A Well-Kept Secret: Korean Literature in Translation

By Brother Anthony (An Sonjae)
Sogang University, Seoul

(Brother Anthony is one of the main translators of Korean literature, especially poetry. He has published 10 volumes, including the novel The Poet by Yi Mun-Yol, and poetry by So Chong-Ju, Ko Un, Ch'on Sang-Pyong, Ku Sang, Shin Kyong-Nim, Kim Kwang-Kyu etc. He is Professor in the English Department of Sogang University, Seoul)

This text was published in Pictorial Korea (Ministry of Culture and Tourism)

I'll go back to heaven again.
Hand in hand with the dew
that melts at a touch of the dawning day,

I'll go back to heaven again.
With the dusk, together, just we two,
at a sign from a cloud after playing on the slopes

I'll go back to heaven again.
At the end of my outing to this beautiful world
I'll go back and say: It was beautiful . . .

Sometimes I show foreign visitors to Korea this translation I have made of a very well-known Korean poem, by Ch'on Sang-Pyong. We are usually sitting in the tiny cafe in Insa-dong run by his widow when I do so. Quite often, they are very much moved by it. Some even shed a tear. At such moments, a translator feels that his work has truly been worthwhile.

We who translate Korean literature are few in number and the rewards are not always so obvious. Most people in the rest of the world are not very aware of Korea, know nothing of its literature, and have never heard the name of even one Korean writer. Very few non-Koreans have read a lot of Korean fiction or poetry unless they are professionally involved with it as scholars and teachers. Major bookstores in London, New York, Paris, Berlin often have no translations of Korean literature in stock at all.

It is really frustrating to try to write a guide to what has been translated, in part because a lot of translations have been published in periodicals to be found only in very specialized libraries. The vast majority of the books that figure on lists of published works prove on enquiry to be out-of-print. It is very hard to convince the world that Korean literature is worth publishing and reading. It is equally hard to lay hands on what has been published.

Yet Seoul has some enormous bookstores that are full of newly published literary works, and of new editions of old favorites. Well-known writers often appear on Korean television and are recognized everywhere they go. Korean school children memorize famous poems, novels are serialized in popular daily newspapers. Korean literature is very much alive and Koreans keep asking why their favorite writer has not received the Nobel Prize. Korean automobiles, computers, electronics dominate the world markets, yet still the big publishers in the United States or in Europe refuse to publish translations of Korean works, afraid that they may not sell!

Of course, Korean literature is not exactly the same as American or European literature. It has its own history and character. Foreign visitors are amazed to see so many newly published poetry books displayed so prominently in Korean bookstores. In today's France or Germany, and in the United States, too, poetry is such a minority interest that most bookstores stock almost none. Whereas Koreans certainly love reading poetry.

Part of the reason for that may be very ancient. The culture of Korea was deeply influenced by China and for centuries the art of poetry-writing, using Chinese characters, was among the accomplishments of every educated gentleman. Traditional Korean poetry frequently evokes nature: the hills, rivers, trees, and clouds among which human life takes place. Sometimes the harmony of nature contrasts with the sorrows life brings, sometimes it offers consolation. Some fine translations of classical Korean poetry exist, including Kim Jong-Gil's Slow Chrysanthemums (Anvil Press, UK) and Sung-Il Lee's The Moonlit Pond (Copper Canyon Press, US). Pine River and Lone Peak edited by Peter H. Lee, and Singing Like a Cricket, Hooting like an Owl: Selected Poems by Yi Kyu-bo translated by Kevin O'Rourke (Daedalus Press, Ireland) will also be rewarding. Peter H. Lee has also published several anthologies of Korean literature in translation.

Japanese literature is far better known in the West than Korean. One reason for this is that translation began far earlier. But more important, modern Korean literature emerged far later because for almost half of the 20th century Korea was ruled by Japan and the use of the Korean language was severely limited, at times forbidden. The history of Korean literature before 1945, when Korea was liberated from Japan, is deeply linked with the Korean resistance to Japanese cultural domination and the struggle for independence. The Buddhist monk Manhae (Han Yong-Un) was a poet and a leader of the 1919 Independence Movement. Many other poets wrote, and died, in this struggle and many volumes have been published with translations of poems by Manhae, Kim Sowol, Yi Yuk-sa, Yun Dong-ju. Koreans read their work with intense patriotic emotion and find it hard to understand that non-Korean readers often do not feel the same.

With Independence from Japan in 1945, Korean literature should have developed with new vigor. Alas, the growing ideological divisions soon culminated in the Korean War (1950-3) which ended in the division between North and South Korea. The traumas of war and division are the main themes of almost all the poetry and fiction written in the 1950s and 60s. Dark years of dictatorship and strict censorship followed, while the South rapidly urbanized and industrialized. The loss of traditional values, the moral and spiritual vacuum of modern life soon became the main theme of most serious writers.

Late in the 1980s a new, freer kind of writing began to appear and at the same time writers of fiction began to move away from the short story that had been the most popular form of fiction. Some novels expanded to fill several volumes, more than fifteen volumes in certain cases. While evocations of life in the past remained popular, more writers began to focus on the ways in which people respond to the pressures and constraints of life in the modern city.

During the 1990s, it became increasingly clear that most of the leading younger writers in Korea were women, with the specific challenges that women face in Korean society their main concern. Influenced by trends in the western novel, the French nouveau roman for example, they turned away from directly social themes to focus on the inner world of their protagonists. The emotional sterility of modern society, and the emptiness of most women's lives were made evident in a large number of works told by first-person narrators who were virtually indistinguishable from the author in some cases.

It is easier to describe Korean literature, and list what has been translated, that it is to offer a guide to what is now available in the world's bookstores. As noted above, most publications do not stay in print for very long. A number of Korean organizations offer financial support for the publication of translations. By far the oldest and most experienced of these is the government's Korean Culture and Arts Foundation (KCAF), which has put online a very substantial list of works of Korean literature translated into English. It contains information on 1847 titles, many of them short stories published in hard-to-find periodicals or in books long out-of-print.

This year the KCAF has also published a 156-page booklet An Introductory Bibliography of Korean Literature, listing the translations it has recently sponsored in various languages. The Daesan Foundation likewise sponsors the translation and publication of Korean literature. A list of works it has sponsored the translation of is available on its home page. As can be seen, relatively few have been published so far. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism also offers funding for translations through its recently established Translation Foundation.

Perhaps more directly interesting for readers eager to sample Korean literature in English translation will be the quarterly Korean Literature Today, edited by Korean P.E.N. and funded by the KCAF. Each issue offers translations of poems, short stories, and segments of a longer novel. The important point here is that not only an index but the full text of all the translations contained in most issues is available online on this home page. A link at the top of that page also gives access to and index and the text of translated works published in Korea Journal (published by Korean UNESCO).

Like most countries, Korea sees the dissemination of its culture as a way of promoting its image. The Nobel Prize for literature is sometimes viewed as being equivalent to an Olympic gold medal. There is a strong feeling that writers who enjoy a high reputation in Korea are only prevented from enjoying an equally high reputation elsewhere by the language barrier. At the same time, the tiny number of people seriously devoted to translating Korean literature have their own reasons for choosing the works they translate. As a result, certain famous writers are well-represented in translation, others not. Some languages offer a greater variety of published works than others, too.

Readers consulting the KCAF Introductory Bibliography may be amazed to see that only 8 "modern novels" have been published in English under their sponsorship, compared to 30 in French. Given the relative size of the French-speaking and English-speaking world, this might seem a pity. In actual fact, several French publishers have begun to produce small pocket-books with less than 100 pages. Each volume contains one short story, not a "novel" at all. The idea is excellent, a return to the "pocket-book" format and ideal for taking on a journey. The publishing house Actes Sud has produced at least 20 such volumes of Korean fiction and the list of authors is a good guide to the names also often found in other languages: Yi Mun-Yol, Yi Chong-Jun, Yi Kyun-Yong, Cho Se-Hui, O Chong-Hui, Kim Song-Ok, Choi In-ho, Pak Wan-So.

English translations of works by many of these writers can be found in Korean Literature Today and some are represented in a number of anthologies of short stories that have recently been published. It is significant that the KCAF lists 14 such anthologies in English, compared to only 8 in French. Major publishers in the United States and Britain have no interest in producing the small pocket-book format popular in France. At the same time, they are not very open to collections of short stories, which they claim do not sell well, unless there is a special topic to give them reader-appeal.

One such popular topic in today's world is "women writers" and two very good collections of stories by Korean women have been published recently in the United States: Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women (stories by Kang Sok-Kyong, Kim Chi-Won and O Chong-Hui) and Wayfarer: New Fiction by Korean Women (stories by 8 younger women writers). The advantage of these collections is that the world their stories evoke, of life in cosmopolitan, modern cities, of loneliness, of boredom and insecurity, is one familiar to readers everywhere.

Ten years ago, in 1992, the University of California Press's "Voices from Asia" series published a translation of a full-length novel, Encounter by the late Moo-sook Hahn. This was perhaps the first full-length Korean novel to be published abroad; it is rather different from the works just mentioned in being a historical novel. It offers a fictionalized account of the experiences of Tasan, a famed high-ranking official and foremost Neo-Confucian scholar at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Because of Tasan's fascination with Western learning, then synonymous with Catholicism, he is exiled to a remote province for 18 years. In banishment he meets people from various social and religious backgrounds. The events of Tasan's life are effectively used to depict the confluence of Buddhist, Neo- Confucian, Taoist, and shamanistic beliefs in traditional Korea. A subplot involves three young sisters, the daughters of a prominent Catholic aristocrat, and affords the reader vivid glimpses into Yi-dynasty women's lives,

One Korean woman writer whose work has recently been translated into several languages is Pak Wan-So. (Naked Tree and My Very Last Possession in English, Das Familienregister in German, Le Piquet de ma Mere in French). She was born in 1931 and belongs to an older generation, deeply marked by the Korean War and its aftermath. She writes painful stories, often set in those years, with incidents and emotions that are instantly familiar to her Korean readers. For non-Koreans unfamiliar with Korean realities, this kind of writing may be less appealing. Likewise, the short 600-page extracts from Pak Kyong-Ri's mammoth 17-volume roman fleuve entitled Toji (Land) published in French and English. Kang Sok-Kyong in English, O Chong-Hui in French and German are other major woman writers with whole books covering their work.

Among male novelists, the name of Yi Mun-Yol figures highest in the list of works published in French, with six works. His novel Shi-in (The Poet) has been published in English, French, Italian, German and Dutch. It would be a very good work for someone wishing to discover Korean fiction for the first time. It tells a true story -- the life of the 19th-century poet known as Kim Sakkat. Born into a high-class family that loses its social status when his grandfather supports a popular uprising , he becomes a wandering poet, living on the edge of society but welcomed and loved by the simple people. Part of the power of this story comes from the way it mirrors the author's own life, but also from the way it ponders on the nature of human identity, and the tension between individuality and social conformity. In English, The Poet was the first Korean novel to be published by a major commercial publisher, The Harvill Press that is now part of Random House. The vast majority of Korean literary works translated into English have been produced by small presses and specialized university presses. Yi Mun-yol's Our Twisted Hero is now also published in a special Asian series by Hyperion. (The last 3 sentences have been changed and added, June 5, 2002)

Other important male fiction-writers whose work is being translated into various languages include Yi Chong-jun, Choi-In-Ho, Hwang Sun-Won, Cho Se-Hui, Kim Sung-Ok, Kim Won-Il, Choi In-Hun.

Poetry has proved very popular among translators and publishers, especially in English where the KCAF has supported the publication of no less than 20 volumes. Fifteen of these are translations of 20th-century poets. In addition, there are several other translations of modern Korean poetry that did not receive their support. This may be partly due to the fact that there are far more small presses specializing in poetry than in fiction. It may also suggest that Korean poetry is more interesting to foreign readers than Korean fiction.

No living Korean poet is as well-known internationally as Ko Un. He is established as an international literary figure. He is also Korea's most prolific and multi-dimensioned writer, producing some 150 volumes of poetry, fiction, essays in 40 years. His poetry is especially varied, ranging from short "Zen poems" and lyrics, through the evocation of all the people who have marked his life in the 15 volumes of Maninbo (Ten-thousand lives) and the great epic Paektu-san in 7 volumes. Selections of his poetry exist in French, German and Spanish. In English, there is a selection of his lyrics The Sound of My Waves and, above all, the 108 Zen poems Beyond Self with a preface written by Allen Ginsberg. This latter is extremely well regarded by major poets in America and Europe.

Another, older poet who enjoys a very high reputation in Korea is So Chong-Ju. Born in 1915, he is regarded as the founding father of modern Korean poetry. His works written in the 1930s and 40s, especially, helped shape the main direction many were to follow. Korea has some 2000 poets, at least, and most have been marked by So's influence. Selections of his work exist in most major languages, and several different translators have published selections in English. He has often been recommended for the Nobel Prize, although the specific qualities of his work are very much linked to the qualities of his Korean, qualities that cannot be translated at all.

Kim Ch'un-Su is a difficult poet, whose uses of imagery challenge the reader even in Korean. It is surprising to see that translations of his poems exist in English, Spanish and German. A very different poet is Shin Kyong-Nim, available in French and English. In his youth he worked in a variety of trades, on building sites and as a merchant, having grown up in a rural farm. His poetry echoes with the voice of the exploited classes as well as the victims of the Korean war, in laments and celebrations. Ch'on Sang-Pyong died in 1993, yet his works are found among the "steady best sellers" in the big Seoul bookstores. His life story and personality appeal immensely to readers who are touched by the childlike simplicity of his work, the element of joy (I'm the happiest man in the world) that survives, despite all that life and society can do.

Some established senior poets have been translated: Cho Byong-Hwa and Oh Sae-Young are the obvious examples, with volumes to themselves in English, at least. Sometimes poets are taken more seriously in Korea after their works have been translated! Ku Sang, a Catholic writer and leading figure in intellectual circles for many years, wrote on a variety of topics, both religious and social for many years but the very simplicity of his poems seemed an obstacle to their being much valued in literary circles, where difficulty was for long a major sign of quality! Kim Kwang-kyu, too, was often overlooked although his sharp comments on social evils, and especially on the compromises that people make in times of dictatorship, were much appreciated in the late 70s and early 80s. The fact that he is translated into English and German has helped make him more visible in Korea too.

Perhaps it will be clear by now that very few women poets have been translated. Kim Nam-Cho is a rare exception. She is already a very senior poet, some of her most noted work was already published in the 1950s. Other, younger, women poets have been included in Korean Literature Today and deserve further exploration; Kim Sung-Hee is by far the most interesting. Her poems read very well in translation, her poetic world is perhaps the nearest we can come to an avant-garde style in Korea. Chon Yang-Hui with her echoes of Buddhism and Taoism, Na Hui-dok with her aphorisms, and several others are fine poets but it still seems true that the future for Korean literature lies with fiction.

There is one major category that has been completely absent so far. Some readers may be wondering why drama has not been mentioned. It is a fact that drama does not enjoy a high reputation in Korean literary circles, for various reasons. Only a small number of plays have been studied by literary critics and scholars, and even fewer have been translated. Attention should therefore be drawn to Oh T'ae-sok, translated in English and other languages.

One last point will have to be an apology. Readers of Korean literature in translation will often be disconcerted to find the name of an author written in a number of different ways. This is due to the existence of a variety of methods of transcription and also to the fact that Koreans are free to transcribe their names as they like, without being bound to follow any method. A new method of romanization recently made official within Korea has had a very mixed reception, both outside and inside the country, and there is no doubt that the transcription of Korean names and words will continue to cause confusion. We can only hope that it does not discourage readers from discovering the pleasures awaiting them under that still unfamiliar rubric in bookstores and libraries: Korean Literature.


The main index to published translations of Korean literature in all languages (nearly 1000 pages):
 Bibliographies of Korean Literature in Foreign Languages. 1999. The Korean Cutural Research Center, Korea Univeristy 5-1 Anam-dong, Songbuk-ku, Seoul 136-701.

The KCAF list can be obtained from the Foundation. It will soon be online:
 An Introductory Bibliography of Korean Literature. 2000. The Korean Culture and Arts Foundation, 1-130 Dongsung-dong, Chongno-ku, Seoul 110-766.

A few recommended English translations (mostly not included in the KCAF list)

 Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers. Translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton.1989. Seattle: Seal Press.

 Land of Exile: Contemporary Korean Fiction. Translated by Marshall R. Pihl & Ju-Chan Fulton. 1993. New York: M.E.Sharpe.

 Wayfarer: New Fiction by Korean Women. Edited and translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. 1997. Seattle: Women in Translation.

 Yi Mun-Yol. The Poet. Translated by Chung Chong-Hwa and Brother Anthony. 1995. London: The Harvill Press.

 Ko Un. The Sound of My Waves. Translated by Brother Anthony and Young-Moo Kim. 1993. Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Series and Seoul: DapGae Publishing.

 Ko Un. Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems. Translated by Brother Anthony and Young-Moo Kim.1997. San Francisco: Parallax Press.

 Ch'on Sang-Pyong. Back to Heaven. Translated by Brother Anthony and Young-Moo Kim.. 1995. Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Series and Seoul: DapGae Publishing.

 Ku Sang. Wasteland Poems. Translated by Brother Anthony. 1999. Seoul: DapGae Publishing.