Booker tri­umph ush­ers in new era for Korean writ­ers

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Hwang Sung-Hee and Giles He­witt

South Korean writer Han Kang’s Booker prize marks a ma­jor vic­tory for a decade-long ef­fort to drag one of Asia’s old­est but, un­til re­cently, least-known lit­er­ary tra­di­tions into the global mar­ket. Lit­er­ary mer­its aside, the suc­cess of Han’s novel “The Vege­tar­ian” was aided by a num­ber of fac­tors that have co­in­cided with South Korea’s emer­gence as an in­creas­ingly prom­i­nent player on the global cul­tural stage.

An in­sti­tute ded­i­cated to trans­lat­ing new works, a fresh breed of writ­ers with a more in­ter­na­tional out­look and a new gen­er­a­tion of tal­ented, ded­i­cated trans­la­tors have all played their part - and, pub­lish­ing in­sid­ers say, will all share in Han’s tri­umph. “It’s go­ing to have an enor­mous im­pact,” Seoul-based in­de­pen­dent lit­er­ary agent Joseph Lee said. “For the writ­ers, it will pro­vide mo­ti­va­tion and con­fi­dence that our lit­er­a­ture has po­ten­tial in the over­seas mar­ket. “For the pub­lish­ers, it will push them to fo­cus on dis­cov­er­ing good writ­ers and strong works and to ap­proach the for­eign mar­ket with a clear strat­egy,” Lee told AFP.

Han shared the £50,000 ($72,000) cheque that ac­com­pa­nied the Man Booker In­ter­na­tional Prize with her Bri­tish trans­la­tor Deb­o­rah Smith. De­scribed as “lyri­cal and lac­er­at­ing” by chair­man of the judges Boyd Tonkin, “The Vege­tar­ian” traces the story of an or­di­nary woman’s re­jec­tion of con­ven­tion from three dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives.

A dearth of ca­pa­ble trans­la­tors, cou­pled with an equally lim­ited num­ber of works suit­able for for­eign read­ers, had long stymied ef­forts to find a wider au­di­ence for Korea’s lit­er­ary out­put. “Korea is a high-con­text cul­ture, with ev­ery Korean shar­ing a deep so­cial, cul­tural, philo­soph­i­cal knowl­edge that can make its lit­er­a­ture im­pen­e­tra­ble to out­siders,” said Charles Mont­gomery, who runs the web­site Korean Lit­er­a­ture in Trans­la­tion. A for­mer pro­fes­sor at Dong­guk Uni­ver­sity in Seoul, Mont­gomery said selecting works for trans­la­tion used to be done by govern­ment of­fi­cials who fa­vored clas­sic, rep­re­sen­ta­tive fic­tion that fit­ted a na­tional nar­ra­tive but had lit­tle to no ap­peal for for­eign read­ers. This changed with the Lit­er­a­ture Trans­la­tion In­sti­tute of Korea (LTI), which was set up in 1996 but only came into its own in the past 10 to 15 years, with an an­nual bud­get of $10 mil­lion and 80 em­ploy­ees. Al­though still a govern­ment body, the LTI has cham­pi­oned new writ­ers and, cru­cially, al­lowed trans­la­tors to choose the books they would like to work on.

“LTI has re­ally opened the door to an awe­some gen­er­a­tion of new trans­la­tors, and made it pos­si­ble for them to come to Korea and study their craft,” Mont­gomery said. The in­sti­tute also holds an­nual work­shops, fly­ing in for­eign pub­lish­ers and ed­i­tors from the United States, Rus­sia, Ja­pan, Sin­ga­pore and Bri­tain. LTI pres­i­dent Kim Seong-Kon has lofty am­bi­tions, stat­ing in an in­ter­view in 2012 that it was “about time” a Korean writer won the No­bel lit­er­a­ture prize.

For some time, South Korea has looked, with a de­gree of envy, at the in­ter­na­tional celebrity of au­thors like Tur­key’s Orhan Pa­muk or Ja­pan’s Haruki Mu­rakami. Like Ja­pan in the 1970s and 80s, the coun­try is now rid­ing some­thing of a cul­tural wave with the grow­ing vis­i­bil­ity and pop­u­lar­ity over­seas of its TV dra­mas, pop mu­sic, cin­ema and food. “Lit­er­a­ture per­haps is the last piece of that,” said Mont­gomery. The first break­through came in 2012, with the Man Asia Lit­er­ary Prize awarded to Shin Kyung-Sook’s “Please Look Af­ter Mom”. Some con­ser­va­tive Korean crit­ics sniffed at Shin’s suc­cess, ar­gu­ing that her novel was overly sen­ti­men­tal and shame­lessly tar­geted a for­eign read­er­ship.

Tear­ing up the Rulebook

Han’s trans­la­tor Smith said a tra­di­tional Korean rev­er­ence for in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism had proved a heavy bur­den and a bar­rier to in­no­va­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. “It pro­duced some­what aus­tere pre­scrip­tions as to what con­sti­tutes ‘proper’ lit­er­a­ture - a rulebook that the younger gen­er­a­tion have been all too happy to tear up,” Smith wrote in the lat­est is­sue of the Asia Lit­er­ary Re­view quar­terly. The Korean lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment still ex­pects writ­ers to fol­low a well-worn ca­reer path, start­ing with a “de­but” short story pub­lished in one of a hand­ful of in­flu­en­tial lit­er­ary jour­nals.

The lit­er­ary gate­keep­ers are, ac­cord­ing to Smith, “too of­ten older, male crit­ics” whose tastes are firmly rooted in the 1970s and who strug­gle with the char­ac­ter-driven, di­rect-ex­pe­ri­ence nar­ra­tives of younger writ­ers. “De­spite all the dy­nam­ics sur­round­ing con­tem­po­rary Korean lit­er­a­ture, one thing seems cer­tain: the tide has well and truly turned,” Smith said. — AFP

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