Translating Korean Literature: The Reality

A paper given by Brother Anthony (An Sonjae) at The Korean PEN Center's 3rd International Symposium 'Korean Literature Within World Literature' held in Seoul in November 1996.

I do not know if I am really qualified to speak on this topic. I have translated the works of a number of modern Korean writers, but I have not had much time to read what other people have translated. However, I have recently had to read and evaluate quite a large number of translations; this has shown me how hard it is to produce really convincing work. I think that my own experience helps me to understand why that is.

I often hear it said that many of the translations of Korean literature published in the past were no good; still, I believe that we should venerate those who in earlier decades strove to make translations of Korean literature. They were often inspired by an unselfish love of Korea. We owe them respect and gratitude.

In recent years, agencies have been set up offering considerable financial incentives to translators and publishers. Yet money cannot turn poor translators into good ones, or dull works into interesting ones. We all know that as a result of the funding available, translations have been made and published of works that need perhaps not have been translated, and that were sometimes translated by people who were not well qualified to translate them. The world remains by and large unimpressed by what it knows of Korean literature.

The recent announcement by the Ministry of Culture and Sports of an even larger set of grants for translation, accompanied by conditions so totally divorced from reality as to be completely unacceptable, risks giving rise to even more corruption, with poor translations by unqualified individuals being published by unknown presses, and quickly vanishing into oblivion, at the Korean tax-payers' expense.

The main questions needing consideration are: which works should be translated, who should be doing the translation, and who are they being translated for? This last question should come first, for it needs particular thought. I would make a clear distinction between translations made mainly for people interested in Korea and the study of Korean literature, and translations destined for non-specialist readers. The Korean Studies audience is very limited but very important, since these are the people most eager for knowledge of Korean literature. But their needs are not those of an ordinary reader looking for an interesting book to read for pleasure in their leisure hours.

People studying Korean literature in the Asian Studies Departments of universities abroad will be interested in having access to translations of works that enjoy a high reputation within Korea, whether or not those works appeal much to general readers abroad. There is a widespread illusion in Korea that scholars and students involved in Korean Studies do not need translations, that they can easily read the originals. This is not realistic, unless they have spent many more years than I have in Korea or have grown up speaking Korean. While quite a large proportion of the students in Korean Studies programmes in the United States seem to be ethnic Koreans, elsewhere this is not the case.

All the major works of older Korean literature as well as historically significant modern Korean literature need to be available in translation for students and scholars who are not able to read the originals unaided; for example, those in Comparative Literature programs, or those specializing in Chinese or Japanese studies interested in making comparative studies. Such translations should ideally be published together with the originals, and should be made with explanatory notes where needed, so as to serve at the same time as a pedagogical tool, assisting the foreign scholar to deal more confidently with the original. I think in particular of the great works of classical Korean history and literature.

One problem facing the literary translator in deciding which works to translate is the pressure coming from the more official sectors of Korean literary society to give priority to works that were written several decades ago, by the writers, already old or dead, admired by the older generation. In particular, the deep divisions existing within the Korean literary scene sometimes mean that poor translations of approved writers are funded while the translation of writers critical of the government and its supporters are discouraged. The Korean Culture and Arts Foundation refused to support work on Ko Un only a few years ago.

Part of the difficulty facing members of the international academic community interested in having access to translations of Korean literature for research purposes is the lack of any comprehensive bibliography of what has been translated and where it is available. As we all know, a lot of translations have been published in the form of anthologies or in journals such as the Korea Journal. In recent years a number of attempts have been made to compile lists of what has been published in translation, in various languages. Without some kind of comprehensive bibliographical guide, or database, the researchers, would-be translators, and the funding agencies, are unable to know what translations already exist.

In the 1980s one bibliography was compiled but remained unpublished, all that remains is a computer printout. That work would have been most valuable, for it included a listing of the individual poems available in translation. The only recently published bibliography of English translations of Korean literature is that very inaccurately made by Professor Park On-za, published by Hanshin in Seoul. Her list is limited to complete volumes, it does not include works published in periodicals such as Korea Journal. It contains nothing published since 1990 and was compiled only on the basis of books available in major libraries in Seoul, without consultation of the holdings of SOAS in London, or the major American libraries. It is marred by numerous errors.

Her initial research listed 22 mixed anthologies, 81 volumes of poetry, only 4 volumes of drama, 118 volumes of fiction, and 25 volumes of essays, a total of only 250 volumes. She is now including in her listings the collection of some 600 volumes and works of Korean literature in English translation made by Dr Horace Underwood over the last thirty years.

Her work will be superseded by that now being done at Harvard by Frank Hoffman and his colleagues, who are compiling a Korean Studies bibliographical database for publication in CD-Rom format. This database will include as far as possible everything published in all areas of Korean Studies, including translations of literature, in all languages using the Roman alphabet. As of October 1996, it has 100,000 titles. This is very good news for any one needing to do research on Korean Studies materials.

Of course, a lot of works of Korean literature written in past decades are now of purely historical significance; to have a translation of them can be important for specialists, but even a less-than-perfect translation will serve to give an idea of their contents. No one will ever re- translate them or re-publish them, since the potential readership is very limited.

Here we touch on a major difficulty, as we turn to the question of translations for a wider readership. Western readers in general read mainly for pleasure. They have a very wide choice of books available, written in English or translated from all over the world, poetry, fiction, and non- fiction. I am not sure that modern Korean fiction is going to mean very much to many of them. It is often set in or just after the Korean War. Or it evokes the painful events of more recent Korean history, the move to modern city life, for example, or Kwangju. Such works, evoking experiences of suffering, death, and survival, are very highly admired in Korea, for obvious and perfectly valid reasons, and they probably represent the bulk of what has been translated.

However, we must not forget that Korean values and expectations regarding literature, like the Korean experience of history, are different from those of Britain or America. This is what gives Korean literary works their distinctive "Korean" character and it can be part of what makes them interesting; only quite a large number of these works are not very "entertaining" in the western sense. This is not perhaps the kind of fiction that will appeal to general readers in Europe or the States. Plot development is often limited, the psychology stereotyped, and the narrative slow-moving. In addition, the characters' psychology and the local settings would need far more explanation and development than they usually get.

The same holds for poetry. If a lot of contemporary Korean poetry offers little to interest the English or American reader, part of the reason may be that most modern Korean poetry seems to have no relationship with the kind of poetry being written in today's outside world. Korean poets have no access to it, because contemporary poets from abroad are not being invited to Korea and their work is not being translated into Korean. From an outsider's point of view, the poetry at present being written and published in Korea by "recognized poets" and their young imitators mostly seems old-fashioned and conventional, there is almost no wit, no bite, or sparkle, or striking originality.

If more Korean professors in English Departments here would provide Korea's readers and writers with good, creative translations of recent, really contemporary English and American poetry, works published in the last five years, that is, they would deserve our thanks. Then again, if most modern Korean poetry being translated today fails to find any significant number of readers abroad, that is also in part because it is often translated by people who have not read any contemporary English poetry and have no sense of how to write it.

This is related to a grave flaw in Korean academic culture: the systematic undervaluing of translation as a scholarly activity in Korea. We all know that the art of translating western literature is highly esteemed in Japan. One of the major points in the Meiji reforms was to encourage good translations of the great works written in the West and as a result, until today, the work of translating is considered to be a major part of a scholar's professional activity.

In Korea translation has very largely been left to publishers in search of easy money. We all know that they have commonly given the texts of works they want translated to their unemployed friends, as a way of helping them. When academics have been asked to translate, they have farmed the work out by chapters to their students or younger colleagues. Many of the great works of world literature have still to be translated into Korean, while almost no one is interested in contemporary writing, until the writer receives the Nobel Prize, when the translation has to be done in two weeks.

The best way for Korean poetry to become part of world poetry is for Korean poets to read good translations of what other countries' poets are writing, then start travelling, participate in poetry events, meet foreign poets, read to them and hear them read, talk together. Few poets apart from Ko Un are at present doing this. One sign that today's Korean poetry is out of touch with international currents is the almost complete absence of "performance poetry" in Korea; the printed page remains the only medium and if poetry-readings are held at all, they usually involve soulful lamentations or ranting. Quite frankly, there are few other countries where weeping is considered a normal and desirable response to literature.

The most important form of world literature today is fiction, and similar problems appear. This year is the Year of Literature, one hundred Koreans living overseas having some relationship with things literary were invited to Korea for several days; participants in today's Conference have been invited, but otherwise not a single foreign writer has been invited, with the exception of Nobel Prize winners, who are too busy to come. Korean writers need to be given much more exposure to what kinds of fiction are being written across the world today, perhaps not so much in America or Western Europe as in other places with post-colonial legacies similar to Korea's.

The discovery and encouragement of Korean writers that can interest readers in the outside world cannot safely be made by Korean critics applying their Korean criteria of what ought to be admired. This underlies the failure of the funding activities of agencies such as KCAF or Daesan, where the decisions are made by committees composed entirely of senior Korean academics and critics, whose first consideration is the response of Korean readers to the original work.

It is the major international literary publishers who are best equipped to judge if a work is capable of pleasing a large audience in America or Europe; such publishers will never take a title unless they are convinced of its quality, and their decision will not be influenced by the offer of publishing subsidies; they cannot be bought. Once they are committed to a work, they will do all that they can to ensure its commercial and critical success.

When Yi Munyol's "The Poet" was published last year by the Harvill Press, England's most reputed publishers of translated fiction, they freely chose the title after a survey of what Korean works were likely to interest their readers. They were looking for works with literary depth and plot complexity sufficient to transcend purely national dimensions, and able to stand beside the work of the world's great masters. Then they began to search for a translator. They were at no point influenced by offers of support from any foundation, although they realized that there was little likelihood that the book would become a best-seller. They simply felt that their list was incomplete without at least one major Korean author.

Of course, there are examples that go in another direction. Most of my translations have been published by Forest Books, a publisher that can only be called a "small press" although their books are well printed and distributed. They have specialized in publishing translations of poetry and drama that big publishers were not interested in, because of their lack of potential readership. Everyone in Britain now knows the name of Forest Books, because when this year's Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, it was found that they were the only publishers who had thought it worthwhile publishing English translations of the elderly Polish poet in question! They had to print 10,000 copies over the weekend to satisfy impatient readers.

Finally, who should be doing the translation? I want to stress three points: first, as a general rule, the translation of Korean literature should be done by people whose native tongue is the target-language, not Korean. Second, their work should be checked for errors in their understanding of the Korean by a Korean with an excellent command of English, and who admires the work being translated. Third, there are no perfect, definitive translations, translators should be humble about their own work and generous about the work of others.

Translations have to satisfy two radically different conditions. They have to remain faithful to their original, and at the same time they have to be written in a convincing literary style of language. I believe that only a born "native speaker" has access to the variety of alternatives of constructions and vocabulary that allow them to make a natural, fully convincing literary transla- tion. Satisfying translations cannot normally be made by a Korean doing a rough draft, with a native speaker merely brought in to polish and check afterwards. In such cases an initial translation is already formed and the polishing process only takes the translation farther away from the original without adding any quality other than grammatical accuracy.

I am deeply disturbed by translators whose work is published under their name alone, and who in a note express thanks "to the many friends and colleagues" (at times named but often unnamed) who "read my draft versions and offered invaluable comments and help". I consider this to be an irresponsible way of proceeding, because there cannot be a consistent relation between the original and the translation if all kinds of different corrections are accepted.

That there always needs to be a co-translator ought to be obvious, given the great difference between Korean and English and the difficulties that ensue. The names of translator and co-translator should be mentioned together on the title page, as a matter of simple honesty. In particular, it is very galling for a non Korean who has spent many hours trying to make something of a Korean colleague's rough draft to find their name relegated to a casual note of thanks. In this age of huge subsidies and translation prizes, the percentage of the collaboration needs to be be established in exact figures, too. It might be added that unless they are themselves great experts, people setting out to translate works of older Korean literature such as hansi are in particular need of much skilled guidance from specialists.

Today, in various countries we are seeing the emergence of ethnic Korean literature written in English, and of translations made by ethnic Koreans who are native-speakers of English, of writers who seem to them to be worth translating. Their perceptions are those of their own country and culture, not of South or North Korean cultural authorities. The publication of a review like the award-winning first number of Muae last year, or the acclaim given to Lee Chang- rae's "Native Speaker" does more to enhance the world's perception of literature related to Korea than any of our translations.

If a Korean is going to gain a universal reputation and maybe one day win the Nobel Prize, that writer needs to have been recognized, known, and regularly published abroad for twenty years. The writer has to be a good friend and colleague of writers and critics in many countries, at ease in speaking English and perhaps another language; if possible they should have an agent abroad, and a regular publisher. The money now being wasted on translation-pushing would be better spent on giving unconditional travel grants to promising, original young writers. They are the future of Korean literature, at home and abroad.