Chick Lit Redux, Sung Eun-cho’s “The Translation and Appropriation of Chick Lit in Korea”

Reading Sung Eun-cho’s, The Translation and Appropriation of Chick Lit in Korea. An interesting read that alternates between literary theory and social history, it details how, in the late 90s and early 2000’s, Chick Lit came from overseas, took Korea by something resembling force, and was then recreated as a domestic product, but one that had internalized many of the messages of the original imports.

Chick lit was in some ways custom made for Korea, as in the West it featured a move from the bodice-ripping traditional romances of the 45 year old existing audience, and moved to a much more commercialized romance which featured consumer products and fashion, as much as relationships with men. In fact, the career of the Chick-lit protagonist is often the organizing thread of the novel. Korea, intensely status conscious, with a female population that was just moving into the workforce mainstream, was a custom-made audience for this kind of literature.

From 1998 (Bridget Jones’ Diary) to 2003 (The Devil Wears Prada) these books were published in the United States, and successful novels were typically published in Korea within a year of their success (57). Interestingly, and perhaps obviously, from a translators point of view the cultural hegemony enjoyed by English literature and culture meant that most cultural signifiers (eg. Brands) could be translated directly. Sung seems not entirely sure she is happy with this, which she analyzes: “Thus, the macro-level strategy for the translation of Chick Lit books is the deliberate foreignization of the culture – specific items in the source text in the target culture.”

I’m not entirely sure what to make of that, since the target culture in question is both obsessed with the language of the source culture (see: Hagwons) and is also quite aware of what brands are considered desirable – anecdotally I would note that my students are disproportionately inclined to say they would like to vacation in cities that they self-identify as shopping meccas for high-quality brands. The Korean government, in fact, is admittedly obsessed with the notion of branding, attempting to create a Korean brand, make Han-sik (Korean cuisine) “world class,” and tasking the KTLI with making Korean literature a worldwide proposition (with the intent of winning that ultimate brand, a Nobel Prize in Literature)

From the NewsWeek Article Linked Below

But Sung really hits her stride when she talks about how Korea appropriated the elements of Western Chick Lit. And this is a topic that might have some general relevance, to James over at The Grand Narrative who explores beauty, to the good folks at PopSeoul.

In essence, Sung convincingly argues that when you get such a large amount of translated literature successively hitting a small country, it comes to occupy a central, or shared-central, position (Sung, quoting from Even-Zohar, calls this a “polysystem”). Sung approvingly references Lefevere “that translation is not just a ‘open window on another world”, or some pious platitude. Rather translation is a channel opened, often not without a certain reluctance, through which foreign influences can penetrate the native culture, challenge it, and even contribute to subverting it.” (70) Sung particularly focuses on Baek Young-ok’s Style, and Lee Hong’s Girl Friends.

In all of this, I think the most interesting question is “why did Chick Lit” hit so hard? As I noted above, I think Korea’s national infatuation with status and brands made this particular literature culturally sympathetic. At the same time, Korea was just beginning to allow large numbers of women into the workforce, marriage ages were raising, birth rate was declining, etc. That this influx of Chick Lit should have then turned around and been appropriated (if that is the right word to use for something akin to an invasion) seems sensible.

The real question then becomes, why was there no indigenous Chick Lit in Korea?

If this hasn’t been enough, here is a far less taxing article at Newsweek (ALAS, LINK NOW DEAD), talking about the general impact of Chick Lit on Asia in general.

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  1. Pingback: Korean Gender Reader: April 19th 2010 « The Grand Narrative

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