Korean literature needs a wave, too

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Korean literature needs a wave, too


I am a writer. Ever since my debut novel, I have written a new book every year and continue to publish various works as well. I wrote my first novel at the age of 11 and have never been lazy in my 40 years of writing. However, I did refrain from writing for some 10 years, when I became frustrated with my meager talent. But even at that time, I was studying and trying to tame my reckless desire and passion. Now, I don’t think of literature as a tool for my accomplishments; I think I can be a tool for literature.

However, writing is not my main job. I don’t think I can make a living by writing novels. The population that uses Korean language is not large enough, and the market for Korean writers is not very big. More than 30 percent of Koreans do not read a single book in a year, and each person spends less than 20,000 won ($18.60) on books. So I wouldn’t dare to try and make a living as a writer. Yet some people hope a Korean Wave in literature, just like K-pop and television dramas, will create more international popularity.

On Monday, the Korean Novelists Association held a new writers’ forum titled “The Globalization of Korean Novels.” The same day, it was reported that poet Ko Un received the Golden Wreath award by Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia. However, the speaker of the forum and Dankook University professor Kwon Young-min concluded that the poet was pessimistic about any Korean Wave in literature.

The biggest obstacle is the absence of translators. While the Literature Translation Institute of Korea translates seven or eight novels a year, that does not mean foreign readers will read them. The name of the translator is a key standard when readers choose a book. “Snow Country” by Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese person to win the Nobel Prize for literature, was accepted by American readers in part because it was translated by the acclaimed translator Edward Seidensticker. A star translator can attract foreign readers. However, there is no acclaimed foreign translator that specializes in Korean literature. Professor Kwon said that more investment needs to be made in training foreign translators rather than providing subsidies for translations. But that cannot happen overnight.

The popularity of K-pop was made possible by the strength of Korea’s fans. A Korean Wave in literature would also require Korean readers’ support and affection. When Koreans appreciate Korean literature, foreign readers will pay attention. It is the age of video, and print is not sensational. However, print is essential for expanding intellect and emotion. When readers pursue the prosperity of mind over sensual satisfaction, literature will blossom again. But for now, encouraging Korean readers to appreciate Korean literature is more challenging than training quality foreign translators.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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