Improving Translation and Publication Success for Korean Literature: Part III – Wins, Losses, Draws

Finally, we get to the meat of the paper – what has succeeded and what has failed.



The second task of this paper is too look amongst the works that have been translated to determine which of these works have been relatively successful and attempt to determine why. This rough assessment can take place in two ways: First a general assessment across all published translated Korean fiction; second in specific assessments within homogenous groups of translated literature. These different approaches have different goals. The global assessment is intended to suggest publishing approaches that might be more successful. The internal/homogenous assessment (which will only be glossed in this paper) would be to suggest what themes/authors/etc. might naturally be more successful in translation, and this subject will be the topic of the next section of this paper. In both cases the task comes with a built-in measurement difficulty; that is that it is difficult to assess success in this area, because it is difficult to unearth sales numbers that are accurate. This is for at least two reasons. The first is that publishers have a variety of techniques by which they can inflate sales numbers. The second is that there is difficulty finding a comprehensive source which tracks book sales internationally. This latter problem is largely related to the success of and its move from an absolute number of books sold as a ranking tool to its new relative ranking system. The relative ranking system charts current popularity and thus effectively denigrates the popularity of older books by creating a “long tail” assessment problem. Comparing the rankings of books that were published concurrently, or have been in print for a long period of time, works adequately as this is a measure of ongoing popularity. But new books sell at a disproportionate rate, because the market is empty. This is demonstrated in Figure Three:

Figure Three: Long Tail Effect

Therefore, with respect to Amazon, the study measured two indicators: First, Amazon ranking was noted (with recognition of the methodological issues mentioned above). Second, the number of reviews of particular works on Amazon was noted. This number is an imprecise but useful measure of reaction to particular works as well as certainly being related to availability of books. The current study refers to these as Amazon rankings.

Because Amazon’s ranking system is used by most easily accessible (and inexpensive) ranking systems it was difficult to find an independent metric to team with the Amazon measurements. Nielsen BookDataOnline was kind enough to set up a temporary account for this research. Nielsen gathers a variety of information on international publishing and the most useful measure it offered seemed to be its list of the international markets in which particular books are sold.

In addition to these measurements, the study also notes the publisher of the individual works, as well as the country in which that publisher operates. In the future it would most likely also be instructive to note the size of publishing firms, their specialties the translators of the works, and a handful of other data.
The works surveyed were chosen as the results of Internet searches and included a complete list of translations done in the last 10 years, from Korean to English. This list was compiled by Brother Anthony of Taize (Brother Anthony).

The first series considered was the Portable Library of Korean Fiction. The important results are shown in Figure Four .

Figure Four: Jimoondang Publishing

The first thing to note here is that the Amazon numbers are quite dismal. The average ranking is 3008938.71, with only Photo Shop Murder cracking the top million in ranking. It is worth noting that this relatively high number partly seems to be the result of the recent success of author Kim Young-ha’s most recent novel, Your Republic is Calling You. This “bounce” effect will be discussed a bit more in the conclusion of this study. It is also worth noting that there are actually NO Amazon reviews from users – the two reviews of   A Toy City are actually linked reviews of a different, more complete version of the novel, which was published in the United States (this publication will be discussed shortly). Taken together, this means that these books are not selling, and whatever books have sold have not had enough impact on readers to cause them to go to Amazon and review the books.

The “NF” notation for the Nielsen rating means that that not only are these books not being sold outside of Korea, but that the Nielsen rating system is completely unaware that these books have been published. These results are quite depressing, for they mean that these books, likely, have had little or no impact on readers outside of Korea – they have never been sold outside of Korea, or if they have it was for such a brief period of time, or with such little impact, that it might has well not have happened. In essence, these books have had no impact on English-reading readers.

Finally, when judging content, it doesn’t seem a coincidence that the only Jimoondang books that get into the top 2 million are:
• The Wings
• Photoshop Murder
• The Rainy Spell
• Three Days in That Autumn
• Other Side of Dark Remembrance

Three of these books are completely devoid of pundan munhak, and the other two begin as tales of entirely different sorts. One provisional conclusion that might be drawn from these figures is that books with themes that are not ‘uniquely’ Korean are more likely to garner approval from English-readers. This is slightly beyond the scope of the present study, but in the future Dongguk University intends to create and apply a rubric that might help translators sort out what kind of works are likely to achieve success in translation.

Next, this study examined works published by Hollym to determine if the conclusions drawn above were only germane to books published in the PLKL series. These works are aesthetically pleasing (with beautiful covers and fabric book marks) and contain Korean text alongside the English. The results are shown in Figure Five.

Figure Five: Hollym Books

The results are a substantially better, with the average Amazon rank of 2,313,197. In addition, the
Nielsen ratings are at least aware of two of these books. The Hollym books, however, have been published since the Jimoondang series, and thus some of the difference may be from the “long tail” phenomenon. One of the tasks of further research must be to eliminate this effect from the numbers returned by research.

Finally, using the same criteria, the study focused on books published internationally. The results of this research can be seen in Figure Six.

Figure Six: International Publishers

Certain conclusions seem to jump from the numbers. First and foremost, it seems obvious that foreign publication massively increases the chances of success of a Korean translation. Second, publication by a “mainstream” publisher seems strongly correlated to success of translations.

Mainstream publication is quite clearly important. Your Republic is Calling You is by far the most successful book on the list, and it is published by Mariner Books, which is part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt a publishing firm of nearly 200 years experience and the largest K-12 publisher in the world. Harcourt (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself) is also part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hyperion Press (Our Twisted Hero) is a Disney-ABC affiliate. Columbia University Press (There a Petal Silently Falls) and the University of Hawaii Press (The Dwarf and Mujong) are among the most prolific and distinguished academic publishers in the United States. Bloomsbury USA (Three Generations) is a subsidiary of Bloomsbury Publishing, winner of the 1999 and 2000 Publisher of the Year Award. The only small presses represented amongst the top 10 are Archipelago (Tongue) and White Pine Press. The bottom ten performers are, on the other hand, with one exception (University of Hawaii) small or specialty presses.

These differences can have many reasons – more savvy choices of translations, better marketing after publishing, better inroads into publishing, large firms can get reviews for their books, perhaps even they spend more money on designing attractive book covers (The Jimoondang and Homa & Sekey Books, for example, have covers that border on the perverse). But at some point, if translating agencies want success they are either going to have to figure out all the particular skills larger foreign publishers have, and apply them in other contexts, or just decide to use the tools that are most effective. Obviously, this is not as easy that, but surely continuing along the current road is inefficient?

It is also worth noting that the two books that were not published in the United States are among the three worst performers in the survey.

It is not fair, however, to just conclude that publishing in the United States in a panacea of any sort. Consider the fact that the seven books (and some of them qualitatively quite good literature) published in the United States by Homa & Sekey Books manage to lag in at a stunningly poor overall Amazon ranking of 4,026,001.

The other comparison that comes clear, as one compares the ‘internationally’ published books versus those published in Korea, is that the internationally published works seem to reach many more areas of the world, as revealed by the Nielsen data on international availability. This is scarcely surprising, but the point is that it should be taken into account.

The final point of comparison may be the most important one. In discussing the Jimoondang publications it was noted that the top five translations were international in theme whilst books that focused on specifically Korean trauma or pundan munhak dropped in the list. When looking at the international list, it is therefore not surprising to see that in the top 10 books, only the anthologies have anything to do with these themes. There is certainly trauma, and there are certainly strong elements of Korean culture in all of these works, but they are also accessible on other levels, to international readers.

A quick look at the successes also seemed to indicate some other trends which will be further explored in papers to follow, but can be summed up in the recognition that works with recognizable genres, characters, and plots seemed to be far more successful than works which were difficult to assign genre, in which characters were excessively passive or other-directed, or which failed to follow western conventions of plot. These results suggest that translation strategies based on emphasis of cultural and literary similarities might be more successful than those aimed at immediately revealing unique cultural or literary characteristics of Korean literature. Finally, the idea that might partially underlay Korean translation, that literature is essentially fungible in the way that, say KOTRA found electronics components fungible, is demonstrably wrong. A new model is needed.

One of the happy conclusions that can be drawn from the research presented here is that if a new model is found, it will not only have a salutary effect on the success of new translations, but as suggested in the numbers found with respect to Park Wan-so and Kim Young-ha, these successes will have a bounce, or ripple, effect on the success of all translated Korean fiction.

One thought on “Improving Translation and Publication Success for Korean Literature: Part III – Wins, Losses, Draws

  1. Wonderful!!!
    It was greatly helpful to me.

    I hope your message will be conveyed to policymakers and publishers.

Leave a Reply