Extended Interview with Kim Seong-kon, CEO of LTI Korea
Some time ago, for 10 Magazine Korea, I interviewed LTI Korea CEO, Kim Seong-Kon. That interview was quite brief, but it came in the context of this much longer one, which demonstrated his wide cultural interests and knowledge. The director spoke broadly, engaging in cultural analysis, discussing international music, and even the differences in international dance styles, some of which has been cut out here, in the interests of focusing on literature.
The CEO has been the Dean of the School of Language Education at Seoul National University (2001-5), the Director of the Seoul National University Press (2009-11), the Director of the American Studies Institute at Seoul National University (1999-2001), and the Director of the SNU student Residence Hall. He has taught at SUNY Buffalo (2011-12), the University of California at Berkeley (2006), at Harvard as a Visiting Scholar (2006-7), and at Oxford University as a Visiting Scholar (1991).
1) Could you please tell our readers a little about your history and how it has prepared you to be the Director of LTI Korea?
Basically I’m a literature man and also I’m a literary critic and I was the editor of three major journals including Contemporary World. Currently I am editor of 21st century literature. Which means I have extensively known Korean writers and literary works. Also, I am professor at Seoul National University. I have been teaching for the past 20 years teaching literature and literary criticism. I also used to be a dean in the School of Language Education, it’s a huge education institution in charge of teaching Korean culture and education to foreigners. I was also the director of the Seoul National University Press for two years, which means I have extensive experience as a publisher; we published approximately 80 books per year, altogether, including reprints, 200 books per year.
So I basically know how to run an institution, which gave me an advantage when I assumed the position supervising this sort of institution.
As a translator I have translated 14 books, mostly from English to Korean. From Korean to English I have translated Woman on the Terrace by Moon Chung-hee, which received an award from Sweden, as well as several others.
Majoring in English also gave me a dual perspective. They say that if you can speak two languages you have two minds. I used to be president of the International Association of Comparative Korean Studies, which was founded in Paris. That association dealt extensively with Korean literature and translation. Also, I was President of the Korean Association of Modern Fiction Studies, president of American Studies Association of Korea, and founding president of the Korean Association of Literature and Film, which includes boundary crossing between literature, film and media, and also between East and West.
I also taught 6 years in the United States at the University of California at Berkeley, Pennsylvania State, Brigham Young University, and was a visiting scholar at Oxford, Harvard, and the University of Toronto. Those experiences gave me invaluable perceptions, they made me open my eyes. I also originally studied English Literature at SUNY Buffalo and comparative literature at Columbia University under the guidance of Edward Said. That education enabled me to open my eyes to the world and world literature. So, altogether it’s closely interrelated (I was) in Korea as an English major and also my interest in Korean literature and translation and then cultural exchange between East and West. So it fits my career, not only my career but my interest, 100%.
I can safely say that I am well prepared for this job.
2) As new Director, can you briefly outline your plans for LTI Korea (e.g. the Dalkey Program, any new translation or translation training initiatives)?
As you know Shin Kyung-sook’s book has been a huge success and we need more success. So we are currently finding and nominating approximately fifteen celebrated Korean writers and we are going to promote them to the American market. For instance we will contact major American publishers. The Hallyu wave and also K-pop have been spectacular. I was amazed, I was in the United States a couple of months ago and noticed that US students were singing Korea pop songs in the Korean language, beautifully. IN the 1960s when I was a college oby I learned English through pop songs and English. So I was very pleased to see that. I noticed that there is a possibility now, Korea is relatively well known in the United States or in Europe or in Asia thanks to Hallyu or K-pop. So that’s one of the projects I’m considering.
Another one is that I will extend the Korean Writer in Residence program in foreign universities. Currently we choose only 2 or 3 and then we let them spend three months. But that is not enough. You just pack and unpack and everything will be gone in a flash. So I’m going to extend it to 6 months at lease, as of next year, and eventually for one full year. During which time Korean writers can have, for example, book-signing sessions, lectures, and interviews with the press. Then they can promote Korean literature during their residence there.
Another thing I’m considering is that we do have an education institution here inside LTI Korea, the translation academy. We have approximately 100 students, next year it will be expanded to 200. I am hoping to upgrade it to a regular graduate school awarding Master’s degrees in translation. So I will consult on this matter with personnel in the Ministry of Education. I see good possibilities.
Also, we do have a library here on the first floor. I will donate books to the major libraries; university libraries and public libraries in foreign countries. Also we will sign a sort of MOU to continuously send our newly published works abroad. I think it is a good way to promote Korean literature, by donating books.
I will also expand Korean literature forums in major cities all over the world, Like Paris, London, Rome, NY, SF, LA and so forth. Then, also, I will make academic ties between Korea and the foreign universities which have a Korean Studies Program so we can exchange, professors, students, etc.
The library, I’m also hoping that we can make it a kind of e-library, with e-books available in the future. Not only paper books.
Another important thing I’m considering is that we sign contracts with established book agencies in other countries. Like American agencies in New York City. So far we have tried to contact publishers directly and that’s not a good way. That’s a new way to open up our market.
Lastly, from now on we’re going to switch from publishing books one at a time to publishing Korean literature series, like contemporary modern Korean literature, colonial Korean literature during the Japanese occupation, and also classical Korean literature. By doing so, foreign readers might have a wider scope of perspective perceiving this literature.
Also, a Korean women’s writers collection for instance
3) Dream for a moment. In a decade, if LTI Korea gets everything right, where do you see Korean translated literature and LTI Korea?
Provided – granted – that we have enough funds, that’s important, we’re always short of funds. Provided we have enough money within 10 years LTI Korea will definitely become a very prestigious and celebrated institution just like the Goethe Institute in Germany. A world-class institution. I think I can make this institution as the major center of promoting Korean culture. Not only literature, but also Korean culture in general, overseas. So it should be bigger than now, much more expansive than now. I will deal with not only Korean literature into foreign languages, but also foreign literature translated into Korean language. We do have commercial publishers in Korea but sometimes they are not interested in very important but unsalable books. Then we take that project and publish it.
And we’re going to foster good translators. (CUT) Within 10 years, probably we can transform ourselves into that kind of institution. As long as we have money
4) What do you think the relationship is between blockbuster genre success such as that of Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom” and the larger penetration of Korean literature into English?
Shin Kyung-sook is very lucky, extremely lucky. Amy Chua’s book ( Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother), became a bestseller because American mothers were interested in the issue of how Asian mothers raised their children, specially the success. And then when Shin Kyung-sook’s book came out, I think that is why Alfred Knopf decided to publish that book, usually they don’t do that. But it was a wise decision. Barak Obama constantly, he keeps saying, you have to learn from the Korean educational system, and so forth. Of course he, Obama, only sees the bright side. American mothers, I think, thought Shin Kyung-sook’s book was also like Amy Chua’s book. And some American women also enormously like Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, so those readers also liked Shin Kyung-sook. Anyway, we are very gratefully encouraged by the unexpected success of Shin Kyung sook’s book and we have to take advantage of this opportunity. In order to do that I think that Korean writers should try very hard to alter their course of writing, especially style and narrative techniques, and also the themes. There is a tendency in Korea that Korean writers are so, how should I put it, they’re inside a closed wall of ego and some writers are just tackling political ideology constantly, still thinking we are living in the 1970s and 80s, and others are still writing with conventional boring, clichéd techniques. Nothing seems to have changed since the liberation as far as the writing style and narrative technique is concerned. I think they should switch their styles and read other writer’s books, especially foreign writer’s books like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, or Ron Palmuik’s “My Name is Red.” And they should be aware of the common motif and themes that other countries’ writers are tackling. I’m trying to say that Korean writers should consider dealing with such universal themes as suspicion and doubt of the absolute truth, or hidden history, alternative history; you can’t trust appearances for example. Readers are fascinated by those motifs and many Korea writers, I think, do not deal with those common motifs and common interests. And also, boundary crossing and then beware of dogmas, the totalitarian society, terrorism against the other, etc. Then, of course, we should have very good translation. Shin Kyung-sook’s book is an excellent translation, and good translation is the other thing we need on top of the issues of themes, perspectives, and sharing opinions with other countries and other writers. Sometimes you should adopt detective story techniques, science fiction, or even fantasy. You don’t have to be a fantasy writer, you just adopt fantasy technique, just a little bit. Then it will make your fiction seem attractive.
So, Korean writers should change because the paradigm has shifted, the time has changed. This is the age of the advent of cultural shift, also electronic media. So we should be aware of the change. You cannot stay in the castle forever.
5) In that past you have said, ““Every Korean author should have something available to pop up when someone Googles their name in English. It makes a huge difference.” Given the increasing importance of Social Media in popularizing culture (Hallyu, for instance, has attained massive success here), does LTI Korea have any plans to move towards a greater presence in Social Media?
Yes indeed. They say that it took five years for BOA, a Korean singer in Japan, to be famous in Japan. That was a long time ago. That was not the generation of SNS. But, Girls Generation, it took one day to become famous, thanks to SNS, twitter, youtube, etc. So, the time has changed. The importance of using the internet and social media cannot be stressed to much. So we’re planning to provide ample information about Korean writers on the internet. We are considering administering at least 50 representative Korean writers on the Wikipedia. Currently it is different to find. You punch in the name of a famous Korean writer and nothing happens. It is a very urgent matter that we have to deal with.
Not only wikipedia, but youtube, podcasts, we are going to use all kinds of ways. Also we will be prepared for the age ebooks and smartphones. Smartphones are computers in the palm of your hand. We are moving rapidly into the electronic age.
6) You have mentioned the intention of being more “Foreigner friendly,” which would of course be interesting to a large part of our audience. Can you explain what that means, how it can be done, and the expected effect?
I have been listening to complaints from foreign publishers. Here at LTI Korea we used to choose publishable Korean literary works. They were selected by Korean literary critics. But foreign publishers complained that those books would not be suitable for (foreign) readers. They said, “we are not interested in literature of divistion, literature of political ideology, etc.” So we’re going to listen to those voices from overseas. We’re going to listen to foreign publishers opinions and take it into account in our decisions.
Also, we have a number of excellent foreign translators residing in Korea like An Sonjae from Sogang, Kevin O’Rourke from Kyo, John Holstein – they are excellent translators and very experienced. I’m going to listen to their voices too, because they know the problems of this institution and they may also give us precious advice. I’m going to invite them as sort of advisory committee members.
And then, for foreign visitors we will provide excellent translation and also when there is a foreign visitor or inquirer we will be extremely friendly and we will respond to them immediately.
And then LTI Korea is an international institution, not a Korean institution, not some place that Koreans gather together to provide Korean literature. No, I think we should expand this institution into an international one so that foreigners can come here any time and share their opinions with us and give us some suggestions. And also, for foreigners convenience we are going to provide a list of major Korean writers and their works in our journal, LIST. I’m thinking about all the ways in which we can transform ourselves into a foreigner friendly institution.
7) Tell us about your likes (and maybe dislikes) in English literature?
Basically I’m a post-modernist. I wrote a dissertation, when I was in the United State on literary post-modernism. At that time in Korea nobody knew about post-modernism, but that fascinated me.
My Master’s Thesis was on modernist writers like William Faulkner, and TS Elliot, but my Phd dissertation was on Thomas Pynchon, a post-modern writer. I especially like his novel V and The Crying of Lot 49. He’s an amazing guy. As early as 1967 in The Crying of Lot 49, he already imagined matrix theory, and said everything is in computers, divided between 0s an 1s, but we should transcend the boundaries and we should seek a third path. And he said both Marxism and Industrial Capitalism are part of creeping horrors. I like that! Yeah, the middle against both ends. Cross the border, cross the gap. I like that.
Also I like genre novels. I like Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons, and I also like Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club. I also like, of course Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories and Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. I translated The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. I like Steven King, too. Guilty pleasures, but not anymore. Because Steven King was officially recognized by the American Republic of Letters by receiving a literary medal, officially as a pure literature writer. A few years ago I was reading his novels; I was fascinated by the hidden things. He is much better than the ordinary, average, so-called pure literature writers. Salem’s Lot deals with the Watergate scandal. Sometimes They Come Back also deals with, of course it’s hidden, US politics, America’s choice. He begins with Adlai Stevens and Eisenhower’s presidential election in 1956. Americans chose Eisenhower and he suggests America probably made a mistake and it results in the Watergate scandal. So if he deals with such issues, he’s a great writer even though he deals with horror fiction. And it gives us pleasure to read!
8) You have noted the tendency to “cling to conventional approaches to literature.” Do you plan to shake up the conventional approaches of the past?
Precisely. I’m going to embrace the so-called genre novels. Like, if it is good quality, s.f., detective stories, and fantasy. Possibly we may not have excellent pieces of work as of this moment, but it will come out as time changes. So we are going to embrace middle-brow literature not only high-brow literature. Of course there is an issue of quality, we’re going to monitor that. That is the job of a literary critic.
I will not encourage word-by-word translation. ‘Is it faithful to the original text?’ I don’t think that is important. A good translator is a person who is able to create a wonderful piece of work out of the original work. Of course you cannot distort the original text. But, at least you can put something into that if you are a good translator. Editing is important. You know in Korean writing there are some redundant passages, or we don’t have a crystal clear idea of a paragraph. In English you know that there is a topic sentence, subordinate sentence, and then example and then conclusion sentence. But we don’t do that. So when you translate a Korean writer’s work, or scholar’s work, into English, you got a problem. So you have to edit it. You have to make a paragraph. And sometimes we contradict ourselves inside a paragraph. You said this and suddenly next sentence you say that. Self-contradictions, we have to eliminate that in order to appeal to the Western reader. So we’re going to do that. Also, the important thing is should we read a book? If nobody reads it, what is the use of publishing it, of translating it? So we give the translator the right to alter the original text if absolutely necessary.
There should be constant communication between the author and the translator. Otherwise your translation may be wrong. You have to ask the author. And sometimes if you have to alter a considerable portion, then you have to consult the author.
9) Director, could you recommend some good, translated Korean literature for our readers?
Yes. A number of books I would like to recommend. Books published many years ago. There is a book called Flowers of Fire translated by Peter Lee. It was a long time ago, so the translation might not be that superb, but still it was invaluable at that time. It has a collection of short stories – those are gems of Korean literature, specially during the colonial period. And Peter Lee revised it later and expanded that book to a more voluminous book called, Modern Korean Literature, also published by the University of Hawaii Press. I once wrote a review of it when I was in the US. I like that book too. He added representative poems and then essays as well.
These days there is a book called, Words of Farewell, it is short novellas by three Korean woman writers Sok-Kyong Chi-Won & Chong-Hui ,published by Seal Press in Seattle Washington. That’s translated by Bruce Fulton. It was a good translation to me. Also, The Moon Leaf Pond is a collection of classical Korean poems, translated by Yi song Il at Yonsei University, a professor emeritus. It’s a collection of classical poems, so if you’re interested in classical Korean poems, that’s the book you should read. Of course Please Look After Mom is an excellent translation. And then, LTI Korea used to publish books, and after that we just forget about it. I’m not going to do that. After the publication I’m going to constantly monitor the sales and promotions. So when a Korean literary work is published for example in New York City, I’m going to bring the author to New York City and then we are going to have a series of events, like press releases, press conferences, book signings, forums, lectures, even writing in residence. That way, comprehensively, we can promote Korean literature to any country.