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(Yonhap Feature) Korean literature explores possibilities in world markets

All News 09:00 May 18, 2016

(Editor's note: This story is the 12th of our feature series on the global boom of Korean pop culture, known as "hallyu" in Korean.)
By Shim Sun-ah

SEOUL, May 18 (Yonhap) -- Over the past several decades, Korean literature was, for the most part, unknown to casual Western readers with many of the translated works available being restricted to the turbulent era surrounding the 1950-53 Korean War and its legacy.

But things have changed in recent years. Korean literature has risen in stature on the global scene with its unique yet universal themes.

"These days, foreign literary agents pore over our PR materials on Korean authors and their books with some asking for information on specific works before we introduce them," Joseph Lee, president of the KL Management, the Korean literary agency behind the overseas buzz caused by Korean writer Han Kang's "Vegetarian," told Yonhap News Agency.

The situation is a stark contrast to just 10 years ago when he had to dial every agent that might be interested in publishing books by Korean writers. To his disappointment, the answer was "No, we're not" in many cases.

On Monday (local time), South Korean fiction writer Han Kang won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her novel "The Vegetarian" in London, becoming the first Korean to win the prestigious international literature award.

Translated by Deborah Smith, the novel depicts a modern-day Korean woman who is determined to become a vegetarian, driven by disturbing and recurring nightmares.

Han's winning of the honor and the rise of Korean literature on the global scene can be attributed to role of good translators.

Judging panel chairman Boyd Tonkin of the Man Booker prize said: "Deborah Smith's perfectly judged translation matches its uncanny blend of beauty and horror at every turn."

The original Korean novel was published in 2007 in South Korea but had remained largely unknown to readers out of its home country before it was translated into English last year by the outstanding British translator.

The translation has been sold in 23 countries, including Britain and the United States while receiving favorable reviews from the New York Times and other overseas media.

"This event let us know the importance of translation," Jeong Gwa-ri, literary critic and Korean literature professor of Seoul's Yonsei University, told Yonhap. "The Korean literature has been consumed inside the country for a long time due to language barriers, but the power of translation provided it with a chance to go abroad."

Natural translation is a major reason cited behind Shin Kyung-sook's international best-selling novel "Please Look After Mom."

Kim Chi-young, the book's translator, is considered one of the best Korean-English translators in and out of the country. The L.A.-based translator is well versed in both languages and cultures.

Korean literature has grown in both quality and quantity since the success of "Please Look After Mom" in the world markets.

Currently, translated Korean literary works are available in 40 different countries around the world thanks to the steady efforts by domestic literary agencies and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, a government-run agency overseeing translation of Korean literary works.

Founded in 2001, the state literary institute has dropped 863 sorts of translated books and operates a translation academy to train professional translators among native speakers.

Some of the books that received world attention were Cheon Myeong-kwan's "Modern Family," Jeong Yu-jeong's "Seven Years of Darkness," Bae Suah's "Nowhere to Be Found," also known as "Cheolsu," Yi Mun-yol's "Our Twisted Hero" and Gu Byeong-mo's "Wizard Bakery."

"Wizard Bakery," in particular, has generated much buzz among young Mexico readers, according to the institute.

The novel was published last December by Nostra Ediciones, a local publisher that specializes in children's books and young adult literature, under the Spanish title "La Panaderia Encantada." All 10,000 copies of the first edition were sold out, an exceptionally high number for any translated foreign book for teens in Mexico, it said.

The book has generated positive online reviews among Mexican teenagers who had previously only known about Korea through K-pop.

"I have never read Korean literature, but this book fascinated me," one of the bloggers said, according to the translation institute. Another teenager wrote, "This experience of reading the first Asian book in my life astonished me."

Jeong's "Seven Years of Darkness," known as "Sieben Jahre Nacht" in German, came in the ninth place of the "top 10 mystery novels for 2015" by the influential German weekly magazine "Die Zeit." Jeong's novel received its second printing early this year after all 4,000 copies of the first print version were sold out last year. The novel is broadening its reach to the French, Chinese, Taiwanese and Thai markets after its Vietnamese translation was well received in the Southeast Asian country.

Experts cite Korean literature's "unique but universal themes" as a reason behind its strength.

"Unlike its Chinese or Japanese counterparts, Korean literature pursues universal themes. I think that's why Korean literature is getting world attention," Jeong Myeong-kyo, a Korean literature professor at Yonsei University, said during the latest Paris Book Fair held in March.

He is one of the 30 Korean writers invited to the book fair where South Korea became the event's guest of honor for the first time as it celebrated the 130th anniversary of diplomatic ties with France this year.

For instance, he explained, works by novelist Lee Seung-u and the children's book writer Kim Jin-gyeong gained popularity in the European market because Lee's works dealt with the relationship between being holy and being worldly, a subject that European authors have explored for a while, and Kim's books feature cats, a popular animal with children around the world.

He said Korean literature encompasses universal, macroscopic and simultaneously socio-political themes while the minimalist craze has swept the world literature since the end of the so-called "era of ideology" in late 20th century.

"I think the Korean literature can lead a way out from the minimalism-dominated world literature."

Still, many authors point out that the Korean literature doesn't have a slot in global literature despite these shiny successes.

"It's like Korean literature has just opened its small, first store in the world literary market," Hwang Sok-yong, one of the contemporary masters of Korean literature, said during the press conference.

He then expressed concerns on claims that South Korea no longer needs to spend taxpayers' money in funding the translation of Korean literary works with the growth of literature's status.

Cultivating quality translators is essential to increase the world's knowledge of Korean literature, he emphasized.

Kwak Hyo-hwan, a managing director of the Daesan Foundation that financed the English-language translation of "The Vegetarian," said the emergence of many native speakers who have fluency in Korean language has brought new wind to Korean literature.

"Ironically, the ultimate goal of our program to fund translation is the disappearance of such a program," he said.


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