“Translation is an Anti-Neocolonial Mode”: Don Mee Choi's DMZ Colony

Don Mee Choi's DMZ Colony (2020) explores colonialism's legacies on the Korean peninsula. Choi documents both history's wounds & attacks obfuscating narratives. Focal points include: Japan's colonization of Korea, the U.S.—Korean War & Park Chung-hee's military dictatorship in South Korea.

DMZ Colony contains many genres: poetry, theoretical prose, photography, & etchings. What binds it all together? Choi repeatedly shows how translation produces slippages in meaning. In particular, Choi sees translation as an “anti-neocolonial mode.” This may seem overly ambitious. Can poetry battle militaristic imperialism & neoliberal capitalism? Well, not directly. Choi's doesn't target the colonizers; she instead focuses on their archives. By playfully translating archival fragments, Choi bulldozes the U.S. & South Korea's totalizing narratives.

Let's talk a little about the term “neocolonial.” The term was coined by Kwame Nkrumah, the architect of Ghana's independence. Nkrumah defines neocolonialism as a former colonizer's use of economic strategies to sabotage of a post-colonial State's sovereignty. It's a last ditch attempt to maintain a colonial relationship. The United States has maintained a neocolonial relationship with South Korea. While the Korean War started when Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea, the conflict was also a proxy war: the United States vs. Russia & China. While fighting ended in 1953, a formal treaty has never been signed. In its stead, the infamous Demilitarized Zone was constructed at the 38th Parallel. The United States has never left South Korea, either in both a military & economic sense. The military presence is very prominent; in recent years, there are roughly 24,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. To facilitate the incorporation of South Korea into global capitalist networks, the U.S. intervened in a number of regime changes. This aided the rise of authoritarian figures such as Park Chung-hee.

The book contains an ars poetica titled “Mirror Words.” It's worth reading in full:

Mirror words come out of my thoughts about translation. Translation is a mode=Translation is an anti-neocolonial mode. I obsess about 'order words that are given in our society.' In 1945, it took less than 30 minutes for order words to be carried out, to divide the country I was born in, along the 38th parallel north. Order words compel division, war, and obedience around the world. But other words are possible. Translation as an anti-neocolonial mode can create other words. I call mine mirror words. Mirror words are meant to compel disobedience, resistance. Mirror words defy neocolonial borders, blockades. Mirrors words flutter along borders and are often in flight across oceans, even galaxies. Mirror words are homesick. Mirror words are halo. Mirror words are orphaned words. Now look at your words in a mirror. Translate, translate! Did you? Do it again, do it!

After ars poetica, Choi playfully mirrors archival materials. However, true to her contention that “mirror words are meant to compel disobedience, resistance,” these acts of mirroring introduce grotesque funhouse distortions.

In the first page, we receive a mirrored series of declarations that almost seem to be a parodic mix of imperial letters & the Communist Manifesto:

  • “Ruoy Ycnellecxe” = “Your excellency”
  • “Si ti Laitram Wal?” = “Is it Martial Law?”
  • “Laturb Eripme!” = “Brutal Empire!”
  • “Ruoy slagelli, Ruoy seegufer, Ruoy laretalloc egamad fo eht dlrow” = “Your illegals, Your refugees, Your collateral damage of the world”
  • “Etinu tsniaga Ruoy raer.” = “Unite against Your rear.”
  • “Ew era evila” = “We are alive”

On the facing page, Choi includes an archival photograph to which she's added a variety of captions. This photo was taken by her father. In it, Korean students face off with South Korean police during a protest that was part of 1960's April 19 Movement, which led to the downfall of autocratic president Syngman Rhee.

The only unmirrored word is: “Towards a Global Humanity.” This hopeful note of a humanity not constrained by militarized borders is surrounded by statements that have undergone the mirror effect.

  • “Noitalsnart si a edom” = “Translation is a mode”
  • “Noitalsnart si na itna-lainolocoen edom” = “Translation is an anti-neocolonial mode”

Why has Choi mirrored statements she so clearly articulated earlier? Why use an alien-seeming yet easy-to-decipher code? She teaches us that to translate is to escape the State's methods of surveillance & categorization. Choi's notions of translation are much more flexible than traditional conceptions. She not only advocates translating statements across languages, but also moving stories & insights between different modes of discourse. She signals: Don't let the State determine the terms of our discourse!

Translation as a border-crossing fugitive act. Choi also insists keeping her poems as fragments as imagined by Subaltern Studies scholars such as Gyanendra Pandey. In her work, an elusive excess always remains. It refuses to be included a narrative's defined framework. The stories always gesture to what is not being said, to what can never be said as long as our dominant languages enable colonization, the conversion of people into property, into the reductive rendering of subjects.

Poetry may not fight power directly, but it can help us refuse to let power control how we conceive of our lives.