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[Robert J. Fouser] On Korean literature in translation

Recent years have been good to Korean literature in translation. In 2011, Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom” was the first Korean novel that could be described as a “hit.” 

In 2013, Dalkey Archive Press began publishing a series of translations as part of its Library of Korean Literature.

Several translators have recently won or been nominated for prestigious awards. The stream of good news raises some interesting questions: Why now, and what, if anything, can be done to sustain it?

Several trends have come together to create a favorable environment for translation. The first is the changing image of Korea and the reaction to that new image.

From liberation in 1945 until the end of the 20th century, Korea was seen as a land of war and conflict. The economic boom that began in the 1960s gradually weakened this image, but dictatorship, political conflict, and tension with North Korea continued to exert a negative influence.

Korea started the new millennium on a high note. The economy recovered from the economic crisis of 1997, the World Cup attracted good press, and tensions with North Korea lessened. These were the years of “Dynamic Korea.”

More foreigners began coming to Korea to live and work, and more people began learning Korean. Korean language education overseas grew rapidly, too, as a new generation of students discovered Korea as a place of vibrant culture instead of as a source of geopolitical problems. As more Koreans traveled and spent time overseas, interaction increased, which helped to stimulate interest in Korea.

The second trend is government intervention in promoting Korean cultural products to the world. As part of efforts to diversify the economy after the 1997 economic crisis, the government began to promote investment in new fields such as IT and cultural exports. Government support for exporting Korean dramas to Asian countries was critical to getting the Hallyu boom off the ground. Several years later, similar efforts also helped start the K-pop boom overseas.

In the literary field, the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI) was founded in 1996 to promote the translation of Korean literature, but it grew in the 2000s as part of the government’s investment in cultural promotions after the 1997 economic crisis. With more resources at its disposal, the LTI began promoting not just the publication of more translations, but also programs that support the development of future translators. This investment has created a positive cycle of opportunity that has increased the pool of good translators.

The results speak for themselves. According to “Three Percent,” a website on literary translation issues in the Anglophone world, there were four translations from Korean into English in 2008, but 12 in 2014. Out of almost 50 languages, Korean ranked 18th in 2008, but jumped to 12th in 2014.

Taking a broad view, the LTI is one of a number of public and private organizations that support literary translation. Most of the smaller nations in Europe have an organization that supports literary translation, and the Japan Foundation has supported translation since the 1970s.

The spread of neoliberal ideas at the end of the 20th century forced many institutions to look for private donations and to appeal to “the market” as budgets were cut. The LTI has come under pressure, but growing interest in Korean literature has helped protect it.

The problem with market approaches to Korean literature in translation is that the market for literature in translation in the Anglophone world is so small. There really is no market for translations, except for a few stars and Nobel Prize winners. In the end literature in translation is not about markets, but about cultural exchange. Its value is not in appealing to a market, but in existing so that people who could otherwise not read it have a chance of discovering it. In that process of discovery, a Korean writer may win a Nobel Prize and a particular author may become popular, but that, too, is not the point.

With cultural exchange its core, future efforts to promote Korean literature in translation should focus on expanding the range and quality of what is translated. Important works, both modern and traditional, that lack a lucid translation should be translated again. Theater offers a unique window into culture, but very few plays have been translated and performed.

Increasing support for the LTI and other organizations that support Korean literature in translation will help it built on its recent good fortune. Leaving it to the market will not work because the market is too small to support much activity on its own.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Ann Arbor, Michigan. — Ed.
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