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.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely / the world offers itself to your imagination / calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting—hearing those words in my mother’s uncharacteristically shy voice, I thought of all the gaps in our conversations over the years, all the possibilities dead at seed because we existed on opposite reserves, where meaning is limited because of linguistic barriers. I imagined our shadow-selves, beings who didn’t have to traverse between Korean and English and back again to convey feeling into sense, into words.
As a child of immigrants, I am constantly reworking what I want to say when I speak to my parents. Though they have learned English in their years living here, they are more comfortable speaking Korean. Though Korean was my first language, I am now more comfortable speaking in English. We meet in the middle, but inevitably there are moments when language fails us. What we want to say gets lost in the landscape of the untranslatable.
For a long time, I thought of translation as a barrier between my parents and me. In fifth grade, I learned about genes in science class. I was fascinated by the idea of lineage, traits that can be passed down from one generation to the next. I had so many questions. When my mother returned from work, I said in English, “There are so many different kinds of genes.” She replied in Korean, “Yes! Boot-cut, bell-bottom, dark-wash, white.” I laughed at her. But I didn’t know the word for gene in Korean either. I tried to explain in a mix of both languages. “It’s what you give to your children, like hair color,” I said. She closed her eyes and opened them, all the humor gone from her face. “I don’t know what you mean.” We stared at each other until finally, one of us retrieved the thick English-Korean dictionary from the shelf. I spread it out on my lap and found the translation. 유전자. But I felt only disappointment in how circuitous the conversation had become. There was no point in asking any of the questions I had about how genetics worked. It would require too much effort on both of our parts to translate the words.
I was obsessed with language, even at that age. It is strange to me now that I didn’t enjoy those exchanges with my mother. I wrote stories and poems. I luxuriated in words, in the texture I could create on the tongue by proximity and rearrangement. But the ease with which writing came to me only emphasized the gaps in my conversations at home. I became frustrated with the loss. I wanted a clean, easy transference. My parents and I spoke enough of each other’s tongues, so why was it so hard to communicate?
In my twenties, when I was a graduate student in creative writing, I started a novel that begins during the Korean War. I asked my family about their memories of growing up in Korea. My parents and I dug below the surface of easy conversation. They told me of the pleasure of sucking on the juice of 번데기, the silkworm-pupae street snacks of their childhood; of how my father flouted President Park Chung-hee’s repressive mandate on the length of men’s hair; and of their decision to leave behind the familiar to immigrate to the United States. I felt the linguistic gaps between us tightening, filling in with the wealth of stories.
And yet. During my first winter break, I went to the hospital with extreme abdominal pain, but after a night in the emergency room, they released me. A few hours later, as I lay doped up on Percocet in my apartment, I got a call from the doctor. They had made a mistake, he said. I had appendicitis and needed to come back right away for emergency surgery. I called my parents. As I explained the situation, I realized I didn’t know the word appendicitis or appendix in Korean. I groped for words as I put on a pair of pants. “It’s a part of the intestine that is useless, a small dangling thing on the side,” I said in Korean. I was crying now, from the pain, from feeling my own uselessness in not knowing the language my parents had taught me first.
By the time my mother finished reciting “Wild Geese,” I realized I had wandered to the Brooklyn Public Library. After we said goodbye, I went inside. I ran my fingers over the spines on the shelves and thought about the last lines of the poem—over and over announcing your place / in the family of things. At my readings for my first novel, If You Leave Me, people often asked if my parents were proud to have a writer in the family. But I was not the only writer. My place had been created by the women before me. My mother started writing Korean poetry when I was in graduate school. I was connected to language by her, and her mother too.
My grandmother has always been a storyteller, but she was also a woman who lived through Japanese colonization and the Korean War, who never received a high-school education. She didn’t think anyone besides her children and their children would want to hear her stories. When she was 17 years old, she was coerced into marriage by a mother-in-law who promised her an education, only to renege once the ceremony had been completed. After her first husband died, she was left with a child and no money. When she begged her mother to watch the baby so she could go to hairdresser school, she was denied. These anecdotes filled my childhood. I didn’t get frustrated with her in the way I did with my parents. Perhaps it was because we are separated by a generation, or perhaps, since she only spoke Korean, I accepted the burden of translation. Then, in May 2019, my 84-year-old grandmother published her first poems in Korea.
Two years earlier, my grandmother had signed up for senior citizen classes in Hoengseong, where she lives. She joined a choir, a harmonica group, and a poetry class. At the local community center, she began writing her poetry. The teacher, impressed with the quality of her work, submitted her poems to a literary journal. Three were chosen for publication, surprising all of us. “In the dusk of my life, I received a wonderful gift,” my grandmother said to me.
My aunt mailed me the literary journal, 문학 세계, as soon as it was published. I smoothed my hand over the dusty green cover and then found my grandmother’s poems inside. I read them once, twice, three times. I didn’t understand. When my grandmother and I talked, we covered the same terrain: health, food, our love for each other, her ailments. She told me the same pathos-driven stories again and again. But these poems were imagistic, lyrical, and full of metaphor. They revealed an intellect and imagination that I hadn’t considered. I was embarrassed by my own myopia.
I copied my grandmother’s poems into a clean Word document and stared at the words. I was going to translate these poems, until I understood. I wanted language to connect me to my family, rather than act as a barrier. I wanted to fully comprehend how little I knew, how shallowly I had imagined my mother and grandmother’s minds.
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?
In Jonathan E. Abel’s “Translation as Community: The Opacity of Modernizations of Genji monogatari,” he writes, “A translation that contains ungrammatical sentences, that includes words from the foreign text, that, in short, is uncomfortable for the reader of the target language, evokes both awareness of its own translated-ness and the impossibility of translation.” In Sawako Nakayasu’s “Keeping it Sounding Seal (Strange),” she writes, “A poem has no independent existence, but is contingent upon its language, genre, culture, and so I worry about what a poem is being subjected to as it is transported, arduously and persistently, albeit with love and respect, all the way across to a new language.”
These texts shifted my understanding of the purpose of translation; they gave me permission. I had thought that the “translated-ness” of my conversations with my mother were a marker of poor communication, but Abel’s essay upended my desire for clean transference. It comforted me to see that Nakayasu was troubled by potentially mishandling meaning across languages. Translation was impossible and imperfect. Something will always be lost, and that is all right. I needed to try anyway.
Take these last lines from one of my grandmother’s poems:
한 계단 한 계단 땅에서 하늘까지
가을빛 주홍색 사다리를 엮어 올려
The last word, 보아야지, could be translated to must see or must witness or even simply, must look upon. As I alternated between all the possibilities, I remembered that afternoon with my mother. How I had laughed when she listed boot-cut, bell-bottom, dark-wash, white, as if not understanding my tongue made her dumb. There had been so many days when my teenaged voice would edge with annoyance as I grudgingly became her translator on the phone with insurance companies, at the doctor’s office, or at school counselor meetings. With this poem, I imagined holding 주홍색 on my tongue and dissolving it into red-orange, vermillion, scarlet. How to choose the right word?
I called my mother. I didn’t say “sorry.” Instead, I asked her to walk me through her mother’s poems. Whenever my interpretation matched hers, I felt a gleam of penitence. Surprisingly, as I worked through the stanzas alone in the days to come, I found that I liked it best when the words didn’t latch cleanly to another. The blurry space between languages felt like an opening. In the end, I translated my grandmother’s lines to:
Take one step to another, from earth to sky,
weave autumn’s vermilion ladder of light
so we may forever witness.
Vermillion. Witness. I made those choices based on sound, rhythm, and tone. But I also considered what I knew about my grandmother. She obsessively talks about death. What else would fill your mind if you have lived through hunger, colonization, war, poverty? This is her way of exerting control over what is uncontrollable. But when she speaks to me about dying, it is in plain terms—what she wants her funerary portrait to look like, how she should be dressed in her casket, how I should have children because she will die soon. Practical, utilitarian. But in her poetry, her obsession transforms. There is a certain splendor in considering the passage of death as a vermillion ladder of light. My grandmother is a devout Catholic, and it comforts me to see her belief in an afterlife, a way for her to forever witness.
I used to feel deficient, caught between what I wanted to say and what was more easily expressed. I believed that if I couldn’t convey my thoughts exactly, trying was futile. I stored away my curiosities and replaced them with simple observations. Maybe this helped me to become a writer, or maybe it just made me a secretive person. I don’t know. But poetry—in both English and Korean, spoken aloud and read on the page and translated—has helped me to find new meaning within and across linguistic boundaries. There will always be much lost in the gaps, where one tongue does not transfer cleanly to another, but that loss can be valuable; it can help us work harder to understand one another. In the moments when my desire for exactitude overwhelms, I think of my lineage, of all that we want to say to each other across the distance of our lives.