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Literature and poetry in translation titles for 2021: more than a dozen to look forward to!

This is now LKL’s fifth annual post that looks at the literature and fiction titles we’re looking forward to over the coming twelve months.

2021 top titles (v2)

Since last year we’ve made things easier for ourselves by investing some time building a book database that aims to catalogue all physical publications of Korean literature in translation, as well as major titles of non-fiction and fiction in English. Since August 2020 we’ve uploaded over 1,500 items of literature in translation: poetry, pre-modern texts and of course novels and short stories, gratefully acknowledging Brother Anthony’s amazing website as an input, as well as LTI Korea’s database. We’ve also catalogued over 200 other titles: academic, non-fiction, and English-language fiction and poetry. There’s around 150 non-fiction titles on the to-do list for uploading, and once they’re up the initial heavy lifting is done. We update this database as and when we come across new titles, with a focus on the latest publications.

As part of this exercise we’ve produced a page of upcoming titles that we use to make sure our reading pile is kept fresh (and, if we’re feeling cheeky, to remind ourselves to request a review copy from the publishers). But bearing in mind that the list contains non-fiction as well as literature in translation, and also because it’s a page that’s buried within the Korea book database section of the site, we thought we’d keep up our tradition of special annual posts that look forward and look back.

With that preamble, what are the titles we’re particularly looking forward to? And are there any trends observable? Links for each featured title below take you to the book’s entry in the LKL Korea Book Database where you’ll find the publisher’s blurb (if available) and links to other publications by the relevant author, translator or publisher, and details of where to buy.

Novels and short stories

Top 3 titles for 2021

Top of the list, and among the titles available earliest in the year, is the first full-length novel by Kim Aeran to be translated into English: My Brilliant Life (tr Kim Chi-young, Forge). We’ve been looking forward to this one for a while – in fact ever since a passage from it featured in a translation slam at the 2014 London Book Fair. Hearing the author talk about the book in London in 2018 at a screening of E J-yong’s movie adaptation only served to intensify the anticipation. Finally, next month I’m going to get my hands on a copy.

A title I’ve already got my hands on, thanks to a review copy from Honford Star, is Tower, a collection of sci-fi short stories from Bae Myung-hoon (tr Sung Ryu). Already I can see it as a contender for book of the year. The cover design is enough to make you want to buy it, but the stories themselves are really entertaining: witty and slightly acerbic commentary on contemporary society. Review coming soon; publication expected in February.

Also from Honford Star this year are two further science fiction or absurdist titles: Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (tr Soje, expected in May) – depicting a “dystopia where people are trying to find direction after having their worlds turned upside down”; and Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny (tr Anton Hur), a collection that blurs “the lines between magical realism, horror, and science-fiction”. There’s a nice feature in the Korea Times about it, and you can read a sample here. Expected in July.

Next three titles

Continuing the sci-fi trend established by Honford Star, Kim Bo-young has two titles coming out this year. Firstly, On the Origin of Species and Other Stories (tr Sora Kim Russell and Joungmin Lee Comfort) will be published by Kaya Press, currently anticipated at the end of March. I’m Waiting for You: And Other Stories (tr Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu) comes from Harper Voyager in early April. Bowman presented the title story – a series of love letters from space that was originally commissioned by a fan to use in a wedding proposal – at a translation pitch in London back in 2017, and it’s good that the project is now seeing the light of day.

What I’m finding interesting as I look through this list is that for all the above authors these are their first full-length publications in English in a volume dedicated to their work. Yes, Kim Aeran has had two short stories published by the elusive Asia Publishers, and both she and Kim Bo-young have been anthologised in a volume outside of Korea. But it’s heartening that we are seeing houses outside of Korea wanting to focus on works of a particular “new” author.

3 more novels

The trend continues with Shoko’s Smile by Choi Eun-young (tr Sung Ryu) from Penguin in June, and Love in the Big City by Park Sang-young (tr Anton Hur) from Tilted Axis later in the year. Sung Ryu comments that the Choi Eun-young collection “is about people, mostly women, who grow very close, but not quite, who also drift apart, but not quite. Like people in a loose hug. It’s about the mystery in that gap, the desire to close it, the grief over lost closeness, and the vast timespace of loneliness and memories you’re left with.” Sold. Anton Hur is tantalisingly enigmatic about the contents of Love in the Big City (mentioned in an conversation between him and the author in Words Without Borders): “I guess it’s about the emptiness that anyone living in a big city these days feels in their everyday lives, written in a very detailed and funny string of love stories.” It also shares with To the Warm Horizon a theme of queerness.

Kwon Yeo-sun is also a new name in translation other than by Asia Publishers: her Lemon (tr Janet Hong) comes from Other Press in the Autumn exploring themes of murder, mystery, grief and trauma and told from the perspective of three different characters. But a more familiar name in the west, thanks to Plotters, is Kim Un-su: Cabinet was his first full-length novel, winning him the 12th Munhakdongne Novel Award. This “brilliant literary sci-fi/literary social commentary” will be coming from Angry Robot in October in a translation by Sean Lin Hilbert (who is also working on the same author’s Hot Blooded).

Kim Un-su, then, is the first author in this list not to be making a debut with a western publishing house, and before I wrap up this section with a couple of other “known” authors there’s time briefly to mention Sophie Bowman’s upcoming translation of Baek Heena’s children’s book Magic Candies, illustrated by the author, coming from Amazon Crossing Kids in September.

Last three fiction cover images

And finally in the prose section,

  • Deep Vellum brings us Arriving in a Thick Fog in March, a collection of four novellas by cult writer Jung Young-moon, tr Jeffrey Karvonen and Mah Eunji, described as a “discombobulating yet captivating stroll”;
  • Yun Ko-eun’s collection of short stories entitled Table for One (tr Lizzie Buehler, from Columbia University Press), originally expected in September 2020, seems to have slipped somewhere into 2021;
  • Singapore’s Harriet Press has a translation of Lee Jung-myung’s Painter in the Wind coming in the first half of the year in a translation by Hannah Pang;
  • We hear that Penguin has the manuscript for the Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories in which the Fultons have played a major role, though as the publisher doesn’t own up to it on their website yet I wouldn’t expect anything in the immediate future;
  • Admirers of Hwang Sok-yong will be looking forward to his memoir The Prisoner, (tr Anton Hur and Sora Kim-Russell) coming from Verso in August. We’re really looking forward to this one, and will enthuse about it in our upcoming listing of 2021 non-fiction titles.

Recent prose publications that slipped under the radar

Five 2020 titles

So, plenty to look forward to even without the occasional pleasant surprise from Asia Publishers: who knows what they might bring in 2021? Their publications pop up without much fanfare on the Kyobo bookstore website, sometimes finding their way on to Amazon’s US site but never anywhere else outside of Korea, as far as I can see. They’ve just given us Pyun Hye-young’s Holiday Home (tr Sora Kim Russell) and, earlier in 2020, Jang Ryu-jin’s Maya in Tokyo (tr Sunnie Chae) and Jeong Ji-a’s The Black Room (tr Son Jeongin).

Similarly, don’t overlook Seoul Selection. They have recently given us two volumes of Jeong Ho-seung’s gentle fables, translated by Brother Anthony: Lonesome Jar and Loving. Interestingly, the latter has been picked up by Barbara J Zitwer, so maybe we can hope for a publication outside of Korea in due course.


2021 poetry preview

In this section, one new name, one very established one, and a paperback reissue of a seminal anthology.

  1. Open Letter brings us Lee Soho’s debut collection, Catcalling (tr Soje) in May, which ranges “from lyric to prose poems to experimental mash-ups to concrete forms” as the writer “ridicules the violences that the speaker-protagonist Kyungjin encounters as she navigates a patriarchal world”;
  2. Amazon is listing a new selection from Ko Un’s Maninbo: The Boy in the Cave (tr Brother Anthony and Lee Sang-wha), expected in April, though it’s not yet listed on the website of the publisher, Green Integer, who also have three earlier Ko Un collections in their catalogue;
  3. Those wanting a comprehensive selection of Korean poetry should investigate Poems from Korea: From the Earliest Era to the Present translated by Peter H Lee. First published in 1964 and republished on various occasions since, this title is now available in paperback, due in February. The much more expensive Routledge hardback version has been available since 2019.

Recent translations

2020 poetry

As with prose, so with poetry: Asia Publishers have given us six titles this year that I only just discovered:

Asia Publishers are now at #16 in their series of “K-Poets” (Feeling Never Stops being #16) and #28 in their “K-Fiction” series (with the Pyun Hye-young title mentioned above being the latest).

Two other recent poetry publications are also worthy of note:

So it looks like there’s something for everyone to look forward to in 2021. The problem will be finding time to read it all….

And you can find our list of 2021 non-fiction titles here.

(Note: this article has been updated with a couple of additional translator credits omitted from the first version; to remove one title that the publisher has told us not to expect this year; and to update the cover images where revised artwork has become available)

2 thoughts on “Literature and poetry in translation titles for 2021: more than a dozen to look forward to!

    1. Thanks for visiting Tony and Happy New Year. Yes, lots to look forward to, and probably as in previous years I won’t get around to them all. Currently juggling between reading Tower and A Korean Odyssey, finishing my write-up of Everlasting Empire (from the back catalogue) and resisting the temptation to start reading One Left

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