Nobel Literature Prize: South Korea waits another year, or maybe 20?

Ko Un

“Wait Til’ Next Year!”

When Alice Munro won the Nobel Peace Prize last night over candidates including Korean poet Ko Un, who had been rising in the odds (up to third place behind Murukami and Munro according to this recent article), it meant another year of speculation in Korea as to when, and if, it’s Nobel Prize literary breakthrough would come. The problem is, that due to demographic realities, the current window for a Korean author winning the prize may be closing.

Korean literature must overcome several obstacles to win, one set of tactical obstacles which are being overcome, and a bigger demographic obstacle which will come sometime, but likely in the near  future.

The first problem is that Korean literature has to be translated to be considered for the prize, and not that much of it really has been translated. This is a dual problem. First it leaves Korean literature unknown in general, which cripples its casual or conversational consideration for the prize. Second, lack of translation handicaps specific authors who do not have the bulk of work translated necessary to appear a heavy hitter on the international literary scene.

How unknown is Korean literature? Consider the number of translations recently. Last year, only two or three works were translated into English (Although this year promises to be epically better, with one excellent collection already out and the Dalkey Archive Press / LTI Korea collection of 25 books coming out over the next two years.
Somewhere in some conference notes I find these (un-cited) numbers:

*In 20 years 2,340 Translations into 27 different languages
*117 per year

And most of those books had no impact, in fact many have never left Korean shores. As  noted translator Brother Anthony notes in the Christian Science Monitor:

That is exactly the point I have been making for years. They will publish anywhere, places with no reputation. Anything goes as long as they can see it is published.”

And this has lead to thousands of “translated” books wasting away in basements and storage areas across Korea, or collecting dust in academic libraries overseas. To look at the international Nielsen reports for book publication is to note that most of the commercial book world has little or no idea of the Korean works translated, meaning those works never washed up on foreign shores.

In the Christian Science Monitor, Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio , who is a fan of Korean literature, notes another technical problem: “(Clezio) says its potential for popularity is harmed by the three-to-four-year time lag in foreign language translations.” And Clezio’s estimate of the lag is a rather polite one, with the lag often reaching up to 10 years in time.

So, many technical problems stand in the way of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The good news is that all of these problems are known and discussed, and at different rates, they seem to be being overcome. Changes in LTI Korea have been awesome, Korea (including LTI) has gotten much better at choosing and working with overseas partners (witness the success of Shin Kyung-sook), and other problems including cultural gatekeeping are grinding away at refreshing speed.

However, if recent speculation (by literary touts and book-makers) preceding the awards is to be believed these historical problems have left Korean literature in a spot in which Ko Un is the only Korean author who is currently under any kind of consideration for the prize. Chang-Rae Lee, who was born in Korea (but is a naturalized US citizen), is also in the oddsmakers lists, but he is not even in the top 50 authors spoken of, and Ladbrokes puts his odds at 100/1.

Which brings us to problem #2, which is far more daunting,


Yi Munyol

Problem #2 a far bigger issue on the immediate horizon, and it is not necessarily a problem that can be out-thought, or battled through. This issue is demographic. The biggest future problem that Korea faces in winning a Nobel Prize for Literature may be the requirement that the author needs to be alive to win the prize. In recent years many great authors, some published in adequate number for consideration, have died. Pak Wan-so, the great female writer died two years ago. Hwang Sun-won, a writer of immense breadth and talent died over a decade ago. Ku Sang, an estimable poet who was translated by one of Ko Un’s translators, the indefatigable Brother Anthony, died just less that a decade ago. Some of the truly great ones are gone, and while Ko Un is seemingly healthy and inexhaustible, he is also 80 years old. With luck he becomes a centenarian in his time, but if not, one more candidate loses the requirement.

The unfortunate thing is that as the old guard is fading out,  there does not seem to be a wave of newer authors, appropriately translated ones, in any case, ready to pick up the flag of literary battle.

In my mind, which is focused on works already translated into other languages (primarily English, French, Spanish, and

Shin Kyung-sook

Shin Kyung-sook

other languages that make works accessible to the committee), only Yi Mun-yol waits to fill in the gap. Yi fits some of the official (alive) and unofficial (breadth of work, unlikely to change path now, previous political rebel, etc..) requirements of the committee, but given Yi’s out of tune in Korea political stance for 30 years, it is unlikely he would be able to gather up the kind of national support that would help a campaign for his place on the list of contenders.

So who are the new wave of Korean authors? Young. Very Young. Shin Kyung-sook and Kim Young-ha pop to mind for quite different reasons, but they are, by Nobel standards, still wet behind the ears, and don’t have enough works translated, and maybe not enough works written. Kim recognizes this when he admits:

“Honestly, Korean writers, including Shin and I, still have a long way to go,” said novelist Kim Young-ha (author of 1996 bestselling Korean novel “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself”).

So.. for the foreseeable future, Korea’s hope seems likely to rest on Ko Un’s aging shoulders. If he does not receive the Prize, it seems likely there will be a lacuna in discussion of Korean authors as the new wave of them work there way into the ranks of the internationally famous.

Kim Young-ha

Kim Young-ha

So, next year, cross your fingers and vote Ko Un!

ON A SEMI-OPTIMISTIC SIDE NOTE: I might speculate that the win by Alice Munro is not a terrible thing for Korea’s chances, particularly Ko Un’s, in the next few years. Munro is female, white, and an English writer, all things that Ko Un is not. Further, an internationally local writer such as Murakami did not win. These are both good results in that the committee often tries to ‘balance’ out its roster of winners across time and demographic, and a local win might have turned eyes away from the region, particularly after Mo Yan (China) won last year. On the other hand, Munro’s win covers a lot of demographic (white writers in English) that, if considered put aside for a bit, would open up the field for Ko, or other writers who can be portrayed in contrast to Munro.

So.. not saying no chance… just worrying that window is closing..

One thought on “Nobel Literature Prize: South Korea waits another year, or maybe 20?

Comments are closed.