Guernica Magazine

Translation and the Family of Things

A young writer discovers her grandmother’s literary secret. The post Translation and the Family of Things appeared first on Guernica.

Last month, my mother recited Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” to me on the phone. I stopped in the middle of Washington Avenue in Brooklyn as she stumbled over the word prairie. I imagined her tongue working to shape those foreign sounds. My mother immigrated to the United States more than thirty years ago, but she has always felt self-conscious about her second language, with its hard r’s and supple l’s. “My friend suggested reading poetry in English to improve my vocabulary, since I write poetry too,” she explained in Korean.

She asked me how to pronounce words she didn’t know—despair, prairie, unrelenting. I repeated them after her, slow and then fast, with definitions and without. We talked about rhythm, image, the deceptive simplicity of Mary Oliver’s lines.  

I wanted to weep. My mother and I primarily communicate in Korean, and we rarely talk about literature. We have a complicated relationship, but in that moment, I felt a new closeness—rooted not in the inextricable tie of family, but in choice. I have an immediate affinity for others who have committed to the impossible act of writing. 

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely / the world offers itself to your imagination / calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting—hearing those words in my mother’s uncharacteristically shy voice,

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