In college I was able to study Chinese and Japanese literature, without mastery of those languages, through translations in English. Purists may scoff, but the time-transcending wisdom of Tang Dynasty poets Li Po and Tu Fu could be appreciated in English because excellent translations were available. Edward Seidensticker’s finely nuanced translation of Yasunari Kawabata’s “Snow Country” was an elegant introduction to the Japanese sensibilities. In fact, Seidensticker’s translations are credited with Kawabata winning the Nobel literature prize in 1968.
Later on, I discovered the worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and then Orhan Pamuk, in English. In reading these writers’ translated works, there was never a feeling of being short-changed because I was not reading them in the original languages. Marquez, who wrote in Spanish, was so pleased with the translation of his works by Gregory Rabassa, he declared that the translation was superior to his original. It is said that Marquez waited three years until Rabassa was available to translate “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Marquez received the 1982 Nobel Prize in literature. Such is the importance of translators and translations.
Hence, it is of grave concern that the Ministry of Strategy and Finance is considering the merger of the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea as part of its effort to promote efficiency in government-funded organizations. It appears several other culture-related organizations face similar fates.
As a taxpayer, I appreciate the government’s attempt to reduce wasteful spending. However, what constitutes “wasteful spending” is debatable when it comes to cultural endeavors as results are not always immediate and not always tangible.
Established in 2001 as an independent entity, LTI Korea has been responsible for translating and publishing 738 volumes in Korean literature, humanities and social sciences, as well as classics in 29 languages. Many Korean authors who have achieved critical and commercial acclaim abroad ― including Shin Kyung-sook, whose “Please Look After Mom” won her the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 ― owe their success to the groundwork laid by LTI Korea, which provided a synopsis and sample translation to the literary agency.
A writer who enjoys a popular following abroad despite being relatively unknown in Korea said she was very grateful for an institution like the LTI Korea. “My works would never have been translated if not for the Literature Translation Institute,” she said. She likened the LTI Korea to a literary agency working free of charge on behalf of lesser known, less popular writers. “Local publishers are not interested in promoting Korean literature in translation,” she said. The very few agencies that do handle Korean authors focus on best-selling authors, limiting the range of Korean literary works available in translation.
Training professional translators is another key function of LTI Korea. The institute’s Translation Academy is the boot camp for foreigners learning to translate Korean literature into their respective languages. Currently there are fewer than 20 professional translators working from Korean to their native languages. Even in English, there are less than a handful of professional translators. The situation is vastly different in Japan, where best-selling author Haruki Murakami, for example, has a team of three to four dedicated translators.
Translators are not created overnight. They normally devote a year or two to practicing their craft and it is only after three years or so that they are considered to have acquired the necessary skills and can debut as a translator. LTI Korea has sown the seeds with its Translation Academy, but needs to continue to nurture the translators by providing them with work since there is yet little commercial demand for Korean literature in translation. A long-time translator of Korean poems warned that without the institute, the number of translated Korean literature works published globally would drop to almost zero.
Literature has a far deeper and lasting impact than K-pop, as the noted scholar and translator pointed out. Indeed, Korea has a lot more to offer than catchy tunes and dance, and Korean literature provides a window through which Korea can be understood. Both the universal values espoused by Koreans and unique aspects of Korean culture can be appreciated through Korea’s literary offerings.
Each year, as the Nobel season rolls around, Koreans lament the fact that the country has yet to produce a Nobel literature prize winner. Year after year, the lack of Korean literature in translation is pointed out as a reason for the failure. Nobel Prize or not, the shortsightedness of the government in applying the market principle to cultural endeavors certainly will not aid in the effort to win recognition for Korean literature.
By Kim hoo-ran
The writer is an editorial writer for The Korea Herald. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ― Ed.