Translator’s Note on Kim Myung Won’s Work:
The root of my desire to translate, which is selfish, is the same thing that keeps me from the perfect translation. Translating Kim Myung Won’s poems, I wanted to break open my own memories of Korea for the reader: washing dishes in a bucket out on the street, jumping on trampolines over the rooftops of neon buildings, tasting squid so spicy that I shove both nostrils full of mayonnaise. But inevitably, I got in the way of myself. I fixated on the words and how I rearranged them—for my own benefit as a Korean American poet. In the end, I realized her words were only ropes. And what I needed to translate, in fact, were not the ropes themselves, but what those ropes were tied to.
Last summer, my mother introduced me to her childhood friend Kim Myung Won, who was vacationing in the States during her professorship at Daejun University of South Korea where she taught Korean Literature. Not only did I have direct communication with Kim Myung Won throughout the translation process, my father provided insight behind meanings that I often did not recognize. For instance, it is normal in Korean culture to follow ceremonies from Shintoism at birth, Christianity at the time of marriage, and Buddhism at death. Even more, what many of my colleagues were not privy to: I was reunited just last year with my parents after eight years of separation. Translating these poems with my family was the first thing we had done together, and somehow, we vanished the distance that had been wedged between us—from both verbal communication and cultural differences.
As Jorge Luis Borge said Don Quixote “wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version,” I hope Kim Myung Won’s poems survive me. Rather than override her subjects with impassioned verbosity, I hope to be a vessel for them. For me, my pursuit exists in the tonal, in creating something that sticks to the ribs, and I learned that could not happen with words alone. I aim to translate her poems less with the mind, and though it took many years to learn, more with the heart.
Kim Myung Won is a poet and a professor of Korean Literature at Daejun University in South Korea.
EJ Koh is a poet and translator. Her poems have appeared in TriQuarterly, Columbia Review, Alchemy Journal, and others. Her work is forthcoming in Narrative, Fence, World Literature Today, and The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics from Black Ocean Press (ed. Andrew Ridker Black Ocean 2014). She is a Kundiman Fellow and was named as number two in Flavorwire’s (2013) list of 23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry. Her blog is located at www.thisisEJKoh.com.
I wanted to call you, bursting at my throat.
Only in my mind did I call twice.
I know you would grieve
for not being able to answer me.
Even in my mind,
I could not call you a third time.
The red glow of twilight bursts
beyond that sky, which cannot be called.
My throat ached all night.
My voice hoarse for several days.
*49th Day: A formal Buddhist ritual executed on the 49th day marking the time from death to rebirth.
On the Road
With bones for legs
and a bird slender chest,
an old man with a felt hat
dawdles along the road.
Father, I follow you without knowing.
Cotton white strands of hair,
a voice that rushes straight ahead,
never once falling to the ground,
your courteous and coolheaded stride.
Never once able to catch up
to the beautiful gap you maintained, Father.
I never reached you while you lived.
So many of your roads were erased.
Without knowing, Father,
Without knowing, Father,
if I hold onto everything that collapses,
little by little, I catch up to you.
You are in the distance.