The Korea Herald


American to publish Korean literature series in U.S.

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 30, 2011 - 19:23

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John O’Brien shares thoughts on marketing foreign literature

It’s been almost a week since John O’Brien, the founder of American publisher Dalkey Archive Press, announced he will publish a series of English-language translations of Korean literary works, the first time such a project is taking place outside Korea.

A joint project with Korea Literature Translation Institute, the series will consist of 25 works by Korean authors and poets. O’Brien, who founded the publisher in Chicago in 1984, is known for his preference for “lesser known” and even “avant-garde” works of literature. The company has since moved to Champaign, Illinois.

And such taste is reflected in the pieces selected for the upcoming K-lit series. The featured authors include: Yi Sang (1910-1937), considered one of the most innovative writers in modern Korean literature, and living author Yi In-seong, known for his explicit depiction of human psychology and experimental use of language.

“We were told that Dalkey Archive particularly wanted Korean literary works that can be considered as ‘avant-garde,’” said Lee Yoonie, the coordinator of KLTI’s International Cooperation Department.

“KLTI usually doesn’t publish books in series, but agreed to the project because Dalkey has three offices around the world: Champaign in the U.S.; London in the U.K.; and Dublin in Ireland. We thought this would have a great ripple effect in promoting the series and Korean literature as a whole.”

Professor Kim Seong-kon of Seoul National University, who participated in the pre-arrangement of the project, last year, said the selection of works for the series reflects the literary taste of American readers in general. Kim said English-language readers are no longer interested in reading about the “ideological account of Korea’s 1980s,” nor do they want to read about personal novels written by many female writers in the 1990s.

“Except for works of author Kim Young-ha and a few others, Korean literature hasn’t changed much in terms of its topic and style since the post-colonial era,” Kim told The Korea Herald. “It’s hard to attract international readers with such themes and topics anymore.”

So what does the founder of Dalkey Archive think?

The Korea Herald asked O’Brien about the upcoming series, and marketing of foreign literature in the U.S.
Dalkey Archive Press founder John O’Brien (left) poses with Korea Literature Translation Institute director Kim Joo-yeon after signing an agreement to jointly publish a new Korean literature series in English, at Dalkey Archive Press at Champaign, Illinois on Nov. 22. (KLTI) Dalkey Archive Press founder John O’Brien (left) poses with Korea Literature Translation Institute director Kim Joo-yeon after signing an agreement to jointly publish a new Korean literature series in English, at Dalkey Archive Press at Champaign, Illinois on Nov. 22. (KLTI)

Q: How did Dalkey Archive Press come up with the idea of publishing a Korean literature series?

A: For a few years, Dalkey Archive has been following the books that KLTI has been translating and we had identified a number of titles that were of particular interest to us. At the same time, we have been developing series with several countries that are an attempt to address the problems of publishing translations in the United States and the United Kingdom. We were put in touch with Professor Kim Seong-kon of Seoul National University last summer through the efforts of Dr. Richard Herman, the former Chancellor at the University of Illinois. Dr. Kim and his staff proved very helpful in formulating this project, working closely with us on both the selections of books and the budget for the project. At present, Dalkey Archive is the leading publisher of literary translations in both the United States and the United Kingdom, but countries in Asia have been under-represented on our list.

Q: The local press in Korea have reported that the international success of author Shin Kyung-sook’s English edition of “Please Look after Mom” was one of the factors that made the agreement possible, as it proved the market potential of Korean literature. Is this true?

A: Strangely, the popularity of “Please Look after Mom” did not have any influence on our decision. There is a long-standing phenomenon in the United States: one or two writers from another country become popular but most other writers are then overlooked. We are trying to find the writers who should be read in the English-speaking world but who most likely won’t be unless a project such as this is begun.

Q: It’s been said that you would use the word “subversive” for a one-word description for the kinds of books Dalkey publishes. What’s the reason behind this and under what criteria did you select your choices for the upcoming series? What would you say to those who think such “unconventional” works’ translations would be harder to market?

A: Years and years ago I was asked in an interview to find one word to describe the books that Dalkey publishes, and the closest I could come to a one-word description was “subversive.” What I intended by “subversive” is that a reader is presented with something unpredictable in terms of character, style, and structure. The books that we publish usually make demands on the reader, but demands that I think good readers want from fiction. But yes, these kinds of books, whether translations or books originally written in English, are indeed harder to market, and this is due to the harsh reality that literature in general is harder to market in the United States, partially as a result of the ever-shrinking book-review space in newspapers and magazines. So, this is a challenge for us, and has always been a challenge. Readers look to Dalkey Archive books in order to find fiction that’s different and satisfies particular aesthetic needs. The books that we selected for this series are ones that we believe at in keeping with the other books on our list, and it is a very impressive list of major authors from this century and the past one.

Q: It is well known that placing a foreign book with a U.S. publisher and editor can be extremely difficult. Why do you think translations are harder to sell in the U.S.?

A: If you go back 50 or more years in the U.S., you will find that almost all serious publishers were publishing literary translations, but they were also publishing poetry and oftentimes drama and literary criticism. But publishing in America began to move towards “best-sellers,” and so literature in general became less important in publishing and the media. In the 1960s, you could expect to see, on the best-seller list, such authors as Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Saul Bellow. It’s hard to imagine that these writers would be on such a list today. I think serious literature is just as important now to many readers as it always was, but it has far less potential for selling well than does more conventional, plot-driven fiction.

The media has responded to this situation by giving far more attention to the books that it believes readers will be interested in, and then bookstores make the same assumptions. The result is that serious literature sells less well, and commercial publishers do not feel any cultural duty to publish it.

Q: This is the first time for an English-language K-lit series to be published in the U.S. What kind of response do you expect from your local readers?

A: We are doing something very unusual with these books: releasing them on the same day, all 25 books at once. Our expectation is that, with proper marketing, this fact alone will bring attention to the books as a group but also allow critics to focus on individual titles. This is the first time in American and British publishing that so many titles from a particular country have been published at once. Marketing will begin immediately, even though the books themselves will not be published for three years. I think that the books will gain significant attention and will be widely placed in stores. Authors will tour the United States, England and Ireland over several months, and we expect to gain a great deal of publicity in these countries.

By Claire Lee