Lack of Penetration of Korean Literature in the US?

I was on vacation last month, in the United States, and the wife and I rented a car in Reno Nevada, then drove to Mt. Lassen, Ashland Oregon, Medford Oregon, Coos Bay Oregon, then down the California coast to Fort Bragg and across California back to Reno Nevada.

What in the world does this have to do with Korean literature? Well, my wife is a crazy bookshopper and so one of the things we did was went on Google and mapped the used bookstores in every major town we visited. The map below, for example, shows the bookstores in Ashland Oregon. And we visited every one of them.

Bookstores in Ashland, Orebon

We stopped at somewhere between 40 and 50 bookstores.

At each of those bookstores I asked about Korean literature, and at each of those bookstores the cashiers/owners were utterly stumped.

I also asked for the books I knew should be there – Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You and Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom. To my dismay only three bookstores had either of the books (two stores had Mom, and one had Republic) and no store had both. At the stores that did not have the books I asked if the books had ever been stocked. As far as the clerks could determine, they never had.

I’m not sure what to make of this – it’s boggling, particularly with respect to Please Look After Mom, which was a legitimate NY Times bestseller.

As if it were necessary to drive the point in any deeper, in Berkeley CA the Eastwind  (LOL a quick check of that link seems to indicate they went out of business – probably didn’t offer enough Korean books) bookstore which describes itself as:

Your source for Asian American literature, Asian studies, Ethnic Studies, language learning, traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts books.

had only 8 books on Korean culture (in total

Also now a dead link) and one copy of Please Look After Mom stuffed away in a corner (and, yeah, that counts as one of the two copies I found on my three week trip).

I’m still trying to puzzle this out. Of course there wouldn’t be a lot of Korean literature out there – it’s success is still gestational – but its complete lack (and with two successful books in the last two years) suggests that the larger lack of awareness of Korea is having an impact on books. After all, if a reader walked into Eastwind and discovered no books from Japan, they would be rightly shocked if Japan were simply not represented.  Yet this is seen as normal for Korea.

My initial thought is that this means that a merely translational approach to the problem is bound to fail – the books will not show up in the bookstores.

Social media – it works for Hallyu, why can’t it work for Korean literature.

HINT: I mean the Wikipedia Project and support of fan-sites (they are coming out!) on the web…

Frankly, the whole thing left me a bit depressed.



7 thoughts on “Lack of Penetration of Korean Literature in the US?

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments. I have never seen a single Korean novel in used bookstores in the states (although, I never cared to ask the owners). On the other hand in France, out of the two bookstores I visited (one used and one mainstream) I found several translated works of both contemporary and canonical Korean writers. The same issue of representation runs across all facets of culture. It’s no surprise that when the East is mentioned, it’s always KUROSAWA or OZU or HOKUSAI or MISHIMA. You are right, though, about the lack of translated works as a stumbling block. But translation itself, as i see it, is always produced by the social conditions of which the original work is a part. Without raising too many hairs, Korean culture has not been the appetite of the West as has been the case for Japan or China. Plus, there is a weak love for the humanities in this country despite the number of fluent english/korean speakers. Obviously, there are many issues at stake for this depressing situation but like you said, maybe social media is something the Korean intellectual community can use in some beneficial way. For me, it comes down to exposure. The lack of representation is simply another form of mis-representation (especially in this increasingly multicultural world).
    my 2 cents =)

  2. The lack of interest in Koreal lit in the US is due, I think, to a few factors:

    * The lack of translations being foremost

    * The translations that do exist being of works that have almost no market potential, and thus are unlikely to be stocked by a non-subsidized bookstore

    * The inept or dysfunctional efforts of the ROK government to subsidize translations of marketable books

    * The lack of interest in the Korean-American community in sponsoring translations or purchasing literature from Korea

    Given all of that, I think it is inevitable that Korean literature is essentially irrelevant on the English-language scene.

  3. Well, it gets even worse for me, since I live in Brazil. I haven’t done a lot of digging because I do speak English and can order online, but the few times I searched, I couldn’t find one single translation to Portuguese of any kind of Korean prose or poetry (I can’t afford to be picky, right?). And I don’t really see things changing in a near future for us; most of the people from my Korean class is studying the language solely because of Kpop and don’t seem all that interested in finding what’s Korean literature like.

  4. Sean –

    Just so… The US and UK are relatively closed to this kind of literature, and the fact that almost no research or comment can be found about it online just makes the problem worse.

  5. If the vast majority of Korean American youngster who grow up in the United States are constantly bombarded with American film, television, music, and literature I serious doubt many of them would be interested in seekingout English translated Korean literature in the first place.

    I mean, if you can’t even reach out to 2nd and 3rd generation Korean Americans to get them interested in traditional Korean literature and history, then how are you able to jump past that to reach out to the American mainstream?

    Also, take into account that South Korea does a poor PR job of promoting itself to the rest of the world. If you want to blame the lack of Korean literature in American bookstores, then you should take a good look at that situation.

    And, I don’t know about the rest of the world, but when you have native Koreans who are extremely xenophobic and make foreigners who come to live in that country feel unwelcome and discluded by the majority of the populace, then why would many of the visitors have a good impression of Korea and the Korean people in particular to promote that small Asian nation positively to the rest of the world?

    When you see the way the average South Korean discriminates and mistreats the average North Korean, Korean American/Canadian/Australian, Japanese citizen of Korean ethnic descent, etc. the exclusive Korean mentality becomes clearer and you realize the big picture. This country has a long way to go in becoming more tolerant and inclusive of other races and cultures. If Korean natives learned how to properly treat their guests from other countries with proper respect and human decency, we wouldn’t have that “no Korean literature in American bookstores problem” there now would we?

    And let’s have a reality check here: Besides China and Japan, do you see much of any literature from Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore and Myanmar represented there as well? Korea is a middle of the road Asian country. It was and still is not the powerhouse that Japan was and China currently is. Get that fact straight and realize where South Korea’s standing is amongst the rest of the world. It is just an average country.

  6. Nana –

    I know of some into Spanish, but none in Portuguese, so I think you’re “stuck” with English. ^^

    Bennifer –

    Your post it seems to miss some the marketing points and cultural goals of international translation, particularly with respect to Korea. OTOH you get one point dead on the nose.^^

    While Korea would be happy to catch ethnic Koreans, that is not the primary goal in any way. And the number is too small to be important. The number is under half of one percent for ALL ethnic Koreans in the US. Given that the “goal” of a general translation is 1-3% (given existing market realities for any translation), the 2nd and 3rd generation kids aren’t going to make the nut. And, culturally speaking, the Korean translation institutes want the hearts and minds of the intellectual classes, thus the (silly, in my mind) focus on the Nobel Prize for literature.

    Your second point, that the marketing is often mismanaged, is dead on point and, while I’m going to largely disagree with you on what follows, this is sometimes a function of Korea chauvinism (for lack of a more precise word). This is where the change is going to come, if it comes at all. Korea has to get into its head that the overseas market has its own desires and dynamics, and that what Korea “thinks” foreigners want will have exactly NO impact on what foreigners really do want.

    But then you enter what seems like a personal animus against Korea. Really, comparing it to Hong Kong (which is actually China), Taiwan, Thailand, and Myanmar? Not only are the last two not in the same game (tourism/3rd world), but guess what? Even something as simple as a Google search reveals that all of these countries are massively MORE represented online for literature than Korea (you’ll have to use “Burma” for Myanmar as that is the embedded name). Even when you do compare these apples and oranges? Korea is relatively unrepresented. And this is also what I found in the bookstores.

    As to your last point? I think it is off-focus on several grounds.

    First, nice treatment of expats/foreigners/other countries is completely unrelated to translation success. The French and Russians have well represented translated literature and we all know the reputation the French have for treating US citizens. And Russia? Well, we’ve never had good relations with them for more than the time it took an iron curtain to fall. Japan? Remember that war they started? When Mishima and those who followed became successful in the English-speaking literary world Japan had a far worse image in the US than Korea has now. These things are unrelated in the sense that literature is a kind of floating intellectual thingie (LOL – now that’s precise) that hovers above nation-states to some extent. Toss German literature in there if you want another, perhaps even more poisonous example.

    Finally, how Korea treats its visitors has changed radically in even the 8 years I’ve been in and out of the country. With respect to anyone appearing caucasiaC (recognizing that there is often still a double standard with respect to foreigner skin color, and one that needs addressing), Korea basically treats them as Koreans believe they are being treated. Dickheads (to use a technical term^^) get dissed as dickheads, the more respectful get treated more respectfully. The retards who come here to drink and party should be treated as such – Itaewon awaits them.^^

    Treatment of gyopo and the dark-skinned can still seem pretty brutal, but this changes daily – one of the things I love about Korea is how quickly it can turn on a dime. So.. yeah, work to be done, but it’s well underway.

    But these people are not the translation audience… Japan is quite similar to foreigners (perhaps more subtle) and in Russia (LOL – try Georgia) a foreigner stands a decent chance to end up with some cutlery inserted. But the literature is translated and to some extent internationally beloved.

    So the problem lies somewhere else…

    I locate that in bad choices of translations and poor marketing (your second point with which I agree).


  7. Pingback: Mailbag1: Does ethnic Korean domestic racism and overseas indifference doom translation?

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