[Viewpoint]A new page for Korean literature

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[Viewpoint]A new page for Korean literature

I have mixed feelings about French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio winning the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Considering Le Clezio’s literary accomplishments he is worthy of the prize. Moreover, he is an avid supporter of Korean literature. Le Clezio has often expressed a high regard for Korean writers and their works. He attended the Korean-French Writers’ Congress held in Paris in 2006, which was hosted jointly by the Korea Literature Translation Institute and the French Writers’ Association. Along with Korean writers Hwang Suk-young, Yoon Heung-kil, Kim Hoon and Eun Hee-kyung, he joined discussions on the participatory characteristic of Korean literature.

He is well acquainted with Korea and Korean literary circles. Nevertheless, as soon as I heard the news, I could not help but shout out, “A European writer wins the Nobel Prize again? It’s unfair.”

The fact that Nobel Literature Prize winners are mostly from the West is nothing new, but this Europe-oriented trend has become more apparent in the past 10 years or so. Since Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe won the prize in 1994, aside from Chinese-French writer Gao Xingjian and Orhan Pamuk, a writer from Turkey, a country that straddles Europe and Asia, all other winners have been Europeans.

This phenomenon became clear when English writers, who do not write anymore, Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing, won the prize in alternate years.

When asked if Korean writers had a chance of winning the prize before the winner was announced, I said it would not be easy considering that most recent winners have been from Europe, and now after hearing the latest results, I have begun to think that perhaps it is time for Korean people to lower their expectations for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

I want to see the Korean people’s interest in and hopes for a Nobel in literature in a positive light, not just because of my job. Some have a cynical view that our desire for recognition is an aspiration of a developing country, but I am of the opinion that beneath it all, a love for our mother tongue and national pride in our creative accomplishments are in the background of our longing for Korean writers to be acknowledged internationally.

On the day of the announcement this year, Korean poet Ko Un was mentioned by Dagens Nyheter, the largest daily newspaper in Sweden, as a strong candidate, together with Le Clezio, so our hope was not completely unfounded. Yet, with the trend of favoring European writers appearing to be stronger, we need to remain cool-headed and realistic.

So I am now left contemplating the reason why the Nobel Literature Prize committee, which had broadened its range to Central and South America and African writers in the 1970s and 1980s, has turned back its focus on Europe.

The 1990s till today has been a period of strengthening U.S.-led globalization which has left even Europe exposed and threatened by the commercial culture of the United States.

Perhaps the sense of crisis Europeans feel about the cultural hegemony of the Untied States has led them to claim the superiority of European literature once again. I wonder whether protecting the identity of European culture in the face of the rising influence of U.S. popular culture is the reason why Le Clezio was selected over other candidates.

If that is the case, how should we counteract the unfavorable wind we face at this juncture when the world is finally starting to recognize Korean literature? I think there are two ways we can approach this. One is to acknowledge the current trend and strengthen the translation of Korean literature into major world languages. No matter how great a writer may be, if his works are not translated into Western languages, the writer might as well not exist in international literature.

The other option available to us is to change the Western-oriented configuration of international literature. The national literatures of non-European countries in Asia, Africa and Central and South America have produced unique literary works, while confronting and negotiating with Europe. Korean literature, too, should not just keep its eyes on Western Europe, but form solidarity with the literatures of Third World countries, including our neighbors in Asia, and excavate a new way.

My opinion is that no matter which direction we choose to emphasize, we should have the wisdom to pursue both of them simultaneously. The Korea Literature Translation Institute is also moving away from the existing methods of focusing on translating Korean literary works to European languages. It is now expanding literary exchanges with Central and South American countries through translation. An international translators’ congress that was held last week that invited Korean literature translators from pan-Pacific countries was part of this effort.

Amid the high wave of globalization, the Europe-oriented Nobel Prize in Literature is challenged with the need to make a more creative and future-oriented response.

*The writer is the director of the Korea Literature Translation Institute and a professor at Duksung Women’s University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Yoon Ji-kwan
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