Korean Literature Needs More Skilled Translators

In News by Dennis Abrams

The lack of skilled translators who can “properly translate Korean literary works into English” as the “biggest handicap in the globalization of Korean literature.”

By Dennis Abrams

South KoreaWriting for The Korea Herald, Kim Hoo-ran, while noting the strides that Korean literature has made on the world scene over the last few years (noting the success of Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom and Hwang Sun-mi’s children’s book The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly as examples), noted the complex issue of translations and genre in reaching an even wider audience.

Kim wrote, “…the importance of translators is not lost on writers and critics. Many of the Korean authors who participated in the London Book Fair in April pointed out the need for good translations. Speaking at a meeting with the Korean press in London, author Hwang Sok-yong was quoted as citing the lack of skilled translators who can ‘properly translate Korean literary works into English’ as the ‘biggest handicap in the globalization of Korean literature.’”

And at a recent meeting of the 13th International Workshop for Translation and Publication of Korean Literature, its president Kim Seong-kon remarked in his opening remarks that, “For Korean authors to gain international acclaim, skilled translators, renowned publishers, and competent literary agents are indispensable.”

Indeed, along with the never-ending issue of translation, Kim notes that there is another element that needs to be taken into account when discussing introducing Korean literary works to the rest of the world: marketability. He says that “While there are some reservations among Koreans against translating only works that are ‘sellable’ – ‘How about Korean identity?’ they ask – selecting works that appeal to the target public appears to be the preferred approach among foreign publishers and translators.”

Jean-Noel Juttet, a translator and instructor at LTI Korea Translation Academy, told Kim that to achieve success in the French marketplace, it would be wise for translators to “choose works with fantasy-like atmosphere and humor,” adding that although the French public prefers works like those, too many Korean texts are “melancholy and sad.” “These are not popular with the French,” he told Kim.

And since the market for translated works is so small, it might be wise to take such a pragmatic approach. The article cited John O’Brien, president of Dalkey Archive Press, who noted that only 15% of the 350,000 books published in the U.S. annual are works of “literature,” (or books about literature), and a mere 0.006% of those 350,000 volumes are translated literary works. In addition, to reach a worldwide audience, it’s important to gain an audience in the United States. “Countries are desperate to get into the U.S. because if the books are in English, they travel well,” O’Brien said.

The bottom line? According to Tracy Fisher of the USA-based WME Agency, given the highly competitive atmosphere, “the role of translators as advocates for authors is becoming increasingly important.” The best possible translator should be matched with an author at the earliest stage of their career, which means that the translator then has a role as scout, contact for agents, and sending out samples, says Fisher.

O’Brien agrees, noting that “70% of our books come by our translators. It is rare that they are wrong about the book.”

So, Kim asked, which book genres should Korea be looking to export?

“Mystery, thriller, suspense novels can most easily break out in other languages,” Fisher said.

“As for Korean literature, the first wave may need to be in the more popular genres. Others can follow.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.