The Three Percent Dissolution: How to fail at “International Literature” from the University of Rochester

Garbage in, Garbage out?

The “Three Percent” website just put out a press release announcing its nominations for the best translated literature of the previous year. Here is the first paragraph of the press release:

The 25-title fiction longlist for the 2011 Best Translated Book Awards was announced this morning at Three Percent—a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester.

Who are these folks? This is what they say:

Three Percent launched in the summer of 2007 with the lofty goal of becoming a destination for readers, editors, and translators interested in finding out about modern and contemporary international literature.

And that is why it  is interesting to note what is NOT on their list –  There are no novels from any Asian nation, which of course means no novels from Korea. This made me wonder if Rochester even knew about Korean fiction.

I scrolled back for the entire year’s worth of reviews and did not find a review of any translated Korean fiction. This year, that means they overlooked Kim Young-ha’s “Your Republic is Calling You,” which seems to speak to a kind of willful ignorance by the University. I went back another year and still found no reviews. This also means that they somehow managed to not review Pak Wan-suh’s “Who Ate Up All the Shinga,” which is also a kind of stunning achievement in the field of international literary ignorance.^^

It is not that they don’t know these books were published, as both are in the Excel databases of translations that the site maintains. So, either Rochester does not think these works are up to snuff (which I would argue with, but is at least a legitimate critical stance) or they don’t care to review Korean works.

My question, which I tried to ask obliquely on their website,  is if they are unaware of these works? That is, they note that these works exist in their database, but perhaps the works don’t make a real impression in their collective head? If that is true, some of the responsibility likely falls back on Korea for its so-s0 job at marketing its translated works. Either way, this seems like another project – to keep the folks at Rochester thinking, at least, about Korean literature in translation.

A Hat-tip to commenter Charles for catching this, and making some other clever observations in a comment on the previous post.

3 thoughts on “The Three Percent Dissolution: How to fail at “International Literature” from the University of Rochester

  1. I would note that the point you make “some of the responsibility likely falls back on Korea for its so-so job at marketing its translated works” is exactly right.

    It is certainly true that works by Western authors are more likely to be translated, to be translated well, and to be received well after publication in English.

    Yet, that is not the whole story, given that English is no longer exclusively the language of nations populated by those from the British Isles, but is no the lingua franca of the world.

    Korean is a minority language in the world.

    So, a comparison might be made with other minority languages.

    Finnish, for example. Finland supports a regular publication [http://www.booksfromfinland.fi/] that puts Finnish literature into translation and hence in front of the world.

    And, one sees that Finnish writers (such as, for example are well-received.

    Or Estonian, an even more obscure language has something similar — {ttp://www.estlit.ee/]

    Or Dutch — http://www.nlpvf.nl/

    Now, for Korean, let us see what we have……http://www.klti.or.kr/eng/

    Look at the page for that institute and what does one see….a reference to a “Trasnlation Academy”.

    Does it inspire confidence when this Institute cannot even spell the word “Translation” on its own website?

    The rest of the website shows it to be non-useful and very stale in its contents.

    As to the dearth of other Asian works, well, it does seem that most Asian countries are essentially uninterested in their literature being translated.

    The dearth of translations into English for literature from Thai, or Malay (either Malaysian, Indonesian, or Singaporean) or Mongolian, or Mongolian, etc. is noticeable.

    Chinese literature faces problems because PRC literature faces censorship, and is therefore less interesting to most foreign readers. However, Taiwanese literature, which faces no censorship, is essentially untranslated into English. The most interesting Chinese writers tend to be those who write in Western languages and are not subject to censorship.

    Even Japanese literature, which clearly has “made it” into the Western consciousness, is still hopelessly under-translated, with only a few specialty firms translating it, and generally only a few very well-known Japanese authors being translated into English.

    So, I would say that a point to consider when thinking about why Korean literature does not receive literary praise in translation would be “why do Koreans care so little about their literature being translated into the world’s lingua franca”?

    Iceland, a tiny country of less than 1 million people seemingly cares more than the Republic of Korea ) which has major ties with the West and especially the USA in a variety of economic and political venues.

    Korea with its enormous wealth has the ability to have its literature be translated, and would seem to have some incentives to do so so as to engender a better understanding with its global partners.

    Moreover, there are large populations of Korean emigrants and expatriates in English-speaking lands who could be mobilized to fund and participate.

    Korean literature in translation is now the province of arcane specialists; it would need a very different approach if it hopes to be more than that.

    Are Koreans in ROK very proficient in English? Does that have a bearing on the question?

    I find that Japanese, notwithstanding their years of English language study in many cases, are essentially illiterate in English even after having studied it for 10 years or more.

    I think that in the case of Japan, their flawed foreign language educational system does have a bearing on why Japanese literature is still disproportionately not translated into English. Not that I am expert on the issue.

  2. Many good points…. I’m gonna grab this one and answer it on the main page.. soon..hard to tell when as I will be taking a short sojourn to the Land of the Failing Empire…. (LOL – not Egypt!)

  3. Pingback: Here we go again: 160 books nominated for international award? Zero are Korean |

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