Wasted words

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Wasted words

It's an October rite in Korea: The announcement of the Nobel prize for Literature winner is eagerly awaited, and when the winner is announced, Koreans lament that once again the award, which they believe is a recognition of the cultural sophistication of the country, has escaped them. The pride in their cultural accomplishments wounded, the pundits point fingers at what, in their view, is the biggest obstacle to getting the international recognition: the lack of quality translations of Korean works of literature.

Pity the poor translators.

The lack of qualified translators is a problem that is felt acutely. "Of all the applicants for our annual translation grants, we see only about 20 qualified translators for each language group," said Ahn Young-guk at the Daesan Foundation. The foundation, which has been providing grants for the translation of Korean literature into foreign languages since 1993, has so far funded 106 titles.

In fact, there are no professional translators who exclusively translate literary works. "There is just not enough demand and they could not make a living by translating," Mr. Ahn said. The Daesan Foundation provides 15 million won ($12,000) per title, a small sum given the complexity of the task and the time involved. "The translation grant money is usually split between two collaborating translators -- a native Korean and the native speaker of the target langage -- so it comes down to only 7.5 million won per translator," Mr. Ahn said. Although the grant period is usually set at one year, it normally takes two to three years to complete a translation.

"Translating is a very slow process," said Suh Ji-moon, professor of English language and literature at Korea University. She has translated several Korean literary works into English, including "The Golden Phoenix," an anthology of short stories published in 1999. The first 2,000 copies of the book sold out in the United States, setting a record for Korean literature in translation. "The cultural difference between Korea and English-speaking cultures is huge," she said. "They have vastly different cultural perspectives, making translation very challenging." Readers without the cultural associations find it difficult to read and understand translated works, according to Ms. Suh.

Like Ms. Suh, most translators today are academics, who do translations in addition to their teaching duties at universities. Often, the language of the academics is not the everyday vocabulary used by native speakers of the target language. Hence, the biggest complaint: Translated works simply do not read well.

"Finding a qualified publisher who can edit the translations to make them readable is crucial " said Ko Young-il, an official at the Korea Literature Translation Institute. While the Daesan Foundation grant requires the translators to find overseas publishers, it often finds itself assisting in getting the works published. "We are not at a stage where publishers will come to us for titles," Mr. Ahn said. Most of the translations so far have been published by university presses that have limited distributions.

Another hurdle in introducing Korean literature to the outside is finding the right author and subject matter. An apt illustration of the problem was found in a recent Korea Literature Translation Institute survey of what works of Korean literature Koreans thought ought to be translated. To the dismay of people involved in promoting Korean literature abroad, "Toji" (The Land) by Pak Kyong-ni topped the list.

"It is a multivolume work and the saga as a genre has been dead in the West since World War II," Mr. Ahn said. In fact, the book, which is already available in translation, was a big flop overseas. "The subject matter is just too Korean and the readers cannot empathize with the characters or understand the background," he said.

For a translated literary book to be successful, it should address universal themes, not just uniquely Korean issues. "L'Envers de la vie," a French translation of Lee Seung-woo's "Saengui Imyeon" is an example of how a Korean work can appeal to non-Korean readers. When the book was published in 2000 by Zulma, it was reviewed by Le Monde and several other French newspapers. "The book grapples with the issue of salvation and freedom. I think it struck the right chord among the French readers," Mr. Ahn said.

While literary translations in the past have tended to focus on works by modern writers, those from the 1920s and '30s, more works by contemporary writers are being translated. "We are talking about popular contemporary writers such as Shin Gyeong-suk and Kim Young-ha," said Mr. Ahn.

"We should be translating more Korean best-sellers without worrying about whether they are 'heavy' enough," said Yu Young-nan, a professional translator who handles literary and nonliterary works. Ms. Yu's translation of a short story by Shin Gyeong-suk appears in the current issue of the Harvard Review, a distinguished literary journal.

Mr. Ko at the Translation Institute thinks that promoting specific authors at the target language countries may be instrumental in popularizing Korean literature. "Efforts to introduce Korean literature to world audiences must have some direction and focus," he said. One such effort was made earlier this month when a group of Korean writers and a critic toured five colleges on the west coast of the United States, holding reading and discussion sessions.

Funding a university to engage in translations and publications may be yet another approach to promoting Korean literature abroad. The International Communication Foundation, which administers the TOEIC English tests in Korea, provided a $1.5 million grant earlier this month to Harvard University's Korea Institute for that purpose.

The Korea Literature Translation Institute has big ambitions on the Internet, starting with a database of all previously translated literary works, which will include notes on the authors and works in both English and Korean and will open at the end of the year. Dubbed the "virtual library of Korean literature," the full text of translated works, including those that are now out of print, should be available online sometime next year, according to Marie Han, the Institute librarian. An online audio library of poems and short stories with readings in both Korean and the target language should also be completed next year.

The difficulty of getting books is a problem not only overseas but here in Korea as well. Most translated books are published overseas and local bookstores are not willing to risk importing books that do not sell.

At the Kyobo Book Center in Gwanghwamun, one of the country's largest bookstores, about 40 titles of Korean literature in translation are available, shelved out of view, beneath a display of coffee-table books on Korea. "The demand is virtually nil," said Hong Seok-yong, public relations manager at the bookstore. "We sell two or three books a week."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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