Translating Literature in the 21st Century

A paper presented at the Fall 2007 Conference of the 21st century English Language and Literature Association of Korea
(held in Joseon University, Gwangju, September 15, 2007)

Why do people translate works of literature written in one country’s language into the language of another? In Korea, the first reason that comes to mind is financial; for decades, translating works of foreign literature into Korean has been a form of “arbeit” by which impoverished graduates earned some pocket money. A publishing company commissions the translation of a book that they reckon will sell well, to be completed in minimal time by someone whose ability to do the job rapidly is their main asset, and not their ability to translate well. A recent notorious example was the Korean translation of The Da Vinci Code, translated by someone with a limited knowledge of English and little familiarity with western culture. The first edition was said to have several major errors in every paragraph; it sold like hot cakes but the readers found it hard to understand or enjoy.

It is an undeniable fact that people (like me) who translate Korean literature into foreign languages also have a financial incentive, since Korea offers some of the most generous translation grants in the world. Money, however, cannot be the ultimate answer to the question of why we should translate. The translation of literary works (and other kinds of texts) has always been seen in Europe (and in Meiji Japan, too) as an essential means of enriching a culture, of gaining access to new visions and perspectives, and of challenging or even overthrowing the status quo. Cultural and intellectual renewal, it is usually thought, has to come from the outside. Therefore, translation is traditionally seen as an act by which brave new worlds are discovered, or ancient visions rediscovered, in the case of translated classics. Each act of translation from a foreign language opens a crack in the walls that prevent universal communication. Translation is one solution to the frustrations deriving from Babel, a poor substitute for total, direct, immediate communication.

It is not, of course, the ideal solution. We all know that it is not only poetry that gets lost in translation, but complex contents of many kinds, and also that very often the books which are translated are not the books that we feel should have been translated. We always want to read something else. The far better solution is to learn other languages so as to be able to read the works in the original. That was possible in the days when no one in Korea even thought they might need to know any language other than Classical Chinese, or when educated Europeans automatically studied Latin and some Greek, and thanks to Latin could also read French, Spanish and Italian. John Milton taught himself to read in ten languages; he could write in four of them and it is said that he read every book available in England at the time from every country. He was the last person of whom that was true.

In Europe, problems began to arise in the 18th century when works written in German began to be significant internationally; deeper trouble came during the later 19th century because virtually nobody in Western Europe could read Russian. More recently, Chinese has become a must-learn language, after Japanese, but neither of those is mainly studied to be able to read the literary, religious or philosophical works written in them. The requirements of business are more easily satisfied.

We all know how people’s awareness of the world, and of the world of literature, has changed in recent decades. Until 1960, at least, ordinary British readers would never even have thought of reading translations of novels written in Latin America, Eastern Europe (apart from Russia), or Turkey. They mostly never wondered what was being written in the former colonies of Africa; even Indian writers writing in English were hardly familiar. One exception exists, and for a particular reason: Japanese literature became known in the U.S and Britain in the 1950s. The Chinese – English translator Julia Lovell has written: “The cold war has a lot to do with it. In the 1950s, as part of the broader US project of reinventing Japan as an unthreatening regional ally against communist China, the American publisher Knopf set about marketing a picture of Japan - through carefully selected and translated works of its modern fiction - as a non-bellicose land of exotic aestheticism; the very opposite of Japan's aggressive, jingoistic pre-war image. These were the years in which authors such as Mishima and Kawabata became the representative, languishingly melancholic voices who later slipped comfortably into canon-forming collections in Britain (. . .) Although the themes and styles of those contemporary Japanese novelists now best known in the west - Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto - are a far cry from the taciturn, elusive qualities of Mishima and others, both owe large swathes of their western audiences to the trails blazed by their predecessors” (The Guardian, June 11, 2005*). In contrast, as she says, Chinese writers are still almost completely ignored in the West, to say nothing of Korean, Indonesian or Vietnamese writers, to name but a few.

The question “Why should we translate?” cannot be separated from the more practical question of publishers, “Why should we publish translations?” since a translation only fully exists and finds a sense if it is published. The profit-making function of any business operation explains a lot. A novel set in an unfamiliar country, with unfamiliar situations and responses, written by an unknown writer with an unpronounceable name, is not likely to become a best-seller unless the publishers invest a great deal in promotion. They will only do that if they feel sure that it has qualities that will quickly be recognized. Korean publishers are at present just as unwilling to take such risks as any others; they only want to publish work by “famous writers,” but of course, writers only become famous by being published and read. Unless a successful movie based on a novel is produced, of course.

The translators into English of literary works written in foreign languages are currently the most pitiful of a pitiful breed. Everyone has heard how the English-speaking world’s publishers, flooded with excellent works written world-wide in English, see no need for considering translations, which would cost more since the translator has to be paid. Therefore, less that 3% of the literary works published in the U.S. or the U.K. are translations, it might even be less than 1%. In other western countries, the figure is closer to 15% but that is because they are obliged to publish translations of all the best-selling books written in English! No publishing company can afford today to publish a book that is not at least likely to make a profit; in the U.S. people working for big publishers may lose their jobs if the books they publish only make small profits of less than $5 million!

What, then, should be translated and published? Our response, as literary specialists, may or may not be the same as that of the publishers, of course. Since only a small proportion of works can be translated, we will obviously want to translate the “best” works, irrespective of their commercial prospects. Only there can be a serious disagreement about what defines the quality of a work. The fame / success / popularity of a work / writer in any particular country has no bearing on the fame / success/ popularity that writer can hope to achieve elsewhere in translation. The criteria by which Korean critics define quality in a work are far from those applied in Europe or the U.S. and Korean readers are looking for qualities that may not coincide with those sought elsewhere. In other words, the reputation of a writer or work in a land of origin ought not to be the main reason for selecting it for translation. At least, not if the publication is destined for the general reader.

That is the most important question, really: “Who am I translating for?” Ideally, a translator wants to translate works that will appeal to many readers, novels that will delight a fiction-buying public, poetry that will please poetry-lovers. As already stressed, the works that enjoy popularity in Korea are not automatically going to interest non-Korean readers, and vice versa works that are published in the U.K. or the U.S. will often be too strongly determined by those cultures to be interesting to people of other cultures. Commercial publishers demand an impossibly high level of potential appeal before even considering a translated work; they are a priori biased against works from ‘unfamiliar’ countries. One additional problem is that major publishers in the U.S. and the U.K. only consider works submitted through recognized literary agents. Our hands as mere individual translators are tied. I know of only one case where a British publisher commissioned the translation of a Korean work, and that was a novel already published in French and therefore accessible for evaluation.

Of course, turning to Korean literature, a non-Korean translator has more sense than a Korean of what works will be of interest to general readers in the target language / culture. That is no guarantee of high sales, but it can help avoid disasters. However, when it comes to translating literary works from little-known lands into English, there is always strong pressure to select works that have been recognized and acclaimed in the culture of origin, even if they seem unlikely to attract a wide readership elsewhere. Such translations can usually only be published with subsidies; they provide specialist readers with access to works of historic or comparative interest, at least. Of course, the great classics of every culture ought to be available in translation, even though they may never be very widely read. Contemporary poetry, especially, is a minority interest everywhere, and translated poetry can never be profit-making, I think. Therefore, we turn to small non-profit presses in the U.S. to publish Korean poetry in translation.

One important factor I have not yet mentioned is the use of translations in (mainly) university classes. In Korea, we all know that many students in English Departments simply cannot read the classic works of the British or American cannon in the original, they need to study through translations. Of course, a large number of such translations have already been published because the works are ‘famous’ and as such attractive for publishers. There used to be talk of 38 different versions of The Little Prince. Equally, a lot of Korean literature in translation will only ever be of interest to people more or less obliged to read it in the course of their studies.

However, a special topic that I want to stress in this particular presentation is the importance of translating quickly into Korean the fiction and poetry written across the world in English in recent years, since the start of the 21st century. Very recent literary works are not usually included in university curricula even by the youngest members of faculty, though recent movies are often shown. Translations of the most recent works of world literature are not likely to be produced by Korean publishers, since they are frightened of the financial risk involved in publishing “unknown” writers. Simply keeping up with what new fiction or poetry is being published in the U.K. or the U.S. is difficult when you live in Korea and have no easy access to the latest information. That might be why contemporary movies are far more familiar than printed works. And how many Koreans studying in the U.S. write their doctoral dissertations about young living writers and, if they do, how many then continue to read the writer’s latest work after they return to Korea? Yet what is the point of teaching only dead works by dead writers? British literature, especially, is often thought to end with D. H. Lawrence! I would like our discussion to focus on this question: Which 21st-century English-language writer would you recommend for speedy translation into Korean, and why?

One important alternative to commercial publication is now available to literary translators, and should be mentioned more often. A lot of the most interesting contemporary writers in English do not even try to find a publisher of books; their work goes out on the Internet, on their own home page, in webzines, or in various forms of blogs. This can lead to self-indulgence, but on the whole the Internet is where experimental literature is at, and it is where literary translation in the 21st century is going to happen, given the difficulties I have so far been mentioning. Translations published in well-known webzines are often read by thousands of Internauts, where small literary magazines in print format sell very few copies indeed. Of course, the foundations eager to sponsor the ‘globalization’ of Korean culture (including literature) are inclined to be old-fashioned, obsessed with the publication of translated Korean literature by famous international publishing houses in hardback book form, in order to win a Nobel Prize. That may not be the right perspective at all.

To summarize thus far: literary translation should be done by people who believe intensely in the value of the works they translate, and who want those translations to be available to as many people as possible. We should not be thinking either of financial profits or of professional evaluation criteria when we translate, although the idea that translating is not a significant academic achievement is unacceptable and must be challenged whenever possible. To produce a good translation (one that is both accurate and readable) of one significant work of literature takes more effort and is worth much more than 20 boring academic papers that no one will read or learn anything from. Translation is the essential companion of creative writers, not only if that writer aspires to be read outside a single linguistic region but above all if that writer aspires to write as one member of an international, multi-cultural community of writers. World literature today is the literature currently being written all over the globe, not the millions of old books lined up asleep in libraries.

One factor not yet mentioned belongs to the “Why translate?” question. In Korea, there is a widespread feeling that the translation into other languages of Korean literary works is an important part of the campaign to enhance the status and dignity of Korea in the world. The conviction that the overseas promotion of Korean culture is a major responsibility of the Korean government is related to a feeling that Korea is undeservedly unknown and neglected, and it is part of a much wider nationalistic impulse. This might explain why so many Koreans attempt to translate Korean literature into foreign languages that they have not fully mastered, rather than translating works written in other countries into their native language, which is the standard direction. This sense of patriotic duty is comprehensible, but still I wish that Koreans who can read other languages would devote their efforts to translating those languages’ works into Korean. That would, of course, have to start with curiosity about other countries and their cultures. A lot of very important writing in English, for example, is being done in countries other than the U.S. and the U.K..

Frankly speaking, the number of bad translations of Korean literature produced by native Koreans, including many professors of modern languages, is so large that it has created a widespread conviction in the world at large that Korean literature is unreadable and of not interest. The future hope for the translation of Korean literature lies mainly among the Korean communities overseas, where young people of the second or third generation grow up acquiring some Korean (and an awareness of Korean-ness) while mastering the language of their birth-country as their real first language. Among them, some go on to become creative writers in their country’s language and also gifted translators of their second language, Korean, which they can easily learn more fully during a year’s stay in Korea.

The main topics for our discussion might be: (1) Which works published in the English-speaking world in the 21st century do you think should be selected for translation into Korean? Why? (2) How can those translations be published in Korea? (3) Which young Korean writers do you think would prove most interesting in English translation? (3) What use do you make in your courses of the 21st-century English-language literature being published directly online? What kind of activities would you like to develop in this direction?

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