The translation process is not a neutral and transparent negotiation between two languages - Prof. Youngmin Kim

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14 mins
The translation process is not a neutral and transparent negotiation between two languages - Prof. Youngmin Kim

Since receiving his PhD from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1991, Prof. Youngmin Kim has been teaching literature in English and critical theory at the Department of English, Dongguk University, South Korea. He is currently Professor of English, Distinguished Research Professor at Dongguk University, and Jack Ma Chair Professor of Ma Yun Education Fund at Hangzhou Normal University (2019-2020). He has been serving as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of English Language and Literature of Korea (2013-2020). He was Visiting Professor at Cornell University (1998-1999) and Sapporo Gakuin University (2009) in Japan, and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville (2007-2008, 2015-2016). He also served as President of the William Butler Yeats Society of Korea (2000-2002), of the Jacques Lacan & Contemporary Psychoanalysis Society (2008-2010), and of the English Language and Literature Association of Korea (2012-2013). Internationally he has served as Vice President of IASIL (International Association of the Study of Irish Literatures, headquartered in Ireland, 2009-2019) and IAELC (International Association of Ethical Literary Criticism, headquartered in China, 2012-2020), and has been a council member and editorial board member of many other international associations and societies, including the International Yeats Society and The Journal of International Yeats Studies, CLCWeb, Foreign Literature Studies, 

His current academic interests lie in poets like William Butler Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound; modern and contemporary Irish, British and American, and Canadian poetry; and critical theory of poststructuralism, postmodernism, transcultural/transnationalism, cultural translation, world literature, and the Convergent Digital Humanities. He has written several articles and books on modern and contemporary poetry in English, critical theory, psychoanalysis, comparative literature and world literature, and the Digital Humanities.

In this conversation, Prof. Kim talks about his passion for understanding the cultural phenomena that shape literary texts and concepts. He also discusses his interest in the process of translation, the concept of untranslatability, and how cultural and linguistic factors are involved in a complex interplay in the process of translation.

What inspired you to take on this study on breaking barriers of untranslatability?

Between 2007 and 2008, I spent my sabbatical leave at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, for a year. I became interested in transnationalism, which was a full- fledged theoretical trend at the time. I then did some intensive research on the topic, including attending conferences and seminars.

In 2009, the National Research Foundation awarded me with a two-year grant to work on the “Transnationalism and Cultural Translation” project. At that time, discussions of interstices between races, ethnicities, nations, states, and cultures were prevalent, and academic discourses in the field of the humanities produced a delicate and complex concept of hybridity within the context of globalization and transnationalism. In this new discursive dynamics, diasporic subjects and borderline areas of cultures were at stake.

In recent postmodern cultural studies, it has become commonplace to view the movement of the "diasporic consciousness" beyond essentialist concepts such as ethnicity and race, and consider it to denote hybridity, heterogeneity, identity fragmentation, double consciousness, roots and routes, multi-locationality, and what not. This diasporic consciousness is a product of cultures and histories in collision and dialogue, and diasporic subjects are distinct versions of modern, transnational, and intercultural experience, as James Clifford perceives. In this context of diasporic identities and hybridity, networks of transnationalism can provide a clue to unknot the complicated intermixture of terms which span from diaspora, postcolonialism, and postnationalism.

The purpose of this project was to investigate the nature of the concepts of diaspora, colonialism, and nationalism from the contradictory counter-concepts of diasporic double consciousness, postcolonialism, and postnationalism. Then, based upon this genealogy of emerging transnational cultural logic, this project demonstrated how 21st-century cultural phenomena around the world transform themselves into the cultural logic of transnationalism in connection with hybrid cultural identities, diasporic lifestyles, the cross-national commodification of cultural products, and flexible citizenship.

My head was full of this cultural logic of transnationalism and this inspired me further to find a solution to break the barriers of untranslatability in the cultural and linguistic interstitial field which is complex, but open, flexible, dynamic, and systematic once we come to encounter the issue of “cultural translation.”

Could you tell us more about your ongoing project on “Trans Media, World Literature, and the Digital Humanities”?

Jean-Francois Lyotard defines the sublime in terms of an aporia (impassable doubt) in human reason, an aporia which expresses the borderland of our conceptual powers and discloses the multiplicity of the postmodern sublime, which also signifies Frederic Jameson’s “technological sublime.” In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard conceptualizes the aesthetics of the sublime, which responds to his critique of the economic performativity of technology. In contrast, the mobilization of the seams and folds of digital art enable what Lyotard theorizes as the awe and openness of the artistic sublime. In The Inhuman, this corresponds to what he calls the “energetic Differend” of what has yet to be articulated in the remains of technology, or the poesis of techne.

In this context, my 2017-2020 GRN (Global Research Network) Project, “The Aesthetics of Trans Media, World Literature, and the Digital Humanities: Methodological Representations of Postmodern Sublime,” funded by The Ministry of Education and The National Research Foundation of Korea, has been searching for further materialization of these theoretical underpinnings of the postmodern sublime in terms of the trans media, world literature, and the Digital Humanities. My research goal materializes Thomas Weiske’s reexamination of Kant’s aesthetics of the “mathematical sublime” and the “dynamic sublime” as well as Lyotard’s concept of the sublime. 

The postmodern sublime is closely related to the similarities and tensions between the rapid developments in “digital humanities and discourse,” media across platforms (video, film, internet, installation, photography, 3-D and networked technologies), and articulations of “world literature.” My project has been exploring ways to comprehend and appreciate “the national” within the rapidly evolving context of transnational culture and digital culture, as well as how the most advanced technological developments in South Korea and across Asia provide the means for flipping the centrality of “the West” in humanistic discourse, by capitalizing on the porous borders of the Internet society to refashion our sense of the relations between art, literature, and media. Our international research collaboration between myself and Timothy Murray, Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of CCA (Cornell Council for the Arts) for studying “Trans Media, World Literature, and Digital Humanities,” will develop ongoing international conversations on ethical innovations in teaching and research in the humanities within the context of the 21st century cultures of information, media, and literature.

International institutions of higher education discuss the aesthetic merits and future of “the humanities,” focusing their attention on the productivity of novel interfaces between literature, media, and digital technologies. Having recognized the phenomenal postmodern sublime of the transformative nature of digital methods and the expanded access to archives in the humanities, from documentary video to digital archives and streamed classes, my project expects to articulate and visualize how 1) “world literature” emphasizes the availability of vast corpora of literary texts made available through English translation; 2) developments in digital culture erode the previous boundaries of “national literatures and cultures” to provide students and scholars with ready access to transnational discussions and objects; 3) the movement of “world literature” has developed in synchrony with rapid developments in the digital humanities. Conversely, the same developments have challenged the easy translatability of the “world” or the “global” by insisting on the comparative ethical specificities of “trans” media and humanities--here the deep imprint of borders and national traditions strongly informs the texture of the “trans,” thereby revealing the postmodern technological sublime.

Can you recall/share any translated works that have painted a picture of the local culture in translation?

I would say, Korean-American writings in the US, Irish literature, and Chinese literature in translation, in particular. These regional literatures belong to the project of cultural translation, because each local culture is always already in the interstitial cultural borderlands, which provides the tangential points for further linguistic and cultural interpretation.

Multiple meanings of floating signifiers have been blocked in the contact zone or border zone of transnational/translational literature and they are waiting for us to transgress, transmigrate, transport, and translate. There are abundant cases of bridges which gather as a passage that crosses the transnational boundaries from which something begins in its presencing. The bridges, which represent the interstices of the “beyond”, produce complex figures such as the ethnicity of difference and identity, temporality of the past and the present, spatiality of the inside and the outside, and the linguisticity of inclusion and exclusion. Once equipped with a structural bridge of transnationalism, one can refer to the "beyond" of the boundary of a single nation-state in terms of moving in international migration, beyond the space of the ‘Other’ in which doubling transcultural experience begins to unfold. Transnational literature is represented, for example,  by ethnic and linguistic borderland works of Korean-American Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Chang-Rae Lee; British-Canadian-Caribbean Louise Bennet; the Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats; and American-born poet Ezra Pound. These writers execute the crossing of the boundary in a culture, going beyond and returning to the present in cultural borderlands. Their minds in their transnational context reveal the complex figures of the ethnicity of identity and difference, the temporality of the past and the present, the mentality of the inside and the outside, and the estranging sense of inclusion and exclusion, thereby demonstrating unhomeliness by way of cultural translation.

One example of cultural translation can be drawn from a Korean-American writer Chang-Rae Lee, whose novel Native Speaker powerfully demonstrates the transnational identity of an Asian American spy through the metaphor of a translator. Chang-Rae Lee’s metaphor of the translator introduces the indeterminate landscape of a linguistic and cultural borderland where lack of agency and the act of betrayal on part of the translator and spy open up the possibility of identity formation of Asian-American subjects outside the framework of the nation state. One of the agendas motivating this novel is linguistic in nature. Henry, the protagonist, is caught between two cultures and languages (Korean and American) and occupies a border position similar to that of the translator. Seeing Henry’s position as a translator not only opens up a possible site for a newly emergent transnational identity as an Asian-American but also illuminates the treacherous and slippery nature of language and representation by destabilizing the naturalized idea that the practice of translation is a neutral and transparent negotiation between two languages.

A second example I find relevant to my work is that of Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Yeats’ transcultural interweaving between the foreign form of the Japanese Noh drama and the local materials of Irish plays is intriguing, as I have articulated elsewhere. Stimulated by Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa’s translations on Noh plays and having envisioned the form of the Japanese Noh play as the visionary model for his future theatre, Yeats has a new vision of world literature by investigating the potential theories of the “mask” and the “ghost,” thereby envisioning transcultural/transnational world literature and drama.

A third example of cultural translation is that of the poet and translator Ezra Pound, who was on a special mission of discovering the kinship between the original language and its English translation. Pound’s English translations of Chinese, Japanese, Egyptian, Hindi, Anglo-Saxon, French, Italian, Latin, and Provençal works indicate the wide range and scope of his translation. Pound was mainly interested in discovering the conditions of civilization, as seen in his Guide to Kulchur. As he strove to define civilization in human history, and to grapple with the lack of proper forms to articulate his perception, Pound discovered the ideogrammic method in Fenollosa's essay on the Chinese written character. Since then, this ideogrammic method of Chinese characters and poetry paved the way for the structural principles underlying his masterpiece The Cantos. Based upon the structural intention which he learned from local Chinese poetry, Pound's search for the conditions of civilization driven by the possibility of man are dramatized in the Cantos as a voyage, a process during which Pound can release the forces latent in himself and externally in nature. This voyage becomes a transcultural field when read in distant mode and written closely on the page. There are inscrutably mega amount of literary big data, and these examples reveal only the fragments of the large vessel which contains vast literary corpora of world literature, although one needs an opening wedge to split off into the untranslatable but heuristic/cognitive/hermeneutic magic world like “Alice in Wonderland.”

Given the popularity of world cinema, subtitles play an important role in influencing the viewing experience. Today Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered software is commonly used to generate subtitles. What are your views on this? Also, does AI eliminate the translator’s responsibility of assimilating the local language culture?

We are living in this world of the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution, as Klaus Schwab perceives. We are living in the ubiquitous presence of “big data,” thanks to “more and larger” databases which allow us to get access to information collected and stored from the Internet, social media networks, QR codes, and the whole smartphone environment. It turns out that for the film industry, Internet and OTT (Over the Top - devices that go “over” a cable box to give the user access to TV content) platforms, such as YouTube, Netflix, Vimeo, etc., became great platforms to disseminate world cinema. The phrase “big data” invokes infinite amounts of information available for analysis and research in all the realms of human disciplines. AI represents the handling of structured big data. For example, Facebook introduced AI as its primary method of translation, translating phrases in the context of an entire sentence. The result is a more accurate outcome with a neural network, which also updates in real time through user inputs. However, machines need human translators’ assistance in dealing with the nuanced affective expressions and rhetorical implications, in particular, in the local language culture of multilevel complications. Humans can develop and correct the translation by means of the pedagogical imperative of “Fall Again, Fail Better,” which machines do not understand, redirect, recalculate, and appropriate. In the case of “subtitling” for films, AI repeats their failure without human translator’s assistance. That is why human translators are crucial. Besides, human translators are responsible for the proper disciplinary preparation for encountering the untranslatability in the interstitial cultural/linguistic borderlands.

In the same vein, what are the additional responsibilities of translators, if any, when dealing with visual storytelling as opposed to literature in text?


Bonus takeaway exclusively for community members

In recent years, the experimentation of the digital humanities and the trans media arts in the arena of visual studies and humanities is emerging rapidly. And there is a phenomenon of forging an international dialogue between specialists of literature in text and digital media in visual storytelling in order to understand the shifting terrain of the intermedia/new media/ transmedia borderlands. Translators in the 21st century have to grapple with the new role of encountering the “digital real” by converging and translating the multi-directional media between the visual media and verbal texts in digitized platforms. The context for this phenomenon is what Immanuel Kant refers to as the “mathematical sublime” and “dynamic sublime”; what Jean-Francois Lyotard conceptualizes as the “postmodern sublime”; and Frederic Jameson labels the “technological sublime.” In the east and west, particularly, in Europe, North America, and Asia, what is at stake is the “digital humanities and discourse,” which comprehends media across platforms (video, film, Internet, installation, photography, 3D, and networked technologies) and articulations of literary and artistic representation of convergence such as art, music, literature, performance, and film. Translators in this era of convergence should explore ways to comprehend and appreciate “the national” within the rapidly evolving context of transnational culture and digital culture, and attempt to understand how the most advanced technological developments in South Korea and across Asia provide the means for flipping the centrality of “the West” in humanistic discourse, by capitalizing on the porous borders of the Internet society to refashion our sense of the relations between art, literature, and media. It is now time for translators to be informed about ongoing international conversations on ethical innovations in teaching and research in the humanities within the context of the 21st century cultures of information, media, and literature. Translators are not simply translators of language and culture. They should be ready to be the bridge over the convergent field of open access of the digital blue ocean of “emerging content formats.”

Thank you, Dr. Kim, for sharing your thoughts!

Note: Prof. Youngmin Kim’s work on the phenomena of untranslatability and cultural translation has been repurposed into a graphical press release available here.

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Published on: May 03, 2019

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