The Importance of Genre in Translating Korean Literature

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This was a very rough draft of a paper which will be given at a conference in two weeks. The final paper will certainly have some of the comments in previous posts added in in some form or the other. Feel free to attack this brutally!^^

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“genre” filter serves as a brief and necessarily sketchy reminder of the vital importance of assessing the genre-membership of texts, and discovering their genre-related characteristics (Hervey et. al. p 217)

One of the less explored relationships between translation and success of that translation is that between genre and impact in the target culture. This paper will discuss the role of genre on several levels. On the macro level it will explore the fits, and misfits, between Korean literary and English-language genres and how this impacts choices of translations and their successes. At the micro level, this paper will briefly discuss how genre affects translation at the most granular level.

Some Macro Concerns

The macro level has to do with success and it derives from the observation, first anecdotally, that works from Korean into English that had a comfortable genre into which they could settle, were easier for the author to read. This led to speculation that others might feel the same way.

Certainly, in reading Kim Young-ha’s Photo Shop Murder, the author of this paper was lulled into a relatively comfortable state by the first line, “Why do murders always seem to happen on Sundays.” To a westerner this was the familiar voice of the hard-edged detective – Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, or even the more modern James Rockford.

This recognition led to a line of informal research that initially focused on the excellent Jimoondang/KLTI series of 25 small novels, novellas, and short stories. Looking at the Amazon success rates of at these stories one thing was clear: Among the only five volumes to rank in the top two million on Amazon, a convenient “western” genre could be assigned to each. A majority of the remaining works were difficult to even assign to a genre.In an informal online canvass,three literary westerners currently in Korea could not even assign genres to many of the Jimoondang books that sank in the Amazon ratings.

On the other hand, when one starts to look at the recent successes in translated Korean literature, there is a uniform ability to assign a genre to those works that have been successful. The last two examples of this, of course, have been Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You and Shin Kyung-sook’s breakthrough Please Look After Mom. It is important to note that to some extent this might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is to say that the successful translations are also marked by other substantial similarities: They are published outside of Korea; they are translated by a small group of translators who frequently seem to achieve success and, perhaps most critical; they are published by major publishing firms and have strong marketing support in the English-speaking world. These similarities, however, are clustered around the works that can be genred, precisely because these are the works a good translator and foreign publisher would choose. A quick look the New York Times Bestseller List reveals that un-genred works are absent even for writers of English.

There is another point to consider, and one that is presented here, for the moment, as anecdotal. That is that, in the old U.S. economic saw, “a floating tide raises all boats.” And this seems to be true with genred success in Korean translation. When Park Wan-so’s Who Ate Up All The Shinga became a minor success in English, it buoyed up all her other translated works (again, as measured on Amazon ratings). When Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You became a larger hit, it buoyed up all his other translated works. Most likely any collection containing works from Shin Kyung-sook will shortly undergo the same phenomenon. In fact, this will likely work across Korean translated literature in general, as Amazon and Barnes and Noblehave a recommendation feature that suggests similar literature to browsers. Successes in Korean translated literature will, in this way, lead to other, related successes.

There are other genre issues as well, and ones that don’t seem to always occur to translators or translation institutes. Consider the highest level of genre for literature: Novel; short story, or; poetry. It is received wisdom in the west that short story collections simply do not sell as well as novels. In 2007 Newsweek noted:

There’s no doubt that short fiction has disappeared from the zeitgeist. Today, stories are communicated to wide audiences only if they’re made into movies. Any publisher will attest that short story collections don’t sell well.

And yet Korea, as a translating entity, has spent millions of won on translating collections of short stories (most of which suffer from the lack of western genre which is the general topic of this paper). Deeply involved readers of translated Korean modern literature are happy that these works exist, but would scarcely recommend them to friends, both based on content and form. It is also worth noting that these collections of short stories tend to contain massive amounts of content repetition. An example that I frequently use is the Korean classic, Buckwheat Season. This work is in at least six anthologies, in fact, it has an anthology dedicated to it alone; Buckwheat Season reproduced in five languages in one slender volume. Even if a reader is tempted to purchase short story collections, they might sensibly be wary of unknown collections of Korean fiction (this problem is amplified by the fact that author names are frequently Romanized differently and the same stories sometimes get different titles). And Buckwheat Season is also a classic example of a story that has no genre in the west. It might be called “romantic/bucolic” in Korean, but since Thoreau died in the United States, that genre has faded into obscurity. A great work in Korean, a great work for serious students of Korean culture or literature, a work that should never be translated again.

In fact, the only genre for which short stories should be translated is the “best stories of..” and academic anthologies. Why? Because these short story genres have built in audiences. The “best of” compilations appeal to a small demographic, but a loyal one. Academic anthologies, on the other hand, are forced on students, but eyes can be opened this way, nonetheless. Even given these audiences, the stories submitted should be genred (or exceptional) in a way that lends itself to Western audiences.

What happens when good genred work is translated? Figure 1 shows traffic for the last year for, a website dedicated to Korean literature in translation. By going back and checking the spikes on the graph against the daily posts, it is immediately clear that all the spikes were driven by news, in the Western world, of authors who hit genres, In this case Kim Young-ha and Shin Kyung-sook. When a genred work is released, it also releases general interest.

KTLIT Traffic

Figure 1: KTLIT Traffic

Genres, it turns out, are important. Thus it comes as no surprise that Please Look After Mom is such an epic success, already, in the United States. It fits nicely into the Amy Tan / Oprah niche of stories of sainted/interesting mothers. As Joseph Lee, president of KL Management, the firm dealing with the copyright for the novel notes:

“Mom is universal material for a novel because everyone has a mom. And every one loses mom some how. That feeling of loss resonates with people not only in the U.S. but in other countries,” Lee told The Korea Herald. (Kim Yoon-mi)

Which is true as far as it goes, but remember, this version is genred in a way English speakers will get. On the other hand, the “loss” of the mother in Yi Pom-son’s Stray Bullet to madness, the pre-existing loss of the mother in Hwan Sun-won’s Stars or the hideously ironic loss of a mother portrayed by Kim Yong-ik in his Mother’s Birthday? These land in no comfortable arena for English speaking readers, and thus are difficult to read, more difficult to digest, and in Stray Bullet, at least, for incomprehensible reasons to most English speaking readers.

Moving to the Micro Level

The fact that genres are related to success and consequently should be considered in translation also has impacts on the translation process, from choice of translator to choice of translation process, even to consideration of the impacts that genres might have on idiom and trope usage. First let us consider the importance of translator. Please Look After Mom has been a massive success, but as translator Chi-young Kim notes. “Korean novels can meander and repeat words or phrases or parts of scenes, but that doesn’t translate well into English. It tends to read like a mistake. (Chung)” Korean novels often also don’t always end up at a point. These realities break conventions in modern English literature. Chi-young Kim (successful on four successive translations) is aware of this and makes adjustment. In fact, in an interview with she notes that she has been lucky to work only with living authors, which makes emendation much easier.

Chi-young Kim also notes that when she translated Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You, she was frequently forced to resort to Kim Young-ha to understand aspects of Kim’s post-modern genre:

Kim Young-ha’s books, for example, contained scenes around card games/hwatu, cars, sports, and video games. Stereotypically, I know next to nothing about those topics, so a major concern was conveying those scenes authentically. So, for example, I didn’t know anything about StarCraft, and in Your Republic Is Calling You, there is a whole section detailing the action on someone’s computer screen. I looked up the terminology of different characters and weapons, did a draft of that section, then found someone who plays StarCraft to read it over and give me pointers. That person edited that section with the language StarCraft aficionados use.

In essence, Chi-young Kim used “multiple” target culture editors, but she didn’t do this in order to check the grammar or structure of her work, instead she was concerned that the language be appropriate for the work’s genre and/or niche.

Finally, and a small point, but one that needs to be clear, the choice of genres to translate also has impact on the technical translation process. Some idioms, tropes, grammatical structure, etc. are tightly tied to their genres. Consider even the simplest idiom in Korean, “licking the outside of the watermelon.” If this is were used in the Korean pastoral/romantic genre (particularly) this needs to be taken into account in translation. It might be tempting to translate this as “beating round the bush” in English, except that is a very non agrarian idiom, as it is redolent of rifles, feudal class structure, and pheasants on the rise. Translating a genred work, as suggested above by Chi Young-kim, requires a translator with command of the idiom of the genre.


In many ways, it might be that this paper is being obsoleted at the time of its own delivery. The last year in translation of Korean modern literature has been a watershed year. The last two years, really. Success has followed success.

Still, it seems not a waste of time to look at issues like the role of genre, or for that matter why overseas marketing of Korean literature is not the default approach, here in Korea. This is where many of us live. We are the people most deeply interested and involved in translated Korean literature, and while overseas successes are grand, it is the mission of everyone here to increase those successes.

With that in mind, it is good to have discussions that help us maximize success. The message today is simple. Consider genre when choosing works to translate, who should translate them, and how they should be translated.

The message not given here today is also simple. Marketing is NOT all, and the desire of Koreans to express their culture, both in differences and similarities, is no different from the desire of any other nation. Don’t stop translating non-genre, difficult, or historically specific work. Korean modern literature has been intensely a national literature and that reflects the nation. But be wise on how to get that literature out there. And part of that wisdom begins in understanding what is likely to work and what is likely to fail.

Very few westerners began eating hanshik with 홍어 and while Koreans in general, the government, and newspapers note with approbation the impact of 한류 they seldom seem concerned that it is largely composed of relatively lightweight pop-culture. Pansori, so to speak, is not selling in Thailand.

The same should be true of the introduction of Korean literature to the west. Begin with what works, and make those things work for Korea. It was only 40 years ago that Japanese literature landed in the west; now Tom Cruise can be a Samurai. Continue the successes of recent translations by following the genre trail for a period, and Korean literature, along with its food and products, will assume a fitting place in the international world of literature.

So to your palette of tools, says someone who generally sits on the sideline, to those of you here who do the real work, consider adding the genre filter.

5 thoughts on “The Importance of Genre in Translating Korean Literature

  1. Good good good good!

    I may have some deeper thoughts later, but for now those are my thoughts.

  2. Charles,

    Nice article–I enjoyed reading it very much.
    One thing, you spelled ‘Korean Wave’ wrong.
    It’s pronounced 할류 but actually spelled 한류,
    the 한 meaning Korea (한국)

  3. Dan,

    Thanks for catching that – this is actually acorrected version of what I sent to the conference proceedings. It was written in 2.5 hours in a haze of fever and wave of phlegm.. not exactly what I wanted, but Korean-style I heard of the deadline quite late. ^^

  4. Pingback: Kim Young-ha will rejoin the internet; has new translation coming

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