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Mirrorspeak: A review of Don Mee Choi's new essay from Ugly Duckling Presse

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

By Don Mee Choi

From Ugly Duckling Presse

By Stephen Scott Whitaker

Don Mee Choi’s new pamphlet, “Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode”, one of three new pamphlets from Ugly Duckling Presse, “retranslates” Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” as “an anti-­neocolonial stance”. Translation is a political act, particularly when one considers language as a gateway to power, and Choi has translated Korean feminist poetry for the last fifteen years.

In this essay, Choi writes through the lens of a “twin” from a land where it was taught that “the US saved Koreans from Commies and that North Korea is <the> enemy,” a land “of neocolonial fratricide.” South Korea is a country under US military rule, for the country is still technically at war with the North, which means the US “has operational control over South Korea’s forces”. A neo-colony, one under the protection of US military forces, as well as a country under the yoke of imported Western culture. The persona of the twin, is apt, as Choi employs the visual motif of a mirror, through the analysis of an Igmar Bergman film, “The Silence”, to elucidate the considerations of translation. Exactness is difficult, if not impossible, in translation, however, a reflection of the original is possible.

Choi, drawing from and extrapolating on the French philosopher and psychiatrist Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept that translation is a map, argues that there are only impossible connections or translations because of the dominant presence of English, as both a colonizing language and cultural vehicle for the last half-century. She brings up what should be a mundane example, cornbread, oksusuppang, which came to the Korean language through French but was imbued with a deeper significance, “from very different historical and political intentions” because cornbread was used to feed children after the Korean conflict. Specifically, US-made cornbread, “intended as aid”. Through this simple word, cornbread, oksusuppang, Choi illustrates the cultural complexities of language.

Words rich with deeper socio-political nuance exist in every country’s native language. Choi goes on to deftly point out the intricacies of power and language embedded in Korean through the example of the dual-language of the “vernacular script hangŭl” which was intended to teach the pronunciation of Chinese characters and “for producing translated annotations of Chinese”. The script allowed the uneducated to communicate through an alphabet, but it also acted as a gatekeeper, a marker, if you will, one that functioned as a socio-political gatekeeper keeping women and the uneducated from power. In America, consider how writing for abbreviated text messages acts as gatekeepers in English, or how students who cannot code-switch between slang and academic or business jargon encounter problems when dealing with gatekeepers in various US institutions, or how slang/jargon is a simple identifier allowing those who speak it to know who else can be trusted, who else is in the know. Of course, language borrows for power as well. Language is a living construct one that takes from other languages to assert, subvert, and dominate. Choi goes on to point out how the US naval ships use borrowed Greek names, stolen from myth, and incorporated as a kind of cultural warfare. One could argue that Choi means language can function as a kind of magic, how names borrowed from myth can act as a kind of spell or incantation for power and success.

The majority of the essay uses Igmar Bergman’s film “The Silence” as an analogy for translation as Choi discusses translating Kim Hyesoon’s poems of Korean shamanism; the “expelled zone” where women were free of men and their influence and therein empowered. The film’s use of mirrors, trains, and scenes of a military takeover dominates the landscape of the heroine, who is a translator. Like the film, Kim Hyesoon’s “mirrors” or “zones of intensity” are derived from the mother tongue and subverted much like how women shamans subverted their own language for empowerment and growth in Korea, where this Shamanism flourished under the patriarchy.

Choi’s on point dressing down American’s manufacturing of misery in the name of neoliberalism and capitalism. “The knowledge that not only our lives and struggles are interconnected, but that our languages are also interconnected by histories of imperialism, colonialism, and militarism, and by increasing economic interdependence.” Choi reminds us that language, even our own native language is a map of conquered spaces, ideas, and concepts.

You can buy Choi's new essay here.


Stephen Scott Whitaker (@SScottWhitaker) is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the managing editor for The Broadkill Review. Whitaker is a teaching artist with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, an educator, and a grant writer. His poems have appeared in Fourteen Hills, Oxford Poetry, The Scores, Crab Creek Review, & Third Wednesday, among other journals. He is the author of four chapbooks of poetry and a broadside from Broadsided Press. Mulch, his novel of weird fiction is forthcoming from Montag Press in 2020.

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