Margaret Rhee: The Meaning of Smog: Fragmented Reflections on Translation from a Korean Diasporic Subject

The Meaning of Smog: Fragmented Reflections on Translation from a Korean Diasporic Subject: in process-transition-translation

“6. My friend, unentertained but interested, asked that I stop and just translate. So I did.” – Padcha Tuntha-obas, Trespasses

“It is not the actual translation or even the state of translatability between the two texts that is intriguing but the possibilities for transcribing what occurs in the traversal between the two languages (and, by extension, between two ‘nations,’ their mutually implicated histories of colonization, political conflicts, and so on). What is the recombinant energy created between languages (geopolitical economics, cultural representations, concepts of community.)?” – Myung Mi Kim, Commons

“How to choose” – Li Young Lee, Rose

* * *

When I first began translating Korean poetry, I asked my mother to help me work through Korean Modern poet, Kim Nam Jo’s “My Heart is a Flag.” After skimming through Jaihiun Kim’s Gems of Korean Verse I, my fingers stopped at the pages of the poem, which evoked a powerful sense of loneliness, nationalism, and melancholia—presumably Korean traits.

For diasporic Koreans in the U.S., han traveled from Korea’s incidents of sorrow: Japan’s colonization of Korea 1910 -1945, the “forgotten” Korean War, and subsequent splitting of Korea as two nations. For Korean Americans, han is recognized through the collective struggle of the immigrant experience. Displacement experienced for not only Korean diasporic subjects in the U.S., but in nations such as China, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Canada and Japan. Spokes of a wheel. 교포. Diaspora. Koreans by displacement remain second-class citizens oftentimes stateless not only by citizenship rights (lack thereof) but language. The diasporic condition results in the loss of Korean language, a haunting of the oppressive act notably utilized by Japanese colonization—outlawing Korean as only secret utterances on your tongue.

* * *

As a Korean heritage speaker, language is intuitive when conversing and listening. All without textbooks, logics, or signs. In my undergraduate Korean class, I could speak colloquially with ease compared to the rest of the students. However, my ability to master conjunctions, conjugations, and grammar went missing.

I am reminded of what poet Myung Mi Kim writes in Commons, “What was missing? What was forgotten? What was never learned in the first place?” (110)

As an undergraduate creative writing major, my Korean professor knew I loved poetry. He kindly suggested I could memorize Korean poems to help my grade. So I did. I memorized and recited well enough, by the end, to receive an A for the course. The process of memorizing Korean poetry, however, only reminded me of my father’s untimely death. He had passed away just months before the class.

In my fragmented Korean. I attempted to write a poem about the sea, drowning, and meeting my father, whose ashes had been scattered over the Pacific Ocean. It was the same ocean he crossed as an immigrant to the U.S. in the 1970’s. Of the first cohort after the U.S. policy on Third World peoples were lifted. During a time in which Korea would transform into a “compressed modernity.” Once I had asked my father why he had immigrated. He told me of a Korean television commercial starring the ambassador, which beckoned immigration to the U.S. Koreans as skilled tradesmen—mechanics, plumbers, and steel workers. (I am still in search of that commercial.) In 1974, he arrived on U.S. land. His hands. Then my mother immigrated shortly after. Her hands. They later had my sister, than me. Our hands.

It’s been over seven years since that undergraduate Korean class, those Korean poems, and my father’s death. I returned to Korean poetry now, through translation—it has not been an easy act. Shame of not knowing. Shame of what I do know. Fraught with fear. Confrontation of loss. The politics of my belonging. I recognize my emotions as perhaps, Korean and melodramatic? but also embodied to the marrow of my diasporic bones. A reckoning. I think of Haitian immigrant writer Edwidge Danicat’s words on belonging:

“…the immigrant artist must quantify the price of the American dream in flesh and bone. All this while living with the more ‘regular’ fears of any other artist. Do I know enough about where I’ve come from? Will I ever know enough about where I am? Even if somebody has died for me to stay here, will I ever truly belong?”

* * *

Asian Diasporic subjects’ poetry that grapple with the politics of translations informs me, comforts me, and provides more questions than answers. In particular I looked to Myung Mi Kim’s Commons, Padcha Tuntha-obas “Translation in 6 Steps,” and Li Young Lee’s “Persimmons” poems that grapple what is lost, found, and questions the meaning of the act of translation itself. The slippage, the space, and messiness of translation. I placed fragments of these poems above, as I had turned to them, again and again.

* * *

As Li Young Lee writes, “…the difference between persimmon and precision/How to choose”

* * *

Feminist theorist Gayatri Spivak’s writes in “The Politics of Translation”: “The task of the translator is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, hold the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay.” In particular, Spivak writes on the concept of pouvoir-savoir, Foucault’s term of a “shared skill, which allows us to make (common) sense of things.” As Spivak writes: “Looking at the pouvoir-savoir in terms of women, one of my focuses has been new immigrants and the change of mother tongue and pouvoir-savoir between mother and daughter.” (Spivak, 193)

* * *

Upon translating Kim Nam Jo’s poem, “My Heart is a Flag,” I had difficulty translating one line 눈길 위에/연기처럼 덮여 오는 편안한 그늘이여, which ended up: “The snow road is covered/Like smog/A smug shadow…” The word in question was 연기, which my mother translated to me, as smog.

As a current doctoral student in Ethnic Studies, at the University of California Berkeley, I was taking my first poetry translation class with poet and translator Robert Hass. His generous feedback, along with classmates, provoked questions around the word in particular 연기. Is smog the most apt word for 연기? Could it be fog? How does fog feel on a winter day in Korea?

The feedback was generous, provoking, and pointed. And from that struggle between “fog,” or “smog” I learned the complicated “meaning” of “apt.” The necessity of context, historical, cultural, and otherwise, when translating from language to language.

Yet, I began thinking about the words, smog and fog, relationship of the translator and her audience, and what Spivak writes of pouvoir-savoir.

Smog like the freeways of Los Angeles where I grew up and knew intimately.

Fog in a Korea, I’ve never been, but only in poems, my nightmares, and dreams.

Smog may possibly not be the “correct” word for “My Heart is a Flag.” Nor “fog.” but I realized in the process of translating together, smog was/

a poem/my mother translated for me/

so I could understand.

* * *


정념(情念)의 기(旗)

내 마음은 한 폭의 기(旗)
보는 이 없는 시공(時空)에
없는 것 모양 걸려 왔더니라.

혼란과 열기를 이기지 못해
눈 오는 네거리에 나서면

눈길 위에
연기처럼 덮여 오는 편안한 그늘이여,
마음의 기(旗)는
눈의 음악이나 듣고 있는가.

나에게 원이 있다면
뉘우침 없는 일몰(日沒)이
고요히 꽃잎인 양 쌓여가는
그 일이란다.

황제의 항서(降書)와도 같은 무거운 비애(悲哀)가
맑게 가라앉은
하얀 모랫벌 같은 마음씨의
벗은 없을까.

내 마음은
한 폭의 기(旗)

보는 이 없는 시공(時空)에서
때로 울고
때로 기도드린다.

My Heart is a Flag

by Kim Namjo

My heart is a flag
Even in an open field
My heart hangs waving
Unnoticed by anyone

Where I stand two roads cross
Snow falls
Yet, my temper rises
I can’t win against the

The snow road is covered
Like smog
A smug shadow

To live without regret
Sunsets like flower petals
That fall and gather one by one
In a life-long pile
If I could have one wish

I desire a friend
Who healed her deep sorrow
With a pure heart
Like stretches of white sand

My heart is a flag
Even in an open field
Sometimes, I cry
Sometimes, I pray


1. I thank Robert Hass and the Poetry Translation class at the University of California, Berkeley for providing the opportunity to learn about, and translate Korean poetry.

2. Fellow Kundiman poet and friend, Jai Arun Ravine’s essay “Across and Between” in chapbook Across and Between the Void (Achiote Press, 2008) pointed me towards a feminist of color understanding of translation, and to Padcha Tuntha-obas’ work. To hir, I am grateful.

3. I dedicate this fragmented essay of reflections to my mother, Monica Lee, for her time in translating with me, and for giving me the poem, that is “smog.”

Works Cited

Lee, Li Young. Rose. Brockport: BOA Editions, 1986. Print.

Kim, Miyung Mi. Commons. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Print.

Padcha Tuntha-obas. Trespasses. Berkeley: O Books, 2006. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Kim Nam Jo, “My Heart is a Flag.” Gems of Korean Verse I. translated by Jaihiun J. Kim. Seoul: Hanshin Publishing Co., 1993. Print.

Margaret Rhee is an interdisciplinary writer, poet, and media artist. She has published poetry in the Berkeley Poetry Review, Kartika Review and co-edited the chapbook anthology, Here is a Pen: An Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Asian American Poets (Achiote Press). She is the managing editor of Mixed Blood, a literary journal on innovative poetics and race, edited by C.S. Giscombe.  Currently, she is a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley in Ethnic Studies, with designated emphasis in New Media and Gender and Women Studies. Her first poetry chapbook Yellow/노란/ 노랑/Yellow is forthcoming from Tinfish Press. She is a Kundiman fellow.

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2 Thoughts on “Margaret Rhee: The Meaning of Smog: Fragmented Reflections on Translation from a Korean Diasporic Subject

  1. Pingback: Do I Know Enough? A question I always ask myself. « Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

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