“Confront them first, then sing them a lullaby”: A Conversation with Translator Jake Levine & A Folio of New Work

Jake Levine is an American translator, poet, and scholar. He received both his BA and MFA from the University of Arizona and is currently Abd in a PhD program in Comparative Literature at Seoul National University. He works as an assistant professor of creative writing at Keimyung University and as a lecturer at the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He is the assistant editor at Acta Koreana and the editor for the Korean poetry series Moon Country at Black Ocean. 

Kristina Marie Darling:  What are three things that you’d like readers to know about Butterfly Sleep, and your translation in particular, before they delve into the work itself?

Jake Levine:  Number 1: Kyung Ju’s plays and poetry come from the same imaginary universe. These make genre distinctions a little more fuzzy. I know that he considers his plays to be verse-plays and his poetry to have dramatic qualities. If you have read his poetry books, you know there are small plays that appear in those books. I think if you read both the poetry and the drama, stories and voices get superimposed. Content doesn’t accumulate so much as expand.

Number 2: I think poetry and dramatists in Korea offer a biting critique of politics and popular culture. Korea has different freedom of speech laws than America. It is still dangerous for people to write direct critiques of the government and the political system. It is definitely dangerous for a woman to directly talk about feminism. There are a lot of social and personal consequences. Korea is a very conservative country. So I think poets and novelists and dramatists use these different mediums to make these critiques. Writers also have a large role in creating a counter culture, and perhaps because Korean popular culture is so candy coated, Korean poetry is more grotesque. I mean K-pop bands like BTS or Super Junior are like American 90’s boy bands on steroids. With more plastic surgery. And CGI. And better auto-tune. A lot of the Korean literature I like comes from a place that is diametrically opposed to that pomp and gloss. It is the antagonistic doppelganger of Korean popular culture. One sub-genre of K-pop is the historical revisionist drama. So I think Butterfly Sleepis the antagonistic doppelganger to these historical revisionist dramas.

Number 3: Kyung Ju imagined staging this play in an arena or stadium with tens of thousands of extras. Like a Kurosawa film. Or maybe like the old Ten Commandmentsfilm with Charlton Heston.

KMD:  Butterfly Sleep is mythical and archetypal, but at the same time, politically charged. In what ways does the play speak to our contemporary cultural moment? Which aspects of the story do you see transcending the boundaries of time and geography?

JL:  Kyung Ju was writing Butterfly Sleepin a dark political moment. The disgraced former president Park Guen-hye was elected in 2012. Her rise to power reminds me a little of the situation in America now. Many people couldn’t have imagined the daughter of the former dictator could become president. But it happened. And to a lot of writers and artists, it was like they were witnessing the death of their country. I don’t think Ezra Pound was right in thinking poets are the antennae of the race, but in this case reality was even worse than the nightmare poets might have dreamt. Park Geun-hye was getting plastic surgery when the Sewol ferry sunk. Her government created a blacklist of artists, writers, and entertainers. Her party used technology to create fake bot accounts to spam voters and ran her campaign based on misinformation and scare tactics. She and members of her party were later convicted for bribery and corruption. Does this sound eerily familiar?

The time of Butterfly Sleepis set during the Chosun dynasty, but psychologically it takes place in the shadow of the terror of Park Geun-hye’s corrupt government. I think Americans can understand the psychological terror that comes from having incompetent and corrupt governance. The people in power in Butterfly Sleep, they are corrupt buffoons. The chief-carpenter relies on mysticism and astrology to guide him. The former Arizona governor Jan Brewer used to lock herself in her office and consult with Jesus before making decisions on immigration and healthcare. These are timeless, universal themes we are dealing with. Having political institutions that fail, having insane people in power, these are things people in Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa, they can all understand.

KMD:  You’ve translated a number of works by Kim Kyung Ju, including poems and experimental texts, as well as dramatic verse.  What drew you to Butterfly Sleep in particular?

JL:  Butterfly Sleepis Kyung Ju’s longest book. It was brutal to translate. There was a version of it that had been translated and Kyung Ju asked me to retranslate it because he was not satisfied with the other version. We used to play on a soccer team on Sundays and he asked me one day at halftime if I could do it. So that is the unromantic story of how I got involved translating Butterfly Sleep. This was in 2015. I hadn’t read it, but I know that it had been produced and performed in Seoul while I was taking Korean classes down in Gwangju. So I wasn’t able to go see the performance. But when I read the manuscript, I fell in love with it.

KMD:  Many readers misunderstand translation as a literal transfer of meaning from one language to another.  Can you speak to translation as a creative endeavor?

JL:  Richard Siken once taught me about how often artists revise away from magic and innovation. Korean is a pun-rich language. Adverbs and adjectives are often onomatopoeias. These are things, for the most part, we lose in the language rift. But there are some things we gain in English. Strange things can happen. Bad translation doesn’t consider what magic can rise from the loss between languages, what unintended miracles or spectacular innovations might occur. Just as in writing, there has to be play in translation.

In What is Philosophy?Deleuze and Guattari talk about how art is composed of percepts arrested from perception, affects separated from affectations. The first thing a translator has to do is understand how to create affects and percepts in language. I think this is what MFA programs call craft? How art lives in Korean, through its own percepts and affects will die in English. If you choose to translate a text, you are responsible for its life. You do not want to murder the text. If you want something to live in English, and I do think of literature as being alive, you’ve got to accept that you will have create blocks of percepts and affects that are going to be different than the original. If art is alive because of the surplus content, the stuff which bursts forth from the surface of a text and holds within it great depths, then it is the responsibility of the translator to try and participate in shaping the life of the art which makes a surplus of content accessible for a reader in this new medium. This happens thorugh play. Some people call this a breach of fidelity. If these acts of infidelity save the life of the text, I think translators should be infidels. Making some shitty corpse translation of a great spirited original in the name of fidelity is the most irresponsible thing a translator can do.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a translator, you’re a well-published poet and have served as editor of The Sonora Review.  How has your skillset as a poet and gatekeeper proven useful in your translation projects?  Can you give us a few examples?

JL:   I often tell my students at the Korean Literature Translation Academy that the translator is the perfect reader of the book in the language it is being translated into. Learning how to be confident in your craft decisions as a translator requires you to have a really strong aesthetic sensibility as a reader. Learning how to make edits or suggestions, forge and maintain an aesthetic identity, are things that you learn editing and reading. Many of the rules of how that happens are unwritten. After tweaking something over and over again for months and months, you know that feeling you get when you know you have it right? How to explain that feeling? There are micro-decisions that come from practice, learning how to re-imagine the different or multiple ways in which a thing gets said. This comes from reading a lot, rejecting and accepting poems, and also through the practice of editing and writing. That is why I think so many great poets and translators are also editors.

Another thing is service. In one of Leonard Cohen’s last songs, “You Want it Darker” he sings the Hebrew hineni, hineni, “I am here, I am here,” which is how Abraham responds to God when he presents Isaac as a sacrifice. It means I am ready to serve. I think organizing, grant writing, editing, translating, writing, they are all different forms of serving. For me there has to be a kind of spiritual dimension. When you are an editor at Spork Press or Sonora Review or a program director at Summer Literary Seminars, you understand what it is like to not be remunerated adequately for your labor. You understand that your work and role is undervalued in society. As a poet you will be made to feel invisible, unimportant. So much of your work will be rejected, unpublished. For every book deal, there will be another 2 or 3 manuscripts sitting on the floor, abandoned. And even when you get a book published, the only people that buy it are your family. You are forced to give away most of your author copies, the majority of which you purchased. No one wrote a review of your chapbook. Your chapbook went out of print. Then the chapbook publisher went out of business. Your dog dies. Sometimes you will be like Jonah in the whale, wondering if even God has forgotten you.

Lawrence Venuti has that famous book, The Translator’s Invisibility. I think there is also the editor’s invisibility, and the amateur poet’s invisibility, and the grant writer’s invisibility. There are many ways to be invisible. Until we have UBI, it is always a plus to learn all the different ways of invisibility. In literature and art you can learn many ways to be invisible. You can get so comfortable being invisible, you can turn into a ghost.

When I was doing my MFA people were still in this kind of romantic mode where they thought if they cloistered themselves in their hovel of a room and read Keats and wrote a great manuscript people would respect their genius and they would win the Yale and get a job and win a whole bunch of awards and their life would be great. But poetry and literature does not really happen without organizers, publishing doesn’t happen without volunteers, and books don’t get sold without readers and reading series. Books in foreign languages do not become available without translators. If everyone just sat in their room and tried to write their masterpiece there would be no new poetry. If people didn’t run non or minus-profit presses, there would be no new poetry. If people did not write about the work of others, there would be no new criticism. No new ideas. No way to appreciate great literature. Editing and translating are two ways in which people can appreciate and honor great literature.

KMD:   What events, readings, publications, and projects do you have in the works?  What can readers look forward to?

JL:  I’m editing a 10 book Korean poetry series called Moon Countryfor Black Ocean. The first book is Kim Kyung Ju’s Whale and Vaporwhich will be coming out in October. Coincidentally, Butterfly Sleep and Whale and Vaporwere written around the same period and are both being published in America this fall. So it will be cool if readers pick up on common themes between the two texts. For the next 2 books in the Black Ocean series, I’m editing the manuscripts, Book Pillarby Moon Bo Young and Beautiful and Uselessby Kim Minjeong, translated by Hedgie Choi and Soeun Seo respectively.


An Introduction to Butterfly Sleep by Jake Levine

Kim Kyung Ju’s Butterfly Sleepis a historical drama based in the early period of the Joseon dynasty. It was during this time that the gates that surround the city of Seoul were constructed to protect the King and his inner-circle from invasion. Subjects from all over the kingdom were brought in for the project. There is a great drought. Workers are unable to make mud for making bricks. Food is running out. Disease is rampant. And yet, the construction must continue. The nation must move forward. The palace must be built. The chief carpenter tries everything. Barbarity, shaman rituals, technological innovation, and sheer force. But none of it is working. Birds vomit sand. Breast milk runs dry and women can no longer feed their children. An orphan girl is found whose hair grows incredible lengths while she sleeps. Rumors spread about the girl. She is a sign that the people are cursed. The ghosts of the bodies of horses run around without their heads. A spirit bird bites the hair of sleeping people and flies away. Bugs lay and hatch their eggs in sleeping people’s eyes. People bury their children alive. Outside the gates bandits lick their lips and wait for their chance to invade. The nation is being built. The nation is cursed.

Kim relies on a mixture of absurdism, magic realism, and dark humor in order to tell this existentialist allegory of Korea’s rapid development. Former president Kim Dae-jung once characterized Korea’s geo-political situation as that of a shrimp between two whales, Japan and China. South Korea emerged from the Korean War as one of the poorest countries in Asia. One could say that a new war began at that time: the war of national development. It was a war that must be won at all costs. Many argue that development was driven by the anxiety of a history of colonialism and invasion by larger, foreign powers. Whether it be industrialization through military dictatorship or widening social influence through the soft power of Hallyu, Korea’s rapid rise to economic and cultural prominence on the international stage has had its costs domestically. A common theme in Kim’s work is to explore the sacrifices, both physical and psychological, that the nation made. His work also deals with the lingering national anxiety of being militarily and culturally inferior to foreign powers. In this sense, Butterfly Sleepis a tale about the fractured soul of the nation. In another way it is also about consolation. Lullabies are used to drive the narrative forward. Music is made in order to console the characters in the play. And the young girl whose hair grows while she sleeps, her name is Dallae, the verb for “comfort” in Korean. In this way the play suggests that the only way the ghosts of the nation can be consoled is through direct confrontation. Confront them first, then sing them a lullaby.


An Excerpt from Butterfly Sleep


Excerpt 1 for Tupelo