In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Jake Levine

by Aug 1, 2023

Hand writing with pen on paper on wooden table; white coffee mug in background.

The poems by Sin Yong-Mok are full of vibrant imagery. As you’re translating, how do you find the flow of a poem, especially in such a long one like “Lazy Corpse?”

This is such a good poem. There are some narrative devices, like flashbacks, and cut scenes. The poem is really cinematic. And there is repetition, progression, so it feels like the poem is written almost like it has movements. It builds and ebbs and wanes and then breaks you. Structurally you don’t really have to do anything when you are translating. You get to make some moves and try to establish a rhythm, but strong imagery, structure, theme, if these things push the poem forward, then it makes the translator’s job easier. The syntactic and grammatical difficulty and ambiguity, those things are much more difficult to carry over. Yong-Mok’s poems are really difficult on a syntactic and grammatical level. How you parse out those difficulties… is really like a wrestling match.

In “Dark and Clear Sleep,” (Hwang Yuwon), there’s the double meaning of “characters” embedded in the seventh and eighth stanzas. Is that an intentional play on words on the poet’s part, or is that one of those moments of translation that worked really well?

Mmmm. Sometimes in a translation there is some magic and you wonder, was that also in the source text? I’m going to pull a T.S Eliot move here and say if you really want to know, you can read it also in Korean and compare ㅋㅋㅋ.  

No language translates one-to-one on the page, and in your interview with Kim Min Jeong, you’ve talked about how difficult it can be to translate literary devices like onomatopoeia and puns. What was challenging and exciting about translating these works?

Every project, every poem has its own challenges and pleasures. For these two, parsing out with Brother Anthony what to do with Yong-Mok’s poems, and chatting with Yuwon about his poem were exciting. I like working with other people. I don’t usually translate dead people, so I’ve usually got to work with the author, and I also like working with other translators. I’m not a native speaker of Korean, and my poetic sensibilities are not always spot on for every work. I’ve learned a lot as a poet and a lover of poetry from working with other people on translations. I’ve learned how to work my weak hand, to deliver lines I would find difficult to write in my own poems. Understanding how a poem makes meaning, trying to figure out a way to create some parallel to that poem in another language, I mean each of these poets write in a language they are inventing. So every poem, every project, requires an equal dedication to invention. The most challenging part is finding the time and energy for it. Poetry doesn’t pay well, which is why it is in the translator’s best financial interest to do other things. I often spend more time translating poems than I do working on my own poems. If you break down the cost/time ratio for translating poetry, that is the biggest challenge. Getting over money. Getting over needing to pay the rent and eating. 

Can you talk about your process of translation, as well as co-translation, and how collaboration with another translator and the author works?

When I was younger I had a teacher who said a poem wants to get somewhere, and we are all here together to help the poem get to its destination. I think art is something sacred. My brother works in international aid and development, working with the United Nations and coordinating refugees from Ukraine. There are so many moving pieces, and he is always visiting warzones, and coordinating on the ground, like a chess piece playing a chess match on a chess board with countless players. When we come back to America together, which is not that often, he is always saying the reason I do what I do is because you do what you do. Without you doing what you do, there would be no reason for what I do. So I have always believed that the translators and poets and authors I have worked with have worked hard to help the poems make their journey, to provide secular culture, civilization, and art, because even if it isn’t always popular or well-funded, people need it.  

What drew you to translation, and as you’re a poet yourself, how does one art form fuel another?

When I was young I was an orthodox Jew. I learned Hebrew and English and went to an orthodox school. But then my dad went to jail and some terrible things happened in my life and my family became un-orthodox Jews. Art and culture became my tabernacle, my daily Torah, a way for me to find spirituality. Then some other shit happened to me, my family members became drug addicts, my friends committed suicide, some died in car crashes or overdoses, so art was something I kind of turned to because it spoke to my experiences. Joe Strummer, John Berryman, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, they were my Moses. When you go to a foreign country and you are a poet and you are learning the language and you meet other poets, you’ve got to try and translate and introduce those poets. It is a kind of spiritual thing (not economic). When you are translating other poems from other traditions, you are expanding your powers. You’ve got to study and draw from traditions outside your working language. It is really liberating. Korean poetry has broken my idea of what a poem can do. Like a bone, the what-a-poem-can-do bone has become stronger and bigger in my English language poetry. Poetry has given me a lot of purpose when times were the darkest, so I always felt like I had to pay it back. At first I thought translation was a part of that, but then I found translation was really this gateway into expanding my powers.    

What authors do you turn to for inspiration? Do you have a favorite text, poem, or novel?

Wow, so many. Some of the greatest elder or approaching elder artists alive are Kim Hyesoon and Nick Cave and Ko Hyong-ryeol and Bob Hass and Tomas Venclova and Louise Gluck and whatever Misfits people are doing the Misfits tour and we are lucky to be sharing our time with them on the earth. Some of the dead, Clarice Lispector and Edmond Jabes. Yi Sang and MF Doom. Keats and Marquis de Sade and Harriet Jacobs and Virgil and Blondie and Guided by Voices and Paul Celan. I also suggest everything on the sides and in between. Prince. One of my trashy songs is “I Confess” by the English Beat. I also return, without fail, to Keats and the Cramps. Keats is so gross, Lux Interior too. They are so cool and gross. I’ve been really lucky to know and be friends with a lot of amazing artists whose work has really influenced me. Dick Siken, first and foremost. I love Joe Hall. His work is really good. Everyone should read Joe Hall. Joyelle McSweeney. Elisa Gabbert. Richard Greenfield. Janaka Stucky. Johannes Goransson. Don Mee Choi. Jane Miller. Forrest Gander. Charles Alexander. Ilya Kaminsky. Kerry Keys. Tomas Slombas. Kim Kyung Ju, Kim Minjeong, Kim Haengsook, Kim Yideum, Sin Yong-Mok, Hwang Yuwon. There are so many. And people I don’t know, there is Han Byung-Chul. And Tim Morton. And Judith Butler.

The last novel I finished for fun was Babel, by R.F Kuang. It was fun. 

You’ve done numerous translations for many poets, including the novel Beautiful and Useless by Kim Min Jeong and The Poems of Hwang Yuwon, Ha Jaeyoun, and Seo Daekyung; and you have your own poetry published in EOAGH and elsewhere. What other projects are you working on now? 

I also co-translated Kim Yideum’s Hysteria, which won the National Translation Award and Lucien Stryk Prize as well as books by Kim Kyung Ju, Kim Haengsook, many many etc.. and I am always doing the Moon Country Korean poetry series at Black Ocean. I just had a book come out. The Imagined Country, with Tolsun Books. Beautiful and Useless by Kim Min Jeong is a poetry book. Uh, I am translating Supernatural 3D Printing by Hwang Yuwon, I’m also working on a new translation of one of Kim Yideum’s books. And I hope to finish my PhD thesis. I put it on the backburner for a long time. But I’d like to finish. Being an academic and translating and writing poems is really a lot of brains to wrestle with. But right now I am in Kyoto. My project for tomorrow is to be like Basho. I want to be in Kyoto and long for Kyoto. Two places. One space.

While male at podium, speaking.Jake Levin is a poet, translator, scholar, and assistant professor of creative writing at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea. He translates or co-translates poetry, K-pop, museum exhibitions, monographs, and art writing. His co-translation of Kim Yideum’s Hysteria won the National Translation Award and Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize. He has served as poetry editor at Spork Press and currently edits the Moon Country Korean Poetry Series at Black Ocean. He also has won a handful of awards for his poetry and scholarship, including a Fulbright Fellowship to Lithuania in 2010. His most recent book of poems, The Imagined Country, is out with Tolsun Books in 2023.

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