Translating and the Translated : Putting Korean Literature on the World Scene


by Brother Anthony 안선재


(Published in Korean translation in the Korean monthly review Literature & Thought 문학사상 2004. 3. pages 154 – 164)


The main concern of this discussion is to examine ways in which Korean literature can become more fully part of the universal literary community through translation. It may be good to begin in the opposite way, with the problems facing the translation of non-Korean literature within Korea. The British Council (영국문화원) is the official organization for cultural exchanges, and from time to time they bring well-known British writers to Korea; but often they have a problem drawing an audience because almost no one here has heard of them. Their works may be very popular and widely-read in Britain, and the English-speaking world, yet none of their work has been translated into Korean. This creates a familiar “Catch 22” situation. Korean publishers are not interested in younger foreign authors’ works because the authors are unfamiliar in Korea and they feel that they will not sell well. But they can only become familiar in Korea and sell well if their works are translated, published, read and enjoyed. This does not only mean that Korean readers in general are deprived of the enjoyment that today’s world fiction offers. Since Korean writers are mostly not able to read works written in English, they need translations in order to gain insight into how the world’s writers are writing fiction or poetry today. If the translation is skillfully done, they may then feel moved to write in similar or related ways. Without good translations, cross-cultural fertilization or stimulation cannot occur.

Of course, if a translation is badly done, and in Korea it seems that many are very bad, the reader may not at all be able to understand what is being said, and will certainly not be moved emotionally, intellectually, or esthetically. Particularly, Korean writers will not be moved to imitate badly translated models. Yet if Korean literature is written entirely in isolation, uniquely for a Korean market, without any relationship with what is being written in other parts of the world, it will tend to be intensely “parochial,” and will not be likely to address themes and issues in ways capable of interesting readers beyond its frontiers. There would then be no point in translating it. The need for writers to develop their art of writing in dialogue with their contemporaries across the globe is an essential pre-condition for a more successful global diffusion and reception of modern Korean writing.

Much of this sheds light on the problems arising in the translation of Korean literature for the outside world, especially into English. For example, because Korea and its literature are unfamiliar, major British or American publishers are unwilling to publish Korean titles, since they rightly fear that they may well not sell. Yet unless it is published and enjoyed, how can Korean literature become familiar and gain a readership? The four main questions are therefore: (1) What works should be translated? (2) Who will translate them? (3) For what readership? (4) How are they to be published?

Put very bluntly, the problem is twofold. First, readers in the English-speaking world at present know nothing of Korea and its literature and feel no great curiosity about them; this is not limited to Korea. The same holds true of Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and in fact even of Italy and France. We might add that among the very few Americans who read poetry, very few read the poetry being written (in English) in Britain, Australia, or Canada. Koreans often feel slighted because they have the impression that works written in China or Japan have obtained a far higher profile in the international scene. This is in fact only marginally true; the total number of Chinese or Japanese works translated and writers known is minimal. But their “image” is certainly stronger.

Second is the undeniable fact that most of the literary works being written and published in any one country and culture will not appeal to people elsewhere, no matter how well they are translated. Most modern British novels could never appeal to Korean readers. They simply were not written with such a wide readership in mind. They will never be translated. So far, most of the Korean works that have been translated have been translated because they and their authors enjoy a high reputation in Korea, although sometimes a translation is done only because a writer has a friend who offers to translate. Yet the reasons why a work is admired in Korea may well not prove valid in other cultures. That is not always clear to the Korean public or even the translators. In particular, a lot of Korean writing evokes nationalistic emotions, related to Korea’s recent history, that only Koreans can feel. Modern Korean literature comprises a series of texts that were written under a variety of particular, conditioning circumstances which strongly influenced and colored all that was produced.

Since Korean readers bring intense emotional associations ready-made to the least mention of the dramas of national history, Korean writers feel no need to explain background or even make very explicit the events they are referring to. Footnotes will never provide enough information to awaken the same feelings in a non-Korean reading a translation. In addition, many short stories and novels make quite harrowing reading. “Why is Korean literature so depressing?” is a frequently asked question. It is hard to give a satisfying answer. Yet Koreans value such works very highly, enjoy reading them, and cannot easily believe that other countries’ readers will not share their admiration, “if the work is properly translated.”

It was only in the later 1980s that Korea’s writers began to explore zones of experience that are more directly familiar to non-Korean readers. As wealth has increased, the Korean urban landscape has begun to look less specifically Korean; high-rise apartment blocks have taken the place of small houses. The solitude of the modern Korean, alienated by the anonymity of life in the “concrete jungle,” is a major focus of contemporary women writers, in particular, and it is surely no coincidence that stories of this kind are both easier to translate and more accessible abroad. The main limitation to such works, one not to be overcome by explanatory annotations, seems to me to be the lack of what might be termed suspense, irony, wit, bite, or sophistication in the construction of plot lines, characterization or psychology, and narrative strategies. Very often, the Korean writer seems content to narrate a familiar slice of daily life, in the course of which the central, stereotyped character experiences painful emotions of alienation. Is such writing really worth reading or translating?

This is a crucial and very delicate question. Who decides which works are “worth translating” and by which criteria? Major publishers usually commission or accept translations of books that they feel convinced they can sell and would be prepared to promote; their primary criterion is commercial viability. The funding agencies here in Korea have sometimes tried to establish lists of “representative classics of Korean literature,” assuming that what is officially admired inside the country is certain to attract similar admiration in other countries once translated. The agencies have soon given up trying to compose these lists, because every critic they have asked has suggested different works, while those few people capable of translating prefer to choose writers and works for reasons of their own. But on the whole, the result is the same. Usually, works by older, well-established Korean writers are chosen for translation. The fundamental idea in most cases, with good will, is “I admire the work of this writer, I find it worth reading, and by translating it I wish to make it available to readers who cannot understand Korean.” This is admirable, but completely uncommercial.

Money does not come to the translator from the sales after publication. If it comes at all, it usually comes from a sponsoring foundation, and represents a much larger sum than any translator would ever receive from a publisher, and is often paid before any contact is made with a potential publisher. Once a contract has been signed, money is paid to the publisher to support part of the costs. The support offered by the KLTI (한국문학번역원) and the Daesan Foundation (대산문화재단) to translators and publishers, designed to promote and encourage the universal knowledge of Korean literature as an act of “cultural diplomacy,” is generous; it is not necessarily beneficial. Their role is promotion and as a result, quantity takes priority over quality, even with serious initial and final screenings, since they need results in the form of lists of projects they have assisted.

The main problem arises once the translation is complete. The translator is responsible for finding a publisher. Since the goal is “global outreach” the translated work should be published outside of Korea. This is the point at which serious problems arise. First of all, no major commercial publisher will consider manuscripts submitted by individuals. All submissions must be made through recognized literary agents. Now, although Koreans do not like to hear this, translated works of Korean literature have no commercial viability. In addition, many translators prefer to translate poetry, especially those working in English. Poetry in translation makes no money anywhere. Failing to find any access to major publishers, the translator turns to smaller, specialized presses or to academic presses with an interest in Asian literature. The foundations offer a certain sum in publishing grants, but not covering the full cost since they insist on believing that Korean literature will sell well and make money for the happy publisher. There are a variety of small publishers, often run by a single enthusiastic individual in their spare time, that have accepted a number of Korean titles before realizing how much money they are losing, and stopping. Therefore both the funding foundations now have a considerable backlog of completed, sponsored translations that have not been published, because the translators have given up hope of finding a publisher after years of effort.

There is little that needs to be said about the translator. The most important fact is that very few people are active. It would be hard to list ten people who have published a significant number of volumes of translations of Korean literature in any language, not just English. Most of those who are translating Korean literature are doing so in whatever spare time they have left after their main occupations. Almost all are academics. The main problem is that in many cases translation is being done by people, Koreans or “native speakers”, whose vocabulary and style in the target language are simply not adequate. It is not easy to transfer into English words written in Korean, given the immense differences between the two language systems and cultures. The differences mean that the translator is bound to operate in a far freer manner than when the languages are very similar. At the same time, there is a need to make the specifics of Korean culture comprehensible. Yet Korean academics and critics discussing translation often insist that translations must be strictly ‘faithful’ to the original and scream in horror at the very free forms of translation that are standard practice worldwide.

Let me present my own activities as a translator briefly. In poetry, I have translated five volumes by Ko Un, four volumes of poems by Ku Sang, two volumes by 광규 Kim Kwang-kyu, one volume by 정주 Sŏ Chŏng-ju, one volume by 상병 Ch’ŏn Sang-pyŏng, one volume by 경림 Shin Kyŏng-nim, one volume containing poems by 수영 Kim Su-yŏng, 경림 Shin Kyŏng-nim and 시영 Lee Si-Yŏng, one volume by 영무 Kim Yŏng-mu. In fiction, I have translated two novellas by 어령 Lee O-yŏng, two novels by 문열 Yi Mun-yŏl, one novel by Ko Ŭn. That is not quite all, but it will do. In every case, I have been motivated by the feeling expressed above: is “I admire the work of this writer, I find it worth reading, and by translating it I wish to make it available to readers who cannot understand Korean.”

Of all this, twelve volumes have been published, eleven of them in the U.S. or the U.K. The nine other volumes have not yet been published; only one, that has been complete for over ten years, has a signed publication contract, two have not yet been offered to any foreign publisher; the rest are at various stages of consideration by publishers. Four of the volumes that have already been published did not receive a translation subsidy; four of the volumes not yet published have not (as yet) been considered for a subsidy. Eight of the volumes published are now out of print, except (in a few cases) for reprints in a bilingual series published inside Korea.

The most important questions, of course, are those of sales and reception: did each book sell well? Generally speaking, the answer is No. One book, published by a small company in the U.S. as part of a new series of Korean literature with support from the KLTI in 2002, has sold less than 50 copies in the 18 months since publication. One reason for such low sales is that the publishers receiving support from KLTI are obliged to send free copies to over 100 libraries and organizations with Korean studies programs. This means that the institutions that would normally be the first to purchase their books do not have to buy them! Another reason may be that no advertisements have been placed in journals or papers with a general readership, because of the cost no doubt. Very limited advertising has appeared in a small number of academic journals, mostly related to Asian topics. In addition, no “review copies” were sent out. This saves money, and ensures that no book reviews appear. It must be confessed that even in cases where a number of review copies have been sent out, no reviews have been published outside of specialized Korean studies journals. It is generally true that “literature in translation” has little chance of being reviewed in major literary journals.

By contrast, a translation of 문열 Yi Mun-yŏl’s 시인 The Poet was published in 1995 by The Harvill Press (London), the most reputed specialized publisher of world literature in Britain. It was reviewed at length in the Times Literary Supplement. This soon sold out in its original hardback and paperback versions, a matter of several thousand volumes, and a popular paperback version was published in 2001 for worldwide distribution, in nearly double the number of copies. This is now unavailable and we must hope for further reprints. Among my publications, this is only beaten by one volume, which is now at the end of the 15th reprint of its second edition, a matter of over 15,000 copies – the bilingual edition of the poems of 상병 Ch’ŏn Sang-pyŏng, published and almost entirely sold inside Korea! A “steady best-seller” indeed!

Usually, with the motivations expressed above, little or no thought is given to the size of the potential readership by the agencies eager for cultural diplomacy or translators wanting to give copies to their friends. We are happy if a handful of foreign readers discover something unique in what we translate. We do not have to bother about sales; but pity the poor publishers! As already mentioned, since it is almost impossible to gain the attention of major commercial publishers, or even of important university presses, most translations of Korean literature have been published by small, underfunded “non-profit” presses. Not to say “vanity presses.” If they are lucky, they are able to get rid of the printed volumes within a few years, especially if the author and translator buy good numbers to distribute to their friends. Once such books are out of print, there can be no question of reprinting since that would only be possible if there were new funding from the foundations, and neither of them have any provision for funding reprinting. Therefore, most translated Korean literature that has managed to get published in the past is out of print and unobtainable after a few years, gone as though it had never existed.

What of our potential real audience? It is hard to define and may not exist at all. A first requirement is some kind of prior interest in Korea. The children or grandchildren of Korean migrants, awakening to an awareness of their ethnic identity but no longer able to read Korean easily if at all, would be an obvious initial category. That is usually the nearest we can come to the “general reader.” Of course individuals of all kinds sometimes discover Korean literature with delight, often by chance or personal encounter. Students of Korean literature in Asian Studies departments are supposed to read Korean-language texts though they may be glad of help. Then scholars of comparative literature sometimes may need translations of works that have been of historical significance in the evolution of Korea’s literary history; scholars of Asian history need to have access to fine translations of the major texts of the Korean past. Neither of the last two groups will be much satisfied with what most of us have chosen to translate.

What conclusions can be drawn? What suggestions made? The most important point to be made is that in the English-speaking world, translations from any language account for a remarkably small percentage of books published, compared with the percentage in other, non-English-speaking lands. This is one reason why it is so difficult to publish our translations in the U.S. or the U.K.. There are simply so many people writing in English that there is no room for and no need for translations. I recently received a letter from Carcanet Press, the main publisher of poetry in Britain, in which they write “Carcanet receives between 250 and 300 submissions and proposals every month.” Of these, these are going to publish a handful, certainly not more than 3 or 4, sometimes none. This is the publishing reality in which we are trying to find a space for our not always very powerful translations of not usually very striking works. Their only specific claim is that they are from Korea.

Translators and funding agencies alike need to recognize that in this situation, no matter how popular in Korea and how well translated, Korean literature has little hope of finding a publisher, and making any impression, especially in the English speaking world. There are two things that can be done. First, we need to turn to the Internet. Internet publishing is now the norm for a variety of works (scientific research papers, for example) that previously went out in print but can no longer afford to do so. An Online Library of Korean Literature in Translation offering free access to a large number of translated texts in many languages needs to be established. In particular, this could make available the large number of published translations that have gone out of print. Scanning such books into PDF format would not be difficult; the entire series of Korean UNESCO’s Korea Journal is now available online, for example. In view of the difficulty we all have finding a publisher, translators should also be given the option of having their funded work published in this format.

If book-format, a physical volume printed, published and hopefully sold outside of Korea, is the preferred format, the only realistic solution will be for the two funding foundations to work together to establish a non-profit publishing center of their own, with none of the financial demands of a “normal” private publisher. This would arrange the printing and reprinting of books, establish arrangements with existing distribution agencies across the world, design and distribute attractive catalogues, send out review copies, and set up stocks of published books for easy delivery at different points across the globe. Of course, efforts would still be made to place translations with regular publishers, but that is always a protracted process with limited chances of success.

The second way in which contemporary Korean writing can be given a worldwide audience is by sending the writers whose work has been published out across the world to read and comment on their work, and to meet in depth with writers and readers of other countries. For that, they should be forced to learn a foreign language! Cultural diplomacy requires that degree of direct contact, and not simply with groups of ethnic Koreans. Many American writers are on the road several months each year, because the only time that people buy their books is at the end of an evening’s reading. Sometimes not even then! It is a very hard struggle, and pouring in money is less important than personal commitment. That requires faith in the whole enterprise For no translator could ever ask for a better encouragement than Allen Ginsberg’s words in his preface to our translation of Ko Un’s Zen poems: “These excellent translations are models useful to inspire American contemplative poets.” This is an important statement, because of the prospect that a Korean poet’s work published in translation could have a creative influence on American poets writing in English: living poetry being read in lively ways by living poets.