For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week Sarah Matsui, whose essay “Fifth Grader Mandarin Proficiency” appears in the Winter 2022 issue, examines a passage from The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh.
To borrow for a moment the earnestness of Jane Austen’s Mr. Knightley, it does sometimes feel like if I loved a work less, I might be able to talk about it more. I find it easier to describe books that I can hold more at a distance. I fumble to describe works that I find most compelling.
As a reader, I became invested in E. J. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others even before its first chapter—Koh opens the book with “A Note on Translation.” Here’s the first paragraph:
My mother opens her letters in Korean, Ahnyoung. This translates into Hi or Hello. I use both for the Korean greeting. Hi beams outward like the sun’s rays. The tone transports energy without expecting reciprocity. One may absorb Hi with a casual wave or respond with a smile. Hello boomerangs for a response. Over the phone, one says Hello to hear a voice calling through silence. Hello is an alteration of Hallo or Hollo from Old High German Halâ or Holâ, used to hail a ferryman. Hello comes as a question. Are you there? Hello fetches me across an expanse of water.
For me, this beginning functions as a trust exercise. Koh’s book is—both structurally and thematically—beautifully complex. It’s part epic in love letters from mother to daughter, part contribution to a people’s history of Jeju Island, part coming-of-age story. By introducing the ambition of the project and the skill of its author—at once a poet and a translator—“A Note on Translation” is a promise of adventure from a capable guide. Koh’s attention to language is an invitation to understand how she’s approaching the work ahead, preparing me as a reader for its twists and discoveries so that I might also begin to grasp the attendant challenges, humor, grief, and joy of translation—and of connection.
As Koh’s translations of her mother’s letters remind, reaching across and through language is a reach toward being present together. It is a gesture toward knowing and being known, which is of course intertwined with loving and being loved. Koh adds later in the same prologue, “To my limits, I do not see my translations as complete.” And still, despite this incompleteness, and maybe even despite this (my) fumbling, it is something incredible to be hailed across our unique sets of meaning, to be fetched across a separating expanse.