Das Buch: Korean writers strut their stuff in GermanyDuring his reading tour in Leipzig earlier this year, the renowned Korean writer Hwang Seok-young was asked by a man in the audience why Europe should pay attention to Korean literature. Hwang’s reply was that in order for a new civilization to evolve, it is essential to look at the world through the eyes of other people.
“Literature, written in one’s own language, is about one’s own life,” he said. “And it must reach out to a universal vision of man. The value literature seeks must be a pluralistic universality. In East-Asia, we call this ‘yokji saji,’ which means putting yourself in another person’s shoes.”
Indeed, nothing reveals more about the mentality of a people than the books they write. Reading, after all, is a critical act to understanding, a reason why many Korean writers are pinning such high hopes on this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, which made Korea its guest of honor.
The book fair, which begins on Oct. 19 and runs for five days, is by far the world's biggest marketplace for intellectuals and publishers to trade publishing rights and licenses.
It allows 1,800 exhibitors from Anglophone countries to reach a focused global audience, featuring more than 350,000 titles and book-related products and services.
As part of the program for the guest of honor, the organizers selected 100 Korean books from areas of literature, arts, humanities, children’s books, comic books and social science, based on works that best describe the traditions and modern ideals of Korean society, in both scholarly analyses and more mainstream formats that might appeal to a broader foreign audience. The selected books were then translated into foreign languages: 46 into English, 22 into German, 10 into French, eight into Spanish and Japanese and six into Chinese, divided mostly to fit the histories and regional tastes of its readers.
The books on the list cover a wide range of subjects, from war and division to home and family, from traditional shamanistic beliefs and religious salvation to issues concerning contemporary society such as violence, the fight for democratization, gender and sexuality.
In March, a monthly series of reading tours began in Leipzig, in which 62 noted Korean writers were invited to hold discussions with German intellectuals. At the Korean pavilion in Frankfurt, a separate display of foreign books on Korea and selected designs of book covers will be exhibited.
For people who question whether books will survive in a country of 30 million Internet users, the venue gives reason to pin hopes for a victory of paper over pixels.
BOOKS OF KOREA
“At the Tavern” (Jumak e-seo) / German
Cheon Sang-byeong’s poetry reflects the typical sentiment of poets in his time, filled with nostalgic images from childhood and countryside settings.
Yet much of Cheon's life has been romanticized by Korean readers, buried under the poet’s popular appeal as a laid back, heavy drinker who praised the “eternity of life.” His most famous poem, “Back to Heaven,” (or Gwicheon) has consistently been a top seller at major bookstores in Korea.
“At the Tavern,” published in 1979, is a collection of Cheon's early and middle poems that reflect the poet's innocent views of society.
“Maehwa: Plum Blossoms, Reading the Cultural Codes of Japan and Korea” (Maehwa) / English
The book compiles a series of essays edited by the veteran scholar and cultural critic Lee Eo-ryeong. It is an analysis of the various meanings attributed to plums that appear in the literature, religions and artwork of China, Japan and Korea. The book poses an alternative to interpreting classical texts in a way that suits contemporary readers.
Lee, a literary critic, was the first Minister of Culture and Tourism, and the author of cultural anayses such as “Korea and Koreans” and “A Dictionary of Semiotics.”
"Song of a Sword" (Kalui norae) / Spanish
Song of a Sword by Kim Hoon, a journalist turned writer, is a work of historical fiction based on the life of Yi Sun-shin, the 16th-century Korean naval commander who won many battles against the Japanese.
The author depicts the sufferings and the military spirit of the medieval war hero, with a humanistic and romantic portrayal of Yi as an extraordinary strategist. The story, written in the first-person, explores Yi's feeling after wars, the death of his family, his affair with a woman and his anguish over the fate of his sinking country.
The novel was one of the most widely-read books in recent years, and got a boost after President Roh Moo-hyun was publicly seen reading it while he was out of office for two months following his impeachment by the National Assembly in 2003.
“Iljime” (Iljime) / Chinese
“Iljime,” by Ko Woo-young, was a sensation when it was first released. A comic series that appeared in a local sports newspaper from 1975 to 1977, it tells the story of a chivalrous bandit during the Joseon dynasty who robs corrupt government officials to feed the poor.
The book is considered an excellent example of social parody, one of the first comic books to mix bold uses of modern expressions in a book based on local fables.
“Kut” (Gut) / English
This book by Kim Su-nam chronicles the history and tradition of kut, an exorcism rite performed by Korean shamans.
It compiles different rites held in various regions across the country, based on the author's visits and extensive studies on various transformations the rites underwent throughout the Silla and Goryeo periods.
Aside from surveys on belief of Korean shamanism, the author looks into the musical and theatrical aspect of kut as an artistic medium.
"Korean Palaces" (hangukui gogung) / French
Written by Shin Young-hun, an expert in Korean architecture who built a private museum in Paris for Ungno Lee, the renowned Korean painter, as well as the designer of a Korean gallery for the British Museum. He is also the author of several books on hanok, traditional Korean houses.
The book examines the architecture of five Joseon dynasty palaces, paying attention to details such as the engraved longevity symbols on a chimney by the king's bedroom, or the iron rings on the granite walkway leading up to the king's main office in Changdeok palace, which were used to tie up tents for royal ceremonies.
The 390-page book, illustrated with stunning photos by Kim Dae-byeok, who shot historic architecture for 40 years, provide fresh insight into the artistry of the palaces' architecture and of obscure facts compiled by Shin.
"A Philosopher's Journey into Rehe" (Yeoha Ilgi) / English
Go Mi-suk, the author and one of the few critics of Joseon classical literature, deconstructs Korean classics from a post-modernist point of view. Go relies on Gilles Deleuze to elaborate on "Journey of Rehe" a classical text by the noted Joseon literary figure Park Ji-won, depicting the sense of wit and romanticism evident in writings by Joseon scholars as a basic reaction to the political repression that threw the country into turmoil.
But instead of writing in the form of a scholarly analysis, Go delves into the historical text, as one critic calls it, “almost in the form of a fan letter to an intellectual celebrity.”
Go has written several books, including "Criticism Machine" and "Searching for the Origins of Korean Modernity."
"Searching for Hyeonsan Eobo” (Hyeonsan eoboleul chataseo) / Japanese
This book by Lee Tae-won is a study of ocean life near the sea of Heuksan island, based on the first book of marine biology in Korea written at the time of the Joseon Dynasty around 1814 by the scholar Jeong Yak-jeon (1760 to 1816). Jeong, who came from a family of early converts to Catholicism, wrote the book at Heuksan while in exile there during the Sinyu persecution of Catholics in 1801.
In the first of this five-volume series, the author, a high school biology teacher, begins with a casual narrative about his trip to Heuksan based on anecdotes during the journey from talking to fishermen on the island. In the end, the book links together just about every reference to the sea a person could make, spending paragraphs explaining why Beethoven's music should be called a “trout” instead of a “mullet.”
"A Revised History of Contemporary Korea" (Gocheo sseuneun hanguk hyeondaesa) / English
The book is a revealing compilation of 40 years of academic studies by Kang Man-gil, a central figure in modern Korean history and an activist who was jailed three times under the military government for criticizing it.
"A Revised History" covers Korean history from the Joseon dynasty (1392 to 1895) to recent years.
Since the publication of the first edition of the work in 1984, the writer's bold views on contemporary Korean history, especially on the division and its subsequent reunification movement, have challenged the country’s conservatives. Yet his powerful writing style and solid references have had significant influence on the academic development of modern Korean history.
“The Affliction of Balancing” (Jungsim ui Gueroum) / German
The book is a collection of earlier poems by Kim Ji-ha, a dissident poet who was imprisoned after the publication of “Five Thieves,” a scathing parody of corrupt politicians and business conglomerates written in the traditional rhythm of pansori, a form of dramatic poetry.
Though the poems in “The Affliction of Balancing” were written years after the poet's collision with the political authorities, they still reveal the tension and realistic attributes of a cultural activist, delving into issues of freedom in everyday prose.
‘Literature as propaganda is always a poor idea’
John M. Frankl, 38, an assistant professor at Underwood International College, Yonsei University, was the English-language translator for "Maehwa," a collection of essays on plum blossoms that was selected for 100 Korean books at Frankfurt Book Fair in October. The book deals with the cultural symbolism of the fruit in China, Japan and Korea, which use plums as a metaphor in religion, literature and art.
IHT-JOONGANG DAILY: What made you want to translate the piece?
FRANKL: Maehwa was planned, edited, and co-written by Professor Lee Eo-ryeong. He is known for having a particularly difficult style. In fact, I was contacted somewhat late when the person originally slated to translate the work found it a bit beyond his abilities. I have always enjoyed a good challenge, and began my study of the Korean language some 20 years ago precisely because I was told that it was one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, and [so] accepted the offer from the Korean Literary Translation Institute to translate the work.
How difficult was it to translate? Were there parts in the story that were untranslatable?
There were a few thorny passages in the volume, but none was insurmountable. Nothing is untranslatable. Some words and concepts simply correspond across languages and cultures. These can be translated by anyone with motivation and a dictionary. Others, however, possess no ready counterpart. This is when true facility in both languages and cultures is required. One must be creative in coming up with linguistic solutions that preserve the integrity of the original work while also communicating effectively in the target language.
What do you think are the most common problems in translating Korean literature?
The small audience, for the time being, is simply an impediment that must be worked around. I suppose it all does come back to quality. First impressions are very important; oftentimes they are all we have on which to base our early conclusions. A single poor translation, if it circulates far and wide enough, can do quite a bit of damage. As far as common problems, I believe there are two. The first is the criteria for selection. Works are chosen not for their literary merit, but for what they ostensibly convey about Korea to the outside world. Literature as propaganda is almost always a poor idea. The second is a simple lack of ability on the part of translators.
Do you sometimes see the difference between books on Korea by Korean writers and western writers?
Of course there are differences, but they need not be categorized according to nation. The category quickly erodes when you take two Korean writers such as Professor Lee Eo-ryeong and Professor Choe Joon Shik. Each is Korean, affiliated with the same university here and writes on Korean culture, but their conclusions are quite different. What homogenizing effect has "Korean-ness," if there is such a thing beyond simple legal definitions, had on these two individuals? This is even more the case with "western writers," whatever that may mean, since they may be Russian, British, American, Australian, etcetera. Add to this that many are of Korean heritage. In which category do we place Korean-Americans, and what about adoptees? No, just as with translators, I see this as a matter of individual predilections and capabilities, not one of nationalities.
by Park Soo-mee