LTI Korea President Kim Seong-kon Assesses the State of Korean Literature in Translation

Kim Seong-konAfter nearly three years at the helm of LTI Korea Seong-Kon Kim, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at Seoul National University,Literary Critic, Film Critic, Literary Translator, Korea Herald Columnist, and a whole lot more (a complete list is at the bottom of the interview) sat down with KTLIT writer Allie Park for a wide ranging interview about translation, what is Korean literature, the success of recent translations, and the future of Korean translation in the post-modern world.

The questions asked here are based on a initial set of questions asked almost three years ago as a part of the “10 Questions” series at 10 Magazine (and reprinted here at KTLIT)

1 .In your opinion, what are your greatest accomplishments at LTI Korea?

When I took office, I was surprised at finding that few LTI staff members could speak English and that consequently few books of Korean literature had been published in the U.S. or the U.K. Thus I implemented the English Team to raise the profile of Korean literature overseas more actively. I hired four extremely able staff members who were educated in the US, UK and Canada and thus could command fluent, impeccable English. As a result, 12 books have been published in English overseas this year.

I have also implemented the E-Book Team in order to facilitate the promotion of Korean literature in e-book form. Since iPads and smartphones are rapidly and radically replacing paper books for the younger generation, it is imperative that LTI Korea maximizes electronic media so Korean literary works are readily available on the Internet. Accordingly, LTI Korea has successfully developed an App that would enable the reader to read Korean short stories on his smartphone.

I have also created a database of standardized Romanization of Korean writers’ names. Novelist Yi Mun-yol, for example, has been confusingly known by 12 different names; Lee Moon-yeol, Yi Mun-Yeol, Yi Moon-yol, to name but a few. LTI Korea has finally succeeded in standardizing the Romanization of Korean writers’ names and eliminated the confusion.

When I was Director of Seoul National University and President of the Korean University Presses, Dalkey Archive Press proposed that we jointly publish a series of Korean literature entitled, “The Library of Korean Literature.” I recommended LTI Korea to Dalkey. They agreed to publish 25 volumes; 10 volumes came out in 2013. Five volumes will be published in October, 2014 to be exhibited at the Frankfurt International Book Fair. The rest 10 volumes will come out in 2015.

In the past, LTI Korea published single volumes sporadically. Since my tenure at LTI Korea, I have emphasized publishing a series of Korean literature which would enable foreign readers to have a bird-eye-view of Korean literature from the colonial period through the postwar industrial age to the postmodern electronic era. That is why I made White Pine Press of New York publish “The Korean Voices Series” and had Argo of Prague publish 10 volumes of Korean literature.

2. Do you think the Wikipedia project has helped increase public awareness levels of Korean writers?

Oh, yes. Both Professor Charles Montgomery and I were appalled at finding that even the internationally well-known novelist Shin Kyung-Sook was not available in Wikipedia. So we worked together to upload hundreds of Korean writers to Wikipedia. The outcome is impressive; you can find approximately 300 Korean writers in Wikipedia now. LTI Korea was lucky to have Professor Montgomery for the project because his professional help was indispensable and invaluable.

Now you can freely Google Korean writers on the Internet from all over the world. All the necessary information about Korean writers will be readily available at Wikipedia. Thanks to Professor Montgomery and his team, LTI Korea has accomplished a long-overdue project.

3. How far do think LTI Korea has come in establishing itself as an “international institution” like the Goethe Institution in Germany?

In the cigarette, “Virginia Slim” there is a picture of a woman smoking and the ad copy says, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” American women were not allowed to smoke until 1920.

Likewise, LTI Korea has come a long way to make it conspicuous in the international community. But LTI Korea has a long way to go yet if it wants to be a Goethe Institution in Korea. I should say that LTI Korea is now at the stage of take-off and soar to the sky. Now we are ready to fly. Unfortunately, if the pilot is inexperienced or unqualified, there is a possibility that the plane will crash.

4. What plans do you have after leaving LTI Korea?
Nothing in particular at the moment. In my retirement speech at Seoul National University in August, I said, “I will remain a reserved scholar, not a retired one.” Whenever someone needs me, therefore, I will be there at his service, fully reactivated. I will keep myself busy translating and writing on Korean literature. Since I will have some free time, I might even write a novel of my own; when I was in college, I won the first prize for my short story sponsored by the University Newspaper. In addition, teaching Korean literature at an American university is another possibility. Previously, I taught at UC Berkeley, Pennsylvania State University, Brigham Young University, Columbia and SUNY/Buffalo for six years.

On general translation…

5. As a translator what do you conceive to be the most difficult part of translating a work into another language?

Since the Tower of Babel, humans have needed interpreters and translators to communicate across nations. Due to cultural differences, however, misunderstandings often arise, and sometimes things are inevitably lost in translation. That is why there is a saying that “every translator is a traitor.”

A host of writers have contemplated and written about the innate problems of translation. For example, Yevgeny Yevtushenko humorously wrote, “Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.” Robert Frost commented, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”

And Samuel Johnson joined Frost by arguing, “Poetry cannot be translated. But as the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved in any language except that in which it was originally written, we learn the language.” According to Samuel Johnson, we should read poetry in its original language, not in translation. The problem is that not many are willing to learn a new language to read poetry.

George Borrow has also disparaged translation, writing, “Translation is at best an echo.” Virginia Woolf also lamented the difficulty of rendering humor in a foreign language: “Humor is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign language.” Indeed, translating humor into another language is extremely difficult and tricky, because the sense of humor varies from one culture to another.

6. Can you expand on your quote that “a good translator is a person who is able to create a wonderful piece of work out of the original work”?

I completely agree with Andres Felipe Solano who said, “For this, a translator should read first with a passion like when a soldier in love opens a letter from his girlfriend who waits for him from months ago. After that, he should read again with an obsessive mind like when a physicist looks for an equation to explain the world he discovered. And finally, after only these two readings, he should get started to translate it with the ears of a musician. The work of a translator, as the one of a musician, is to tune the instrument, wait for the string vibes, until it resounds.”

Then Solano defines what translation is: “It is like you disassemble a house, go through the ocean with those materials and reconstruct on another shore a new house which reminds (you) of the original, without being just a copy of it.” If translation is like reassembling a house in another place, the two houses cannot and do not have be exactly the same; the reconstructed house could and should be modified to make it more suitable to the new place.”

7. Do you think it is possible to preserve the “Korean understanding” of a text, or do all translations have to be ‘reinvented’ for better understanding by foreign readers?

I should say “Both.” You should both preserve the “Korean understanding” and reinvent it for “better understanding by foreign readers.” In his book, “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?,” David Bellow argues that when reading a French detective story in English translation, it would be a bit funny to see the French people in the novel speak impeccable American English or slangs. He points out that the reader would expect some French way of talking from them. His statement seems to suggest that the original flavors and fragrances should be preserved to a certain extent.

At the same time, however, the original text should be reinvented during the process of translation, and after the translation, through revising and editing to suit the taste of foreign readers and for better understanding by them. The Japanese Novel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunary’s “Snow Country” was superbly reinvented by the strong hand of the translator Edward Seidensticker so it had strong appeal to the Western mind.

8. In your opinion: at the end of the day, who has the final say in the translated piece—the translator or the editor?

I should say it is the editor who has the final say. As for me, I always follow the editor’s advice and suggestions. The editor will not harm the translator. Au contraire, he significantly enhances the translation by pointing out what the translator did not realize and seeing what the translator could not see during the translation process. As for the title, it is customarily the publisher who has the final say because an inappropriate title will surely hamper the sales of the book and result in the publisher’s losing his investment.

9. How should prospective translators prepare? Should they study abroad to be exposed to diverse cultures? I’ve read on the University of Buffalo site that you’ve sent more than 30 graduate students to the university to earn their PhDs.

Attending Translation Academy at LTI Korea is one way to become a good translator. We have 20 faculty members who skillfully train our students from all around the world for one year—two years from the next year on. Another way is to go abroad to be exposed to diverse foreign cultures and languages.

An ideal translator should be someone who is bilingual and bicultural. He should be either a native speaker of the target language who knows the original work and its cultural background quite well or a native speaker of Korean who can command impeccable, excellent English. Besides, he should have a keen literary sense and excellent writing skill. He also should love the literary work he wants to translate. In addition, he should have vast knowledge and profound understanding of both Korean and American (or British) culture and society as well

On the breadth of Korean literature …

10. I attended your lecture at the 10 Book Magazine in February, where you commented that Gyopo literature should be encompassed by and included in Korean literature. As “self-appointed cultural ambassador” do you think Gyopo literature could help promote Korean literature and culture?

For the past few decades, South Korea has sent millions of immigrants and students to the United States, who have struggled to settle down in American society. As Korean American writers have beautifully rendered in their novels and poems, Korean Americans have gone through intricate cultural and psychological problems while living in American society.

It occurs to me that Korean American writers have splendidly depicted various aspects of Korean immigrants’ lives. Indeed, one of the recurring themes of Korean American literature is the diasporic experience of uprooted Korean immigrants whose loyalty is torn between two worlds. The protagonist is usually a bewildered Korean American who is undulated between his own ethnic culture, from which he tries to escape in vain, and the dominant culture, into which he wants to acculturate. Thus he is acutely aware of irreducible cultural differences and as a result, constantly suffers identity crises. This phenomenon is extensively featured in the works of the so-called ‘1.5’ generation immigrant writers such as Theresa Hak-kyung Cha, Myung-mi Kim or Chang-rae Lee.

Of course, Korean American literature primarily belongs to American literature rather than Korean literature. Nevertheless, I have always thought that the scope of Korean literature would be significantly expanded if Korea would embrace Gyopo Munhak (Korean American literature) as part of their literary and cultural heritage. We can surely learn from them and so can they.


President, LTI Korea
Professor Emeritus, Seoul National University
Vice President, The Seoul Literary Club (Foreign diplomats’ Korean literature club)
President, SUNY/Buffalo Alumni Association, Korea Chapter
Literary Critic, Film Critic, Literary Translator, Korea Herald Columnist
His column essays have frequently appeared in the Nation, the China Post, the Pakistan Observer, Asia One, Star Online and other international media. .

Kim received his Ph.D. degree in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1982 (advisor: Leslie A. Fiedler) and studied comparative literature for his second doctoral degree at Columbia University (1882-1884, advisor: Edward W. Said).

Received Awards:
Medal of Distinguished Service (Jade), Republic of Korea (2004)
Medal of Culture Merit, the Czech Republic (2004)
Wuho Humanities Award (2004)
Selected as “50 Representative Literary Critic since 1900” by the Association of Korean Literary Critics
Today’s Book Award (1986)

International Distinguished Alumni Award (2012)
Fulbright Distinguished Alumnus Award (2010)
CU Distinguished Alumnus Award (2008)

Taught at:
UC Berkeley, Penn State and BYU as a Visiting Professor
Columbia and SUNY/Buffalo as a Teaching Fellow

Conducted research at:
Oxford and Harvard as a Visiting Scholar

Authored Books:
Literature in a Globalizing World
Literature in Age of the New Media
Literature in the Era of Hybrid Cultures
Writing across Boundaries
Cultural Studies and the Future of the Humanities
Reading Culture in Film