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:
- Expat Koreans don’t care about Korea as they are bombarded by US influences
- The marketing is poor
- Koreans are racist domestically
- 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.^^