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The challenges of marketing and translating Korean literature explored at the KCC

Shouvik Datta reports from the Korean Literature Forum at the KCCUK on 15 October.

The literature forum on 15 October 2013.
The literature forum on 15 October 2013.
L to R: Samira Ahmed, Grace Koh, Emmie Frances, Jeong Chan, Han Eui-jeong

It was an interesting and well-attended discussion at the London Korean Cultural Centre on October 15, well chaired by the BBC journalist Samira Ahmed. My own knowledge of Korean literature is confined to the modern classic “Three Generations”, by Yom Sang-seop, so I attended to learn about the more recent trends in Korean literature & publishing.

Korea has been chosen as the focus country for the 2014 London Book Fair, so this was a good time to prepare the general and reading public for Korean literature. The other panellists for the forum were Dr Grace Koh, teacher in Korean Studies at London University’s School of African & Oriental Studies, Emmie Francis from the London publishers Short Books, and also the Korean author & university teacher, Jeong Chan.

Up until now, Korean wave or Hallyu, has been known in the West mainly for Korean food & Gangnam Style, pop artist Psy’s song on Youtube about the young of modern Seoul. One of the main questions posed by Samira Ahmed, was: What is the place of literature within the wider Korean wave? Dr Koh noted in relation to this point, that many applicants to undertake Korean studies at SOAS were particularly aware of Korean film and K-pop, but not so much Korean literature.

The panellists emphasised the difficulties and issues inherent in translating work. Dr Koh said: “Translation is about linguistic difference, but not just about linguistic difference. Cultural values and sensibilities are also relevant. Even universal qualities such as humour, are not universal.” Emmie Francis said: “In any translation, it’s very hard to stay with the original text, whilst trying to appeal to your readers”.

Dr Koh made the deconstructionist point that literary forms such as the novel and short stories were essentially products of Western culture. She referred to the current work of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea in Seoul, which translates Korean literature into other languages and promotes Korean literature and culture.

In terms of themes, the evolution of Korean literature reflects the currents of modern Korean history. Dr Koh said that previous Korean literature had reflected issues such as colonisation, civil war and military dictatorship. New literature focused on themes of interest to younger readers, such as existentialism, and science fiction.

Emmie Francis spoke about new female writers from Korea, whose dystopian novels would constitute the next wave of Korean literature. However, she added: “The current publishing landscapes are not very forgiving for unknown writers. We’re trying to capitalise on what we see as a growing market for Korean writing & East Asian writing in general,” she said. Short Books (for whom Emmie Francis works) is about to publish Gong Ji-young’s Our Happy Time, translated by Sora Kim Russell.


Dr Koh felt that the English-speaking market was one of the most difficult to penetrate, adding that Korean writers often liked to refer to French writers.

The unanswerable question was what types of Korean writing would appeal to a Western audience. Jeong Chan suggested that, given the high status given to the short story in Korean literature – with writers tending to focus on this genre first – Korean writers should concentrate on the short story in order to reach the world market.

With reference to the relationship between culture & market forces, Jeong Chan (speaking through an interpreter) said: “Creating a novel is an activity of creating a life. The policy of market supremacy dominates the world, & so view culture in material terms. Cultural essence becomes misunderstood or warped.”

The discussion also covered the role of classics in Korean literature. Dr Koh said that there were different genres from the 18th & 19th centuries, such as romance & supernatural themes. There was a body of work classical Korean literature written in Chinese script, before the Hangeul alphabet had come into general use in the last century. She referred to the Seoul-based Academy of Korean Studies, which is currently funding a project to translate 100 Korean classics into foreign languages.

There were a lot of questions from the audience after the panel debate. One woman expressed concern that modern Koreans had forgotten their own history, and needed to reacquaint themselves with their own culture. I thought it was a good preparation for Korea at the London Book Festival, and hopefully there will be more forums and translated work in the near future.

After the discussion, I asked Dr Koh to recommend one book by a Korean author to read, published in English translation. She recommended: ‘Please Look After Mother’, by Kyung-sook Shin [LKL review here]. I will try to get around to reading it when my current reading is complete.


6 thoughts on “The challenges of marketing and translating Korean literature explored at the KCC

  1. Hi Shouvik.

    Thanks for the an interesting article, I think it was a very broad spectrum of a look at Korean literature and its appeal to western culture and the translation difficulties encountered.

    Just to add a little more to the last two paragraphs to your article, I believe the woman in question who expressed concern, was looking to expand on Jeong Chan’s answer about the classic texts in Korean literature. He was saying how Korean writing really only came about after the end of Japanese rule.

    So the classics of Korean literature would have been anything after 1941. The Woman was concerned to those not familiar with Korean culture, that he was portraying Korea as a country without any history. Not necessarily asking Koreans to reacquaint themselves with their own culture. The questions was sparked off by a member of the audience, who felt that the seminar was looking at the current writings, and not take into account the building blocks, the Shakespeare of Korean literature if you like.

    Nevertheless an intriguing look into the Korean written word and looking forward indeed to many more similar events at the KCC!

    Thanks for posting

  2. Interesting discussion, though anyone who says that Korea should focus on translating short stories simply does not understand the English language market, in which short story collections are generally published only AFTER an author has become famous or successful in longer fiction. Krys Lee’s success, for instance, is partly miraculous because it proceeded from short stories to longer fiction.

    While it is true the short story is a prized form in Korea, this is not commercially true in the English speaking countries. In general, short stories simply do not sell, and to focus on them is to completely ignore the realities of the market.

  3. Indeed Charles. Not many people on the panel actively agreed with Jeong, and I remember thinking myself – “now that’s an interesting perspective.”

    But I’m looking forward to some of the short stories coming up from Dalkey. I’ve also recently been dipping in to some Jung Young-moon stories which are really interesting.

    In Jeong Chan’s defense, someone on the panel suggested that short stories might sell better in the States than in Europe, but I guess it’s all relative

  4. I think that even if it’s a compromise with Western canon, itis better to publish more short stories from Korea. Many younger readers internationally would like short stories – they might find the many pages of a novel too much to swallow in one go. Publishing more short stories encourages those who want to enter writing as well, as writing a short story is less daunting than trying to write a long novel.

    1. Not really… the history of Korean translation is littered with these books of short stories, from the PEN/UNESCO books in 80s and 90s to the books published by academic presses of the last 20 years. We already have plenty of evidence that these books simply do not sell.

      Compared to short story collections, novels sell. It is really quite that simple.

      Perhaps putting short stories online might work, or even trying to place them in magazines. But printing collections is a proven failure.

      From the Guardian:

      “advances for short stories are much lower than those for novels; sales are expected to be one third or a quarter of those for a novel by the same writer, and marketing departments accordingly deny short stories much or any promotional budget.”

      So, if you have a limited budget? Don’t waste it on publishing short stories..

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