Will the ‘Publishing Gate’ Close for Translated Korean Literature?

An interesting article in the JoongAng Daily about the increasing success of Korean fiction in the English language. The article corectly notes:

Translation issues, cultural barriers, lack of strategic marketing, absence of overseas networks have all been hurdles for the international success of Korean literature

The article names, of course, Kim Young-ha.  It also talks a bit about the role Imprima Publishing is playing in this success:

Imprima was also behind the distribution of “Your Republic Is Calling You” and “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” by contemporary writer Kim Young-ha, 42, in 11 countries, including the United States. The former ranked as high as 38th on Amazon.com’s best-sellers list, becoming the first Korean novel to reach the world’s largest online bookstore’s top 100 in its “Literature & Fiction” section.

And this is true, but what that tricky “Imprima was also behind the distribution,” neglects to make clear is that ALL of the books mentioned in this article were actually published by overseas publishers.  I would ask why in the name of God does Imprima apparently NOT have an English website? In any case, as I have argued elsewhere, and credit should go to them for doing that. It is a wise approach, because these large english-speaking firms do address all of the problems noted in the first quote.

However, on the heels of this there is also this article in the Los Angeles Times which notes the decreased role of publishers as gatekeepers. This might be an unfortunate thing for Korean Literature, actually, as it is just starting to be able to get through the gate. If  that publisher  gate closes before Korean Literature is truly “in” it is difficult to sea how Korea will navigate the new world. The article suggests that the new, more open, gate is going to be the internet, but this gets us back to the problem of how Korea markets itself overseas.  I note reading the article, that the authors being interviewed about internet sales are already successful – so they are already ‘marketed’ so to speak.

Korean literature would fall back to Koreans marketing it (or worse, individual authors with no handle on English), an approach which has not had much recent success. Perhaps worse, this would likely be done on the “Korean” internet – meaning lots of Active-X, websited that do not work on Firefox or Macintoshes, and taking place on Naver, Daum, and other internet portals that are completely parallel to the English-language internet and not intersective of it.  Some Korean authors who are internet savvy, again Kim Young-ha comes to mind, would do fine in this environment, but many others would fall back.

Then, Korea would virtually have to go back to a government sponsored translation model (because the talent resides there) with all the problems and unmet goals that this approach has already lead to in Korean literature; with poor translation choices made, poor publishing choices made, and poor marketing choices made.

There is, of course, another possibility – that the amazing speed of change in Korea, that Korea’s amazing commitment to internet technology and it’s apparent move towards more international standards (twitter, facebook, what have you), will actually uniquely position Korea to do this translation work. Sites such as Nanoomi.net are already pushing this kind of model forward, and if the amazing power of Korean netizens could be marshalled for good, there is no telling what might happen.

But I fear the default position, if publisher influence recedes, will be to go back to governmentalized translation approaches.

2 thoughts on “Will the ‘Publishing Gate’ Close for Translated Korean Literature?

  1. The problem with reaching a wider audience via the internet is not just that it would all be on Korean websites (Naver is blocked from google searches, isn’t it?) but that the cultural agencies with the funding to sponsor translations into English would, no doubt, choose all the totally wrong pieces to translate, in the same way (and probably for the same reasons) they constantly choose the wrong foods to promote, and then promote them the wrong way.

    What do you mean, a charming collection of intriguing short stories with a little off-color content? There’s a 17-volume epic to be completed!

  2. I recall Korean entrepreneurs grumbling about why they can’t promote, let alone sell, anything outside of Korea unless it has SamSung, Hyundai, or LG logo on it. I was ear dropping and obviously I wasn’t alone. Gentleman from next table tossed in his two cents.(err… 20 Won) “Give it to Japanese, they have know-how to promote plain rock as a diamond. Korean? We are good at promoting diamond as a rock!” I chuckled because I remember same argument back in the 80’s. Fast forward to 2000s, I’ve noticed so many English literatures translated literally overnight as soon as book makes it to New York Times Bestseller list. Yet, I can’t find translated Korean literature let it be 1 year, 10 years, even 100 years since the first publication.. Japanese literature is slowly, but surely grabbing interest of English readers. Books by Murakami and Kirino are good example. As a result, more readers are seeking translated Japanese books. Translated Korean and Chinese modern literatures are pretty much none existence. Perhaps both nations can’t see a literature as a marketable good, while Japanese does. This brings back to grumbling entrepreneurs’ argument. Should two nation handover country’s top 10 best sellers to Japanese publishing company to translate and promote. Sadly, this is unthinkable for both Korean and Chinese. For me? I wish there’s translated version of 대한제국 일본 침락 사.


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