Posted : 2014-01-07 17:09
Updated : 2014-01-07 17:09

Korean literature sees opening for growth

Charles Montgomery, Jung Ha-yun and Brother Anthony of Taize, from left, exchange opinions during a round-table discussion on Korean literature and its increasing international acceptance at The Korea Times' news room in Seoul. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Experts say exposure improving, call for stronger efforts to cultivate writers

By Kim Young-jin

It's easy these days to attach any facet of Korean culture to the popularity of the country's entertainment industry which has produced the "hallyu," or the Korean wave. Korean pop groups, films and television dramas continue to gain popularity abroad, along with the national cuisine.

Following a series of developments in the literary scene here, it's understandable assume that Korean writers are also enjoying considerable success too.

In 2012, Shin Kyung-sook's "Please Look After Mom" won the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize. Soon after, novelist Kim Young-ha appeared on the virally popular online project TED Talks. Korea was been chosen as The London Book Fair Market Focus for 2014.

While the developments are exciting, experts say they fall short of signaling Korea's full-throated arrival on the international literary scene.

Instead, they are the beginnings of what could be an industry with genuine global appeal ― but only if writers and translators are cultivated with care.

This doesn't mean that the country lacks quality writers, of course. Scribes such as Hwang Sok-yong and Yi Mun-yol have long piqued interest abroad. Hwang Sun-mi's "The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly," a popular children's book, was recently published in English. Poet Ko Un is a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize.

"It's a start," said Jung Ha-yun, a translator and Ewha Womans University professor, during a recent roundtable discussion at The Korea Times office in downtown Seoul. "It's all about where we go from here."

Also participating in the discussion were Brother Anthony of Taize, emeritus professor at Sogang University and translator; and Charles Montgomery, a lecturer at Dongguk University and operator of the website Korean Literature: In Translation (

In a wide-ranging discussion, the guests discussed the state of Korean literature and the challenges facing the literary community.

Improved quality of English translation has allowed works like Shin Kyung-sook's "Please Look After Mom," left, and Hwang Sun-mi's "The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly" to find a wider international audience.
/ Korea Times file

KT: There has been a series of noteworthy events in recent years concerning Korean writers. Is it too soon to call it a boom?

Jung Ha-yun: It's a starting point, rather than a huge wave. Prior to (those events), there was no recognition, no writer that was actually read significantly in the English-speaking world.

"Please Look After Mom," in terms of the fiction market in countries such as the United States and Britain, was actually a very small book. But in terms of a Korean author being published in the U.S., it was the biggest book.

Charles Montgomery: It may change the "cocktail chatter" ― if someone asks if you've read a Korean author, you can say Shin Kyung-sook or Kim Young-ha. But if I ask, "Who's your second favorite Korean author?" you still have to run away and get your wine because you'll have no answer.

There has been, in terms of numbers, the beginning of a swell. I watch the Amazon numbers, the Nielson numbers and hits on my blog. Those have been steadily inching up.

Brother Anthony: I would add that the London Book Fair is about selling rights. The rights that are going to be bought and sold are not going to be literature, so much as cookery or children's books or taekwondo books.

KT: Why is Korean literature in translation only at its starting point, considering that people are already familiar with Korean film, music and food?

CM: If we compare the situation to Japan in the 1970s, there was a confluence of things that happened at that time (to build interest in Japanese writers). Prior to that, interest did not exist. It was pushed by (author) Yukio Mishima and the movies of the time.

BA: There was, in the United States, after World War II, a very deliberate CIA effort to promote a totally new image of Japan as an ally. It was this wonderful, exotic, sensuous, mysterious, Asian identity culture.

And Japanese had been reading excellent translations of Western literature for centuries, which hasn't happened here.

Also, most of the talented writers did not survive the division of the peninsula. So many of the best ones went to the North, or were kidnapped to the North. And there were those killed by the Japanese.

Jung: It's not a matter of saying that Korean literature is not up to par; within the historical context you can't really expect things to have moved on further. It takes time. Japanese prose never really suffered from that. They are writing the same language that they were centuries ago; the Chinese well.

KT: So it's understandable that Korea doesn't have a writer that is instantly recognizable internationally such as Turkey's Orhan Pamuk or Japan's Haruki Murakami. At the same time, it seems like there is room for improvement in terms of cultivating talent.

Jung: The way books are written in Korea, you make your debut through these spring literary contests, and then all the publishers line up with contracts for your second, third and fourth books because the Korean publishing market is so bad that they simply need to put out new books. It's almost a celebrity scene.

CM: You win those prizes and then it seems you are exempt from ever having to do anything. Also, when a Korean author writes a book it's like a golden egg and it's passed along; but when a U.S. author writes a novel it's a sausage. There's a different process.

BA: And a writer such as Pamuk also has a great advantage in that he is from Turkey and there is an enormous positive cultural heritage that can be drawn on ― the exoticism of Istanbul. This is what Korea doesn't have yet.

KT: How challenging is it for Korean writers, translators and publishers to hone in on the universal aspects of Korean prose? Is that something they aim for? Is there any concern that doing so detracts from the "Korean-ness" of the work?

Jung: The "Korean-ness'' is there in many aspects. It can be an emotional aspect, a sensibility, a cultural aspect. There's also the aspect of language and literary aesthetics. In translation there is always this tendency of thinking this is too Korean for Western readers.

But good literature is good literature. It's about internal human struggle, the universal aspect of it.

BA: In terms of translation, dialogue in a novel is going to be colloquial. Korean colloquialisms cannot be represented in English…to make it sound natural you'll make it sound like people talking to each other.

Walking that line between perfectly colloquial English idiom and textured literary dialogue ― that's where the real difficulty is.

KT: Are there differences in what Koreans see as having literary value and what will have international appeal?

BA: If you look at who we are translating for, occasionally there might be this work that might go to Knopf or Penguin and be translated for a general readership. But most of what we are doing is for people studying Korean literature ― university textbooks or documentation for people who can't read Korean.

There is kind of a monopoly among people who teach Korean literature who decide what they want to teach as representative works. This has nothing to do with what we are talking about ― universal appeal.

Koreans want (Park Kyung-ni's classic) "The Land" to be the great, admired work. But there is no way. That was written for people who know the culture and the history and the psychology. Whatever the appeal of that work is in Korea, it would have to be totally rewritten.

KT: The poet Ko Un is a perennial in the running for a Nobel Prize. But given the challenges we've discussed, do you think there is too much emphasis on winning such a prize?

CM: In order to win, you need a body of work, a political history that casts you in a good light and to be of a certain age beyond which you won't shift ideologically. Ko Un is right in the wheelhouse. My worry is that after him, you won't have anyone for twenty years.

BA: My advice is, "Don't talk about it." The Swedish academy is allergic to any speculation. Any government trying to bring pressure will spoil the chances. It's part of the whole government's obsession with image building. But the Nobel is very complicated.

Jung: It's not a horserace. Start with writing something good for Korean readers and have readers love Korean writers.

If there is anything good that could come from this chase after the Nobel, it's that the government could put more money into nurturing writers and into education and developing a wide readership.

About the Panelists

Brother Anthony of Taize

Brother Anthony of Taize is an educator and translator of Korean literature who has lived in Seoul since 1980. He taught English literature at Sogang University for three decades. The naturalized Korean citizen is the recipient of many translation awards and serves as a judge of annual The Korea Times Translation Award. His Korean name is An Son-jae, meaning "little pilgrim."

Charles Montgomery

Charles Montgomery is an associate professor in the Linguistics, Interpretation and Translation Department at Dongguk University. He is the operator of, a popular website on translated Korean literature that is read around the world. In 2012, he received an honorary citizenship of Seoul. He can be reached at

Jung Ha-yun

Jung Ha-yun is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Translation & Interpretation at Ewha Womans University. Jung, who received a Top Prize Winner in Short Story Division of The Korea Times Translation Award in 2000 for translating Oh Jung-hee's "The Old Well," currently serves as a judge of the newspaper's translation award.
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