The More Loving One

Jimin Kang on translation as a protracted, recurring, and painful process comparable to love.

Part of Afterlives, a series exploring the politics of translation.


We met at a time and place where no one was supposed to meet. The spring of 2020 in a college town, freshly emptied of student life. He asked me to lunch. I said yes. Two well-worn weeks later, though I was the first to leave our shared campus, he was the first to let go. Surely this isn’t sitting right with me, I used to think, but I could not come up with the language for my loss. “It is clear that a translation, no matter how good, cannot have any significance for the original,” Walter Benjamin writes in The Task of the Translator, a preface to his translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens. Reading this, I understood that to need someone more than they depend on you is to be, in a way, in translation.

Even before Baudelaire’s book begins, the reader is informed that what they hold is bound to be an inessential thing, as if the original on which a translation is based doesn’t need the translation to exist. Yet the translation lives. It not only exists, but persists, striving to attain a language stripped to nothing but its intention—what Benjamin calls “pure language”—such that the task of translation becomes that of unearthing meaning from the original, clarifying it, and bearing witness to what each word means to say. A protracted, recurring, and painful process comparable to love.

But a translation remains on the periphery. It “does not find itself,” Benjamin explains, “in the middle of the high forest of the language itself”; rather, it stands outside the world upon which its existence rests. Picture it: a translation, wearing a coat, maybe, standing just before the threshold of a lush richness of trees as the sun descends. It knows that the original it seeks is somewhere within, oblivious—or worse, indifferent—to its presence. But what holds it back from entering the forest? Is it a feeling of fear? Inadequacy? The uncertainty of not being welcomed in the way it hopes to be?

I have once stood before that forest. Except I was wearing thrifted overalls before his front door, which sat beside a taco shop. Or sitting on a night-time bus, scrolling through the internet, stopping at a hyperlinked face that would take me back to the last time I felt the way a translation might—devoted persistent inessential regardless—and how I believed, for a long time, that I did not know how to write about what happened.


*   *   *


Consider translation as a form of unreciprocated intimacy. It remains common for books in translation to be published without their translators’ names on the covers. Some of my multilingual friends have said they’d rather read a text in “its original version,” as if its translation will necessarily be second-rate. If translation is premised on an imbalance of need, in which one thing needs another to exist while the other remains indifferent to that existence, then there is something to say about translation as a form of unequal care. Or what this means for the way I once cared deeply for someone who did not care the same way in return.

For two weeks, I woke to the light of a curtainless window, the sun streaming straight into my eyes. I recall the candle above the bookshelf with the wooden wick that crackled into the night. What did he say to me, that first night? I like you more than you think, was what he said. No—I like you a lot, maybe. I like you more than I expected to. I like you. Here was the crux of the sentence upon which meaning began, a sentence I cannot remember but whose essence I do. I believed “pure language” was what truth was when it lacked a stable form of expression. And the truth I desired that spring was that two weeks could mean more than what they were. That when I made myself a vessel for that early-morning light, as I did for his words, his thoughts, and the meals we shared, I could translate these small truths into something wonderful.

So I wrote. I deleted sentences and rewrote them again, revelling in how these attempts brought me closer to the feeling I felt when I lay next to him in the sun. And each time I translated us, I tried to mine a little deeper into that molten, malleable core of meaning, where I thought I would find the reason for why we happened and, after the two weeks were over, why he wholly exited my life, and why, even after months had passed, I cared about what he had to say first before I could stake my side of the truth. First: as if his rationale preceded mine, like the way he left my life first, before I could understand how easy it is to be caught in the tailspin of asking why, why, why, to someone who does not owe you anything at all.


*   *   *


Consider translation as a form of resurrection. What is a translation but an afterlife of something that once existed? “Just 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,” Benjamin writes.

An original exists in its first form before it ceases to change. When the translation arrives, the original is resurrected and brought to life afresh. It might don new clothes, new shoes, and a new identity that translation provides, though not without the underlying roots of what it has always been despite all surface transformations.

Seven months after we parted, I wrote him an email to say I was still thinking about what happened. In response he was gracious, writing at equal length. Sorry, he said. We hadn’t remembered our two weeks the same way. I’d left with an impression that, to me, meant we could remain friends. His version denied this.

Winter came, then went. I moved to a new city, then another one, then another, and in the last I went on a date with a boy whose name rhymed with his. What a coincidence, I thought. When he bought me a coffee, I sipped it and marvelled at how the grass glowed in the October sun, and how a lone, black cat sidled through the bush in the quiet garden where we were sitting. He asked me about myself, and I about him, and occasionally I thought of the person he reminded me of, the sunlight, the crackling candle, and the email. I learned that they not only shared a name and a discipline but also—I realised, incredulously—a birthday.

What I wanted to do was to erase the original upon which the banal attains an unearned significance; there are many birthdays in the summer, and similar names, and areas of study, and they don’t have to return to the same person. But in that instance, they did. They did, and I mourned the attention this new person deserved that I couldn’t provide in my inability to forget.


*   *   *


Consider translation as a form of reinvention. Is it fair to say that a translation is just another version of an existing text? Or is it a completely new original in its own right? When each word is changed, written in a different language by a different person, then the question of what remains the same as the original text becomes blurry and hesitant.

In my newly adopted home in Oxford, I spent a year pursuing a master’s in translation. I came across many stories of translators who became obsessed with their authors, or, in the case of Franz Kafka, the reverse. He fell in love with his Czech translator, Milena Jesenská, to whom he wrote letters over the course of three years. When what remains of their exchange was published as Letters to Milena nearly thirty years after Kafka’s death, it reads as though Kafka is writing to no one at all; Milena’s letters were destroyed at her request, leaving Kafka’s side of the exchange the only one that remains. “Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts,” Kafka writes, towards the end of the correspondence and his life, “and by no means just the ghost of the addressee but also with one's own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing.” The material reality of Kafka and Milena’s relationship is ephemeral in the way of a phantom. Beyond the facade of their long-distance correspondence, there is the reality of her marriage to another man, Kafka’s sickliness, and the fact that they only met in person twice, both instances fleeting and not enough to sustain anything beyond their letters.

Yet he loves her. Or does he? From July 1920: “Actually, it’s not at all you I love, but rather the existence you have bestowed on me.” To Kafka, Milena is a new kind of existence: a manner of being to which he is devoted. In being translated, he becomes a reinvented man—no longer sickly and anxious but capable of generosity and great care, and all because a twenty-three-year-old decided one day to sit down, find the right language, and write.


*   *   *


Consider translation as a form of holding on. Or letting go. Benjamin ends his essay by specifying the translator’s task as setting free, in their own words, “the pure language spellbound” in the original. The meaning that is to be liberated originates from the point at which a tangent touches a circle, he writes, “fleetingly,” in the way a translation “touches the original.” Think of the point at which a translation and its original meet. In that brief, explosive moment of touch, are they holding onto or releasing each other? Does the act of translation demand us to stay close to the original or venture away from it in search of new paths and possibilities? This is what I wanted to know and what I sought to answer for the version of myself that stood outside a taco shop that April.


Image: Princeton Junction station. Courtesy of the writer.


*   *   *


Consider translation as a form of meaning-making. Even today I think about a poem I first learned about that spring: W. H. Auden’s The More Loving One, in which the poet argues it is better to be the one who loves more, because it is easier to have agency over one’s own emotions than the feelings of others.

“If equal affection cannot be,” he writes, “let the more loving one be me.”

A year after we met, I walked past that taco shop and wondered how I would write about the room in which I had first heard these words. What I didn’t know then is that there are many ways one can approach making sense of things. That sensemaking takes time. When I saw him again for the first time two years later, I left for home feeling calm, as if I had shared that hour with an old friend and not someone who I had once agonised over.

I’ve come to understand that a life in translation does not always require a movement between languages, though this is the context in which the word “translation” is most frequently used. The etymology of the word “translation” (from the Latin “translat-”) means “to carry across,” and I wonder if it is the manner and temperament with which one carries and crosses—not the language one painstakingly selects—that most lucidly describe what it means to translate. It could be that to translate and be translated is to reflect on the ways we find ourselves transforming in our own lives. Though the revelatory force of a relationship with someone else was what brought me to examine myself more closely, wasn’t it true that I was always the one in charge of this re-examination?

What I hadn’t realised then is that by writing about him, I was more writing about me, the translator and the real centre of the story. Ground down by the pestle and mortar of time and attention, I see glimpses of a truth more clearly now: how the original was never really about a boy, but who I was and will always be, a loving participant in the act of making meaning from the events that make me.



Jimin Kang is a Seoul-born, Hong Kong–raised, and Oxford-based writer. Her works have been published in The London Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Asymptote Journal and The New York Times, among other outlets. As a contributing editor at The Oxonian Review, she edits a column dedicated to Hong Kong writing entitled “To Write Hong Kong.” From 2021–22, she undertook a MSt in Comparative Literature and Critical Translation at the University of Oxford with a focus on Portuguese and English-language literatures.



Jimin KANG

Wed, 22 May 2024
Translation Language

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