Retired professor hits the books again

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Retired professor hits the books again

A book fair is by no means a sports competition. But for Lee Gang-suk, 68, a retired professor and recently appointed commissioner of the Korean delegation at the Frankfurt Book Fair, his goal would be to reach the “final” of what he describes as the “cultural Olympics.”
The Frankfurt Book Fair is one of the world’s largest international book fairs, attracting more than 300,000 visitors and publishers from 100 countries each year.
Although Korean literature was recently named as a guest of honor at the 2005 event, “I doubt we could win the gold just yet,” jokes Mr. Lee, referring to the poor reputation of Korean literature in the global book market.
Mr. Lee has worked as a music professor at Seoul National University, director of the KBS Philharmonic and president of the Korea National University of Arts. He says his new job will mark the last stage of his career.
Mr. Lee believes the event, which takes place in October 2005, will result in increased attention paid to Korean literature abroad.
“A book fair is literally a cultural Olympics,” he says. “There were 6,600 journalists who came to cover the World Cup in Seoul. More than 120,000 reporters are expected to come to Frankfurt. There isn’t a better opportunity to promote Korean authors.”
Mr. Lee said he originally turned down the offer for the commissioner’s post. Having spent the last two years “a free man,” he has been enjoying the time on his own, focusing on his passion, creative writing. After retiring, he promised himself he wouldn’t work again, but this was an offer he could not refuse. Preparation for the festival will require “murderous endurance,” as Mr. Lee describes it, from now until October 2005.

Q: There is not much time left until the fair begins. Will you be ready?
A: My biggest concern is with the translated works. We need to come up with 100 books that represent Korea and the best Korean literature. Then we need to translate them into seven languages, including English, Chinese and Japanese. Luckily, some of the literary works have already been translated. But we need to look through them thoroughly to ensure they are readable to an international audience.

Could you explain the relevance of countries chosen as the guest of honor?
Korea is not very well-known outside its borders. It’s not really a country Europeans consider when traveling to Asia. The World Cup did a lot to promote the country, but culturally it’s still invisible. I want to take this opportunity to make Korea a country foreigners want to visit.

What do we have to offer?
Literature is obviously a central issue to any book fair. But other cultural content, like forums, exhibitions and performances, will also be part of the event. I am hoping to introduce the history and current situation in Korea by bringing in experts in these areas.

Can you explain the details?
We will display some of the country’s oldest manuscripts side by side with electronic books that make use of multimedia. The translated works will feature a good mix of classics and contemporary authors. This may make it easier for a Korean writer to eventually win a Nobel Prize in literature.

Won’t that require an extremely large budget?
I assume it will take about 30 billion won ($25.4 million). We need financial support from the government and the private sector.

What do we get in return?
It’s difficult to make business deals with people who don’t know anything about your country. It will be an opportunity to promote our cultural property, not only books, but also the national image in general. It’s a way of enhancing the brand power of Korea.
Corporate executives must pay attention, because a country’s cultural image abroad has a direct impact on the domestic economy.

Do other countries take an active interest in this event?
It actually surprises me how much they do. I recently met a group of publishers from Berlin, and they assured me 2005 would be the year of Korea in Germany. There will be about 800 Korea-themed performances opening in Germany next year alone.


by Park Jung-ho

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