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The Ecstatic Excess of Translation: The Millions Interviews Soje

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Created in 2019 by Soje, a Korean-English translator and poet, chogwa is a quarterly, public-access e-zine that takes its name from the Korean word for “excess.” Like its title suggests, chogwa takes great joy in excess, of going beyond singularity. The zine’s format is what initially caught my attention: chogwa presents one Korean poem in hangul (the Korean alphabet) and an editor’s preface in English contextualizing the poem; then, it presents varying English translations of the poem from at least ten Korean-English translators, stitched together by Soje’s editorial commentary on each translation. chogwa released a special print issue in December 2021, an anthology that drew together a community of translators, writers, and readers.

As a reader that stumbled upon chogwa accidentally, I was struck by Soje’s illuminating yet down-to-earth commentary, which tackles everything from the ins-and-outs of Korean honorifics to overweight baggage fees. Soje’s tone brims with warmth and playful insight, and is sprinkled with the occasional emoji. It’s like reading translations with a very smart and funny and open-hearted friend, who’s right at your shoulder (or in the zine margins, in this case). “When there’s one, it has to be everything,” states Soje; in chogwa, translations are allowed the space to play around. What then makes chogwa stand out for me is how its pluralistic approach to translation allows each translator to interact with, diverge from, and form a community with one another. Soje and I connected over Zoom, where we chatted about translation and intimacy, the economic precarity of translators, queer theory, and commentary as an act of care.

Jaeyeon Yoo: You’ve cited what you call the “burden of singularity” as one reason to found chogwa, and how the community of contributors that chogwa has gathered has helped alleviate that burden. What roles do loneliness and connection play in your translating practices?

Soje: A lot of writers talk about being lonely children who find solace in books, right? I read a lot as a shy, traumatized immigrant kid and would feel a kind of affinity with the characters in the stories, or with the people who created those characters. I’d always had that kind of spiritual relationship, but when I started translating and eventually started meeting authors, it went to another level. It became so much more intensified; many people have said this, but the translator, in many ways, is the most intimate reader. It’s a kind of erotic bond, in the sense that there is an exchange of power and attention being given.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has also written about the erotic submission of translation. For my college thesis, I looked at Spivak and Audre Lorde—you know Lorde’s essay, “Uses of the Erotic”? I brought Spivak and Lorde together to make a point about that exchange of power in translation, how it’s a process of trust and respect. And the more that I talk about translation, the more BDSM I get in language! But I think it’s apt because for a good BDSM relationship and a good translator-author relationship, a sense of trust is so crucial—and also a sense of play, which we’ll get to. I really tap into a kind of new interpersonal, human relationship through translation. I don’t think the author-translator relationship can replace a romantic relationship or a friendship; it’s just its own category. Translating has relieved a lot of the angst that I felt in earlier years of feeling lonely and isolated.

JY: Translation can function as a bond of power, but also can simultaneously be an act of care, right? I feel like there’s a lot of care in your commentary in chogwa that comes through, a warmth which goes beyond just tying the zine together. I’m struck by how you curate every single translation in chogwa, and how curating is often an act of deep care and attention.

S: I was amazed at how people showed up for a zine that was run by basically a nobody! I realized then that the commentary is what I can offer to translators, because they—especially emerging ones—probably feel like they’re shouting into the void, and I wanted to be a kind of echo. To remind them that they’re not alone in this endeavor. And that’s the importance of community and care for me.I get extremely nervous, even now, about hosting chogwa gatherings, but the payoff is always so great. At the first in-person gathering, after the launch of the second issue, everyone was so adorable and earnest and enthusiastic about poetry in this unpretentious way. That’s when I knew this was something special. People are connecting not only with me but with each other. We have a Slack, where people message one another and share compliments and post job opportunities. That’s been the most incredible thing: that these relationships that come out of translation. I get to talk to people about things that I’m interested in! I think that’s the greatest joy, and that’s why I keep doing it. The pay is terrible, the hours are terrible. But these life-affirming relationships keep happening.

JY: In that vein of community-building, you write beautifully about the presence of queer literature in your essay, “사람들은 역시 야한 것을 좋아하니까.” Could you speak more about your call there for solidarity within queer literature (“퀴어문학을 위한 연대”)? Fellow translator and chogwa contributor Anton Hur has similarly highlighted a conscious group effort to decolonize and queer Korean literature in Anglophone translation. I’ve been thrilled to discover all these cool translators working together and wondered, how did this group come about?

S: As a queer Korean American person at UC Berkeley, I was concerned about the experience of being a non-binary, queer person in Seoul. I was literally searching “queer Korean literature” on Google, every iteration of “queer” and “Korea.” There was this essay by Anton Hur called “The Lunar Sorority” and the first sentence is: “Insofar as a translator can be ‘well-known,’ I am not the most well-known gay translator of Korean literature.” And I’m like, “What? There’s not one, but many?!” It was of course my Korean American naivete; I admit to being ignorant, because the version of Korea that I was exposed to, as a Korean American, was through my parents and my extended family. I had this very sanitized idea of what “Korea” means. I consumed pop culture, but for the most part, I was consuming the very mainstream culture exports of Korea. So I had a very heterosexual view of Korea—until I started reading more Korean literature.

“The Lunar Sorority” is a very touching essay, and I shared it on Facebook. That spring, I had met Korean-English translator Sophie Bowman through a week-long Korean translation workshop at Berkeley. She saw that I’d shared Anton’s essay and introduced me to Anton when I flew over to Seoul. The first time I met him, it was August and we were eating 양꼬치 [meat skewers] over open flame, and obviously I was sweating. I really don’t know what he saw in this sweaty 23 year old, but he asked, “We’re about to start a translator’s collective, do you want to join?” And me, I was like, “Moi? Me with no translation credits?” He took me very seriously. To this day, it confounds me.

The group that Anton invited me to became the Smoking Tigers. Pre-COVID, we used to meet in cafes and have workshops. They were like creative workshops, but with translations, where we’d bring in our manuscripts and give one other feedback, get into arguments about how to translate something. Afterwards, we’d complain about publishing culture and how “so-and-so won’t give me the rights”—a lot of communal venting and problem solving. There was a lot of learning, especially for me, because I was so new to everything. But even within the Smoking Tigers, I was the only person who mainly did poetry instead of novels, and that’s the kind of loneliness I mentioned in chogwa. I had the best mentors I could ask for, but I also wanted more 시토크, poetry gab. That’s how I started getting the idea for chogwa, but it took me a while to gain the courage to put it together.

Cover art for chogwa Issue 11, by Gyunghwa Roh

JY: Can you say more about the publishing industry and translation’s status within it?

S: With each passing year, I continually realize that the publishing industry is a business. Part of making profits is cutting costs, and for whatever reason, most of the time that falls on the translator—particularly for poetry. The percentage of translated books in the U.S. book market is still very, very small. And the market for translated poetry is even smaller. I really do not get a lot of money translating poetry. I’m surviving off various grants I’ve gotten in relation to translation. I’m excited to be working on an upcoming poetry anthology with multiple translators that pays very well, and to shepherd all my chogwa friends into better working conditions in that way.

JY: You write, “I knew that the existence of other translations would… dare us to be a little cheekier.” I think of playful exuberance and taking pleasure in translation as two of my favorite characteristics of chogwa. Why are qualities like playfulness and cheekiness important to you, as a translator?

S: The term 장난꾸러기, or 장꾸 [janggu] comes to mind—someone who likes mischief and play! I consider myself a janggu. I love teasing; I like levity and mischief. I think that extends to my work as well. I don’t like heaviness or pretentiousness, especially for myself. I like being a fool and the idea that nothing is set in stone. Another initial metaphor for chogwa is a sandbox, the kind that children play in. The thing with sandboxes is that you can build little castles and make things, but it’s not marble, nothing is permanent. You can always build something back, and that’s the fun of it. You can leave the sandbox, and make something again when you come back to it. I like the option of renewal and do-overs, repair.

If we want to talk theory—there’s this great quote by Joseph Litvak [as reprinted in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction]: “a lot of queer energy, later on, goes into… practices aimed at taking the terror out of error, at making the making of mistakes sexy, creative, even cognitively powerful. Doesn’t reading queer mean learning, among other things, that mistakes can be good rather than bad surprises?” That kind of blew my mind, especially as an undergrad who was terrified of making mistakes. When translation is involved, I’m translating something that I deeply respect and admire, so I don’t want to fuck up. That’s at the core of everything.

But with chogwa, it’s different. Even if one person makes a “mistake,” it’s in the context of all of these other translations. That’s part of what I mean about the burden of singularity. It’s not that we get to be careless. It allows for different perspectives without damaging the source. There are translators who think much more liberally than I do about this; I’m not considered a liberal translator. I do want to carry the “essence,” whatever that means, and maybe part of it’s because I have a close relationship with my poets. It’s one thing to read their work and another to get drinks with them, to hear their speaking voice. These unrelated conversations can help me understand, “Oh now I get why she uses this particular word in that poem.”

I’m still very concerned about misrepresenting someone. But I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea of suggesting things to them. Now, I will also take the time to explain my choices back to the poets, to see what they think. I don’t really do that for the novels I translate, but a poem can be read in so many different ways. And that’s the purpose of poetry, right? To have these multi-layered meanings of language. I will give my poets the English version, but because a lot of them don’t really read English, I will translate my translation back into Korean. And that’s been a really interesting exercise, it shows what I’ve highlighted, what’s been gained and what’s lost.

JY: It seems like you have a very similar attitude towards your literary translation that you do in chogwa, this idea of dialogue and exchange.

S: Yes, but an exchange that’s really non-transactional. There’s a word I’m thinking of—communion? Let’s see, the definition of communion is: “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.” So, yeah, it’s a communion of sorts. Very—how to say, maybe related to ecstasy, too, because ecstasy is both a religious and sexual/drug-related concept. Queer theorist José Muñoz writes about ecstasy, right?

JY: Yup, on the Magnetic Fields’ “Take Ecstasy With Me”! Great song.

S: Exactly, and he does a great reading of it in the epilogue to his book Cruising Utopia. It’s that kind of ecstatic communion that I experience, where I am outside of myself but, at the same time, I’m not? Every translated word I put down is filtered through me, so there’s no word that is not mine. But there’s still this sense of communal ecstasy. I love Muñoz because his writing is so sexy, and he’s clearly having such fun with it! Maybe that’s the ecstatic energy in chogwa.

JY: There’s also a potential pun there with chogwa’s name. Excess? Excess-tatic? We began this conversation by talking about your intimate relationship with the author, which ties in nicely with this idea of translation as ecstatic communion and chogwa as an example of that shared space.

S: But at the same time, I’m also very deeply cynical. Humans are messy, and it’s easy to idealize collectives and artists. I mention this because, throughout history, the writing groups and literary friendships that have been highlighted are usually masculine spaces—famous male writers hanging out, degrading women, being racist, et cetera. But then it gets idealized, framed as“philosophical.” So I just want to say that there are also problems within and around the communities I’m a part of. There are conflicts, because we’re humans with emotions. I don’t want to make it sound like there’s this utopic quality to it. I think what’s great about chogwa is that people are actively working to bring a certain pure energy into the space. Everyone is earnest, and it makes it so much easier to be earnest in return because you’re not afraid.

JY: I think that’s a really good clarification. And I guess I should clarify, on my behalf, I think there’s the reality of people disagreeing and conflict, and there’s the space that the artwork itself opens up. There’s a distinction, I think. It’s important to not idealize people or groups, but there’s also an artistic energy to chogwa, the zine itself, that’s very exciting and fresh.

S: This reminds me of something the poet Claire Schwartz said in a tweet: “I don’t understand the implications that aggression is inherently more rigorous than praise, when it’s obvious how much in this world is stacked against loving well.” In my commentary-making, I try to go beyond what’s just there in the text, and I try to think about why they might have made that choice. It makes me, in this process of empathizing with the translator, a much more imaginative person. I’m not trying to say this process has made me kinder, more that it’s benefited me by expanding how I think about translation. That’s why I’m so grateful to chogwa’s contributors, because it’s been an incredible educational experience for me. If translation is the most intimate act of reading, then I’m very intimately reading the intimate reading. There’s this sense of, Wow, I really feel something, I’m really connecting with you on some level. It’s not that I like every single translation or that it’s to my “taste”—because taste is very subjective—but it’s just this process of trying to love well, as Claire said. Trying to love someone or something well, on their own terms, while not saying it’s just “perfect,” here are the ways that this can be appreciated. Calling something perfect—you’re not engaging with it.

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