Translating Korean literature

by An Sonjae
(A short text for the Changbi Weekly Commentary, a blog run by the Korean publishing company / review. Available online in Korean translation

Koreans often claim that Korean literature is almost unknown outside of Korea because so little of it has been translated and published. That is not really true, since more than 70 volumes of Korean literature in English translation have been published since 2001, and probably more than that in translation into other languages. Another frequently heard claim is that Korean literature is badly translated and therefore cannot receive a Nobel Prize in Literature. The first answer to that is that in recent years, certain Nobel-winners have had almost none of their works translated prior to receiving the award. Translation and successful marketing are not prior conditions to winning a Nobel Prize. The second answer is that most of the translations of Korean literature published in the last 10 years that I have seen are of a quite acceptable quality, in that they represent accurately enough the qualities of the original. The third is that the members of the Swedish Academy, responsible for giving the Nobel Prize in Literature, are (in many people’s opinion, including my own) clearly not qualified to make judgments on the relative qualities of works of literature from across the globe, with the result that most of their recent decisions have been deeply flawed.

However, there are certainly problems facing the translation and promotion of Korean literature. First, the choice of works to be translated is problematic. Usually, the Korean cultural or government authorities want to promote the translation of widely-admired, established, “famous” Korean writers, as part of the general campaign designed to raise worldwide awareness of Korea by image-enhancing. Academic specialists of Korean literary history often suggest that the translation of works they judge significant in the historical development of modern Korean literature must be encouraged. Meanwhile, commercial publishers in the outside world today have only one concern: they want to publish works that will sell sufficiently well to make a significant financial profit and ensure a high profile for themselves. There is a direct conflict between the “documentary information” project of the Korean side and the “success / profit” requirement of the foreign publishers, made worse by the general lack of awareness within Korea of what kind of literary works are currently selling well in London, Paris, or New Delhi.

Nothing is more frustrating for those involved in literary translation than to be told that Korea expects the whole world to admire the work of Korean writers, because their work is admired by Koreans. Recently, I was encouraged to hear that a well-known Korean writer had criticized the way in which so many younger authors use first-person narrators and write in a “realistic’ style without any use of the literary imagination. By implication (I have not seen the full text of his comments) I think he was also criticizing the lack of narratorial complexity in much Korean fiction. So many works of Korean fiction that I have seen start at the beginning, relate events in a chronological order with occasional flashbacks, and slide to an awkward end on the last pages. This is not how successful fiction is being written in the world at large.

Therefore, the most important single task facing Korea in its wish to “globalize” Korean literature is to educate Korean writers and readers about what the world’s best young writers are producing today. The most important task of translation and publication at the present time is not from Korean but into Korean. The reported current success of fiction written in Japan is a confirmation of this. The declining sales within Korea of works by many established Korean writers must not be too quickly attributed to the modern fixation on audio-visual gadgets. It is also a sign that Korean readers want something better, something really new, entertaining and (at least sometimes) thought-provoking. By refusing to commission good translations of contemporary world fiction, Korean publishers are harming the development of Korean literature.

Everyone knows that in today’s world, poetry mostly sells very poorly, and it is fiction that usually wins the prizes, makes the critical headlines, earns the profits, and gets turned into movies. Why, then, has so much more Korean poetry been published in English than Korean fiction, in the last 20 years? I myself have published only 3 volumes of fiction, compared to almost 20 volumes of poetry. One answer that I would give is that Korean poetry is often far more interesting and lively than fiction in translation. Many Korean poets write about specifically Korean life experiences in ways that can be represented in translation; their poems remain alive and convincing, and uniquely human. Others, of course, especially those who depend mainly on qualities of the Korean language for their poetic effect, can hardly be adequately represented in translation.

For overseas readers of poetry, the impact of certain Korean poems is intense and unforgettable; I know, because they have told me. By contrast, the customary response to Korean fiction is a single question: “Why is it so depressing?” Poetry allows the reader to hear a human voice expressing complex, personal responses to often painful situations, briefly, intensely. Of course, the novel is often considered to be a form of poetry, but Korean novelists fail to see this. Elegant style, varying narrative rhythms, ambiguities of interpretation, plural narratorial voices, complexity in strategy are all fundamental aspects of the novel-as-poem that are too often lacking in works written by Korean authors.

In part, of course, they are not helped by living in a culture that has not developed an effective dialogue between the writer and the literary critic. Literary criticism expressed in the form of (sometimes ferocious) book reviews is an essential part of international literary discourse. The greatest danger facing any writer is self-indulgence; without thoughtful, challenging reviews, what writer can hope to improve her skills, correct weaknesses, develop a mature art? In a culture like Korea’s, where “face” and “fame” are dominant considerations, the need for honest criticism is often denied; that is terrible. The still powerful vertical structures by which “senior” writers exercise patronage and evaluation over those younger need to be abolished, new doors must open, new liberties must be taken, if there is to be a rebirth of Korean literature in creative contact with what is being written in other countries (not first of all or necessarily those of North America or Europe). That new Korean literature will be far more likely to be acclaimed when it is translated; only then will Korean literature have become an integral part of world literature.