I first came across Hedgie Choi’s translations of Moon Bo Young while (what else?) scrolling through Twitter and finding them posted on Action Books. I read those poems and thought, “Wow, these poems are amazing, who is translating this?” and found, happily, it was someone I already knew and whose email I already had because we share a graduate program. Pillar of Books is Moon Bo Young’s first collection to be translated into English and is hilarious, devastating, hilariously devastating, and devastatingly hilarious. Choi’s translation is marvelous and smooth and a fantastic introduction of Moon Bo Young to English-reading audiences. Along with co-translators Jake Levine and Soeun Seo, Choi’s work has previously won 2020’s National Translation Award in Poetry for their work on Kim Yideum’s Hysteria.
Hedgie and I chatted for months over email about her translation and writing practice, as well as our takes on New Girl. This interview has been edited so no one would have to read our takes on New Girl. (Pretty good, though.)
Kyle Williams: I love what you wrote about how Moon Bo Young is super-serious and super-funny in your translator’s note. And it’s really refreshing to read a translator’s note that complains, actually. Or that treats the process like work. The way you described translating — “you take a comma out, you put a comma back in” — is how I feel about writing generally, I think. Sure it’s cool and inspiring but also it’s arduous and time-consuming.
Hedgie Choi: I agree with you that writing is work. But a lot of the work is “invisible,” as in: texting your friends, napping, taking walks, doing dishes, thinking about something that happened six years ago and getting mad about it, therapy, etc. As opposed to visible work like sitting at a desk and doing what other people can recognize as “writing.” Invisible work certainly has its downsides, because you feel lazy or fraudulent all the time, but at least you can do other things while you do it! Visible work doesn’t let you do anything else. Here’s a chart of visible and invisible work per genre:
My boyfriend recently moved in with me. He’s a programmer working on a video game, which seems to be tons and tons of visible work, which I am both jealous and not jealous of. So it’s been on my mind a lot.
In trying to write some poetry lately, I think I realized that I don’t know what makes a poem “good,” and I don’t know how to make a poem “better” even a little. I think I can look at a story and say things like, “This character is underdeveloped” or “The pacing is bad,” but if I look at my old poems I can only think something like, “How do I feel this emotion better?” How do you revise a poem? Do you?
I revise my fiction rarely (mostly small line edits) and I revise my poems almost never. I’m not saying I’m a genius and I get it right on the first go, I’m just saying that a second or third go tends not to work out for me. I do learn from my mistakes (I hope) but I think those lessons are better applied to the next poem. If a poem is quite bad but I think there’s something worth saving somewhere in there, it goes into a huge word document called “poem soup.doc” and sometimes I try to Frankenstein a poem together by pulling bits and pieces out of that soup. So I dismantle and recycle, but I don’t revise. Not revising much is one of the traits that makes me feel very fraudulent — the advice, generally, is that you must revise, even if revising sucks. But revising doesn’t just suck for me, it’s ineffective. I also think that, for my fiction writing, revision is very much built into the process of the “first draft,” which, again, goes against the standard wisdom of getting everything down on the page sloppily, without letting your inner critic slow you down. But my inner critic is the one who writes in the first place.
What about with translation?
I’ve never really thought about this way, but I think translating — unlike fiction or poetry — is where I follow the classic advice about doing a sloppy first draft and going back to revise. But this is because I don’t read the whole book before I start, and that, in turn, is because translation has always been tied to work and employment. I’ve been translating poetry for a few years now, but I’ve also translated plenty of non-lit stuff — like writing translated subtitles for documentaries, translating for TV journalists, websites, etc. So a lot of my translation habits are about speed and accuracy. I didn’t find Pillar of Books in the wild and decide to translate it. Jake Levine (the editor) was the one who said “Do you want to do this book?” So I read just four or five poems, really quickly, before I agreed, and then I started. And so the first “draft” is really me reading the book and speed-translating as I go. It’s incredibly sloppy. Any Korean words that I can’t think of a good translation for, I just leave it in Korean and keep going. Because a lot of dilemmas that you find in individual poems require an understanding of the whole book before you can really solve them. And then I went back and edited — this time for accuracy — and then I went back and edited again — this time for poetry. I wasted a lot of time this way. I shouldn’t have done the intermediary step of translating for accuracy. That’s a hold over from when I used to co-translate, and my job was primarily to be accurate and literal, so someone else could do the decision-making — the poetry bit.
I’m interested in this dichotomy you set up between accuracy and poetry. Is poetry necessarily inaccurate? How do you weigh accuracy? Is accuracy literal? Is there a “poetic” or “emotional” accuracy that you’re ultimately aiming for? Is “accuracy” ultimately not as important to you as something else when you’re translating, like “authenticity” for instance, or “reality”?
My use of “accuracy” in relation to translation is very narrow and very tied to the literal because of my relationship to translation as paid work, and my starting role as an “assistant” translator when I started translating poetry, as mentioned. I didn’t feel like it was up to me to make a call about emotional or poetic or contextual accuracy. But here’s a good example in the poem “Insomnia””
My lover is real healthy
even in the face of my death, but
In Korean, something about the tone of this stanza separates it a bit from the other stanzas surrounding it. The first two stanzas in the poem sound like narration to someone else, whereas this stanza feels like a thought someone is having to themselves. Maybe it’s the ending or some minute change in formality. Maybe it’s the fact that the Korean doesn’t say “My lover” but simply says “Lover.” Here are other possible translations:
Lover was so healthy even in the face of my death…
Omitting “my” is a more literal translation than in the Korean, but in Korean it’s more normal to omit “my” in this case, and in English it’s less normal. It feels awkward to me. Maybe I could have used “Darling” instead?
Darling, so healthy even in the face of my death…
But no, “darling” has all kinds of weird emotional attachments, including a kind of drippy sarcasm that really comes to the foreground in this particular sentence, and I don’t think the Korean is biting like that. It is contemplative, maybe sad, distant. This also has the potential of appearing as though “Darling” is being addressed, a confusion I don’t want to risk.
You know, my lover was really healthy even in the face of my death…
In this one, I’m using “You know” as a way to signify the kind of casualness that the Korean has, the feeling that this is a thought that has occurred, rather than a part of the ongoing plot. But I think a you-address in a poem draws a lot of attention to itself, and I don’t like to throw it in there even in this small way unless the you-address is present in the original. Instead of “You know,” you can see that I used the agrammatical “real healthy” in the final version to try to give it a casual vibe.
In these alternate options, I’ve used ellipses instead of “, but” to end the stanza. And, right this moment, I like ellipses better, but apparently at the time of sending in the final manuscript, I felt otherwise. These decisions are frankly a bit fickle. As of this moment, I’m also not sold on my past decision to make this part present-tense when it was past-tense in Korean. I think the past-tense makes it more clear that this is a thought that interrupts — like the speaker is just reminiscing about something in the past — but, guessing at my own past logic, I think I decided that it wasn’t quite clear enough in the English that this was a thought, and without that kind of clarity, I didn’t want to switch tenses just for one stanza. And now, actually, I am sold on that decision again.
The other very obvious way to make this stanza look like a thought would be to italicize it. But I thought italics push it too far into thought and I wanted to preserve the ambiguity, the way that thought becomes a part of the current action. This is also an example of the kind of decision you can make after translating the whole book — you have to see how speech or thought is denoted and how italics are used in the original throughout the book to decide on some general principles of how it will be used in the English translation, and how to apply those principles in each poem.
And as for the decision to have this stanza be two lines when it was one line in Korean: that was probably because the English ran so long (the Korean alphabet is very space-efficient).
So when I say that I used to translate for “accuracy” in poetry, I mean I would write several different possible translations and explanations for what was gained and lost in each, as I’ve just done here, so that someone else could make the final decision about what to use. That’s why I say I wasted time by editing “for accuracy” and then “for poetry” separately — there was no need to do that, since I was the one who made the call on what to go with, and I already have access to my own understanding and intuition about what kind of accuracy to value. I mean, sometimes it does help to write out different options and think explicitly about what is gained and lost with each, but next time I would like to trust my gut instinct and work faster. I need to use less energy deliberating eighteen possible translations so I can use more energy deliberating between the two translations that are obviously better than the others.
Something I noticed in Pillar of Books is the way Moon Bo Young transitions from verse to prose pretty wildly, and often, like in “History and the Hand of God” or “Possible Summer for a Fly,” which even includes some playwriting-styled dialog. Her poems are really formally acrobatic in ways a lot of English-language poetry isn’t. Do you find the process for translating those forms different, or the movement between them in a single poem something that needed special attention?
Yes! I find this aspect of her work really exciting. Writing poems, I’ve sometimes felt like I wanted to just… explain something, or get very conversational and rambly within a poem, just for a moment. About a year into translating this book, I started using MBY’s flexibility in my own (English) poems, switching in and out of prose blocks. At first I was like, “I’m a genius? Nobody has thought of this before?” It took me a while to realize where I’d learned it. I think I can be slow to recognize influences when they’re coming from the translation work that I do, rather than from poems that I read in English.
I think the form switching within poems is actually one of the more intuitive things to translate — in fact there’s not even a translation, line breaks and stanza breaks can just be copied from the original for the most part.* But I can try to articulate some of the effects that the flexible lineation had on me — they’re playful and they’re surprising, which I’ve hopefully preserved in translation.
I’m thinking about playfulness and surprise in terms of “prediction error signal,” which I learned about from the poet Lisa Olstein. The gist of it is that the brain can’t pay attention to everything, so once it figures out the general pattern, it stops paying full attention and fills in the gaps with predictions. But when there’s a break in the pattern, there’s a prediction error signal, which makes the brain pay attention again. In these poems, is flexible lineation the break in the pattern because it disrupts “normal” lineation, or is it the pattern because it happens so frequently? I think there’s enough of it happening that you don’t stop at each and every one to contemplate what it could mean — the abundance leads to a kind of freedom, where there’s less pressure to justify them. That’s what I mean by playful. And at the same time, you do notice them, and they’re helpful signals that alert you to a change in content — maybe the tone is about to change as we get into a big prose section, maybe this part with very short lines will include something more surreal, etc. I feel like the purpose of surprise here is to guide, to be helpful to the reader, whereas I think surprise in poetry is often talked about as something aggressive, something that will confuse and disarm.
* Boring caveat about typesetting practices: I realized when I saw the first proofs that English poems use a different kind of indentation system than the Korean ones. In Korean, each new line is indented, whereas lines that are connected are not, the way paragraphs work in English. But in English, that format is uncommon for poetry. It’s the opposite: new lines are flush, and you indicate a line that runs longer than the length of the physical page by indenting it. I think this difference makes it ambiguous in the English, sometimes, whether a line is a new line or follows from the line above it. It more often looks like a mistake, and in the really bad cases, I had to give up lineating the same way as the original. But I argued to preserve it most of the time, because I really love the freedom in line length in these poems.
Going all the way back to when you wrote about how Moon Bo Young is super-funny and super-serious: There are these wild flips in tone within single poems, like “Axe Wielding Crazy Assed Person,” which is kind of playful but also violent but also very sad. You’ve talked about tone a little bit already, and now I’m wondering more about it. Tone is such an ephemeral thing — how do you translate it? What kind of decisions go into preserving tone?
Tone is ephemeral, yes. It depends so much on who the speaker is, who the listener is, what their relationship is, what the context is, etc, and because of how complex it is, it almost feels like I’m off the hook, as the translator. Two different people could read the original poem and have different interpretations of tone. So I think preserving the tone is mostly intuitive, and really about not adding something misleading or distracting. For instance:
do you want to hang out?
want to hang out?
should we grab lunch sometime?
These have some variations in tone, and in the last case, additional information. I bet we could come to an agreement about some of the tone implications (like which one is most casual) but there’s some stuff we wouldn’t agree on, or would need more context to get (like which one secretly means that the speaker hates you). And then there’s:
do you want to play with me
Which is way, way different. You could argue that it has the same information as the first two examples, but it’s infantile or it has horror vibes or it’s sexual or all of the above. When I’m discussing translation decisions with others, the most common objection I raise to a possible translation is, “But that sounds like [the speaker is much angrier than she is] [the speaker is trying to fuck the train conductor] [the cows in the poem are lowkey plotting against each other].” I accept that some aspects of tone will inevitably be lost or gained in translation, but I try to do away with the weird new growths that seriously warp it.
You wrote in the acknowledgements, “All work necessitates great volumes of complaining.” I would kill to hear some of the complaints.
Most of my complaints were nonverbal. A lot of distressed-pterodactyl noises and flopping dramatically on the floor after spending three hours on half of a poem, just to realize after that I misread something in the original and most of my work was for nothing. Soeun said they didn’t know that one could collapse onto the floor in so many bizarre contortions until they lived with me.
Pillar of Books
By Moon Bo Young
Translated by Hedgie Choi
Kyle Francis Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is an MFA Candidate at UT Austin’s Michener Center, Interviews Editor for Full Stop, Director of Communications for Chicago Review of Books, and A Public Space’s 2019 Emerging Writer Fellow. He is on Twitter @kylefwill.