The translator of a certain bestselling science-fiction novel once said that he did not aim to normalize his work into English, that he wanted his translation to read a little weird, that he felt he was contributing to the English language by introducing Chinese translationese.

This translator,  an award-winning writer in his own right, is Chinese-American. An important point. He grew up in America, lives in America, and, well, is American. His experience of language imperialism is going to be very different from mine: I grew up mostly in Korea, spent my entire adult life in Seoul, and am a Korean citizen with no other nationality. To him, English is part of the means for his survival as an immigrant, an imposition. To me, English is an escape, an extraneous, alternate plane of existence I can slip in and out of. No one exactly forced me to read Jane Eyre (quite the opposite, but that’s another story).

My point is, no one would take me seriously as a translator if I wrote translationese. As a non-native speaker of the target language, I do not have the privilege of being seen as “original.” Immigrants and their children are, of course, exposed to similar prejudice, but at least they can say they have literal rights to their language. Whereas I have to take extortionist exams like the TOEIC or IELTS to “prove” that I speak English. I simply don’t have the wherewithal to withstand language imperialism. For now, I have to speak the language of the Empire.

And when my students here in Seoul mention Spivak etc. and the diverse forms of colonialism that are still alive in this world, I don’t know what to tell them. That they are guests in this language, and it is not our place to move the furniture? Or that they owe it to this language to give it new life through new permutations?

I tell them that it’s up to them. Who am I to decide what their contributions will be? I can’t protect them, I can only show them how to protect themselves. As dissatisfying as it is, it’s the only way of letting go of a problem I can’t solve.