A private language

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A private language


Krys Lee

On a London Book Fair panel last week, I noted that Korean writers are pressured to speak for their country when they are overseas because of the nation’s perception of itself as marginal. In actuality, Korea is one of the world’s 10 biggest book markets, and countries as far-ranging as Singapore, China and Malaysia are benchmarking their book programs on those spearheaded by the well-funded government organization LTI Korea (Literature Translation Institute of Korea). When I was a juror for the Neustadt Prize for international literature held last fall in the United States, I learned that China was modeling its own publishing trade magazine on the LTI Korea quarterly called “list_Books from Korea.” And at a London Book Fair reception, a Singapore Arts Council board member told me that his country, and others, envy the size and influence of Korea’s book market.

The London Book Fair Market Focus on Korea was an important marketing opportunity. By grouping together 10 writers from one country at one of the world’s most central book events, it brings concentrated foreign media attention to these writers’ works. This kind of attention on Korean literature in the foreign press is unprecedented, and was made possible by the efforts of LTI Korea and an enormous amount of government financial support.

Less notice has gone to the literary translators, including people such as Chi-Young Kim, who translated Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom,” and Sora-Russell Kim, who translated Gong Ji-Young’s “Our Happy Time.” Literary translation is an art form, and not a mechanical skill. Translating from Korean to English requires a total reconstruction of the sentence, which includes recreating the rhythm, connotations of the diction, and the voice and tone of the work. Thankfully, as literary translator Brother Anthony of Taize once noted, “It is the golden age for translators in Korea right now,” for LTI Korea and other organizations generously fund the education of translators and grants for translations. As the Dalkey Archive Press editor in chief and founder John O’Brien said, on a panel that I moderated, “I know of no other country right now supporting literature on the same scale as South Korea.”

Yi Mun-yol, Kim Hye-soon, Hwang Sok-yong, Lee Seung-u, Hwang Sun-mi, Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha, Han Kang, Kim In-suk and Yoon Tae-ho. But what do these 10 writers at the London Book Fair actually have in common, outside of nationality? Not much. Artists are a motley group. Put too many together for too long and you may have a few metaphorical bruises.

Marketing and governments like neat categories. The appreciation of unique voices in Korean literature has been usurped for years by the pursuit of such honors as the Nobel Prize in literature, or the desire to “globalize Korean literature,” a phrase heard too many times, to “upgrade” the country’s image abroad. As British literary critic Maya Jaggi noted, “All government cultural organizations, including the British Council, have an agenda.” But literature and its writers are not so docile. Though the 10 writers might make public appearances sponsored by a government eager to “sell” an image of Korean literature, the same government cannot prevent writers such as Kim Young-ha from making the wry, bawdy observation during a Q&A session I moderated that “reading my work in translation feels like caressing a lover with gloves on.”

Regardless, The London Book Fair’s Market Focus on Korea is an official celebration of presence - Korean literature was finally in the spotlight in an English-speaking country. But for me, it is a celebration of 10 distinct voices and point of views, an introduction to a republic of literature made up of diverse backgrounds and influences. Great literature is universal, and the anxiety of some Korean critics and bureaucrats about whether writers such as Pak Wan-suh write material too culturally specific to communicate to a foreign reader is problematic. The great writers, from Leo Tolstoy to Milan Kundera, are specific in their references and their world because the universal exists in the specific. On a panel called “Separations” that I shared with writer Shin Kyung-sook on the last night of the fair, she was asked about the Korean mother in “Please Look After Mom.” There may be some cultural specificity unusual to a British reading public, but as Shin said, “The idea of the mother is universal. As readers read my book, they think about and reconsider their own mothers.” The universal is reached through the tunnel of one writer’s private, idiosyncratic language.

The greatest separation in literature, and in South Korea, is perhaps between this public and private language. In the face of the great tragedy of the Sewol ferry sinking, the government’s carefully worded condolences and empty edicts, as well as the major three television news channels, sound like public relations campaigns. Meanwhile, doubt, rage and rumors flourish online as the nation’s people search and question - rage, which is the secret language of mourning and sadness.

*The author, a Korean-American writer whose novel “Drifting House” won the Story Prize Spotlight award in 2012, teaches creative writing at the Underwood International College at Yonsei University.

By Krys Lee

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