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The gulf between K-pop and Korean literature

Due to the recent popularity of Korean pop culture overseas, some South Koreans naively think that the whole world is crazy about anything Korean, including Korean literature.

It is undeniable that foreigners are increasingly interested in Korean pop culture such as Korean soap operas, movies and pop songs. Unfortunately, however, few foreigners are interested in Korean literature, because literature, in general, is sought by a smaller number of people worldwide.

In the past, when books were the primary source of knowledge and entertainment, people almost always read the literature of a country after learning its language. Today, however, people no longer read literary texts. Rather, many foreigners learn the Korean language to enjoy Korean pop culture.

Some people argue that private institutions, such as the Daesan Foundation, the International Communication Foundation and KL Management, are far better than the state-run Literature Translation Institute (LTI) of Korea in promoting Korean literature overseas.

They bring up Shin Kyung-Sook's "Please Take Care of Mom", which was promoted by KL Management, as a good example. But most people do not know that LTI helped KL Management in many ways in order to make Shin a rising star in the international community. For example, it was LTI that initially recommended Shin to the Man Asian Literary Prize and did all kinds of paperwork for Shin to win the prestigious award.

It must be accepted that LTI has not achieved the same success in the American book market as KL Management has with Shin Kyung-sook's novel. In the past, LTI did not have a director with extensive human resources networks in the US or UK; they were scholars of French or German literature and thus could not speak English freely, and hardly had any connections in English-speaking countries. While LTI has not been able to navigate the American market for the past 10 years, KL Management excelled with the help of an excellent American agent. Besides, unlike LTI, which carries out the task of translating Korean literary works into 30 different languages and publishing them overseas, KL Management's main target is the American market.

Koreans naively assume now that since Shin Kyung-sook has broken into the US market, many other Korean writers will become overnight successes as well. But the prospects are not as rosy as many expect. When Alfred Knopf decided to publish Shin's novel, it was not particularly interested in Korean literature per se. Rather, Knopf thought Shin's novel was sellable because it addressed American readers' curiosity about women's social status in East Asia, the special bond between mothers and children in Korea, and the ways Korean mothers educate their children at home.

Furthermore, Knopf's decision was inspired by the success of Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother", which is literally about a Chinese mother's training and education of her children.

Another obstacle in promoting Korean literature in the US is that big commercial publishers in New York are very reluctant to publish books that cannot guarantee commercial profits. Many publishers seem to think Korean literature will not be profitable in the American market. Unlike some people's suspicion, therefore, Korean literature's lack of success in the American market hardly has anything to do with the quality of translation. Rather, the problem is the dubious marketability of Korean literature.

People may assume that LTI has been spending large sums of taxpayers' money without achieving much. This claim is, again, far from the truth. In fact, LTI has long been stuck with a meagre budget, which jeopardises its projects. If one compares the budget of LTI to other state-run institutions, it is far below standard. Many people do not know that LTI, unlike private institutions, cannot freely spend funds. To make matters worse, LTI must deal with all sorts of red tape due to its government status.

Since 2012, LTI has been striving to radically overhaul its structure, and has made some remarkable achievements. As a result, it received the Minster of Culture Award last year, and was awarded a Czech Government Order of Culture Merit this year. And last week, LTI was selected as one of the three best public institutions in the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, for the first time in its history.

Next year, LTI will celebrate the publication of 25 books of Korean literature under the title "The Korea Library" by Dalkey Archive Press in the US. By 2015, LTI and Argo in the Czech Republic will publish 10 books of Korean literature.

Without the assistance of LTI, Korean writers could not have received international awards. Without translation, indeed, no writers can be known in the international community. What LTI needs, therefore, is encouragement, not groundless criticism. In the age of digital mass media, promoting literature is different from, and much more difficult than, promoting pop culture.

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.


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