Korean books get shelved overseasBrother Anthony is a professional translator of modern Korean poetry into English. One of his projects included translating Korean to English the short stories collection by Lee Eo-ryeong, a veteran essayist, through a British publisher. But since the book was published two years ago, he says, only 44 copies have been sold worldwide.
“They’ve been very concerned,” he says. “I’ve sent numerous free copies to promote the book, but it is not selling.”
The problem with English translations of Korean literature used to be how few titles were being published. Now that more books are being translated, book industry observers question whether Korean literature even matters to the international market.
According to the Korea Literature Translation Institute, a state-run organization that provides grants for Korean works to be translated into foreign languages, far too little attention has been paid to Korean literature that’s been translated into English despite the steady growth in numbers (see graph).
Korean journalist Ahn Jeong-hyo, author of “White Badge,” and Korean American Chang-rae Lee, author of “Native Speaker,” wrote books in English that were well received internationally, but it’s difficult to name an English translation of a Korean book that has received the same critical acclaim.
“The number of published translations is more of a reflection of the general growth of English-speaking populations worldwide,” says Kim Yun-jin, a representative of the institute. “But the books have not earned readers’ interest among the mainstream market.”
Lee Jeong-hwa, a representative of the Daesan Foundation, shares a similar sentiment, saying the lack of interest in translated works among publishers in English-speaking countries is a major setback to introducing Korean literature abroad, especially in the United States, although other countries find that market difficult to enter as well.
Daesan is the largest corporation that provides grants for translating Korean literature into foreign languages. The foundation has funded book translations into English, Spanish, French and German.
“Completed translations are actually getting published less or very late,” Ms. Lee says. “It’s difficult to find foreign publishers who are interested.” The general criteria used to select books for the English-language market, especially in the United States, tend to be based on “commercially driven notions,” Ms. Lee says, which the serious literary classics that Daesan chooses may not possess.
However, Mr. Kim says European publishers have taken an interest in Korean literary works, and some publishers have asked to be the exclusive foreign agents of Korean authors such as Yi Munyol and Hwang Seok-yeong.
“The market in Europe seems to be very open to foreign productions in general, probably because their cultures are so rooted and homogeneous,” Mr. Kim says. “Within American culture, there are already enough sources of diversity and unfamiliarity to digest. They don’t necessarily need imports from other countries.”
In Korea, literature was a form of political expression, a central symbol of civic consciousness among intellectuals under the military regimes. Even though intellectuals are no longer repressed as blatantly, in some ways Korean literature still carries a serious message. That may be why Brother Anthony says modern Korean literature doesn’t appeal to foreign publishers, because it largely deals with or is influenced by the agony of the country’s division.
“Those who have read Korean literature say that the works are too gloomy and serious,” says Brother Anthony, who is also on Daesan’s screening committee. “Their stories are filled with problems, characters who are lonely and suffer from mental illnesses. There is no fantasy, often no irony. Non-Koreans find this difficult to read. They think, So what?
“They are simply not interested, because they don’t know anything about the culture,” he says. “There is no need to publish translated works in English-speaking countries, because there are enough writers who can write in English and explain things in a less complicated way.”
Needing a larger voice
Lee Gil-sang, a director of the Center for Information on Korean Culture, an organization that studies global perceptions of Korea mainly through the analysis of foreign textbooks, says Korea’s outlook on history has gone ignored.
“For example, if the Korean War had been dealt with in greater depth from the Koreans’ point of view in global history, instead of as a small example of the cold war within U.S. diplomatic policies, people would naturally develop interest in post-war Korean literature.
“The fact of the matter is that the Korean government didn’t pay much attention to how the country has been represented by outsiders. Korea is one of the last developing countries in the world to have begun translating works as a way of expressing our position. It makes no sense for us to hope that our literature will receive critical attention from abroad when our history is barely to known to outsiders.”
Mr. Kim, from the translation institute, says the governments of China and Japan began translating their history books while building their diplomatic networks with other countries. It was a strategic plan, he says, to appeal to a foreign audience. Korea began literature translations much later than China and Japan, in the mid-1980s.
But there are also problems with the standards of Korean literary titles that get selected for translation. Daesan favors literary works with global interests “that could well represent Korean literature” with a particular emphasis on the author’s importance.
Some experts see this as problematic, saying the selection standard should be based solely on the content of an individual work, not the author’s reputation.
“Literary works that are being translated into a foreign language must be culturally engaging and possess some sense of universality,” wrote Choi Yeon-hong, a literature professor at the University of Seoul, in his recent column for a monthly magazine, Emerge.
“If the text fails to intrigue people, they aren’t going to read it. Works we have chosen might have won an award here, but it may be pointless when it’s translated into another language. We should ask ourselves whether we thought about these things when we chose certain literary works to be published abroad.”
Brother Anthony says translations must take into account Western readers’ unfamiliarity with Korean history. “Scholars of Korean studies made up much of the readership in the past,” he says. “As a result, the historical context [of the stories] has not been clearly explained in the translating process.”
Others point to structural problems such as a limited pool in the number of able translators, a lack of respect and low salaries for translators and an absence in the number of Korean classics in foreign languages that might lead to readers’ interest in modern literature.
Even foreigners interested in Korea won’t necessarily buy translations. A Kyobo Book Centre representative in Seoul said that its foreign book department stocks only a few translated books about Korea because foreign customers prefer books about Korea that are written by foreign authors.
Even if Korean books had more commercially appealing plots, domestic publishers are leery of foreign markets, which are risky and expensive to enter. They don’t even bother to attempt to get their titles published in English. Instead, institutes like Daesan must line up foreign publishers, who have a more established distribution network.
Possible future opportunities
But international prospects for contemporary Korean literature are opening up. More publishers that are securing a worldwide distribution network are expressing an interest in the Korean publishing industry. Random House, a major American publisher, recently entered a joint venture with JoongAng M&B, an affiliate of the JoongAng Ilbo, that would allow Random House to publish translated English-language books in Korea in exchange for publishing translated Korean books abroad. Also, “Books From Korea” (www.booksfromkorea.org), recently opened, which lists the best-sellers in Korea.
Other experts suggest providing fellowships for Korean studies scholars in foreign universities and setting academic curriculums of Korean literature abroad to stimulate more interest.
“There are hundreds of proposals that some foreign publishers receive every year from authors,” says Brother Anthony. “We need to have a clear sense of why the audience should read these books. ... The books have got to be interesting.”
by Park Soo-mee