The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] The world needs translators and humanities

By 김케빈도현

Published : May 24, 2016 - 17:48

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The news that Han Kang and Debora Smith won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize stirred the whole nation. Hearing the news, Koreans were elated. After all, this was the first time a Korean writer was honored with such an internationally acclaimed literary award. 

Thanks to Han Kang’s prize-winning novel “The Vegetarian,” Korean literature is finally in the limelight, receiving its fair share of praise from the international community at last. How eagerly have the Korean people waited for their literature to be recognized by the world and how many times have they been disappointed in the past?

Advertisements for Virginia Slims, a brand of cigarette marketed to women, featured pictures of women smoking along with an impressive tag line: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Perhaps we can say the same thing for Korean literature.

It is undeniable that Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” is an outstanding piece of literary work. Her prose is poetic and full of heightened sensitivity, while her narrative technique is breathtaking and mesmerizing. It is not a thriller, and yet it is a page-turner. Once you pick up the book and open the first page, you cannot put it down until you reach the last page. At times, the novel is saturated with an atmosphere of sensual desire. Other times, it depicts graphic violence in the bleak landscape of modern society. It is no wonder the judges of the prize chose “The Vegetarian” as the winner.

At the same time, we appreciate Deborah Smith’s efforts in winning the prize. Her excellent translation vividly captures the author’s artistic description of a grim environment in which the vegetarian protagonist is thrown among carnivorous predators. Smith’s superb translation also beautifully renders Han’s charming prose into impeccable English. Han is lucky to have Smith as her translator. Thanks to Smith, a consensus has developed in Korea that we need to foster talented translators, both Korean and foreign.

In the past, people generally regarded translation as something inferior to the original work. That is why they said, “Translators are traitors.” Today, however, people value translation and translators as much as the original work and its author.

Translation is by no means an easy task. It is a painstaking job that requires dedication, writing skills and verbal dexterity. Besides, without translation, a writer could not be known outside his or her country. Italo Calvino once wrote, “Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.” If so, we should say, “Translators are trans-nationalists” because they play a key role in bridging two or more nations. In order to raise the profile of Korean literature overseas, therefore, we need more well-qualified translators like Deborah Smith.

Since Han Kang is also the name of the river that flows through Seoul, our newspapers have recently coined humorous headlines such as “The world plunges into Han Kang,” “Wind blows at Han Kang,” or “World literature is soaked in Han Kang.”

The Literature Translation Institute of Korea, too, has coined some humorous catchphrases such as “We will build the second and then the third Han Kang bridge.” It has a dual meaning. One meaning is that LTI Korea will continuously strive to find or foster talented translators like Smith. The other meaning is that LIT Korea will use wider channels to send other promising Korean writers to the international market by assuming the role of a bridge between Korea and other countries.

Recently, our universities and colleges are drastically reducing or even discontinuing their humanities streams while expanding engineering departments in order to receive more funds from the government.

We are confused because this trend directly conflicts with the official government policy of “Cultural prosperity” and “Promotion of the humanities minds.” Besides, how can we promote the spirit of Seonbi or virtuous scholars to the international community when our society sorely lacks it? How can Seonbi become cultural icons while we treat them as if they are despicable, useless relics from the past? 

In the college of humanities, students learn foreign languages and cultures to understand others who are different from us. Some students learn to communicate with foreigners and others learn to translate foreign literature into Korean and vice versa. The college of humanities trains them to become decent, cultured men and women. Without the humanities, our society will turn into a violent, carnivorous society where there is no place for vegetarians and translators.       

I have just returned from my trip to London where I met Smith and others aspiring translators of Korean literature. Just like James Bond who returned “From Russia with Love” triumphantly, I returned “from U.K. with great news.” I was not triumphant, though. I just hoped that Han and Smith’s victory would ignite a roaring boom of literary translation and humanities in Korea. A world without translation and the humanities will be grim.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. -- Ed.