In Choi Jeongrye’s Footsteps
by Mattho Mandersloot
This is part of the Walking Norwich series.
Slightly delayed by covid-related difficulties, I arrived in Norwich on a sunny July morning, brimming with excitement. Not only was I keen to rediscover the city and its bookshelves, I was also extremely looking forward to a month of hermit-like living, doing little else than translating poetry. Above all, I was delighted to be following in the footsteps of writers and translators whom I admire, particularly in those of the very poet I’m currently translating.
Choi Jeongrye was writer in residence at Dragon Hall in the autumn of 2018, an experience about which she wrote a riveting memoir. At a reading in October that year, hosted by SOAS in London, I was first introduced to Jeongrye’s work and had the pleasure of meeting her in person. We stayed in touch afterwards, meeting up regularly during my time in Korea, until she fell terminally ill and ultimately passed away in January of 2021 (see here for a commemorative piece I wrote for the Korea Times). At the news of her passing, I promised myself to continue translating her last collection, published shortly before her death. I found the perfect opportunity to do so in the NCW translation residency.
In her memoir, Jeongrye talks little about her impressions of the city of Norwich itself – partly because she had her hands full attending one poetry festival after the other, all around the UK – which makes it hard to tell whether I literally walked in her footsteps. On several occasions I found myself wondering: did Jeongrye walk here, too? After revisiting her memoir, however, it occurred to me how, metaphorically, I followed a similar path. In a way, our residencies did parallel one another.
Much like Jeongrye’s stay reminded her that everyone has “once embarked on a journey in search of a place to call home”, I came to think of the myriad wanderings that led me to my current situation: a Dutchman translating Korean poetry into English, sat in a cottage in Norfolk. Who would’ve thought. Looking down on Norwich from Kett’s Heights, a rush of gratitude – for Jeongrye, for her poetry and her encouragement for me to translate it, and for the opportunity to actually sit myself down and do so – came over me.
Another element our residencies share is the involvement of George Szirtes. I vividly remember Jeongrye telling me how she met George during her stay in Norwich and how fond she was of both him and his wife. In her memoir she writes how he was the first person ever to address a poem to her (for which see below) and how touched she was when he gave it to her. Needless to say, I was extremely happy to learn that George had agreed to guide me in translating her poems as part of my residency and after working with him over the course of four weeks, I can only join Jeongrye in singing his praises.
And so, as my walk in Jeongrye’s footsteps reaches its natural end, I would like to offer a poem in response to George’s, the title of which crossed my mind as I stood atop the Lady Julian Bridge just outside the cottage, gazing at a bevy of bathing swans from.
The Sky Fox
For Jeongrye Choi
By George Szirtes
The sleek red foxes of the sky have learned to ride on clouds
And spend the scarlet sunset hours hunting in great crowds,
And when they spot a pair of wings they leap through the damp air
Condemning birds to lead fraught lives of terror and despair.
But poets see the foxes in their headlights as they drive
And that is why birds tend to die while most poets survive.
The Sky Swan
For Jeongrye Choi
By Mattho Mandersloot
As the foxes of the sky retreat into their dens
No longer does the speeding flight of swans look tense
Their time has come to roam the heavens as they please
Until the foxes reemerge or they are struck by some disease
But poets give us poetry and greater matters still
And that is why birds tend to die while poets never will.
In July 2021, we welcomed Mattho Mandersloot to Norwich for a month-long residency, with support from the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. Mattho Mandersloot is a literary translator working from Korean into English and Dutch. He earned a BA in Classics from King’s College London, an MA in Translation from SOAS and an MSt in Korean Studies from Oxford. Among others, he has translated bestselling authors Cho Nam-joo and Hwang Sun-mi. In 2020 he won the Korea Times’ 51st Modern Korean Literature Translation Award for his translations of Choi Jeongrye’s poems. During his residency he worked on Choi Jeongrye’s final collection of poetry, Net of Light, alongside award-winning poet and translator George Szirtes.