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

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A new feature, because sometimes my commenters say things that I want to look at more deeply. In Mailbags I’ll pull out a comment and talk about it at more length.

First comes a comment from Bennifer Lopez who comments on the post Lack of Penetration of Korean Literature in the US? Lopez posits 4 basic reasons for lack of success so far:

  1. Expat Koreans don’t care about Korea as they are bombarded by US influences
  2. The marketing is poor
  3. Koreans are racist domestically
  4. Korea is an “average” nation that should not expect to do better.

I think three of those points are either incorrect or inessential, but first here is the entire email:

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.

The first point is both incorrect and inessential, I think. It is fair enough to say that some Koreans assimilate and some do not. Equally fair to say that those who do not will likely not read books in translation, because if they are reading at all, they are still reading in Korean. This leaves us with “assimilated” Koreans, some of whom may fall into the MTV’d category that Bennifer Lopez discusses. But lets look at the numbers here and we discuss that the number of these folks  is too small to be important. The population percentage of Koreans in the US  is under half of one percent . Even if every single one of these people were to read Korean works in translation, this is not enough. 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 their (silly, in my mind) focus on the Nobel Prize for literature.

This analysis also leaves out the influence of  ‘influencers,’ those who lead markets by their commitment. Here, I suspect, the near-fanatacism of some kyopo probably helps them punch beyond their weight, though I must admit I have only a theoretical belief in that (i.e. no numbers to back me up).  Oh the other hand, some kyopo (as Bennifer Lopez seems to be) do have very bad experiences in Korea, and there is no way to judge what kind of influencers they might be. For the moment, I mention this argument, but am not quite sure what to make of it.^^

The second point, that marketing has failed, is completely valid and is one of the key points I try to make on this blog.

The third point, that racist Koreans treat foreigners poorly, is inexact and inessential. I think that even the Korean government is aware that Korea (as most nations) has plenty of progress yet to be made towards multicultural understanding, but that process is well underway. However, 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. Toss German literature in there if you want another, perhaps even more poisonous example. Translated literature is EXTERNAL to on the ground realities. It is a floating intellectual thingie (LOL – now that’s precise) that hovers above nation-states to some extent.  Also, the numbers here are insignificant (about 50,000 at any one time, including teachers and military). Turn off every single foreigner who has ever been in Korea, and you still have a massive majority of  ‘unspoiled’ potential readers. Then, you also have to take in the foreigners like me, who have had a splendid time in Korea and avidly champion its literature (the difference between influencers and ordinary joes). At worst that’s a wash, and the aggregate numbers are  unimportant. And again, 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.

The last argument, that Korea should be judged by the standard of other “average” nations, is deeply flawed for two reasons. First, some of the nations Lopez picks are not comparable to Korea, and yet, even simple analysis shows that these nations are outperforming Korea in terms of awareness. Really, comparing Korea 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 versus industrialised nation), 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.

Even if you were to accept the incorrect notion that Korea should judge its success against these nations, you discover that Korea is performing well under their average – so, plenty of room in which to improve, even if Korea (as it never will) were to accept being judged as ‘average.’

What does this all mean to me?  Opportunity. But the key to taking advantage of this opportunity is partly to understand what the actual problems are. In this case, Bennifer Lopez, hits above the Mendoza Line, but just barely.^^

10 thoughts on “Mailbag1: Does ethnic Korean domestic racism and overseas indifference doom translation?

  1. Charles,

    You have to realize that the vast majority of America does not consider South Korea to be the hub of Asia. Nor the rest of the world for that matter. Native Koreans mostly hang onto this hyperbolic self-elevation of their own nation.

    My point is that Korea is not well-represented in the American media. Majority of America have a sense of what China, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Vietnam are like based on movies and extensive documentaries and media news reports, but Korea also seems to be this “invisible country” to the American mass media.

    Take a look at Japan: You know what a kimono looks like, what sushi looks and tastes like, what the samurai are, and so forth. You can’t say the same for Korea. Sure Korea’s most famous world brand is “kimchi,” but outside of that most non-Koreans would be hard-pressed to identify anything specific about Korea outside of that.

    Is k-pop taking off in other countries? Is that just a niche market in Europe and Japan, or is it “AS BIG” as the Korean media hype it up to be?

    The average joe American doesn’t even know where Korea is located on the map nor even know that Hyundai, LG, and Samsung are Korean companies. You have your answer right there plain as day.

  2. Dear Bennifer (My God, that sounds terrible!^^),

    Glad to see you came back. I think everything you say in this comment is true. In fact, much of what you said in your previous comment is sensible, but it just doesn’t have a big impact on translation success.

    it is true Korea isn’t a hub – I’d argue it is taken as far less of a hub than it should be. And I absolutely agree with you that hyperbolic self-assessment does nothing to help with that.

    You rightly note K-pop as an area which, while regionally successful, has been lauded far more than it should be. In fact, I’d say Korean movies are the quality export of the moment – well, that and anything manufactured that isn’t by Apple.^^

    The rest of what you say represents the problem to be overcome. Japan was in an exactly analagous position in the 60’s and made the leap. With respect to the Chaebol — it is funny to note that they don’t emphasize being Korean at all.. a recent study had 50% of college students identifying Samsung as Japanese. Chaebol are fine with this as it drive sales. Shameful.

    The trick is to do what Japan did in goods, movies, and literature (it might be fairer today to say goods, movies and music, but I LIKE literature!) and hop into that international consciousness. I think this can be done and while addressing some of the other social problems you have alluded to.

    On my Facebook page a clever friend said it like this (and it took me a minute to get what he was saying):

    I would argue that Korean translations are not unknown because of a PR failure — rather, the translations are failures because they are meant to be PR.

    Get out of that mindset, let the translation gates open, then follow the market.

    But, you know, no one ever listens to me.^^

  3. Here are my thoughts regarding the 4 points offered as to the failure of Korean literature in translation:

    “1.Expat Koreans don’t care about Korea as they are bombarded by US influences
    2.The marketing is poor
    3.Koreans are racist domestically
    4.Korea is an “average” nation that should not expect to do better.”

    Going backwards:

    #4 ROK is one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, per capita. It is not average in terms of wealth, or in terms of any economic data.

    And that is relevant because literature is a function of leisure time.

    I would never expect that the residents of Central African Republic, or Mali, or Laos could produce much literature. The residents there must focus on obtaining calories, and survival in the face of hostile conditions, both man-made and natural.

    ROK is at the polar opposite with the bulk of all countries, and given its enormous wealth and a population size that is not minute (unlike Monaco, for example), there should be a wide variety of leisure time goods and services produced, including literature.

    #3 Probably so. And yet, so what?

    Russians are intensely racist, and have produced world-renowned literature. Japanese are pretty racist, and have done well regarding literature.

    Germans are racist; they elected and worshipfully followed a leader who promised to exterminate a minority group on the base of race, and even now one of the most universally hated racists in the world is a German, to the point that his forename can not anymore even be used in many countries. Yet, Germany has produced quality literature.

    South Africa was highly racist, and yet produced Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink, and many other brillian writers during that period of racism.

    If anything, racism can be a positive for literature, because most stories are based on conflict, and racism provides such conflict.

    #2 This is the key issue.

    #1 This is a minor issue, but not non-existent issue.

    Expat Koreans could serve as a useful vehicle to encourage Korean lit in translation.

    They also would serve as a logical supply source for translators, given their exposure to both languages.

    But, they are not essential, although it would be easier with them.

    To the other points made by Bennifer,

    well, they are true (Americans do not know where Korea is, do not know or like its food, etc.).

    They are also irrelevant.

    Genre fiction success does not rest on that.

    Americans are so illiterate that they have little sense of Britain, and certainly of its internal geography.

    Americans have no idea where Surrey, England is. Yet, that did not harm in any way the success of Harry Potter books, and the fact that the Dursleys lived in Surrey did not detract from the population of Harry Potter.

    Well-crafted stories are what drives literature, and genre fiction relies less on a knowledge of the customs and mores of a society than lit fic.

    In fact, Korea with its war history and DMZ would be a good location for a thriller, or a mystery, or a military fiction, or a romance.

    So, the fact that Americans may never like makchang or kimchi is true; yet Americans do not like toad-in-the-hole either, yet love Miss Marple.

    Koreans do need to focus on what is realistic, rather than on lit fic.

  4. I agree with Charles – racism is good for literature. Very good. That actually seems like a rather obvious point, and I would like to read a book about racism in Korea. There’s a lot that could be included.

    I heard there’s one coming soon called The Dog Farm… Haha.

  5. You pretty much have to give any Korean literature the kind of mass public awareness at the level of “The Wizard of Oz,” “Harry Potter,” or “Disney fables” in order to achieve global-wide awareness and appeal.

    But the majority of world media is skewed from the perspective of anglophiles, so let’s say China becomes even bigger than it is now and smaller Asian nations like South Korea can latch onto that wave and promote other popular aspects of its country such as k-pop and Korean cuisine, then perhaps down the road Korean literature may gain more exceptance in the west.

    South Korea also has to overcome the negative image of North Korea and that is quite a hurdle considering most of the world thinks of the communist regime first when they even begin to ponder the existence of this peninsula.

    South Korea has to become more world-wide popular with a positive image and a good global PR campaign to lay the foundation for this to be even a possibility. Even the simplest of Korean literature needs a vast overview introduction of the expansive Korean history to its readers in relation to the rest of the world’s events, and that is no small feat. There is no doubt about the fact this is a Herculean under-taking.

    Until then I bid your mission in life well.

  6. Regarding the points by Bennifer:

    “South Korea also has to overcome the negative image of North Korea ”

    I would strongly disagree. From the perspective of marketing literature, having a deranged and extremely secretive neighbor actually helps.

    Think of Boo Radley from “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Hannibal Lecter, in terms of the appeal to readers.

    Marketing Korean genre literature is helped by having the world’s most bizarre and hyper-paranoid state next door.

    ” Even the simplest of Korean literature needs a vast overview introduction of the expansive Korean history to its readers in relation to the rest of the world’s events”


    A detective mystery does not require such a knowledge.

    Erotica does not; Koreans cannot be that erotically different than all other humanity.

    A thriller does not. Just create a ripping story, and throw in some DPRK crazies.

    A simple boy girl romance does not.

    The only genres that require a deep knowledge of Korean culture are some highly introspective literary fiction, and perhaps some highly historically referential abstract modernist works. Such works are often popular with literati, but never achieve much readership, frankly.

    Korean literature needs to focus on genre fiction to achieve readership.

    What about a good science fiction novel? That could do quite well, if it is well-written.

  7. I’m just going to jump right back in with this comment:

    Korean literature is a niche movement in the west. And, you have to take that into fact considering Korea is not on most people’s radars in America, sad to say. But, that fact has been covered countless times, so let’s not beat a dead horse…

    I myself have a great aunt who immigrated to the United States back when JFK was alive and President of the United States. I had a conversation with her back in ’03, and she told me that it took her years to get financing for her play about the plight of the Korean comfort women during the Japanese annexation of Korea in the early part of the 20th century.

    So, yeah you guys really have a lot of work cut out for you in convincing the mainstream to embrace Korean lit. Are there any recognizable Korean writers who can be name dropped like Samuel Clemens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Stephen King, Rudyard Kipling, J.K. Rowling, Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, Clive Cussler, etc. to name a few over the decades…

    Most of mainstream nowadays are attracted to other countries’ “attractions” mainly in the form of tourism, music, movies, tv shows, clothing, and especially food. Sure, Korea has penetrated the west through electronics, k-pop, korean cuisine, and commercial films, but those are “niche interests” still. Korean lit is even further down the rung on that list. You really have to grab those “literature-files” out there to gain any interest in it, and how many of them are you willing to bet you’ll find them in countries like the US, Canada, England, and Australia?

    Korean literature is a niche within a niche within a niche. A sub-genre enchrenched within a sub-genre enchrenched within a genre for those people who are even interested in this particular genre in the first place.

    But, keep up the good fight! If you think about it, it’s almost like Spanky running for mayor by standing on one of those soap boxes and giving a speech in the middle of a barn to a bunch of scraggly neighborhood kids in the “Our Gang” shorts.

    Yes, that horse ain’t moving and we are still kicking…

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