[FEATURE] “Translationese” by Don Mee Choi and Tony Barnstone

Translation Editor Lucas Klein‘s note: I started CipherJournal in 2003 to be an online venue for creative literary translation and writing about literary translation. At the end of 2004 I received a submission from Don Mee Choi of translations of poetry by Kim Hyesoon, which I published; in the correspondence that followed, Don Mee sent me two stanzas from a lineated poem she had begun writing titled “Translation as a System.” Though she was a well-published poetry translator, if I am not mistaken she had not published her original poems anywhere before. I wrote back asking for more: “Your writing seems to come in a style I’m not very familiar with, and while I’m inclined towards it, I think I need more practice.” In the revisions that followed the lineated verse eventually turned into prose poems, retitled as “Diary of a Translator.” At about the same time I was corresponding with Tony Barnstone for the “CipherJournal Forum on Translating Chinese Poetry” I was putting together. He emailed me: “I could probably write something specifically about Chinese translation, but wonder whether you might be interested in the enclosed—some kind of whimsical, funny parables about writing and translation” (he did later send me a contribution to the forum). The resonances in these prose poetry parables with Don Mee’s “Diary” struck me immediately, and I wrote to Don Mee and Tony to introduce them to each other and ask if they’d mind me publishing their work side-by-side. Obviously, they agreed. Now that Don Mee Choi has won the National Book Award for DMZ Colony, while CipherJournal has gone comatose, we at Cha thought her earlier poems and juxtaposition with Barnstone’s work would be worth republishing here.

Barnstone adds that the story about the novelist in the Great Oakland Fire was told to him by Maxine Hong Kingston, and he dedicates this republication to her.

DIARY OF A TRANSLATOR 1
by Don Mee Choi

A system without translation is called I-no-system. While MSG, a natural seasoning derived from soybeans, attempts to become the moon, a child nibbles on green onions. “Not yet, not yet,” shouted I-no-system. The skin of translation, neither pink nor grey, stared at the clock of theory. Nothing happened to MSG, and I-no-system cradled the child into oblivion. Therefore, the moon remained as the moon.

THE DUMMY’S ARTIST
by Tony Barnstone

A man was snoring one night, when the ghost of an old poet flew into his nostrils and up into his brain. His fingers skittering across the sheets were the pointer on an Ouija board, spelling out extraordinary dreams. All day long, he said the most beautiful things, jaw hinging up and down like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

He went to visit his friend the printmaker, who had inked a corpse and was running it through his machine, printing onto a roll of butcher paper. “Watch this,” He cried. “It will be the ultimate fidelity to the dead.” He printed impression after impression on the roll of paper, each a perfect likeness, though the corpse itself was considerably flattened in the process. As it turns out, this was the corpse of his twin brother, the poet, whose spirit just last night had abandoned his body, rising through the roof and clapping hands for joy.

“You have reproduced yourself, which is the goal of all life,” said the man. “I am very impressed. But I am like a bubble in glass. Everything is refracted as it passes through me.” And with a wisp of white smoke, the spirit escaped his nostrils again, dispersing into air.

“Yes,” the artist replied, “this is my finest work.” And stowing his blotched and flattened brother’s corpse in a glass refrigerator he shipped it off to the Museum of Modern Art, where it was the hit of the season. His title for it was “The Spirit of Poetry.”

DIARY OF A TRANSLATOR 2
by Don Mee Choi

As the child grew, the moon waned. I-no-system nibbled on green onions and became suicidal. MSG, the clock, and the skin were strictly carnivorous and plotted a denial of home. MSG fell into a temporary melancholia. “What theory?” the clock chimed every hour. And the skin became anti-itself. Lips of home amassed internally. “Cyanide smells like almonds,” shouted I-no-system. The child drifted from nation to nation. The moon arose distance after distance.          

WHITE NOISE
by Tony Barnstone

A man was speaking to his brother, who sat at the other end of a long table. Above them, hanging in the center of the ceiling, was an air conditioner, chugging away noisily as the two men ate. “Would you pass the salt?” One brother asked. The second replied aggressively, “What’s my blasted fault?” “No, the salt, the salt ” The first brother said. “Ah, you’re always blaming me for something,” the other replied.

At that moment, a tiny red devil, complete with pitchfork and batwings, flew out of his mouth, circled twice around the food, and was sucked into the intake valve of the air conditioner. “My God, did you see that?” the first one yelled. “No, I didn’t free a bat. I think I’ve lost my devil, and you know once they leave they’re so hard to get back.”

At this point a creature dropped out of the air-conditioner’s vent, covered with white frost, and thudded down to the table. Marvellously, it was shorn of horns and tail, and the batwings had grown a downy set of white feathers, like a bald eagle’s wings. With a swift move, the first brother clapped a glass down on the table, trapping the newborn angel inside. “You can catch ‘em with the glass assault,” he claimed, proudly.

“Certainly, I will,” his brother replied with a smile, and passed him the salt.

DIARY OF A TRANSLATOR 3
by Don Mee Choi

“Loneliness is a fine thing,” said the clock. The child had no reply. The moon replied instead. “What is truly fine? The stars around me, galaxies of them, mute lumps of darkness.  I-no-system, who will translate you? Childless and empty like madness.” I-no-system used a plastic shovel to scoop up the lips above, pretending to be sane and homesick. “I shall return!” it declared.  Finally the child spoke. “What is truly home? I am here but I remember there.”

THE GHOST
by Tony Barnstone

There was a man who managed a photocopy store, maintaining the rows of identical copying machines. He tried to take special care of his customers, priding himself that they could count on copies that would seem the same even under the unsparing eye of an electron microscope. But the store itself was a franchise store of a chain that had metasticized in mini-malls across the States and Western countries, with the same decor, the same machines, the same internal layout, and the same customer service script from the mini-mall in Ayacucho in the jungles of Venezuela by the Orinoco River to the great Italian village style outdoor walking mall of Fashion Island in Newport Beach, California.

When in a performance review, his managers found out that he had deviated from the script, working with each customer for hours if necessary and using reams of extra paper and toner in search of the perfect copy, he was summarily fired from his job. But as manager, he had the keys to the place, and for some months he had surreptitiously been living in the storeroom, sponge-bathing himself in the bathroom sink, eating sandwiches and sodas from the mini-fridge in the concession area. Now, instead of moving out, he padlocked the door from the inside, drew the blinds shut, and set out on the great experiment he had been cooking up in his lonely nights beneath the storeroom’s hanging bare bulb.

He linked all of the machines together into one, copiers, fax machines, the passport photo booth, and walked into the passport photo booth, drawing the curtain behind him like a customer at an XXX peep show, or like a citizen entering a voting booth. Instantly, the machines began to copy him, generation after generation of copies, copies upon copies, versions of him ghosting through the wires and the circuitry with a whir and a spark and the acrid smell of burnt flesh.

When the police broke in some days later, he was gone, but now his phantom image began to appear like a watermark in the paper of copy machines throughout the chain. The customers complained, of course, about the bearded figure who stared at them from reproductions of their tax forms and divorce papers like a wild Rasputin, but nothing could be done. He had become the flaw in the glass distorting the light, the recessive gene subverting the chromosome.

DIARY OF A TRANSLATOR 4
by Don Mee Choi

“I am always here,” said MSG. “And I am the most celebrated image of home. Have me, be like me. Without theory, without the moon. Forget home.  Here is plentiful.” It was one in the morning. “What cyanide?” chimed the clock. I-no-system decided on carbon monoxide instead.  It was odourless. It was not televised. It was documented by the unknown lips. The moon wept behind the cloud. The child said to the stars: “Detachment is painful, so is madness. Home is a system of longing, and suicide is a system of exile.  Neither is bloodless.”

CALIFORNIA BURNS
by Tony Barnstone

A Sunday at the breakfast table and my crazy roommate is talking to her crazy cat, a great grey ball of claws named Fang who likes to settle in your lap, purring and nuzzling your wrist—and then like old paint cans and rags left in the garage spontaneously ignite and with a throaty yowl spin and scream and leap from sofa to table to mantle across the room, to end up hanging from the curtains near the ceiling, looking over his shoulder innocently, as if to say What? What is it?

This Sunday what it is outside the window is not cats but fire, fire bounding through the grass and up the eucalyptus trees, each tree a torch that lights the next so that it relays itself across the landscape and into the neighbourhoods in the hills above our house. We could have burned to death in our sleep, my roommate says, then brightly asks if I will drive her and the other roommates out to see the flames. So we pack up and drive up Broadway to the park, where people have gathered to watch the blazes pouring through the valley and leaping over the freeway towards us, yellow nebulas in the sky.

A bright high voice says, “Mommy, is our house going to burn down again?” —and the stunned crowd wakes up and scatters to their cars as the flames spring forward. The sun is a fat red planet through the clouds overhead. People stand on the porches watching, or start to run. When we get home, my roommates pack their things and flee, while I climb on the roof with the hose and begin watering down the house, watching the fire roll towards me down the hills and into the cemetery.

But the wind shifts so that other peoples’ houses burn, and I stand on the roof with the limp hose, watching. Later, the houses are gone, but the chimneys remain. Where lemonade stands stood white ash sifts in the trickling breeze, a red semi flame-peeled to burnished steel and rust, a bathtub stands on claw feet in black stubble.

That night while I slept, the world stripped down to its fine black bones. My fingers pawed the dark earth. In the morning I was still drunk, scrabbling through fragments of dream, a clutch of roses, a smear of feathers, as if through evidence of the crime. I drank strong tea that didn’t clear my head, and watched ants and cockroaches shifting in the kitchen until even my body’s fallen hair created a monstrous sign in the sink. And in the new morning, bare feet on wood floors, breakfast-scrounging and blowing ash off the newspaper, the damn cat wouldn’t stop yowling, watching me with small flames in his eyes.

A few weeks later, I talk to a friend, a Chinese-American novelist, who rode down out of the burning hills on the handlebars of a young man’s bicycle. “Wait, my house is on fire,” she had said, “and my novel is in there.” It was the novel she had worked on for over ten years, no other copies, but the young man didn’t understand. “Don’t worry,” he said, “they’re only things,” and as they wheeled away from the fire she tried to remember what William Carlos Williams once wrote: was it, no ideas but in things, or was it, no things but in ideas? What was it? Ideas? Things? Things? Ideas? What was it that mattered?

DIARY OF A TRANSLATOR 5
by Don Mee Choi

The clock had a different response:  The clock is mad. Who’s mad? The clock is mad. Decolonize madness! Speak English! Only nation! Translation is occupied. Who is colonial? Mad, mad, mad! It is one in the morning. The clock is mad.  Did I say theorise or colonise? It is one in the morning. Let the moon piss by itself. Undo madness. Undo English. Mad, mad, mad! Colonial madness, you translate supreme. It is one in the morning. Dick talk, dick talk. No, English only! Nation only! Do you speak English? Thank you. The clock is mad.  Thank you. It is one in the morning. Thank you. Theorise me, colonise me. Thank you. The clock is mad. Dear Father, Dear Mother, Dear English speaking Ladies and Gentlemen.              

WHAT I WANT TO KNOW IS
by Tony Barnstone

“…why write to begin with.” This was in the car, on the concrete arc of the freeway on-ramp, driving to see an old friend of hers, a feminist who had in graduate school disparaged marriage and family as heterosexist institutions, but then suddenly met a man, got pregnant and married and dropped out of school. Well, he said, you might say we write to create something beautiful, but on the other hand, the ugliest things in the world have a beauty particular to themselves.

They were passing through the city on an elevated freeway, able to see just high buildings and the shifting tops of palm trees scrubbing at the smoggy sky.

Yes, but what’s the use of something beautiful? she asked.

Well, he said, it’s complicated. What’s the use of writing something useful? In the past, one could say that one wrote to create something good and useful, but these days the idea of writing to proselytise is out.

Yes, but why do you write? she asked. This was in her small, hot apartment, as she stood in the bathroom, brushing her teeth. He was lying on the bed, hands behind his head, and gazing at her reflection in the mirror.

Well, he said, I don’t think poetry will live forever, but I do think of it as a way of knowing. They are mirrors I hold up to myself so I can see what I am before I die. They are small packages containing my best thoughts, and I think of giving them to the world as gifts. Maybe they will help somebody else, speed up their journey a little bit.

Yes, but…, she said.

DIARY OF A TRANSLATOR 6
by Don Mee Choi

In winter the child’s mother took a taxi to the peak of the mountain. She looked for camellia blossoms while the child dreamt in English.Sparrows chirped loudly outside the tall apartment building. Why do sparrows cry? asked the child. Mother replied, They always cry before sleep. In winter the child cleaned windows for Mother with crumpled South China Morning Post and Windex. The less humid air made the child homesick. In school the child read Auden and Eliot, then failed O level English. In another school across the Pacific Ocean, the child listened to Paz, Milosz, Brodsky, Sarton, Levertov. Read Emily the most. Across the ocean, sparrows looked for camellias to sleep on, but they only found prickly sage.  In winter sparrows cried.         

BY THE DESULTORY SLUT
by Tony Barnstone

When he first read in the obituary section that he was dead, the famous author was at first amused and flattered. They love me so much, he thought, they have imagined me dead because they fear the loss of my genius above all else. So he put on his porkpie hat, neatly combed his goatee to a waxed point, and sauntered out of his flat to attend his own funeral. How literary, he thought, like Huck Finn, and Everyone will be weeping.

He was disturbed, however, when he found that the funeral home was in a bad section of town, next to a tattoo parlour named The Desultory Slut. He walked in past the unmanned front desk, to a back room of frayed velvet and gilt columns, where his coffin was on display, a faux mahogany monstrosity with painted pewter handles. The only people in attendance were four young professors from the local college, with leather patches on the elbows of their ill-fitting tweed jackets and lean cruel faces of foxes and rats. He recognised one of them, a gangly fellow with a pimply face who had shaken his hand after his last reading and reverently asked for his signature.

Do you have one of my books to sign? the author had asked.

Oh, no, the young professor had cried, baring his hairless chest, can you please sign here?

Now the pimply fellow was sitting in a pew, whispering loudly to his neighbour, Isn’t it great, he said, The old bastard finally kicked.

His neighbour nodded silently.

Deeply disturbed, but well aware of the dramatic potential of the moment, the author took this as his cue to step boldly into the room, with a loud Ta Daaa!

For some reason, the professors ignored him, and continued their whispering.

For a moment, he was afflicted with a strange vertigo, and stood like a clay golem, without a will of his own. Then a sudden rage took him, and the author snapped out of the spell and strode to the front of the room waving his arms, Wait! I’m not dead at all! Here I am. It was all a mistake, he cried.

But the professors did not see him. In fact one walked right through him, as if he were merely a ghost or spirit, and rushed up to the coffin. Do you realise what this means, the professor cried, this means we’re free and he grabbed the body in the coffin and dragged him to the floor. The shocked author saw in the body his own likeness, lips and cheeks rouged into a grotesque semblance of life.

He’s dead, he’s dead! Our enemy is finally dead! they chanted in a frenzy and the professors began trampling on the corpse, weeping with joy and relief.

DIARY OF A TRANSLATOR 7

Talk egg! chimed the clock. Time to wake up from dreams and sparrows! I am already translated, said MSG as it awoke. Egg off! clock replied. Egg did talk egg talk. Talk egg! chimed the clock. Egg did.  Long time ago, the moon laid an egg, which became an occupied egg, war egg, then a neo-occupied egg. The moon’s egg was a doubled egg. Egg and egg, a divided egg. History and memory fed egg. Not a hollow egg. Not a nation’s egg. Egg did talk egg talk! Egg did. Egg off! Empire must go!

Header image: Brice Marden, Etchings for Rexroth 17.

Tony Barnstone teaches at Whittier College and is the author of 21 books and a music CD, Tokyo’s Burning: WWII Songs. His poetry books include Pulp SonnetsBeast in the ApartmentTongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to NagasakiThe Golem of Los AngelesSad Jazz, and Impure. He is also a translator of Chinese literature, anthologist, and world literature textbook editor. Among his awards: The Poets Prize, Grand Prize of the Strokestown International Poetry Contest, Pushcart Prize, John Ciardi Prize, Benjamin Saltman Award, and fellowships from the NEA, the NEH, and the California Arts Council.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Don Mee Choi is a poet and translator. Her third book, DMZ Colony (Wave Books, 2020), received a National Book Award. Her other publications include Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016), The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010) and several chapbooks and pamphlets of poems and essays. She is a recipient of a Whiting Award, Lannan Literary Fellowship, Lucien Stryk Translation Prize, and DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Fellowship. She has translated several collections of Kim Hyesoon’s poetry, including Autobiography of Death, which received the 2019 International Griffin Poetry Prize. 

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