Rise of K-pop, K-drama, and now K-lit

Han Kang's Booker prize win for The Vegetarian is a boost for modern Korean literature and those in the industry hope people can appreciate the key role translators play

SEOUL • South Korean literature has been enjoying sporadic success overseas, which may have culminated in novelist Han Kang's Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian.

In Germany, for example, Jeong Yu Jeong's Seven Years Of Darkness ranked among the top 10 crime novels of 2015, and Koo Byung Mo's young adult novel, Wizard Bakery, sold 10,000 copies of its first edition in Mexico alone this year.

Last week, the United States' Arcade Publishing confirmed that it would publish Pyun Hye Young's novels, Ashes And Red and The Hole, next spring.

One key player in the introduction of Korean literature to foreign audiences is the state-run Literature Translation Institute of Korea, founded in 1996.

It has been especially active in the past few years, working with foreign publishers such as Dalkey Archive Press - an Illinois-based publisher that now carries a collection of translated Korean literature. It also publishes List, an English-language literary quarterly.

"We have many projects in motion," said the institute's president Kim Seong Kon. "We host translation workshops at Korean Studies departments of foreign universities, arrange for the students to meet Korean writers, organise forums on Korean literature and much more."

Han Kang's novel is a big win for modern Korean literature. The Penguin publication allows Korean classics to become known. Previously, the world was familiar with K-pop, Korean films and, more recently, fine art.

MR KIM SEONG KON, president of Literature Translation Institute of Korea

Through its extensive networking with foreign publishers, the institute is able to introduce significant works of translation to them.

In March, Britain's Penguin Classics published the English version of the Korean classic The Story Of Hong Gildong, translated by Kang Min Soo, with the support of the institute.

Known as the first Korean literary work to be written entirely in Hangeul, the Korean writing system, the classic is thought to date from the 16th to 17th centuries.

"Han Kang's novel is a big win for modern Korean literature. The Penguin publication allows Korean classics to become known," said Mr Kim. "Previously, the world was familiar with K-pop, Korean films and, more recently, fine art. We're better representing the Korean ethos and establishing a more balanced cultural identity now."

Han won the Man Booker International Prize with translator Deborah Smith. Those in the industry hope people will now appreciate the key role that translation plays in literature.

"I think there has been a tendency to view translation as a purely technical skill," said Sora Kim-Russell, who translated Pyun's Ashes And Red and The Hole into English.

"But with the achievements of translators such as Deborah Smith, recognition will continue to grow that it's also very much an artistic skill," said Kim-Russell, who has also translated Shin Kyung Sook's I'll Be Right There and Gong Ji Young's Our Happy Time into English.

"Deborah's win should hopefully make it even more evident how important a role a translator plays in bringing the voice of the writer to speakers of other languages," said translator Agnel Joseph.

The industry also anticipates a rush of foreign translators willing to take on the Korean language following Han's win.

"Previously, Korean and foreign translators had to work together in order to complete a literary translation," said Mr Lee Jung Hwa, an official at The Daesan Foundation, which partially funded the British publication of The Vegetarian. "But nowadays, we are seeing more and more foreign translators who work alone because they themselves are proficient in Korean."

The hope is that publishers will no longer see Korean literature as a "risky venture" and will realise that translators deserve due credit for their work. "Literary translators tend to do a lot of free work with the rationale that Korean literature isn't bankable enough yet, and so there isn't enough money to pay them," said one translator who asked for anonymity. "Hopefully, this will lead to better contracts and more support for translators."

The next crucial step for Korean literature's global expansion, according to Literature Translation Institute's Mr Kim, is to confer academic degrees on those specialising in literary translation.

The institute runs a translation academy that offers two-year courses in literary translation. While its graduates generally go on to work as professional translators translating Korean literature into English, German, French, Spanish and Russian, the academy does not award degrees.

"We are authorised to issue degrees only if we become an official educational institution. We are hoping for the Education Ministry's approval for that transition," said Mr Kim.

"Once we are able to award degrees, more proficient translators from around the world will have the incentive to complete our courses."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 22, 2016, with the headline 'Rise of K-pop, K-drama, and now K-lit'. Print Edition | Subscribe