In this beautiful and poignant essay at Guernica, the writer Crystal Hana Kim considers how translating her grandmother’s poems from Korean to English helped her appreciate the imprecision of language not as barrier to be transversed, but as an opportunity for new connection between herself, her mother, and her grandmother.
Last month, my mother recited Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” to me on the phone. I stopped in the middle of Washington Avenue in Brooklyn as she stumbled over the word prairie. I imagined her tongue working to shape those foreign sounds. My mother immigrated to the United States more than thirty years ago, but she has always felt self-conscious about her second language, with its hard r’s and supple l’s. “My friend suggested reading poetry in English to improve my vocabulary, since I write poetry too,” she explained in Korean.
She asked me how to pronounce words she didn’t know—despair, prairie, unrelenting. I repeated them after her, slow and then fast, with definitions and without. We talked about rhythm, image, the deceptive simplicity of Mary Oliver’s lines.
I wanted to weep. My mother and I primarily communicate in Korean, and we rarely talk about literature. We have a complicated relationship, but in that moment, I felt a new closeness—rooted not in the inextricable tie of family, but in choice. I have an immediate affinity for others who have committed to the impossible act of writing.
The more I tried to translate the poems, the more intimidated I became. I wanted to be exact and precise, but inherent in translation is interpretation, the translator’s own agency. I worried. Should I adhere to the words or the rhythms, to the sound or the meaning? Should the poem feel smooth in the translated language, or retain some of the syntactical markers of its original?