The Korea Herald


[Books News] Korean literary gems shine abroad: Translated books from 2023

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Dec. 31, 2023 - 16:01

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Reflecting on the literary landscape of 2023, The Korea Herald explores a selection of translated Korean books that have earned recognition on prestigious lists, or received recommendations from major newspapers.

These works stand as a testament to the diverse voices and compelling stories emerging from the vibrant Korean literary scene.

Chi-Young Kim (left) and Cheon Myeong-kwan (The Booker Prizes) Chi-Young Kim (left) and Cheon Myeong-kwan (The Booker Prizes)
Bora Chung (left) and Anton Hur (The Booker Prizes) Bora Chung (left) and Anton Hur (The Booker Prizes)


Building on the momentum from the previous year, a Korean novel secured its place as a finalist for the 2023 International Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world.

Cheon Myeong-kwan's "Whale" garnered renewed attention here when it was shortlisted for the prize, 19 years after its initial publication in Korea. It was translated by the award-winning Chi-Young Kim.

"Whale" follows Geum-bok, an ambitious woman whose journey takes her from a village girl to a small-town entrepreneur.

Bora Chung’s genre-defying short story collection “Cursed Bunny,” which made it to last year’s International Booker Prize shortlist, was longlisted in the translated literature category for the 2023 National Book Award in the US.

The 10 short stories in “Cursed Bunny” defy thematic or genre classification -- spanning magical realism, horror and science fiction.

Its translator Anton Hur was double-nominated with Park Sang-young’s “Love in the Big City,” which made the Booker longlist.

“Love in the Big City” was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award, in February.

Hur also translated Chung's "Your Utopia," which is slated for release in 2024.

In November, Han Kang made headlines after winning the Prix Medicis for foreign literature in France -- the first time a work by a South Korean author has received the prize -- with her latest book, "I Do Not Bid Farewell."

It was also shortlisted for the Prix Femina for foreign literature this year.

The novel, translated into French by Kyungran Choi and Pierre Bisiou, was released under the title "Impossibles Adieux," meaning "impossible farewells."

The book delves into the tragic events of the Jeju April 3 incident from the perspectives of three women.

South Korean literary giant Hwang Sok-yong’s novel “Mater 2-10,” has earned a spot on NPR’s Books We Love List for 2023. Translated by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae, the epic tale weaves through a century of Korean history.

The English editions of The English editions of "Phantom Pain Wings" (left) and "Indeterminate Inflorescence" (New Directions Publishing, Sublunary Editions)


Poet Kim Hye-soon’s collection, “Phantom Pain Wings,” has been named one of five best poetry of 2023 by The New York Times.

Originally published in 2019, during Kim’s 40th year in the literary scene, the English edition of the book was released in May, translated by poet and translator Don Mee Choi.

The book of 72 poems “depicts the memory or war trauma and the collective grief of parting through what (Kim) calls an ‘I-do-bird-sequence,’ where ‘Bird-human is the ‘I,’” introduced its English publisher.

Kim became the first Asian woman to win Canada’s prestigious International Griffin Poetry Prize in 2019 for her "Autobiography of Death” (2016), also translated by Choi.

Furthermore, three Korean literary works -- "Phantom Pain Wings," Lee Seong-bok’s "Indeterminate Inflorescence” and Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s graphic novel “The Naked Tree” -- have been longlisted for the National Book Critics Circle’s Gregg Barrios Book in Translation Prize, this month.

The prize, now in its second year, “celebrates the artistic merit of literature in translation in any genre and seeks to recognize the valuable work of translators in expanding and enriching American literary culture by bringing world literature to English-language readers.”

“Indeterminate Inflorescence,” translated by Hur, is a collection of aphorisms on poetry writing taken from the creative writing lectures of Lee, one of Korea's most prominent living poets.

The shortlist for the prize will be announced in late January, and the winners, both author and translator, will be revealed in March.

English editions of English editions of "The Naked Tree" (left) and "Moms" (Drawn and Quarterly)

Graphic novels

Also making it to the longlist for the Gregg Barrios Book in Translation Prize is Gendry-Kim’s “The Naked Tree.”

Adapted from Park Wan-suh’s eponymous novel, the book offers a stark portrayal of a nation's fabric gradually unraveling due to political turmoil and armed conflict.

The translation for this work, like Gendry-Kim's previous works "The Waiting" and "Grass," was done by Janet Hong.

Gendry-Kim became the first Korean to win the prestigious Harvey Award in 2020 with "Grass."

Ma Yeong-shin's "Moms" has been nominated as a candidate for the official selection of the 51st Angouleme International Comics Festival, scheduled for January.

The darkly funny book follows three middle-aged women and reexamines romance, lust, and gender norms.

The English edition, which was translated by Hong, earned Ma the Harvey Award in 2021, making him the second Korean recipient of the accolade.

Also on the Comics Festival list is Sophie Darcq, born in Korea and adopted by a French family. She illustrated her autobiographical story recounting her visit to Korea in 2004 to find her birth family in “Hanbok.”

"The Hellbound," the original Korean webtoon from which the popular 2021 Netflix series was adapted, was nominated in the category of Best US Edition of International Material -- Asia for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, in May.

The dark fantasy comic series, written by Yeon Sang-ho, art by Choi Gyu-seok, and translated into English by Danny Lim, is set in the then-future year of 2022, where supernatural beings suddenly appear to condemn people to hell.

Picture book artist Baek Hee-na poses for photos after a press conference held at Seoul Arts Center's Hangaram Art Museum in June. (Seoul Arts Center) Picture book artist Baek Hee-na poses for photos after a press conference held at Seoul Arts Center's Hangaram Art Museum in June. (Seoul Arts Center)

Picture books

Baek Hee-na’s picture book “Magic Candies” achieved the title of Best Picture Book (the Super Premio Andersen) at the 2023 Premio Andersen awards ceremony in Italy, this May.

First published in 2017, “Magic Candies” follows the story of Tong Tong, a young boy who, upon eating magical candies, gains the ability to hear the thoughts of those around him.

The latest accolade adds another award to the internationally acclaimed picture book artist, who is known for “Cloud Bread” (2004), “Bath Fairy” (2012), “Strange Mom” (2016) and her latest work "Yeoni and Willow Bachelor" (2022).

With a background in film animation, Baek employs a distinctive visual style characterized by handmade miniature figurines and environments, expertly lighted and captured through photography.

In 2020, Baek became the first Korean author to win the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world's largest award for children's and young adult literature established by the Swedish government in 2002.

Another recognized picture book author, Suzy Lee, has earned a spot with “The Shade Tree” among the top 10 in the Best Books of 2023: Books for Children by The Wall Street Journal, in December.

The story is a retelling of a Korean folk tale about a young traveler who outwits a rich, selfish man to ensure that villagers will always be able to rest in the shade of a magnificent tree.

Last year, Lee became the first Korean illustrator to receive the Hans Christian Andersen Award, often referred to as the "Little Nobel Prize."