After Frankfurt : Globalizing Korean Literature Continues

An Son-jae (Br Anthony)

This essay was published in Korean in the December 2005 issue of 문학사상 (Munhaksasang) pages 299 - 305

    The issue of the American Publishers’ Weekly that appeared as the 2005 Frankfurt Book Fair was closing contained an article that every Korean publisher, journalist, and person involved in funding translations should read. In part it said:

    While the American publishers in Germany last week might not have noticed it, the United States was not the center of attention at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This year, that honor went to Korea, which shelled out an estimated $13 million to conduct symposia, build and staff booths and mount extraordinary exhibitions on Korean literary history in a hall the size of a football field. It's no secret that most large and medium-size American publishers—save for Harcourt and Grove Atlantic, mostly—are not exactly devoted to publishing literature in translation. And it's unclear that a program like this is going to change anyone's publishing program. Of the several editors I asked, none was taking a special look at books by or about Korea and Koreans, and some seemed surprised that I'd even asked. (That a couple of titles by Koreans or Korean-Americans were just bought or are currently on submission was deemed a coincidence.) While open, in theory, to the idea, publishers say, the realities of the marketplace—surprise!—win out. "We have a hard enough time getting our own books to readers," one cynic told me. "Books in translation are a very hard sell."
And while it's true that the average American publisher can probably count on one hand the number of translations that have turned bestseller (Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Hoeg, the recent Carlos Ruiz Zafón), there is a sense, at the fair, that the American failure to embrace non–English-speaking authors is yet another function of our arrogance and xenophobia. After all, the thinking goes, the Spanish, French and particularly the Germans buy our books all the time; it's as if we're expected to return the favor. But publishing, for all its admirable, high-end and altruistic qualities, is not about politically correct favors, it is—or it should be—about publishing books that will sell.

    Since I have so far translated into English and published some 20 volumes of Korean literature, some of which have sold quite well, it is not really surprising that I was one of the many hundreds of people who went from Korea to attend the 2005 Frankfurt Book Fair. Perhaps more surprising was the fact that the organizers saw no reason why the Korean delegation needed to include an English-speaking translator. I was able to go because one of the writers I have translated invited me to go at his own expense. There were a number of signs before I left that the preparations were fraught with difficulties and tensions; I was duly grateful to be going without having to worry too much about them.

I spent most of my time with some of the 40 odd writers who were sent to give readings and participate in panel discussions in and around Frankfurt during the Fair, following in the steps of dozens of others who have been sent to Germany earlier this year. One thing that was striking at the Fair was the constant presence of Korean television and press teams at every Korea-centered event. Obviously they had been sent to keep Korea informed, to show audiences at home heart-warming pictures of Europeans listening with delight to Korean writers or performers. Though sometimes, I must say, most of the people forming the audience seemed to be Korean too. It was equally striking that at many events, that was the only media coverage. Korea as Guest of Honor was hot news in Korea; much less hot news in Europe, let alone North America. The only exception , it seemed, was Ko Un, who was covered widely, invited to important special functions, and given significant individual attention including a front-page poem in the Frankfurter Algemeine and a 3-page article by the United States’ former poet laureate, Robert Hass, in the New York Review of Books.

It would be unkind and unfair to criticize, although some serious questions will need to be answered if really 13 million dollars were spent. Everyone involved in the preparations worked extremely hard, and during the Fair the many volunteers from the Korean community resident in Germany gave most generously of their time and energy. One (to me) obvious problem was that everything in the Guest of Honor Pavilion was in German, although probably most of the book-trade people coming to Frankfurt during the Fair are English-speaking. The literary events too were usually Korean / German. In contrast, there were quite a few Book-Fair-related programs on the German TV and radio each day during the Fair where well-known British, Canadian or American writers were speaking in English without any translation. Perhaps Korea has not understood yet that English is the lingua franca of Europe? As it is of the entire world.

It was in any case rather puzzling to see the immense effort being spent on introducing Korean literature uniquely in German to Germany through the International Book Fair at Frankfurt, when the main thrust should surely have been to introduce it to the whole world in English through the Fair. Nobody seems to have thought of that. More puzzling still was the fact that the stand of the Korea Literature Translation Institute, the Korean government body responsible for funding translations, was unable to provide a simple list of the Korean literary works currently available in German. The reason seems to be that they had prepared a large comprehensive list covering all languages. They were, if anything, overprepared!

Fortunately, in the Guest of Honor Pavilion, there was a long section of racks holding some 1500 volumes of books about Korea translated from Korean into all kinds of languages, arranged according to subject matter. This allowed us to see that literary translation represents only a very small proportion of the total, as is to be expected. But there was no printed list of these books, and in fact the German responsible for it was still adding books as the Fair was going on. This special collection is made each year and is then offered to an institution within the Guest of Honor country. It would be good to know where the Korean collection is to go.

There were really two Korean special exhibitions at Frankfurt, the Guest of Honor Pavilion near the entrance, and the Korean publishers’ display in Hall 6, among the other Asian publishers. For the business side of the Fair, which dominates all but the last 2 days, this second exhibition is the more important, offering world publishers a chance to purchase future translations rights to major Korean titles while presumably the representatives of Korean publishers are scouring the other halls for titles they wish to publish in Korean.

Among the halls, it was Hall 8 that gave most food for thought. Here, on a single floor, were the stands of the publishers from the English-speaking world, the United States, Canada, and Britain, about 12 avenues each 200 yards long lined with publishers’ booths on both sides. What is at once obvious is that ‘literature’ in our sense is of relatively little importance amidst all the books on display. Fiction, where it does strike the eye, is of a spectacularly popular kind, books by world-famous authors selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Poetry was conspicuous by its virtual absence.

Yet Korean works could be found there, if you knew where to look. Ko Un’s Buddhist Novel Hwaom-gyeong was published in English with the title Little Pilgrim during the Fair and was on display in its publisher’s booth in avenue P, as was the volume containing Francisca Cho’s fine translations of Manhae (Han Yong-un)’s complete poems, not far away. In fact, 2005 has been rather an important year for the translation of English translations of Korean literature, with over 20 volumes so far published, compared with only 12 volumes for 2004, and 8 for 2003. I myself have been involved in the translation of at least 5 of this year’s volumes, including a selection of poems from Ko Un’s ‘Maninbo,’ and the novel ‘Little Pilgrim’ that waited over 10 years for a publisher. to appear.

Part of the problem regarding opinions in Korea about translations of Korean literature is that a lot of Koreans assert that “Nothing has been translated” when they have no idea as to what has been translated and published. As mentioned above, not even the 한국문학번역원 (Korea Literature Translation Institute) has complete information available. Perhaps a word needs to be said here about the “100-volume project.” This project was launched by the Korean Publishers’ Association early in 2004, and has been repeated in 2005 under the KLTI. Basically it involves establishing a list of some 100 Korean books, non-fiction for the most part, that are selected for translation into a variety of languages. This project suffers from a restricted time-frame (translations to be completed in less than one year), while there are questions about the quality of would-be translators or of completed translations. It is unsure that there is sufficient awareness that a book written by a Korean for Koreans then translated into a foreign tongue needs to be seriously rewritten to take account of the readers’ lack of historical background, and to have a Bibliography of works on that topic that are published in the target language.

Anyone walking through the Frankfurt Book Fair is made instantly aware that the main consideration in the world of commercial publishing is money, financial profit. Realism tells us that there are very few Korean works of any kind that will make a profit for their publisher if translated into any language. Korean literature in translation joins all world literature in translation here, with the fact that less than 3% (some say less than 1%) of all the books published in English each year are translations from another language. French, German, or Spanish publishers seem more universal with a figure of published translations closer to 15% each year. But that is because they have to publish translations from English!

Korean society is cursed by an attitude that gives value to quantity rather than quality in almost all areas. When it comes to the translation of literature, few seem to realize how hard it is to find a work of modern (or ancient) Korean literature that can have wide appeal and bring real pleasure to general readers worldwide, no matter how well it is translated. Different cultures have different kinds of expectations and requirements. As a result, almost all the translations of Korean literature that are currently being published in English, at least, only appear because of a very high level of funding. When it comes to books published in the United States, they are
almost always produced by small, non-profit publishing companies, are virtually never reviewed, do not get stocked in major bookstores, are not advertised in significant print-media, sell very slowly and are not reprinted once the initial, subsidized print-run is sold out. It is at least sometimes the case that a good number of the copies printed are sold to the author, the translator, and the funding agency for free distribution. So true globalization is still far away. Frankfurt 2005 will not have made much difference, despite $13 million (or perhaps much more) being spent. Where did they go?