Can literature be next ’hallyu’ hit?
Korean books shine in overseas publication market
By Chung Ah-young
After prominent novelist Shin Kyung-sook rose to international fame with her landmark book “Please Look After Mom,” global interest in Korean literature began to grow.
Shin said that Korean literature seems fresh to readers in other countries and its status is bigger than Koreans think. “They seem to be looking for an alternative in humanity and community spirit, which is richly expressed in Korean literature,” she said in a recent press conference.
True to its growing presence, veteran writer Yi Mun-yol’s short fictional piece “An Anonymous Island” is to be published in the Sept. 12 issue of the New Yorker, the U.S.-based weekly magazine. The New Yorker is world-famous, selling more than 1.4 million copies a week. After such writers as Oe Kenzaburo, Orhan Pamuk and Murakami Haruki saw their works in the magazine, they have been in the international spotlights.
In 2006, poet Ko Un’s “Four Poems” appeared in the New Yorker but it is the first time for it to introduce Korean fiction.
According to Minumsa, the local publisher, Yi is expected to gain more attention in English-speaking countries. The magazine features one foreign author a year on average. “Publishing his fiction on the magazine proves his literary value internationally and at the same time lays the foundation for Korean literature to leap forward on the world literature scene,” the publisher said.
Yi was born in 1948 in Seoul and made his debut in 1979. He won numerous literary awards and his works have been translated into15 languages in 20 countries such as the United States, Germany and Italy and France.
“An Anonymous Island” was first published in 1982 in the spring issue of local magazine “World Literature.” The story revolves around a teacher assigned to an elementary school in a remote village.
The English translation of “An Anonymous Island” is by Heinz Insu Fenkl. The New Yorker introduced Yi through an interview with Fenkl as one of South Korea’s most prominent contemporary writers. Some of his works are available in English, most notably his novels “Our Twisted Hero” and “The Poet” but many have not yet been translated into English, the magazine said.
“What made me want to translate Yi’s work was an unexpected resonance. ‘Meeting with My Brother’ affected me greatly, and then I rediscovered his older historical works — the ones Korean critics label as especially erudite. He was writing in a kind of neoclassical Korean style with many allusions to Tang Dynasty Chinese culture and arcane Shamanic and Taoist culture,” Fenkl said in the magazine.
Born in Korea in 1960, Fenkl is a novelist, translator and editor of “Azalea,” an English publication which introduces Korean literature at Harvard University. Fenkl’s autobiographical novel, “Memories of My Ghost Brother,” was named a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection in 1996 and a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist in 1997. The translator has also published short fiction in a variety of journals and magazines, as well as numerous articles on folklore and myth.
Another Korean author conspicuous in the overseas literary scene is Han Kang whose novel “The Vegetarian” is receiving a good response in Japan and the publisher will release the second print edition. The Japanese publication of the book is part of the Korea Literature Translation Institute’s project for the overseas publication of Korean literature.
It was first published in Japan in June by Kim Seung-bok, the Korean-Japanese CEO of Kuon Publishing, who developed an interest in Korean literature while majoring in poetry writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. To promote Korean literary works in Japan, he established the publisher in 2009.
Right after the release of her novel, major Japanese newspapers featured her story.
The institute will introduce more Korean books such as Kim Jung-hyuk’s “The Library of the Musical Instruments” and Ha Sung-ran’s “A” to Japanese readers in coming years.
“For the last two years, publications of Korean literary works by young writers in the Japanese market have shown a shift from first-generation translators who led the introduction of Korean literature in Japan to the new generation,” the institute said.
The first-generation translators have presented works from Yoon Dong-joo, Yi Sang and Chae Man-shik from the colonial period (1910-45) to the 1980s-90s authors such as Kim Ji-ha and Cho Jung-rae. However, the new generation translators who are mostly the third-generation Korean-Japanese or open-minded Japanese scholars interested in Korean literature have sprung up in the 2000s.
They represent the new trend of Korean literature led by young writers. According to the institute, Eun Hee-kyung’s “Beauty Despises Me,” Kim Yeon-soo’s “The World’s End, Girl Friend,” Kim Ae-ran’s “Mouthwatering” and Park Min-gyu’s “Sponge Cake” are being translated by Japanese with the support of the institute.
“It is encouraging that recently various countries such as the United States, Germany and France are increasingly showing an interest in Korean literature. As literature ‘hallyu’ (Korean wave) is emerging, the growing attention to Korean literature is very welcoming,” the institute said.
The trend is seen as a milestone for Korean literature in Japan as some 900 Japanese literary works appear in the Korean publishing market every year but only less than 10 Korean literary works are introduced in Japan.
Representing a fresh, young voice emerging here and regularly publishing works abroad, Kim Young-ha released an English translation of his first novel “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” in 2007, which was originally published in Korea in 1996. Before it reached American, British and Canadian readers, the book had already been translated into German and French. The book was a big hit with French readers in 2002.
“I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” is often compared as “the emotional tension of Milan Kundera and the existential anguish of Bret Easton Ellis” by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt or “the sparse but beautiful prose of Haruki Murakami” by Time Out Chicago and referenced to Kafka, Camus, and Sartre by the Los Angeles Times.
His other books including “Black Flower,” “The Quiz Show” and “Arang, Why?” were translated in 13 countries, demonstrating his international reputation.
Jo Kyung-ran is also a familiar name among international readers as her book “Tongue” has been translated and published in eight countries and “In Search of an Elephant” was published in Spanish.