Decent article in the Korea Herald @ strategies for increasing success of Korean Translated Lit overseas


Changing the world 1-3% at a time!

Kim Seong-kon, who is a professor of English at Seoul National University and editor of the literary quarterly 21st Century Literature writes a bit about the obstacles Korean Literature faces overseas.

The article is titled, K-pop is not enough on its own,  

Although Professor Kim completely ignores the success Kim Young-ha has had (admittedly, it pales before that of Shin Kyoung-sook, but must ALL Korean academics overlook Kim Young-ha? What did he ever do to them?^^), he makes some good points.  For instance he notes the general unwillingness or inability  of Western readers to tangle with foreign cultures:

Indeed, it is well known that English-speaking people, especially Americans, tend not to read books in translation. They seem to think: “Why bother to read translations when there are so many good books written in English already?”

I need to track down a statistic I read recently that claimed that while the general publication rate of translations in Western culture is about 3% (a fabled and perhaps apocrophyl number?), in the US this number drops to 1%. In any case, this reality means that translate books need to be chosen very carefully, to hit the small niche that is out there.

Kim also interviews Dennis Maloney, publisher of White Pine Press in New York, who comes up with some suggestions:


Maloney comes up with some ideas to promote Korean literature in the West. First, we need “a good directory with contact names of professors who teach Korean literature and a contact list of Korean community resources in this country (also Canada and England).” Second, we need “funds to advertise in appropriate periodicals.” Third, we need “funding to develop website links with such commercial sites as Korea link and other academic sites to advertise our Korean titles.”

This is only partly correct and I think it bears the marks of its author, a small press academic business. In fact, Korean literature should not be expanded through primarily  academic approaches – this approach is what has failed us so far; the translation of a bunch of books by academic presses that are expensive, poorly advertised, not generally interesting, and languish in university libraries.

Where Maloney is dead on, is here:

Maloney asserts that foreign publishers need marketing funds from Korea: “We have suggested to the foundations in Korea that they provide some marketing funds in addition to the publication support so we can attempt to develop the audience for Korean literature.”

Because only money spent outside of Korea is going to be effective, for reasons that KTLIT has dealt with before.

Kim is also dead on when he notes:

Undoubtedly, pop culture is the best medium to attract foreigners’ attention.

 Which is an understanding that seems to be more quickly dawning on Korean translation institutes.

LOL – also, this article gives me someone else to email about the Man Asian Prize.

6 thoughts on “Decent article in the Korea Herald @ strategies for increasing success of Korean Translated Lit overseas

  1. From Arash Heraji web site:

    “Despite the importance of diversity alongside globalisation, English-speaking publishers have shown disinterest in publishing books in translation. 2–6% of all books published in US and UK are translations [(2) and (3)]; though no definite statistics are available to prove this statement, as Britain is ‘the only country in Europe that doesn’t produce any statistics on translation’, a fact that further proves the disinterest in translated literature (4). These estimations leave small space for any doubt about the situation, especially when compared to the rate in other European countries (Germany: 12.4%, Spain: 24–28%, France: 15–27% and Turkey: 40%) (5) and (6). ”

    There is a nice bibliograpphy following the article.


  2. I of course wholeheartedly agree with:

    “Undoubtedly, pop culture is the best medium to attract foreigners’ attention.”

    I as someone who engages in publishing would consider genre fiction in translation from Korean.

    In fact, I think Koreans could write a good spy thriller based on their own cold-war DMZ.

    Separately, in the West, many Koreans are disproportionately likely to be fervently Protestant.

    And Christian fiction is a genre that sells well.

    What about translating some of that?

    Another good genre category would be erotica.

    The things described in that genre really cannot be different from one culture to another.

    In other words, rather than bemoan the fact that Westerners will not read abstract Korean poetry in translation, they should instead focus on translating works that can reliably achieve a readership.

    Koreans should focus on translating genre fiction.

  3. Emma,

    Thanks – though those numbers on “(Germany: 12.4%, Spain: 24–28%, France: 15–27% and Turkey: 40%) (5) and (6” are undoubtedly partially a reflection of translations FROM English (so a slightly different problem than the one I’m thinking of). I’ll check out bibliography to see if it leads anywhere that might have separate numbers for the US and the rest of the English speaking world, particularly the UK and Canada…

    LOL – I love that point about the UK!

  4. Charles,

    I partially elide genre and pop fiction (e.g. “Mother” and “Your Republic is Calling You” – which kind of fits your DMZ point) and I believe that Kim is doing the same)./

    Christian literature is an interesting idea, though there does not seem to be much “end times” stuff here, partly because the local Christian issue is thoroughly infused with Buddhism, which shies away from that. I’m scared to talk to any Christians about that, partly because there are some serious religious schisms here that I don’t want to step to.^^

    Erotica is, I think, a non-starter for reasons related to why romance is a non-starter. Non of it was published, so far as I know, until very recently, partly because of the super-repressive (for practical and ideological reasons) cultural context of the 20th century.

    LOL – I completely agree about poetry, which is often VERY unconvincing in translation, even if (and it is unlikely) appropriate source poems (culturally interpetable, etc) can be found. Ko Un’s poetry is the big success here, partly because it is very much a simplified zen-style that can be understood by fans of that genre (in that sense, quite similar to some Japanese poetry I’ve seen).

  5. For the Christian lit, there does not have to be any end times stuff for it to sell really well.

    Alot of Christian lit stuff is simply a variant of other genres but with a Protestant/Evangelical slant.

    Especially popular are romances (rather chaste ones), although other forms are also popular.

    Some are rather Socialist Realist, in that one always knows that the good Protestant will triumph over evil, but then romance novels have a clearly defined end point, as do many mysteries.

    I think that you need to talk to more sources about erotica, because I get the impression that you are hanging more with effete litfic than with genre fic folks.

    I have to believe that ROK, with its macho culture has slicks that feature that genre.

    Also, as another genre that you should discuss, what about gayfic?

    I am sure that they are discriminated against, but I have to believe that there is some.

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