rowing of a boat, and sister, the boat we rode on that day advances carefully through the buzzing day-lily stars, searching for the eyes you have lost in the night.
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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Byung-rul Lee

The hour hand blankly moves, in spite of the dangling minute hand with a loose screw.

In a society where emotional restraint is prized, interactions can all of a sudden grow stilted or become suffused with a great silence as disappointment sinks in. In these exemplary poems by Korean poet Byung-rul Lee, tone and imagery hint at the emotional tumult hidden underneath the surface.

Great Sadness

Truly, an emotion the size of a single juice pack.

Something is stuck and will not come out.
A woman’s face full of the image of an afternoon garden,
sturdy roots of a tree growing through a wall,
a swarm of ants climbing up a pillar in lines,
that do not fall off or get brushed off, even when shaken.

The waist of a flower has accepted signs of death,
blood and murderous intent,
forearms holding up the breath of love

The hour hand blankly moves,
in spite of the dangling minute hand with a loose screw.
A metaphor hidden in the naked flesh of the picture.

I cannot give up this abyss.
If I wanted to hide it,
I would have to measure to see if I can take it out again.

As molten iron, once welded on, does not fall off,
this sadness, seared by fire, does not fall off.
Since it is my turn to step back a bit,
please, anybody, share some wine with my brothers.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Yoo An-Jin

Now my language is a roaring of waves

It’s not often that poets become household names, but acclaimed Korean poet Yoo An-Jin had help from her contribution to the immensely popular essay collection, “Dreaming of a Beautiful Friendship,” as well as from her first novel, Anemones do not Wither, adapted into a hit television series. In these poems, sensitively translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Yu Chang-Gong, we see the other side of that popularity: the sudden loneliness amid a crowd; the naked dread of age.

Aged Forty

Just as the place where a river ends is the sea,
do we reach the sea of tears
at the age when youth’s tears run dry?

Now my language is a roaring of waves
and if once I shout
ten million words resonate
while my gestures have turned into writhing waves.

Though it unravel ten million times,
it is all a knot of dancing steps
indeed, from forty onwards is an age of tears,
an age of tears
showing nothing but waterways.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Moon Taejun

The things that she called upon spiralled in orderly circles and soared into the glistening winter sky.

As the editor of a world literature journal who’s read submissions across all genres for more than six years now, I’m always on the look-out for a certain cosmic echo when one piece of writing rhymes with another from a different continent, as if confirming our shared humanity. Last week’s poem by Portuguese poet Ana Luísa Amaral, addressed from mother to daughter, is perfectly answered by these elegiac verses by Korean counterpart Moon Taejun mourning a departed mother, and capturing a magnificent stillness. 

—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief

My Mother’s Prayer Beads

One day my mother sat blankly as she fingered her cold prayer beads.

My mother lowered her head as though mending some frayed clothes. She mustered the flowers, thunders, grasshoppers, and snowstorms; she also called upon my dead granny, me who was ailing, and my maternal uncle who lived afar. Silently, she bound up small scraps of cloth. Then she called upon the terrifying darkness, the valley fog, the roaring fire, and the stars on high. A faint, lengthy song arose from my mother’s bosom like it did when she used to sing me to sleep. She hummed the simplest song that all – the stag beetle, the puny bird, the eight-year-old child, the ninety-year-old granny, the parched verdure, the flock of sheep and its meadow, and creatures with menacing teeth – would know. The song my mother sang was fettered by her cold prayer beads while the things that she called upon spiralled in orderly circles and soared into the glistening winter sky.

A Faraway Place

Today the air teems with words of goodbye.
A handful, a handful at a time, I breathe the words of goodbye.
A faraway place comes forth.
As it pushes me little by little, a faraway place comes forth.
I would bring with me the first newly sprouted leaf, her lips, her crimson
cheeks, and her beaming eyes that make me shy.
The air raises my heart, like a fragile piece of ice, and passes me by.
The barren tree sheds and sheds its leaves and the rock governs the dim
light of the stone’s shadow.
The bench sits at the same spot all day long with a frame on which nobody
is seated even now.
Hands quivered, eyes damped, and at a loss for words.
When everybody speaks of farewells,
a faraway place comes forth,
somewhere we can hardly fathom.

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Translation Tuesday: Two poems by Kim Ki-taek

Bewildered by the odd familiarity of unfamiliarity, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

The award-winning poet Kim Ki-taek has been described as “an observer of minute and microscopic details” with a rational but compelling style of description that pulls you into his universe, where no encounter is ever mundane. The art critic John Berger, who gave us Ways of Seeing, would have found much to commend about the two poems presented below.

My Eyes Met His

My eyes met his for a moment.

His face was familiar,

but I couldn’t remember who he was.

Bewildered by the odd familiarity of unfamiliarity

I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

He, too, seemed to ponder who I was.

He was rummaging through a garbage bag.

He was inside the skin of a cat.

As if he were used to standing upright,

to walk with four feet appeared awkward.

As if complaining to me, who had disturbed his ransacking,

Meow, he let out with feeling.

But the strange sound like a baby crying unexpectedly

seemed unbearable for him to hear and

immediately he shut his mouth.

He didn’t run away like other cats.

As if angry over his own sad figure being caught,

he lowered his head, turning slowly, back arched,

and moved off into the distance for a long time.

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Meet the Publisher: Juliet Mabey on Oneworld’s Roots and the Business of Publishing Translations

When you start fresh, you’re not burdened with a big list to look after that perhaps stops you from spotting these little gems...

Oneworld was founded in 1986 by Juliet Mabey and her husband Novin Doostdar. The press is now based in London and publishes over 100 books a year. Most of these continue to be non-fiction titles across a broad range of subject areas. In 2009, Oneworld launched their fiction list, and shortly thereafter began releasing novels in translation. To date, the press has published authors from 40 countries and works originally written in 26 languages. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to Juliet Mabey over Skype to discuss the importance of reading fiction from across the globe and Oneworld’s commitment to diversity in publishing literature in translation.

Sarah Moses: Can you tell me a bit about how Oneworld came to be?

Juliet Mabey: My husband Novin Doostdar and I had always been interested in books and bookshops. We were in university in Edinburgh together, where we met and got married, and we decided that we wanted to set up a company ourselves. It was really a choice between setting up a bookshop or a publishing company. In fact, originally we wanted to set up both, but we never really had time to do the bookshop. We set up Oneworld in 1986, very much with a view of publishing accessible, authoritative narrative non-fiction across quite a broad range of subjects.

At that time there was no Internet. If you wanted to learn a bit more about psychology, and you went into a bookshop, all you could find were say, the complete works of Freud or an A-level textbook of an introductory nature. So we felt there was a big gap in the market for books that were written by experts or academics but in an accessible style. That was very much what we intended to do, across philosophy, psychology, history, popular science. In fact, it’s still very much the core of our non-fiction list. The first year in 1986 I think we published four books. We then built it up very slowly. Neither my husband nor I came from a publishing background so we learned as we went along and talked to booksellers and that sort of thing.

SM: How did you decide to make the move into fiction?

JM: That’s a really interesting question. There were certain factors that came to a head around the same time. On the one hand, I kept reading novels that I felt were very sympathetic to our kind of ethos in our non-fiction list; that if we had a fiction list, we would be interested in publishing ourselves. But of course we didn’t. That went on for a few years before we took the plunge.

For example, novels like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus offered a very interesting way of learning all about Nigerian culture, its history, and that part of the world. They’re fantastic novels in their own right. They weren’t a worthy introduction to Nigeria at all, but they took you there. That seemed to be very much the sort of thing I would have loved to publish if we’d had a fiction list. By this point we’d been in publishing for just over twenty years. Finally I just thought, you know what, I’m going to tell everybody that I’m interested in starting a fiction list, and we’ll see what happens. So we went to Frankfurt in 2008 and I started telling people, “By the way, we’re hoping to start up a fiction list.”

One of the first novels that was suggested to me was Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, which we went on to publish the following September, in 2009. That was the start of our fiction list. So we were just incredibly lucky. You know, sometimes it happens. And when you start fresh, you’re not burdened with a big list to look after that perhaps stops you from spotting these little gems that are sitting there, which (in the case of James’s novel) everybody had turned down already because it was written entirely in Jamaican pidgin English. Then his next novel—the second novel we published of his—went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 2015. So it was truly a very propitious start to our fiction list.

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Translation Tuesday: Three poems by Choi Seung-ja

Last night’s dreams, sins of the past, unlivable dreams, the sin of living incompletely.

Relentless time is the subject of these poems by Choi Seung-ja, an iconic figure in Korean literature, so influential that she was called “the common pronoun of the 80s’ poets.” But the existential despair captured in broad bravura strokes here transcends both culture and era.

 

Two Kinds of Death

Like a rumor or drifting cloud
the lodger in Cheongpa-dong passes away
and morning’s black phone call rings.
Suddenly at the edge of the dining table
the species of mothers and fathers
melt into the longing spirit of water and fire
the rice and soup in a chorus
recite the deceased’s prehumous words:

Wishing to die
yet going mad

A black boat appears from the blue sky.
Full of cosmic humidity
transmitting an extraterrestrial Morse code
on and off
Death sends us a message.

Someday in Manhattan
John Lennon dies and
the voice of the dead is floating.

Mama don’t go
Daddy come home

 

At the End of the Deserted Street

The smell of sin, the smell of sin, ruins of sadness,
still lingering in my soul.

Every day I wake up at the end of the deserted street.
Last night’s dreams, sins of the past,
unlivable dreams, the sin of living incompletely.
In the dark of last night
the clock that measured all of me
keeps ticking in the same countdown.

Run, time, run
putting on my frail weight
made of only dream and sin
speed like a bullet.
I want to watch my bones shatter.
I want to snigger in the windblown
dust of my bones.

 

Fearful Green

The earth emits mysterious heat.
The chirping of birds withers midair.
While the ashen sky retreats
aching leaves turn.
The thirsty verdure grows by degrees.
At last green’s fearful chaos pours out.
Everything will be over.
Time will come to rest.
In the air, the sneer of green afire.

Into the deep, deep earth, the sap drains.
The barren background sways.
The sun comes to a halt forever.
Like a ghost only green remains in the world.

 

Translated from the Korean by Lei Kim

 

Choi Seung-ja was born in 1952 and made her literary debut in 1979. Shortly afterwards, she became the icon of youth and freedom in Korean literature. She lived through the 1980s, the Dark Age in modern Korean history, both in political and social aspects, and she was called “the common pronoun of the 80s’ poets.” For her the time was “time… feeding me shit / yet ruthlessly leaving me alive” (“Unforgettableness or Oblivion”) and “never-ending period.” She declared herself “the priest of void” and executed poems that manifested the indignity of the period. Among her poems, the expression of assumed evil, masochism, self-contempt, and stark vulgarism signal the advent of a new style of poetry. Women in the patriarchal society are bound to live with self-abuse as a pathetic defense to overcome the crisis of self-existence. Her works show how far she has pushed the bar set by the male dominant system, and in some point, she made her own escape from the conventional women’s poetry. In consequence, she is reputed to have started “feminist poetry” for the first time in the history of Korean poetry, so it is nonsense, without consideration of her impact on others, to talk about Korean women’s poetry. Her works include The Love Of This Age, A Merry Journal, The House Of Memory, My Green Grave, and Lonely And Faraway.

Lei Kim is a literary translator. She has translated Lee Jangwook’s poetry collection, Request Line at Noon (Codhill Press, 2016), and received the Modern Korean Literature Translation Commendation Award.

 *****

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New Year Reading Resolutions from the Asymptote team! (Part I)

From reading more small presses to children's literature in translation, here are our reading resolutions for 2017!

Sam Carter, Assistant Managing Editor

Rather than focusing on a single region in the coming year or trying to rectify one of my many reading deficiencies (such as an embarrassing lack of familiarity with Chinese or Arabic literature, to name just two), I will dedicate 2017 to exploring the work of those folks who are so dedicated to bringing us the best of world literature in book form: publishers. Not just any publishers, of course, but the small presses who tirelessly seek out the new voices that make the global literary conversation an exciting and ever-expanding one.

These small presses spread the wealth of work from across the globe, and my small contribution for the coming year will be to spread my meager wealth by monthly rewarding one of these risk-takers with the purchase of a recent release. This supplement to my regular habits will not only contribute a greater degree of diversity to my readings but also allow me to become better acquainted with the frequently impressive catalogs of these forward and outward looking publishers.

sam

To guide my exploration, I’ll be adding a further constraint by starting with those presses located close to home and working outward. Because I’m based in Ithaca, NY, I’ll turn to nearby Rochester’s Open Letter Books for my January pick, which will be Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House. A friend and inspiration to Clarice Lispector, Cardoso’s novel incorporates letters, diaries, and a variety of other documents from the characters in this sprawling tale of a family’s downfall.

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Dig Deeper into Our Fall 2016 Issue

Selected highlights in the new issue from Asymptote section editors!

Last week, we launched “Verisimilitude,” our star-studded Fall 2016 edition. Since then, we’ve been overwhelmed by the critical reception: A Public Space called the issue “a gold mine of work from 31 countries” while The Chicago Review of Books proclaimed it “f**ing gorgeous.” Among the never-before-published work by both well known and emerging translators, writers, and visual artists we presented in this quarterly issue, Anita Raja’s essay on translation made The Literary Hub‘s Best of the Week roundup. Thank you so much and do please keep spreading the word so we can connect our authors with even more readers! This week, to guide your exploration of the new issue, some of our editors contribute highlights from their respective sections. Follow them from Ireland to Iraq to Mexico to Korea and back again.

yum

Tactile Translations, Stefana McClure. Review: Eva Heisler, Visual Editor.

Using sources as various as a Japanese translation of The Little Prince, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, or a U.S. government redacted report on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” artist Stefana McClure slivers printed matter and re-employs it as material with which to construct her enigmatic objects: stones wrapped in paper; a ball wound of the paper shreds of a novel; a nearly black “drawing” knit from redacted texts. Carmen Hermo’s conversation with McClure delves into the thinking and process behind the artist’s “tactile translations.”

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