Local critics steam over foreign books

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Local critics steam over foreign books


Kim Mi-ji, an office worker, says she finds herself sifting through translated foreign books more often these days. Not that she can help it ― the Korean bestseller stand is dominated by translations of foreign hits like Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and Paulo Coelho’s “Alchemist.”
The publishing industry should be thankful. The translated works may be saving the business from collapsing amid a general decline.
But with foreign books taking up the top seven spots in the bestseller list in November and only one Korean literary work, Kim Hun’s “Song of a Sword,” in the top 20 bestseller fiction list in 2004, local pundits are deploring the state of affairs.
“The rule of supply and demand in the local publishing market has turned hostile toward Korean literary world in recent years,” wrote Pyo Jeong-hun, a literary critic, in the winter issue of the prominent quarterly, “Literature and Society.”
Mr. Pyo said there were 4,800 copyrights for translated books in 1995. But the number jumped to over 10,000 by 2004. The Korean Publishers Association supports Mr. Pyo’s research, saying that translated books now take up nearly 30 percent of the book market, doubling from 15 percent not long ago.
Publishers think it is safer to import books that have already proven themselves in foreign markets rather than spending time and money to search for new Korean authors here, writes Mr. Pyo.
Not only is this “convenient” for publishers, writes Mr. Pyo, but many linguistics majors are drawn to translation by the opportunity to earn high incomes.
This may be good news for readers who want to read high quality translated books, but bad news in terms of developing local literary voices, he said.
The editors of the quarterly literary review said that local publishers and authors should be ashamed that readers are turning away from Korean literature.
Although the Korean poet Ko Eun was rumored to be a favorite for the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature (he didn’t win), the editors called the enthusiastic reaction by the local media “a sad happening,” saying that a single Nobel prize will not suddenly change the status of Korean literature in the world.
“A mere award cannot mark a country’s literary level,” they wrote. “But it was funny ― and definitely not sophisticated ― for people to hope that an award would enhance the publishing environment.”
Park Jin, another literature critic said Korean authors should experiment with more diverse topics and storytelling techniques. He pointed to the recent “faction” trend ― books like “The Da Vinci Code” where fiction is based on historical facts.
Other critics say it is a matter of both quality and quantity that readers are turning away from Korean literature. The number of publishing companies have increased to 22,000 from 13,000 in the past seven years. But the publishing companies that have actually published at least one book were estimated to be at a mere 7.6 percent, or 1,715 companies.
Um Seong-won, an office worker, said he never thought nationalities of authors were important when he read books.
“As long as the contents are good, I don’t see any problem,” he said.

by Lee Min-a
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