Mystery and Trust: A Conversation with Literary Translator Paige Aniyah Morris

Over the last couple of weeks in June, I had the pleasure of conversing with writer and translator Paige Aniyah Morris over email on the occasion of the publication of her translation of Kim Sehee’s “Words and Kisses.” Our conversation began by focusing on “Words and Kisses,” providing fascinating insight into Morris’s choices in translating this complicated story about intimacy and fixation. The conversation quickly opened up to more general topics, such as the “general reader,” current conversations in translation circles, and ways to make literature in translation part of one’s reading practice. Paige Aniyah Morris is a writer and translator of Korean literature from Jersey City, New Jersey, now based in South Korea. She holds a BA in Ethnic Studies and Literary Arts from Brown University and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University–Newark. The recipient of awards from the Fulbright Program and the American Literary Translators Association, her writing and translations have appeared in The Georgia Review, The Margins, The Rumpus, Strange Horizons, Nabillera, and more.


Gerald Maa


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Gerald Maa (GM): We’re thrilled to share this story with our readers, especially by way of your translation. Tell us how you found it. There must be a sizable gap between liking a piece of literature and deciding to commit to translating it. What about the story made you know you wanted to translate it?

Paige Aniyah Morris (PAM): I found “Words and Kisses” in an online Korean literary magazine called Munjang when I was searching for more of the author’s work online after I had read her debut novel. Around that time, I was intentionally reading more stories about women and their relationships with other women. Stories about life-shaping friendships and intense relationships within families of women, but also and especially queer stories, ones about women’s desires as they pertained to other women. Kim Sehee seemed interested in those same themes.

For me, there are usually several points in a story, these small turns, where I come across a sentence or sentiment so compelling that I feel the need to translate it right away to share it with people in my life who may not otherwise have the chance to read and be struck by it, too. I remember this story had quite a few of those moments—the ritual Junhee and Hyunjin fall into and the places it brings them, the details that color those settings in. I felt the first of these moments very early on, in the first few paragraphs. The opening gives such an incisive and intimate reading of this woman Hyunjin, only for the narrative to shift to its true first-person perspective, at which point you realize Junhee, who is telling the story, is aiming to be as near to Hyunjin as a very close third-person narrator might have to be, to observe her and also to enter and be inside her mind. I wanted to translate the story to see what that fixation could feel like and how it could be captured in English.

GM: So the impulse to translate comes from a colloquial, personal motivation, figuring out a linguistic problem for people in the world you personally know. That’s a particular intimacy—words and kisses both come from the mouth—that is quite different from the old saw about literature and “the general reader,” which I’ll be on the record for saying I don’t buy. As you describe it, the beginning of the story thematizes the impulse for translation that you describe: first-person narration as a “very close third-person” narration sounds a lot like translation to me. What did you learn about what that fixation could feel like?

PAM: I would say I learned, or maybe I recalled, how easily disdain and desire can run together down the same stream of thought. And that a desire for someone doesn’t exclude envy or loathing. In fact, the more these different emotions and their different registers bump up against one another, the more compelling I think they become as a whole. On an earlier draft of the opening pages, I received some helpful feedback encouraging me not to shy away from the mean-spiritedness and jealousy and insecurity that can color someone’s perspective even as they are also intrigued, enchanted, infatuated, and so on. I learned to avoid the urge to separate or collapse these seemingly contradictory voices and instead embrace a narrative voice that could encompass all the varied emotions fueling a fixation.

GM: I met you at the annual conference for the American Literary Translators Association, which I consider one of the raddest conferences around right now. Its home turf is a linguistic practice of difference, one where theory and praxis are equally important, and often imply each other. What are some of the discussions within translation circles that are exciting you right now?

PAM: It was so great to have the chance to participate in ALTA’s conference for the first time and to get to talk with you there! Funnily enough, ALTA 2020 was perhaps the first real opportunity I had to listen in on and take part in discussions happening within translation circles at all. I remember issues of equity in publishing and particularly in translation were weighing heavily on my mind and on the minds of many others. I heard people voicing questions I had been pondering for a while, like ones about who is welcome to translate (and be praised for translating) certain literatures, and others about who is overlooked or ruled unqualified by virtue of their education, race, citizenship, and so-called “native” language.

It’s been incredible, since then, to see more conversations in translation spaces tackling questions like “Who is this imagined ‘ideal’ or ‘average’ English-language reader whose preferences and needs we are often told to account for when translating?” (discussed in depth by Daniel Hahn, Gitanjali Patel, Somrita Urni Ganguly, Anton Hur, and Jen Wei Ting here), or “What can people in power do to redress the exclusion of translators of color from so many aspects of the literary industry and community?” discussed earlier this year by Jeremy Tiang, Bruna Dantas Lobato, Aaron Robertson, Anton Hur again, and myself. 

In addition to these conversations, it’s also been wonderful to see more discussion happening among translators of color about how we can support one another despite the barriers we face in translating from what are still considered “niche” or “minority” languages and cultures by much of the Anglophone world. Jeremy Tiang is one of the organizers of a BIPOC Literary Translators Caucus that grew out of that ALTA conference, and it’s a wonderful community of translators at all stages of their careers sharing resources and supporting and celebrating one another. Watching these spaces being grown from seed, essentially, to address those issues of equity and access often leaves me awestruck and, of course, very excited by it all.

GM: What do you make of this “ideal” or “average” English-language reader? I for one have always found it a boogeyman to exorcise, a conceptual linchpin for a mode of literature I am invested in working against. Translation feels like a place especially suited for undermining this imagined concept, even though the “ideal” English-language reader has had an all-too-influential presence in translation as well.

PAM: I definitely agree. When I imagine this “average” reader who gets invoked in many conversations about manuscripts in translation, I think about how, like so many myths, this one must have been thought up by someone looking to hide behind a monster or the supernatural rather than own up to a more difficult, human truth. Rather than acknowledge that they have a set of personal biases and shortcomings that shape how and what they understand to be good literature, a person might defer to this imagined reader behind whom they can hide that gap in their knowledge.

This ideal reader is a composite, after all, and there is a lot of power in the collective. It’s easier to say that readers, plural, wouldn’t be able to relate to a story about a Korean woman’s queer desire or wouldn’t know where Gyeonggi-do or Ganghwa-do were in relation to Seoul, for example, than it is to say that you, personally, are not empathetic to such a character or are unfamiliar with Korean geography and uninterested in looking at a map. It’s easier to say that some element must be explained or described in more detail for the sake of clarity and with consideration for the English reader than it is to say that you, personally, lack a certain cultural knowledge or understanding. There are tons of English readers who do have that knowledge. Why are we not seen as the average?

This mythical reader has been shaped over the years by a homogenous worldview represented and reinforced by so much of the Anglophone publishing industry, which remains predominantly white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-to-upper class, British or American, and so on. I’m reluctant to even call this dreamt-up English reader “mythical,” as it is clearly the result of active choices made time and time again by real people to center themselves and their preferences as true and good, to invoke this scapegoat when made to confront the fact that there are ways of telling stories, using language, reading, and understanding that they simply do not know or have access to. And now, the “average” reader invented by a relative few has become a kind of goblin that looms over every line of what I put down on the page. Fortunately, like you said, translation is a mode that can easily undermine that ideal when the translator makes active choices against centering this so-called English reader in the process. I always hope that I am doing that.

GM: Totally. What, for you, are some of these active choices? How did you find your way to these choices?

PAM: So there are smaller choices, I think, like the decision not to italicize words or food names that would be deemed “foreign” to many white Anglophone audiences. This is a practice Khairani Barokka writes very convincingly against in this essay, and one that mentors of mine, including Janet Hong and Anton Hur, actively work against in their writing and translations.

Then there are bigger choices, ones that require bigger leaps of faith. Most of those have to do with training myself to resist explanation. Explaining is all too often a way to pander. To make things palatable, which suggests they weren’t so before. I leave certain words or concepts “untranslated” when I feel that they simply are what they are, and that there’s enough context from which readers can glean what they are for themselves. For example, in “Words and Kisses,” when Junhee and Hyunjin are at the beach, they observe a bottle of makgeolli rolling away from some seniors and their picnic spot. Some might choose to translate makgeolli as rice wine, creamy rice wine, Korean rice wine, and so on, but to me, those are explanations and imperfect ones, at that. There are several different beverages these descriptions could be referring to. But this drink has a specific name, and its name is makgeolli. It even has a Wikipedia page under that name if readers care to know more about its ingredients or its properties. I just don’t feel that it’s the translator’s responsibility to explain makgeolli as though no one reading the translation knows or can at least imagine what it is.

There’s another case like this in the story, when Junhee comes across the portrait of Queen Liliʻuokalani at Iolani Palace and likens the queen’s image to that of a Korean ajumma. So much of the texture of that word and the images it can conjure, especially given the context of Junhee remarking on all the history clearly outlined in the queen’s face in her middle age, would be lost if I were to translate with asides or footnotes listing the exact demographic information of a person who might be considered an ajumma in Korea. Just as we learn new words in any language from context and repeated exposure, I think it’s important for readers unfamiliar with these culturally specific details to learn them through the same process as we learn anything, if that makes sense. I want to trust (and challenge) readers to do that much.

GM: The French philosopher Jacques Rancière has this crazy book on pedagogy called The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which, in the main, argues that translation is the literary practice most capable of overthrowing the dominant mode of teaching, which he calls “the explicative order.” There’s a lot about the book that I can’t piece together, but I do agree with him that translation is not explication, or need not be, should not be. Communication, especially of the literary type, could be about preserving the mystery within language, the utterly incomprehensible complexity of a well-formed phrase, or scene. And only with the mystery is there trust and challenge, right? What are some poems, stories, or novels with which you’ve experienced this trust and challenge from a reader’s standpoint?

PAM: I’ll have to read this book, because I think that point, at least, is spot-on. I’m a huge fan of mystery and productive ambiguity in literature, and I think that’s largely because those things necessitate so much trust. As a writer and translator, you put your trust in readers who must then trust themselves to form their own understandings of a work, including its most mysterious moments.

I like literature that leaves room for our best guesses. I’m thinking of recent examples like the stories in Ho Sok Fong’s Lake Like a Mirror, translated by Natascha Bruce, which are steeped in strangeness, where the perspectives shift freely or the endings arrive all at once. I love that so many cultural references and markers that place the stories squarely in Malaysia and its Malay Muslim and Chinese communities in particular were left intact, so to speak, in the translation. The word towkay kept in as a form of address in “The Chest,” for one thing. Islamic terms and titles like ayah and ustaz in “Wind Through the Pineapple Leaves, Through the Frangipani,” for another.

I also keep thinking of these wonderfully mysterious stories I’m reading and translating at the moment by a Korean writer named Heuijung Hur. They’re filled with the inexplicable—winding streams of consciousness, mysterious occurrences, dreamscapes that bleed into the waking world. Again, it’s these ambiguities that attract me and challenge me to read more closely in order to make my own sense of things. For me, there’s so much wonder and humility in reading something you don’t immediately “get” because that means you have to sit with it and try. And because that means the writer, the translator, somebody had to believe that you would.

GM: In this way “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” is a quip by a quintessentially American poet. Good thing there has been a strong movement for more and more literature in translation in the American literary market, due to the hard work of translators, publishers, and readers, which has me especially happy to be a reader these days. In conclusion, do you have any tips for readers out there who want to start folding literature in translation into their regular reading practice?

PAM: More and more, I’ve been very heartened to see translated works appearing on the same most-anticipated lists and in the same review columns as well-promoted works first written in English. I think folding more literature in translation into our reading practices is now easier to do than ever—though not entirely effortless, I’ll admit. I’ve personally been known to compile reading lists for myself that resemble syllabi. I start with questions: What are my latest obsessions? What have I never learned? I scour bookstores, libraries, Twitter threads, and Goodreads lists. I ask friends and other translators what they’re reading. As your world and your communities expand, so do both the potential of what you can find and the global range of the works you’ll start to encounter. I recommend starting with one work in translation that sounds intriguing and hitching your star to its translator if you end up loving that work. Follow the translator down whatever rabbit hole they wander into. I’ll read anything Janet Hong translates, for example. Thus, her reading tastes in Korean have become my reading tastes in translation. When I realized two of the most fascinating collections I’d read in the last few years, Mariana Enríquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire and Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, were both translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell, she became another translator I vowed to follow to the ends of the earth. So put your trust—to go back, yet again, to trust—in the tastes of translators as you form tastes of your own. Let their bibliographies be guides, recommended reading lists of their own.



Paige Aniyah Morris is a writer, educator, and translator from Jersey City, New Jersey, now based in South Korea. She holds BAs in ethnic studies and literary arts from Brown University and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University–Newark. The recipient of awards from the Fulbright Program and the American Literary Translators Association, her writing and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The Margins, The Rumpus, Strange Horizons, Nabillera, and more.

Gerald Maa is a writer, translator, and editor based in Athens, GA.  His poetry and translations have appeared in places such as Poetry, American Poetry Review, and Push Open the Window: Contemporary Poetry from China (Copper Canyon, 2011).  His essays have appeared in places such as Criticism, Studies in Romanticism, A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race (University of Georgia, 2015), and The Little Magazine in Contemporary America (University of Chicago, 2015).  Work from his practice of activated writing have been performed and mounted in Los Angeles, New York, and Sweden.  In 2010, he founded The Asian American Literary Review with Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, where he served as editor-in-chief until starting his job at The Georgia Review in August 2019.