Shouvik Datta reports from the Korean Literature Forum at the KCCUK on 15 October.
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.
- Hallyu: K-pop, K-Dramas… K-Lit? – another account of the evening over on Magpie Mind