“We Came Walking Out of Our Thoughts to Be Loved”: On “Cold Candies,” by Lee Young-ju, translated by Jae Kim

“THOUGH HE LACKS a hand and I have no head,” says the speaker of “In the Summer,” a poem by the South Korean poet Lee Young-ju, “the bed fills up when the two of us lie down.” This striking image, with its odd (and oddly satisfying) juxtaposition of sweetness and horror, turns out to be entirely representative of Lee’s oeuvre and her thematic preoccupations. Cold Candiestranslated and arranged by Jae Kim, contains poems selected from the greater part of Lee’s now substantial body of work, drawing from four collections published over the past two decades (Lee is also the author of a fifth collection, You Arrived in the Season of Perennial Summer, which Kim has also translated). Throughout her career, Lee, who in a 2020 appearance on the long-running Korean literature podcast Munjang ui Sori discussed at some length her love of zombie movies and the show Santa Clarita Diet (and, when asked whether she thought that life as a zombie might actually be pretty okay, answered, “Yes and no”), has evinced a dark fascination with intimacy — our need for it, and the terror that can accompany our attempts to achieve it.

One source of this fear, as suggested by the line quoted above, is Lee’s sense that intimacy is, among other things, a particular form of dissolution. In poem after poem in Cold Candiesthe developing (or already developed) intimacy between the speaker and which ever other is being addressed is described — somewhat eerily but also, inescapably, sweetly — as a process in which one melts, rots, or molders into the other. The speaker and the various others that populate the poems reach toward each other, always at the expense (but not the total expense) of the integrity of their current bodies, their current selves. “Yesterday’s rain makes itself inside me,” says the speaker in a poem called “Lovers.” “The melted area must be expanding. Look, my touch breaks down your proteins.” Like all forms of dying, this process is characterized by loss, even horror. And yet for Lee the end point of this process is a state in which, as Laura Riding once wrote, “You and me become we, we become I, and I is beyond, it is suspense, oneness.” “The night we’re rained on, we towel off together,” the poem “Lovers” continues. “Clear water flows away, and our joined shoulders are spoiling. We’re soaking wet, but we have a new arrangement.”

This last line points to an important caveat: dissolution isn’t purely destructive, since it leads to “new arrangements.” In that sense, Lee’s fascination with dissolution is interestingly complicated by the formal structure of the poems, all of which (at least in this collection) are in prose. There’s something stabilizing about this uniformity — whatever else might melt into the ground or dissolve into air, the physical form of each poem remains a reassuringly solid block (or set of blocks). “Mama’s Marmalade,” the collection’s appropriately sugary opening poem, includes this small prayer: “Even after you die, may your flesh harden once doused in cold water.” Dissolution is death, this seems to say, but death isn’t the end of form. When I read this, I am reminded that one Korean word for corpse (shiche,시체屍體) is a perfect homophone for the word for “poetic form” (shiche, 시체詩體).

This also points, I think, to a helpful way of thinking about translation. One often laments the infinite nuances that are inevitably “lost” in translation. But the translator’s job is not to take on the thankless and impossible task of preventing these losses, but to translate in such a way that the inevitable losses are chosen — and are compensated by comparably rich and interesting gains.

English and Korean are about as different as two languages ​​can be, and so the translator is confronted with choices of this kind at every turn. Kim discusses one such problem at length in the translator’s note: his decision to render the title of the poem “Unni-ege” (literally “To My Older Sister” or perhaps “To Big Sister”) as simply “Sister.” As Kim explains, Unni (which is Kim’s romanization) is a kinship term used by a woman to refer to her older sister (the male equivalent — the word a man uses to refer to his older sister — is Nuna). It is also very often used to refer to one’s close acquaintances, such that a woman will often call her older female friends Unni, regardless of blood relation. Korean kinship terms are also used much more often as terms of address than their English equivalents. A Korean woman will mostly call her older sister Unni and will only rarely use her name, much as most English speakers nearly exclusively refer to their parents as “Mom” and “Dad” (but mostly no longer refer to their sisters as “Sister” or even “Sis”).

Kim writes that he elides the explicit indication of address in Unni-ege — here referring to ege, which in this context means “to” — “in order to dwell on the seemingly innocuous word (‘Sister’), such that the reader may consider its meaning.” Perhaps “Sister,” sitting on its own, has an aura of mystery, a memorable strangeness, that “To Sister” or “Dear Sister” would not. The elision also, Kim argues, places special emphasis on the importance of the “Sister” as a recurring figure throughout the book. “The site of a sister,” he writes, “is where intimacy and kinship coincides with Lee, where she can begin her inquiries into the people in her life, including the myriad of herself.”

Still, some Korean speakers might quibble with this particular choice: Why not translate Unni-ege — which is also the title of one of Lee’s collections, and in Cold Candies Serves as the title of the first section — as something like “To Big Sister,” and why not translate Unni as “big sister” or “older sister” throughout? Why not convey explicitly that nearly all of the many “Sisters” who appear in the book are older sisters? I can think of at least a few reasons why Kim might have made this particular choice. But there’s no denying that when Unni is carried over into English and becomes “Sister,” much is lost.

But something would inevitably have been lost. Apart from how notoriously difficult it is to adequately translate kinship terms — Unni is not quite “older sister,” just as Maman is neither quite “Mom” nor “Mother” — there’s no good way to convey in English that Unni refers specifically to a woman’s older sister. The fact that Unni marks the speaker as a person who identifies as a woman is just as important as the fact that it indicates that the sister in question is older. Yet this is impossible to convey in English without an explanatory apparatus.

One could, in the face of this, take the opposite tack and, forgoing translation entirely, simply transliterate the word Unni, and allow the translator’s note to teach unfamiliar readers what it means. This might seem like an attractive option, especially from the perspective of a Korean speaker — simply use Unni, and nothing will be lost! But the same can’t be said, I think, for non-speakers of Korean, who will inevitably make up the majority of readers of this book. For most non-Korean speakers, “Sister” has an immediacy that Unni simply will not.

So much for loss: in what ways are we, as readers of these translations, compensated for these inevitable losses? The first example that comes to mind is a poem called “First Love,” which begins as follows:

Sister sleeps by the side door. In the evening, Sister touched the sleeve of her shirt fluttering in the yard. The younger sister never once complained about the laundry being smudged. Flightless birds are like those salamanders who know how to stop, says Sister. You know how they stop briefly near the table’s edge? She opens the book of fauna, takes a kitchen knife, and clips a salamander’s tail.

The alliteration here — “Sister,” “sleeps,” “sleeve,” “smudged,” “salamander,” “stop” — is insistent, so much so that the poem takes on something of the propulsive character of alliterative verse epics like Beowulf or Piers Plowman (“In a somer season, whan softe was the sonne, / I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were…”). This effect, which continues throughout the poem but is strongest here in the opening, is, for me, the most memorable part of this otherwise memorable translation. And, needless to say, nothing of this particular effect exists in the original Korean, which effectively employs its own sonic resources but hardly alliterates at all. The alliteration we find here is the product of both happy accidents and shrewd choices on the part of the translator — one of which, one could argue, was the choice to render Unni as “Sister” rather than its more complex (and less alliterative) alternatives.

Here it’s worth emphasizing that Cold Candies is a selected volume, and that the poems in the book are selected from Lee’s corpus entirely according to Kim’s tastes (“I have selfishly chosen the poems that I loved and that inspired me to translate,” Kim writes). Each section is given a name (“Sister,” “Dyed Blue,” “Dear Monster”), but these names do not, as one might think, to the titles of particular collections, but rather are taken from the titles of individual poems, or even simply words within poems.

I note this here to point out that Kim is, in this case, serving not only as a translator but also as a particular kind of editor and anthologist (Lee has written a book called Cold Candies, but it contains a very different set of poems). Whatever “liberties” he might have allowed himself in translation, the freedom he affords himself as selector and arranger of these poems is much greater. And one of the pleasures of this book is the way in which Kim succeeds in combining these two roles, subtly but to powerful effect.

One of the more memorably titled poems in the collection, “Morning Comes to Summer on a White Cow,” occurs early in the book. Somewhat later, we encounter a section titled “Summer Morning,” which is anchored by a poem of the same name. “Morning”achim) and “morning”aedo) have nothing to do with each other in Korean, but much to do with each other in English, if only as an often-noticed rhyming pair. By including both of these poems, which come originally from entirely different books, Kim draws our attention to a connection that would not be apparent in the original but which is unmistakable in translation. That is, Kim allows the process of translation and arrangement to “read” the original works through the lens of English and its particular resources. Thus we revisit the “seasonless people” of “Morning Comes to Summer on a White Cow” and can’t help but read “Morning” as “Mourning”; and when, in “Summer Mourning,” “White light pours out of Mother’s back,” we are reminded of the white cow that, in the earlier poem, morning/morning rode in on.

In the “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin famously insists that “[j]ust as expressions of life are connected in the most intimate manner with the living being without having any significance for the latter, a translation proceeds from the original. Not indeed so much from its life as from its ‘afterlife’ or ‘survival.'” All translations (above a certain threshold of competence) enrich their originals, if only by extending the original’s life, or multiplying its afterlives. But a thing has to die before it can have an afterlife. In order to be translated, the original must, in a certain sense, be destroyed, must be allowed to melt in the open air, just as the characters in Lee’s poems must, in order to deepen their intimacy, walk toward the others who will destroy them, and whom they will destroy. And yet, Lee suggests, this process of translation, this mutual destruction willingly enacted, is necessary if we are to live, as we were meant to, together with others: “[A] person can only walk to another person if she destroys the house.” To get to where we’re going, Lee suggests — to carry ourselves across — we have to break a few things and leave parts of ourselves behind. But, at the end, this is all to the good, or at least it’s what we can’t help but want. “All that we are is the result of having come out,” Lee reminds us. “We came walking out of our thoughts to be loved.”


Michael Joseph Walsh is the author of Innocence (CSU Poetry Center, 2022) and co-editor of APARTMENT Poetry.

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