A Conversation with Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello — curated by Naoko Fujimoto

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox (Pittsburgh, 2016), winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. She co-translated Yi Won’s The World’s Lightest Motorcycle (Zephyr Press, 2021), which won the 2022 Translation Grand Prize from the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. Cancio-Bello has received fellowships from the NEA, Kundiman, Knight Foundation, and American Literary Translators Association, and her work has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, The New York Times, and more. She is co-director for the Adoptee Literary Festival and PEN America Miami/South Florida Chapter, and a program manager for Miami Book Fair. www.MarciCalabretta.com

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello and E. J. Koh translated The World’s Lightest Motorcycle by Yi Won from Korean to English. The collection is a winner of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea Grand Prize and finalist for the Big Other Book Award in Translation. Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh, 2016), for which won the AWP Donald Hall Prize, and was a finalist for the Milt Kessler Award and Florida Book Award for Poetry.

Naoko Fujimoto: You, E. J. Koh, and Yi Won shared your translation processes on a YouTube channel, Contemporary Poetry of South Korea, by a Rain Taxi Event. Yi Won read her poems in Korean, so I highly recommend watching the online event for our readers. In another interview with Tiffany Troy, you also talked about collaboration processes. Why did you decide to translate The World’s Lightest Motorcycle with E. J. Koh? Why did you choose to have a collaborative work?

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello: Yi Won’s poems, and the opportunity to collaborate, came to both E. J. and me like a gift from Don Mee Choi, who began connecting this sisterhood of Korean American women translators. E. J. and I had already become friends at our first Kundiman retreat in 2014, and it was Don Mee who suggested that we translate together. I remain open to poetry’s invitations, and I said yes because I trust E. J. and Don Mee and in turn must honor their faith in me. Sometimes the best joys come to us when we know we must say yes but are not sure why we do. It has been a gift to work with one of my dearest friends, and to be irrevocably changed by spending so much time with Yi Won’s stunning work.


NF: Yi Won’s works are like prose, but the writing format somewhat reminded me of traditional Chinese poems with contemporary Korean themes and elements. Each word and phrase beautifully glowed on the pages in English. Could you tell me three difficult or interesting choices that you made from the original line-breaks, writing formats, and rhyming to English readers?

MC: Thank you for such a careful appreciation for Yi Won’s work. The act of translation highlights the impact of the smallest things. Consider, for example, the shifted placement of the arrow in “Jack’s Beanstalk.” Consider the tiny poem, “To the Air.” In the last line, the speaker pauses and self-corrects. Given that punctuation is built into Korean syntax, we tinkered endlessly, compressing the line length, switching between the comma and em-dash, trying to balance literal, poetic, and even visual accuracy. With “Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick” or “Shirt and Hangar,” we delighted in how the comma broke conventions of both Korean and English syntactic conventions against the momentum of the prose poem form. In “The Landscape’s End,” translating ㅈ ㅉ ㅇ ㅂ ㅇ to Z. ZZ. O. B. O was a decision we contemplated for its visual, sonic, and contextual impact. Yi Won’s challenging craft decisions echoes through many layers of poetics, and being able to have both languages side by side in order to immediately compare decisions we spent years discussing is a constant humbling and delightful reminder.


NF: You also write your own poems. How is your translation experience advantageous to your writing process? And what are you currently working on?

MC: I had always considered myself a slow and careful writer, but shepherding someone else’s work requires attention and care I had never afforded my own work in quite the same way. I have come to appreciate poetics in two languages, and now consider such training inextricable from my own creative process. As for what I am working on now, in additional to writing toward a new poetry collection and a few other projects I can’t yet talk about, I was grateful to receive a 2022 NEA for my essay collection on family systems vs. individual functionality at the intersection of transracial adoption, food, and world mythologies.