‘Waiting for K-lit to Take Flight
Korean literature has yet to make a name for itself this side of the Pacific. Is something getting lost in translation?
by CHELSEA HAWKINS
This story originally published in KoreAm Journal July 2013.
South Korean pop stars and actors are still riding the Hallyu wave, feeding international audiences on Billboard chart-toppers, addictive dramas and horse-riding dances. But despite the seeming enthusiasm around all things Korean, the nation’s beloved literature has remained niched, out of the limelight and still struggling to find its place in the American market.
Translated literature, in general, only makes up 3 percent of the American literary market to begin with, and literary fiction and poetry comprises about 0.7 percent of that. Nonetheless, as editor and professor Charles Montgomery points out, people can still rattle off the titles of numerous foreign writers from other countries.
“If I were outside of Korea, in L.A. for instance, and went to a cocktail party, everybody would have a Japanese author and everybody would have a Russian author,” said the Seoul-based Montgomery, who runs the blog, ktlit.com, which discusses Korean literature in translation, and publishes reviews and author interviews. “If you asked that question about Korean literature, nobody has an author.”
Korean literature faces a number of problems when making its way across the Pacific, with one of the largest being accessibility. Many translations of Korean literature are dry and incredibly high-brow.
“There are two ways to go about translating fiction: one is the academic, literal approach, and the other is literary, where you look at and you create something that is, of itself, a work of art,” said lecturer and translator Kevin O’Rourke. “The academic, literal translation approach is endemic in Korean culture, primarily because so many of our translators are translating into their second language. “The whole translation thing is a business. Somewhere in the middle of that, the idea of literature gets lost.”
O’Rourke immigrated to South Korea as a priest from Ireland in the 1960s, but remained in the country and became the first foreigner to receive a Ph.D. in Korean literature from a Korean institution. The impact of O’Rourke on the world of translation is immense; he is most famous for his work on Silla and Goryeo era couplets, as well as for translating the text of classical, ethereal writers like 12th-century poet Yi Kyo-bo.
Having been involved in the book industry for nearly 50 years, O’Rourke has seen the ways in which the literary world has changed. When predicting success of a given title, the business of marketing books is oftentimes just as important as the quality of the work itself.
“Most of the successful stuff has been done by big publishing houses like Knopf, who orchestrate the whole thing and bypass the normal translator lines. It’s all done with agents and their own editorial people, who are immensely competent,” O’Rourke explains, noting it’s a system much different than in years past. “The publishing of [Korean] literature is happening in either small houses, who appreciate the cash flow, or in university presses who don’t do an awful lot in marketing them.
“We don’t do anything over here to promote our translations,” he said. “We’re content to produce the book and leave it there.”
Montgomery thinks that another challenge facing Korean literature is thematic; that translators and publishers may not necessarily be picking the best works to appeal to American tastes.
“Some things will never translate. I don’t think Korean romantic fiction will ever translate, because to be honest, there’s not enough sex in it—people want that bodice-ripping stuff,” Montgomery said. “But other things will translate well. They should be doing more spy stories; spy stories are epically big in the real world. You’ve got North Korea and South Korea—you’ve got possibly the best example of spy-versus-spy in the real world.”
He believes genre fiction is a necessary first step toward generating interest in Korean literary fiction. The professor and blogger conducted a personal study and tracked the popularity of translated Korean literature on Amazon.com. When books like Shin Kyung-sook’s nostalgic family saga, Please Look After Mom, garnered attention and raked in positive comments, Montgomery saw a small but noticeable spike in popularity overall.
“The numbers are quite clear: when there is a success [with a book], it leads to a temporary 15 to 20 percent leap in the popularity of Korean literature as a whole,” he said.
“Korea punches way above its weight in almost anything you can think about,” Montgomery added. “Koreans, when they put their minds to things, can go crazy in the most wonderful way imaginable. The problem is, in those other fields, if you do work hard you will do better, but literature is not like that. You can’t just produce more translations and think it’s going to work. One of the real problems Korea has had in the past is they don’t understand the market they’re trying to sell to.”
He pointed out that internationally recognized contemporary Korean authors, like Shin and Young Ha Kim, sought out American agents, who knew the ins and outs of the industry within the States.
Certainly, there have been groups like the Seoul-based Literature Translation Institute of Korea, commonly referred to as KLTI, that have made moves to advance national literature, but it is unclear if they are making a great deal of traction quite yet in America.
“We send a lot of poets and writers to visit their friends [in the U.S.], go to a restaurant, do a reading or two and then come home—but how much does that do?” O’Rourke said. “The thing that they need to do is organize the Korean community in the States to start promoting our literature.”
Although there is far from an organized movement on the Korean literary front, Jenny Wang Medina, a Korean American translator, said she has noticed that training opportunities and financial support for translators and publishers interested in Korean literature has increased dramatically in the past decade. She thinks that the coming of age of the second-generation Korean American community has helped spark some interest in such literature. This generation, she believes, is “interested in knowing more about Korea directly from ‘the source.’
“At the same time, they have imparted a greater awareness of Korean culture on Asian American and American culture,” she added. “I think this lends itself to a general interest in Korean culture just because it is somewhat familiar.”
When Medina was a college student, studying English literature and French sociolinguistics, she had a difficult time finding translated works by Korean authors. Once she was able to find some, she was instantly hooked, enamored by the works of Oh Jung-hee (whose novella, The Bird, she would later translate), Ch’oe Yun and Park Wan-so. Now, Medina, along with two other Korean American translators, runs the blog, subjectobjectverb.com, hoping to share the richness they found in Korean literature in translation with others.
“Pop music, television and film provide a limited view of any culture,” said Medina, noting the success of Hallyu in spreading some aspects of Korean culture. “Literature encourages a deeper immersion in the fictional community or experience it tries to represent.”