Notes on Writing and Translating in Korea Today

By Jennifer Adcock

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With Korea being this year’s Market Focus at the London Book Fair, there was a multitude of events exploring the publishing potential around this country, revealing a whole universe of literature to be read, and of course, translated. The “Writing and Translating in Korea Today” seminar at the Literary Translation Centre gave a succinct overview of the Korean literary landscape. The panelists were all translators as well as authors. Krys Lee, author of Drifting House, was born in South Korea, grew up in the United States, studied in both the US and the UK, and is a professor of Creative Writing at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College. Author Shirley Lee was born in South Korea, received an English education while growing up in China, and has been widely published; her focus is translating North Korean literature. Brother Anthony of Taize, a scholar specializing in Korean poetry, lives in Seoul, became a naturalized citizen of Korea in 1994, and has translated some thirty books of Korean literature. The discussion was chaired by Cortina Butler, Director of Literature at the British Council.

The event kicked off with a discussion about whether Korean literature in translation offered a fair sampling of what is being published in the original language. Contemporary long -form fiction is the most represented, while short fiction—a form with a strong tradition in Korea—as well as poetry, are not as widely published in translation. Older classics, as well as fiction written in Korea’s regional dialects, are also underrepresented, perhaps due to the huge challenges presented in translating these texts. Thankfully, Dalkey Archive Press and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea are helping to rectify this situation with the Library of Korean Literature Project—an unprecedented effort to bring Korean literature into the English language. In a single year, from 2013-2014, 25 novels and short-story collections were published thanks to this collaboration.

It was interesting to note that although the more established, canonical writers who are well-known in Korea are the ones who tend to get translated, the younger writers might be more in tune with the tastes of the contemporary world. This new generation is reading more foreign literature than their own, and is also receiving an education in creative writing, often choosing to write in English in order to reach a wider audience. It was mentioned that younger writers tend to have a lighter and more humorous style in comparison to their more established counterparts.

Along with Korea’s painful political separation came the separation of the Korean language. The South Korean language is changing a lot more rapidly from the influence of English and German, which infiltrate through street signs, textbooks, and commercials. North Koreans thus have the experience of walking around as if in a foreign language when they travel to South Korea for the first time. This is not only due to the influence from abroad, but also to the whole culture in which the language lives. Shirley Lee described, for example, how a North Korean was surprised to see that adjectives like “respected” or “dear,” which are normally reserved for the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, can also be used to refer to other people or things. 

Additionally, many Korean writers are choosing to write in English. This could be due to the fact that they are living in the diaspora, or because they are schooled in English and therefore feel more comfortable with their writing skills in the language, or because they are making the conscious decision to write in English in order to reach a broader audience.

Another fascinating piece of the Korean literary puzzle is the odd fact that until the 20th century, Korean literature was written in classical Chinese. Then, from 1910 to 1945, with the annexation by Japan, people were taught to read or write in Japanese instead of Korean. Therefore, between 1945 and 1950, there was an explosion of creativity, where writers were reinventing their own language afresh. This outburst was cut short, in 1950, though, when these writers went to war or were kidnapped, so there is not much history of the literature written in Korean before 1953.

The panelists went on to discuss the particular challenges of bringing Korea’s literature to an English-speaking audience. The obvious issue, of course, is making it understandable outside of its cultural context, with things such as the hierarchy of titles, and the different ranks indicated in dialogue being quite difficult to convey in English. Krys Lee mentioned that one way around this would be to really work with the register to try and signal the levels of formality versus informality. Another challenge is the fact that Korean literature gets edited a lot less, creating situations where the English translation of a novel was cut by a third, to tighten up the pacing and secondary stories.

Brother Anthony of Taize rounded off the discussion on a beautiful note, by reading from his translation of Some Advice by Ko Un:

Poems
block the path for better poems.
Poems
block the path for subsequent poems.

Poems, poems, my blue poems!

Escape somehow from the history of poetry,
from fashions of poetry,
from a hundred years of poetic authority.

Be born trembling, wild and alone.


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