thoughts on translation

I’m reading through some scholarship on translation for a manuscript chapter right now. In a few conversations with friends about the book project, I’ve been prodded a couple of times to consider using translation as a key concept more actively. I guess when one’s talking about bilingualism, it makes sense some folks would immediately think of translation. Especially those in comp lit.

To date, I haven’t done much research on the topic, although I get the sense that this area has seen a recent burgeoning in scholarship. Now I have to catch up, since it seems like I’ll have to incorporate translation as a key concept in one of my chapters.

And I came across this passage in Spivak’s “The Politics of Translation”:

“There is a large number of people in the Third World who read the old imperial languages. People reading current feminist fiction in the European languages would probably read it in the appropriate imperial language. And the same goes for European philosophy. The act of translating into the Third World language is often a political exercise of a different sort. I am looking forward, as of this writing, to lecturing in Bengali on deconstruction in front of a highly sophisticated audience, knowledgeable both in Bengali and in deconstruction (which they read in English and French and sometimes write about in Bengali), at Jadvapur University in Calcutta. It will be a kind of testing of the post-colonial translator, I think.”

And I started thinking, what must it be like to lecture in Bengali–a language you probably haven’t used for a while–on deconstruction–which is so wild on rhetoricity that it’s hard enough to discuss intelligently and intelligibly in English already–in front of a highly sophisticated audience, knowledgeable both in Bengali and in deconstruction–who, no doubt, will be keenly listening to you since some will be curious that you are a huge celebrity academic at Columbia and some will already have judged you as one thing or another based on their views on U.S. universities, the scholarship that’s produced from U.S. universities, and those who leave the country to get jobs in U.S. universities. It must be terrifying.

Of course, Spivak being Spivak, she can look forward to it. And I’m sure the post-lecture conversations will be fantastic too.

I then started thinking how I would feel if I were asked to talk about my research in Korean in front of a very learned audience. I would probably need a month’s preparation. What’s strange, though, is that I really haven’t come across that problem. It’s because I can do everything regarding my research in English. Initially, I thought that I would have to do quite a bit of translating and also reacquaint myself with the conventions of academic writing in Korean. Since then I found that others would actually prefer that I do my things in English due to the heavy emphasis on English in Korean universities. I initially also thought of writing in Korean for domestic journals. Actually, I think I’m strangely discouraged from doing that. I don’t know why. People kind of assume that I’d be more comfortable writing in English now, and they just expect me to write in English. On the one hand, I think these folks are being considerate (“Oh, you don’t have much time  anyway; no need to put in the extra time to relearn writing in Korean”). On the other hand, I also think there’s a little bit of dismissal there (“Oh, you can’t possibly write in both languages; if you’re good at one, naturally you’re not as good in the other”). I’ve kind of gone along with writing in English for domestic journals (I did it once; I don’t want to ever do it again; it was a horrible experience) mainly for convenience. Mainly I just nod along when people say that I must be more comfortable with academic English because I’m afraid that they’ll just heap work after work on me otherwise. But there’s also a part of me that says I’m pretty sure I can write in Korean. I wrote all my papers in college, for example, in Korean. Well, most of them, since some of the papers for my major (English) I wrote in English. And I graduated summa cum laude. How hard can it be to get back in the thick of it?

It does require time, though. And it is hard at the moment to motivate myself to do it. There is no pragmatic incentive. Ultimately, I would like to write in Korean and write for an audience that is bigger than just an academic audience. I’m kind of perpetually exhausted doing other more immediate things, though, while also wondering if this means that I’m being careerist.

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Do-Ho Suh at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

For those who may come across this post who live in Seoul, there are some cool exhibits at the Seoul location of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

I’ve been meaning to see the Do-Ho Suh piece at this museum ever since I first heard of it in early December. A month-long trip to the U.S. and a short work-related trip to Hong Kong prevented me from going earlier. I was finally able to go last Thursday. The Seoul location also seems pretty new. I’ve only been to the one in Gwacheon before which has been around for a long time.

The piece on exhibit is called Home within Home within Home within Home within Home:

I’ve only seen a few of his pieces once before at the Ackland Art Museum on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus, though I’ve been following his other installation pieces (on the motif of home in particular) on the web. My favorite for a long time has been Fallen Star, an installation piece that is on the rooftop of, I believe, the engineering school building on UCSD campus:

For a little while I wondered if I liked Do-Ho Suh because he’s Korean. Are my preferences really guided by tribalism? I realized this time that what I mistook for tribalism was actually a recognition and embrace of some of the tropes he frequently employs in his work. Like the various geometries, shapes, and patterns of the traditional Korean house. I am always reminded of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space when I interact with (yes, this would be the more appropriate word than the more static “observe” for Suh’s work demands an imaginative, dynamic encounter between the viewer and the object) Suh’s various houses. Early on in the book, maybe in the first chapter, Bachelard discusses the oneiric house. Everyone, I remember him saying, has his or her own oneiric house. I think Suh’s houses tap into my oneiric house. I feel like I understand the phenomenologists’ concept of “reverberation” when I interact with Suh’s art work.

In the introduction to The Poetics of Space, Bachelard writes, “[v]ery often, then, it is in the opposite of causality, that is, in reverberation, which has been so subtly analyzed by Minkowski, that I think we find the real measure of the being of a poetic image. In this reverberation, the poetic image will have a sonority of being.” And later, he distinguishes reverberations from resonances, which Bachelard characterizes as more “sentimental”: “The resonances are dispersed on the different planes of our life in the world, while the repercussions invite us to give greater depth to our own existence. In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own. The reverberations bring about a change of being. It is as thought poet’s being were our being. The multiplicity of resonances then issues from the reverberations’ unity of being. Or, to put it more simply, this is an impression that all impassioned poetry-lovers know well: the poem possesses us entirely.” The power of reverberation that Bachelard attributes to the poetic image I find in Suh’s works.

On the whole, I remain dubious of phenomenological readings of art and/or literature since I think it often ends up creating misleading impressions of art and literature as existing in isolation from their material conditions of production. But I do like the powerful explanations of individual art/literary objects that a phenomenological approach can offer, which I think also leads to persuasive explanations of individual experiences of art and literature.

Apart from such musings on high art, I’ve also been catching up a bit on popular culture in the past month and a half. I’ve finally read E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, the book that a lot of my students were talking about last spring and which apparently sold like crazy at a time of decreasing revenue for publishing houses. Honestly, I don’t understand what the big deal is. This book makes me think that I should actually try my hand at writing erotica. Who knows? I might end up having a much more lucrative career. I’m also watching the UK criminal procedural, Endeavour, on Netflix and am loving it. It’s too bad that these UK TV shows only have 4 episodes in each season. And it take them FOREVER to come up with a new season. Two more episodes and I’m done. What will I watch next then?

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I just flew into Charlotte after almost four months of life in Seoul. I’ll be staying here for about a month with a brief conference trip to Chicago before flying back.

A few brief thoughts on life in the U.S. v. life in Seoul.

1) I discovered that I lost about 20 lbs. in the past four months. That’s quite a lot in a pretty short time. I attribute this weight loss to the following factors.

—I drove almost everywhere in the U.S. I walk and ride the subway to go anywhere in Seoul. I also commute in Seoul, whereas I lived close to my job in the U.S.

—Dietary change. Food in the U.S. seems greasier, more fatty, and more processed. Korean food is saltier but comparatively less fatty and less processed. For reasons unbeknownst to me, though, Koreans (at least the ones I’ve been around) eat a lot of pork fat. Eating pork belly in the U.S. was once in a while thing; something you need to keep an eye on. 삼겹살, which basically is pork belly, is consumed with abandon and with gusto in Korea.

—Maybe because I drink less in Seoul? I know this sounds crazy to those who know the drinking culture (usually among men) in Korea. But working at a university, those I (infrequently) socialize with drink in relative moderation. More importantly, I cannot drink at home or come home drunk because my mom has a serious issue with drinking. Kicking back with a glass of wine is not an option where I live in Seoul at the moment (which is a shame because I find it quite relaxing). My Dad had severe drinking issues, and my mom is paranoid about her children becoming alcoholics. She will most likely stigmatize me to no end and drive me up the wall with her nagging if I even remotely smell of alcohol. (One of the many joys of moving back in.)

2) Sexual culture is so much more conservative, male-centered (read patriarchal bordering on misogyny), and hypocritical in Korea.

—I recently had dinner with my office mates and my team leader. Mind you, we all have PhDs (from U.S. universities—think on your own what that says about Korean academe) and except for the team leader, we were all relatively young. In our 30s. The conversation topic was cancer. So I mentioned that two young women I know were diagnosed of breast cancer but were both able to find out about it early and get surgery. The table went silent for a moment. Like I could “hear” the pause. I think they were quite embarrassed I used the word “breast.” Seriously? Are you in 4th grade? How sexually immature do you have to be really to be embarrassed at a medical term that uses the word “breast”? And what are you supposed to call breast cancer then? Cancer of the chest?

—I’m pretty sure that I’m the whore of Babylon in the eyes of a couple of those I frequently interact with who shall remain unnamed. Because I’m in a relationship with a guy who happens to be American and I visit him despite the fact that we’re not married. I wouldn’t find this bizarre but for the fact that I’m not even all that sexually interesting to people who experiment sexually. I can’t imagine a Gayle Rubin in Korean academe. Can you imagine a Korean female academic coming out as practicing S/M? Even the lesbian coming out part would be incredibly risky. What a shame. And what a loss.

—Such sexual conservatism exists in a society and culture where adultery seems to be, well, trendy, for the lack of a better word. I recently spoke with a female judge in her early 30s about the adultery law (간통죄) in Korea. This is the law by which you can incriminate your spouse and take him/her to court if you have evidence of his/her having an affair. It’s still around. The judge said she believes it is unconstitutional. She said, though, that Korean women’s organizations have been loath to repeal this law because in reality it has functioned to protect women whose male spouses cheat. Recently, she added, women’s organizations are coming around to seeing the law as not aiding in the advancement of women’s rights or interests. What’s funny, though, is that having an affair seems to be in vogue in Seoul at the moment. My friends told me that “office wife” in Korea actually means a mistress. Men in their 50s, who have power, money, and status, are attracting professional women who are unmarried and younger than them. These women, apparently, voluntarily become office wives of these men because they give them stuff (what exactly, I have no idea) and they don’t particularly want to get married, having careers and independence and whatnot. To me, this means that technically all these people are potentially criminals because of the adultery law. It’s like smoking weed in the U.S. Technically, it’s criminal, but since so many people do it, it’s more or less condoned. (Unless you’re a black American, that is.) I have a hard time accepting this discrepancy between the legal system and the lived experiences of people. It generates hypocrisy and double standards.

3) Different kinds of stress at work.

—I can’t decide which job is more stressful. At my last place of work (and I’m still affiliated with it, meaning that I might go back), I felt like I had to prove myself in every aspect. I think this was due to my being an Asian woman in a culture where institutional authority (including professorial authority) is predominantly vested in white men (and then it’s white women/men of color with women of color being at the bottom). Because I didn’t have the automatic cultural approval, I had to work harder. And that was stressful. At my present place of work, I don’t have the same problem. In fact, I have quite a bit of symbolic capital (coming from my educational credentials mostly), which makes it possible for me to automatically gain a bit of authority in institutional settings. But I find the blurry boundary between personal and professional in Korea stressful. More precisely, I hate having to think about what that person meant when he said X or what that person’s action of Y means. Communication relies much more in indirectness and circumlocution. There are many instances when I just don’t understand what’s going on or when my impression/understanding of something turns out to be wrong.

—I think my work at my U.S. university was much more about substantial stuff, whereas my work at my current job is far less substantial and much more about pushing papers and making things look nice for appearance’s sake. This could be because I’m not a tenure-track faculty. But something tells me that it would be exactly the same if I were tenure track.

All in all, what’s most disappointing is that I haven’t been able to find people who work on interesting things in academe. I had hoped that I’d be able to find small groups of scholars who actually care about what they do and find interesting ways of going about doing them, ways of thinking and doing that are different from U.S. scholars because of their different locations and histories. So far, I haven’t been able to find such people. I don’t know if this is because they don’t exist or because I don’t know where to look. I would like to think it’s the latter, but I keep getting the impression that it might actually be the former. That’s really disappointing.

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f*cking Bureaucracy

I spent 75 bloody minutes this morning calling up 5-6 different departments all just to get an ID. And I still don’t have one. 

I started working here about a month and a half ago. My contract was drawn up and processed only about a week ago. I got paid for the first time (which is good–at least they actually are paying me) a few days ago. I haven’t been able to use the library here since I don’t have an ID. I haven’t been able to access any facilities, really. The ludicrous thing is that my job requires research.  

What does it really take to issue an ID? It’s a piece of plastic card with your name, identification number and most likely a bar code. It shouldn’t take more than 2 minutes to process. This system is so stupid I have no words for it. And they say this is one of the top universities in Korea. 


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The past week and a half have been about getting ready for the on-site inspection from the Foundation. This Foundation doles out the grants under the name of Brain Korea (it’s been recently brought to my attention that these are the actual words for what I only knew through its acronym, BK), so my position is really financed by the funds from the Foundation.

Ever since we received notice of the inspection, the Team has been put on alert for this short-notice visit. Getting the ducks in a row in this case has been about making sure that we have documentation for every single thing that was included in the grant proposal. Plus some extra documentation that we said we would get ready.

The crazy thing is, I wasn’t even here when the grant proposal was submitted in June. So I had to basically learn the proposal as I shifted through the massive loads of paper to match the documents with the content of the proposal. (One tiny bit of information about Korean universities–and I’m pretty sure this applies to Korean companies as well: there’s nobody that holds your hand and introduces you to the work you will be doing. Not even a teeny weeny bit of orientation. You’re just thrown into the maelstrom and left on your own to orient yourself and to play catch up.) Considering the alarm mode we were in, the on-site inspection itself was ant-climactic. I walked over to the conference room in an Engineering school building where the team of inspectors were stationed with the administrative assistant of our team. The administrative assistant actually did most of the talking with a young woman who appeared to be a secretary of some sort from the other side. And most of the conversation was about the papers we were missing verifying the eligibility of graduate students we included in the proposal.

Standing in that room full of the inspectors and their minions made me realize, once again, that the culture of higher education in Korea is incredibly bureaucratic. I honestly am skeptical of how such a top-down, state-led initiative to “globalize” Korean higher education is really going to raise the quality of Korean universities, their faculty, and graduate students. Everybody just seems to be very busy pushing paper, and in the end nobody really ends up doing quality research. I’ve come to think that the academic culture at some institutions are conducive to cutting-edge research, whereas the culture at some other institutions prevent research. No wonder nobody (excuse my exaggeration; this is an unverified, personal observation) here seems to be doing much of what can be called research. They can’t. The culture makes it almost impossible for anyone to. Despite the government money, that is. It’s such a shame. I have no idea how this can be remedied, though. I just finished Aihwa Ong’s Neoliberalism as Exception, and her discussion of graduate sovereignty in Asia struck home regarding what I’m seeing of Korean higher education. I wonder if the residual cultural nationalism among Korean academics can provide the ground for any meaningful critique of neoliberalism in higher education.

I have been bristling at what I felt was a reduction of myself to basically a secretary. The hierarchy in the university is such that I really function as a subordinate to the team leader (and a couple other faculty I interact with). My title is research professor, but that really does not mean much. Neither does it correspond to the work I do. Now I understand the impossibility of change in the department at S university from which I graduated. Mostly, Korean universities hire their own graduates. Which makes it easy for the senior faculty to tell the junior faculty what to do (how can you not do the biddings of your teacher in a confucian culture?) and for departments to close ranks when they encounter criticism, even constructive criticism. They’re like academic clans. I guess Y university is maybe a little open since they hired me, a graduate from a competing school who has no former affiliation with the school. I do notice a strange insiderism among the people I work with now and then, but I really don’t care since it doesn’t affect my workload or my performance.

And I’ve resigned myself to the secretarial duties asked of me. One of my officemates, a postdoctoral fellow with a PhD, keeps on saying that her aptitude is for secretarial duties and that she loves doing them. I can never go that far, but I decided to stop thinking about how sexist or infantilizing the system I am currently a part of is. It gets in the way of other things I need to do. So instead I’m watching the movie, Secretary, with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Maybe it will give me some ideas of turning pain into pleasure.

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Some nights when I’m somewhat depressed and in bed with eyes shut but find it hard to fall asleep I think about my dad. Not very happy thoughts. My dad passed fifteen years ago. I think I’m still angry at him, though.

The only period in my memories when I actually loved my dad was when we lived in Hong Kong. Maybe that’s why I remember the island city so fondly. I have very happy memories of dad actually being dad. That is, although he was never a family man, never good at having a relationship with his children, he was kind of there for me. He bought me books. I read my Enid Blyton, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Sweet Valley High all thanks to dad. Come to think of it, I am not sure how he picked out these books. Maybe it was on the recommendation of the salesclerk? But I do think he started with Enid Blyton and then moved up the developmental scale to Sweet Valley High. There were, I have to say, a few, ahem, age-inappropriate (?) romances of wild fantasies and a bit of sex which I read anyway. All the romances that I read actually came from this period. You know, the kind of paperback romances that you find at bookstands in grocery stores that feature lonely, beautiful women with manes of flaming red hair being saved by the sexy hiker who also happens to be a physics genius or by the handsome Apollo of a sea captain with a sculpted body. I did wonder what he thought these paperbacks with images of long-haird women in evening gowns looking dreamily into the eyes of and hugging the dark-haired man in uniform were about. Whether he knew that they were romances. I liked reading them so I didn’t really care or wonder that much.

I also remember him taking us out to eat a lot. I was a FAT child in that city of culinary delights. I loved going to that restaurant on the ship that I think was called the Jumbo Boat. I loved how the ship was decked out in electric lights that would light up brilliantly once the sun went down. I loved running around the deck with other kids as our parents carried on their adult conversations at their round dining tables with lazy susan. (To this day, I secretly believe that the best Chinese restaurants are those that have big, round tables, lazy susans and cheap, white table cloths. And bitter tea that the waiter refills over and over again.) My dad had this Italian restaurant that he liked. Looking back, I don’t think it was fancy nor authentic. I’ve grown up and have been to a couple of Italian restaurants that are supposedly good, and at no place was spaghetti the best item on the menu. But my dad loved the spaghetti at this place. So we would go. And I loved that spaghetti too. My mom used to joke that she could tell I was my daddy’s girl because we liked the same food.

I was remember my dad taking me to perform in a school play once. It was unconventional for us because my mom, who was on leave from her university then and who had to stay at home and take care of us, usually did all of that school-related stuff.   I can’t remember what kept her busy, but dad had to play the role of the chaperone that time. And I can’t remember exactly what the play was, or what I was in the play, but I do remember that I wore a pretty ridiculous costume. With a hat that matches the suit. And I insisted that I would wear that on the way to the performance center where the school play would go up. Any level-headed girl would have known that it was better to change once you got there. But I insisted. And my dad was okay with it. He didn’t seem embarrassed to ride on the subway with his daughter who was proudly sporting a ridiculous costume. Looking back, I give him credit for not having balked.

So maybe having had these good thoughts will now help me sleep. I’m reading Dean Bakopoulos’s Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon on my Kindle during my commute these days. The main character’s father joins the crop of men from this beat-up town around Detroit who “go to the moon,” a euphemism for leaving their families, when he is sixteen. Abandonment. Betrayal. Dissapointment. Anger. Maybe that’s what’s triggering this.

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Partnerships . . .

When I can I call my s.o. twice a day on Skype, in the morning at the office before my officemates come and at night before I go to bed. The time difference makes it somewhat hard, but we do enjoy checking in as much as we can. Still I do miss being in the same time zone if not the same zip code. 

This morning he told me–through email, apparently, it wasn’t important enough to tell me when we spoke on Skype–that he was interviewed by a local news reporter who was doing a feature article on a design company that sells, well, for the lack of a better word, boxes. Actually , they are box-like structures that one can use to create makeshift spaces of all sorts, including mobile homes. As an architectural historian, he was asked his expert opinion on the popularity of theses boxes and he historically contextualized the phenomenon. Come to think of it, I do vaguely remember him mentioning this when we were waiting for the train to pass in the car at a railroad stop a while back. The train containers were what got him talking. 

I was very happy to read the article. Very proud of him too. 

After a bit, though, I got a little, well, anxious. I don’t think I’m jealous. We’re at that stage in the relationship where we both (and yes I am speaking on his behalf) realize that what’s good for one person ins what’s good for the other person as well. His achievements, I believe, are also my achievements–in the sense that I know what he puts in to pursue his goals, the behind-the-scene drudgery, sweat, mistakes, disappointments. We all have narratives  about self, family, where we come from, etc that sometimes propel us forward and sometimes hold us back. Of course I know what my narratives are; but now I also think I know his. I feel like I understand the meaning of his achievements well because I know him well. 

What makes me a bit anxious, though, is the thought that his career will take off and mine will wither. Now I’m not of the opinion that I have to stay on one career track no matter what. I think I can do something else for a living if need be. So I’m not sure exactly what the cause of this anxiety is. I guess what comes closest if what a very close friend said before when he was unhappy about the disappointments in the job market. Like so many other talented PhDs (in the humanities in particular), this friend had a couple of years when he had to adjunct at a college that was really horrible. (Now he has his dream job, yay!) He moved to sunny Los Angeles with his partner who was pursuing a PhD in a program at USC. He was living in a real city; he had a great relationship with his partner. Yet he did worry about what his unemployment (and underemployment) would do to the relationship. “You know,” he said, “X and my relationship was always based on the premise that we are equals.” Although he didn’t elaborate that much, I understood what he said. It’s not that X was hard on my friend for not having a job for how long, for not pulling his weight, etc. It’s just that it feels strange to experience a change in the relationship dynamic when that dynamic has been based on similarities–like going to the same school, being in the same profession, having jobs with incomes in the same range, etc. I think there is a negotiation of power in every relationship. It can be very, very subtle; but I think is does exist. 

Most of the time I have other things to do or think about so I don’t dwell on this, but sometimes I really don’t like the fact that I can’t be where I want to be. That I had to take more than a half cut in salary. That I now no longer have some of the perks I used to have. Including a bit more status (?)–I’m actually not so sure about this. I don’t think I actually had much of a status in the U.S. But then here professorships carry so much social status, I feel comparably that I’ve been demoted. If my s.o. becomes more and more well known and sought after in his field (which I hope he does) and I am relegated to nothingness, will I still be happy in the relationship? I wish I could say yes, definitely. But honestly I don’t know. And that scares me. 

Maybe this is what having been in an ultra status-aware society for a month and a half. Whatever.  




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