Why South Koreans should be careful deciding what Literature is Translated

This article from “Sound and Sight” in 2005 reveals that:

If there is one piece of South Korean literature that should be translated into other languages, it has to be Pak Kyong-nis novel cycle “Land” (book review here). That’s the result of a survey conducted in South Korea a few years ago.

This doesn’t sound insensible on the fact of it, until the article goes on to reveal:

“Land” … (is) … a national epic of almost overwhelming magnitude: the Korean original comprises 21 volumes and tells of the great revolutions in Korean society in the first half of the 20th century. Japanese, Europeans and Americans all forced their way into the country, putting an end to its isolation. … In the entire epic, more than 700 characters are introduced, 150 of which are central figures. The demise of tradition, the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, the collaboration with colonial rulers and the resistance against them are all reflected in the lives of these characters, each possessing his or her own personality, experiential horizon, and views. “Land” is a Korean masterpiece, which Pak Kyong-ni worked on for 25 years.

This is exactly the kind of thing that should NEVER be translated into English unless by an obsessed student of Korean Literature/Culture who understands that he is only translating for a handful of similar obsessives who will read the work once, then return it to its dusty library shelf (perhaps “shelves” in the case of this voluminous work). Translating a work like this, insanely complicated and long, is a manifestation of what Charles La Shure calls “cultural evangelism” as opposed to what translation should (largely at least) do, which is “literary evangelism.”

“Land” is a social history primer which the author admits is “of almost overwhelming magnitude” and thus unlikely to be read for the mere reading of the thing. The desire to translate such a book is actually the desire to translate a culture; to say, “look, this is Korea and this is who we are and how we bot there.”

In no way do I mean to say that this message is not a proper function of literature, rather I’m saying there are more succinct, portable (21 volumes!), and friendly (150 main characters? This makes Russian literature seem downright accessible) ways to accomplish the same thing. Even “Three Generations” by Yom Sang-seop, which arguably sets itself the same task as “Land,” is only 476 pages – a reader could consider carrying “Three Generations” around without risking some sort of spinal cord injury!

Please — in translation pick works that are of average length and interesting for literary reasons and not cultural ones. When Star-Trek days are here, and all literature can be translated instantaneously by a “Universal Translator” (So, that picture to the right is not some kind of nasty electronic novelty, ok?) we can work on 21-volume sets. For now can we translate things that we think readers will look at?

The rest of the article discusses translations into German. This is useful to see what has not yet been translated into English, but not much more for an English reader.

2 thoughts on “Why South Koreans should be careful deciding what Literature is Translated

  1. The newspaper is not making the distinction between "What Koreans would like" vs. "What Koreans should"… Land is an epic already translated into German (and I am not sure if it's a block buster), and some Koreans are not yet content… In my sincerity, I believe the novel is an epic masterpiece. However, translating it is like translating Shakespear's plays into Korean without losing the iambic pentameter… I suggest they translate more short stories.

  2. Dear Anonymous..
    (who I suspect might be the translator?)

    Yeah, the lack of would/should distinction is exactly what worries me. All translation should proceed from "should." πŸ˜‰

    Also, I'm not sure Shakespeare's ouvre and LAND are an exact comparison, since each of Shakespeare's plays is a stand alone (with rare exceptions which I will shortly post on the blog proper) and with 150 main characters I can't see that LAND was intended to be separate works rather, perhaps, the ultimate serial. OTOH I'm ready to be corrected on this, since this is exactly why I have the blog. πŸ˜‰

    But.. yeah, short stories good!

Leave a Reply