June 3, 2019KR Conversations

Ryan C.K. Choi

Photo of Ryan C.K. ChoiRyan C. K. Choi lives in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was born and raised. His work has appeared in Harper’s, BOMB, Yale Review, Asymptote, and elsewhere. His translation of Sanki Saitō’s poem “Three Demons: Sanki Series I” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your impetus for translating Sanki Saitō’s “Three Demons: Sanki Series I”?

“To make something that works as a painting, arresting at a glance, even if not read; and also as a poem that must be read.” I’m speaking in hindsight of course, of a design that really might not have been there.

A note of clarification: “Three Demons” is my own title, a translation of Saitō’s penname “Sanki.” The poems in this work were selected from Saitō’s four collections: Flags (1940), Night Peaches (1948), Today (1952), and Transformations (1962).

Could you talk about what lead you to space and format the haiku in the ways you have? What inspired you to format the haiku differently from one another?

It’s part of an ongoing series, each section of which is ruled by a contrasting visual aesthetic. “Series I” is distinguished in look from “II” which is distinguished from “III” which is distinguished from “IV” which is distinguished from “V” which is distinguished from “VI,” and so forth. On my first run through I had the poems formatted plainly in one-, two-, or three-line stanzas. Then I began resetting the lines with the breaks acting almost like match and jump cuts in a movie, and the methods yielding the shape of each series were applied systematically in the way that the Serialist composer permutes tone rows.

As separate haiku, how do these pieces work together? What happens when they are arranged back to back and do you feel they contribute to one another’s meaning-making?

My formatting is no less orderly, or rigorous, than the standard. As in all set forms—contents aside—haiku concerns one subject, the form itself as mode of perception, a container to catch the cosmos.

In translating these pieces, what were you determined to preserve and emphasize? What drew you to translate this work in the first place?

I was literal in my approach to the original images and their facts, but liberal—irreverent even—in how I laid them out and discarded the syllabic rules that traditionally govern haiku. When does one finally leave the form?

How has your translation work changed since you started out?

It hasn’t in the sense that it still depends on text and context. Growing skill is something to contend with.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

In the realm of translation, besides the Saitō manuscript, I’m doing a book of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s very short prose and poetry.