Translated books earning interest overseas, but Korean works are playing catch up
The past few years have seen translated books starting to receive long-overdue attention in North America and Britain.
Despite the evolving readership and the fact that two translated Korean fiction were listed on this year's International Booker Prize, progress to get Korean books recognized in English-speaking countries is still relatively stunted, ultimately, because of the language barrier and the dearth of books that are translated and published.
Of some 500 translated books that enter the American book market every year, only about 15 are by Korean authors, according to Publishers Weekly's Translation database. The most translated languages are French, Japanese and Polish. Swedish and Norwegian books translated to English have also become popular over the past several years.
Representatives from three independent publishing houses in North America and Britain — Drawn & Quarterly, New Directions Press and Tilted Axis Press — visited Seoul International Book Fair in southern Seoul, on Wednesday and spoke about translated Korean literature in their respective countries' markets.
“Until recently, translated books have not been very popular or particularly profitable, but we have been noticing a change in the United States — an interest in translated literature,” said Brittany Dennison, a publicist at American publishing house New Directions Press.
But in terms of Korean literature as a whole, she was unable to pinpoint the characteristics that make it a genre of its own, citing that only about one work of translated Korean poetry gets published each year.
New Directions published the poetry collection “Autobiography of Death” by Kim Hyesoon and translated by Don Mee Choi in 2018. It consists of 49 poems about the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014. It won the Griffin Poetry Award, one of the highest awards for poetry, in 2019.
Rather than a collective characteristic of Korean literature, Dennison said the appeal of Kim’s work was just how well-written it was.
“New Directions has been in business for over 85 years and our goal has always been to publish good books. We want books that people will read in another 85 years. I think if we pick specific qualities that we are looking for in a book, they will die out quickly. It might be big for a year but then you would have to throw away all the unread copies in the warehouse.”
And while independent publishing houses have more freedom to publish books based on factors others than profitability, senior director of Canada’s Drawn & Quarterly Tracy Hurren, did say that she thinks books that deal with Korean history have a higher tendency to do well in the market.
“Especially for a new author or a cartoonist who is unfamiliar to the audience, books that tell a history often sell very well as libraries automatically carry these books and they get incorporated into school curriculum.”
Drawn & Quarterly publishes graphic novels by Korean author Keum Suk Gendry-Kim and translated by Janet Hong. The first book that it published was the English translation of “Grass” (2019) which revolves around the life story of Lee Ok-seon, a true figure who was forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese colonization of Korea during World War II.
The book has appeared on the best of the year lists of The New York Times and The Guardian and won the Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Comic of the Year.
Dennison said that a factor behind the success of New Direction’s “Autobiography of Death” could have been tied to the fact that Kim was a female poet.
“It is hard to be a female and a poet. I think that people are now interested in Kim Hyesoon because they want to expand their knowledge of contemporary female poets all over the world.”
She also noted that Kim is a mid-career, established poet. Often new, young poets receive attention and become a global phenomenon but she said that with Kim’s popularity, the reading audience in America may be maturing.
“They are interested in learning about poets who are different than what we expect to be the next big thing.”
Tilted Axis Press’ publishing director Kristen Alfaro emphasized the role of translators in the process of getting Korean literature out to the world.
“People love Korean literature not just because it is Korean but also because of the work of the translator — how they are able to render the voice and the spirit of the original author.”
Tilted Axis Press was founded in 2015 by Deborah Smith, who translated Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” (2015). In 2016, it became the first Korean novel to win the International Booker Prize. Recently, it published “Love in the Big City” (2021) by Sang Young Park and translated by Anton Hur, which made the long list for the 2022 International Booker Prize.
Noting the difficulties to find translators and get diverse books rendered to English and published, Alfaro said, “One of the reasons we have been able to publish such great translations is because of the network of translator that our founder has."
Dennison added, “Also who has the money to be a translator is important. Translation does not pay very well [...] We have a very small pool of translators to pick from. We need structural changes to widen this pool and encourage native, non-white speakers to find opportunities for them to pursue this occupation.”
Seoul International Book Fair began its five-day run on Wednesday. It is the largest local book fair held annually.
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]