Korean Translators and a Nation’s Love of the Written Word

Chasing After the Nobel Prize in Literature

Korean translators inspirationSouth Korea is a nation with long and rich cultural traditions, and a land full of highly educated, competitive people. Is it any wonder Korea wants to show off its cultural and literary prowess to the rest of the planet? There’s a lot more to the peninsula besides kimchi, K-Pop (케이팝) and the decades-long friction with North Korea. Many South Koreans want the world to know about their history, their language and their literature. A good way of bringing this about would be winning a Noble Prize in Literature, but for that to happen, writers and government officials believe Korean books need better, and more sustained Korean translation efforts.

For Korea to have chance at the big prize, voting members of the Noble Committee have to be able to read Korean literary works, of course. And since Korean probably isn’t among one of the top languages members can boast fluency in, really topnotch translations need to be commissioned of books (contenders on the global literary stage) written in Korean, and then these books need to be put out into the world for people (not just Koreans) to enjoy. While Koreans are very proud of their language, and the Hangul (한글) script it’s written in (invented by the enlightened King Sejon in the 15th century), Korean writers just aren’t all that well known outside of the country.

According to an in-depth article on the subject in The New Yorker, South Korea has a few drivers that foster really great literature — with something important to say —produced locally, but there are also a few obstacles that keep people from actually reading these evocative and fascinating stories, like some of the wonderful works published by writer and poet Ko Un. A smart application and use of translation services just might help bridge this gap, and bolster the governmental push (like the Chinese did some years back) toward grabbing a Noble Prize in Literature for Korea.

On the positive side of things, Korea has an extremely well educated population. Literacy rates are at around 98%, which should bode well for fiction writers, but when you factor in how highly competitive Korean society is (work, education, getting into the right schools) and the fact that sitting down with good fiction is considered a waste of valuable studying time by many, it starts to make sense why the government has to push for more Korean literature to be published internationally. To just get people interested in Korean works, good Korean translation, plus access to foreign book markets and foreign literary scenes have to be fought for.

Enter the Literary Translation Institute of Korea (LTI). This governmentally funded institute has been given the charter to “promote Korean literature and culture worldwide, through cultural translation.” To that end, LTI not only advocates for more translations of Korean literature into foreign languages, but the institute also seeks to promote the best translations possible, in order to capture the artistic essence of the works being translated. LTI offers grants to publishers and translators, fellowships to academics interested in Korean literature, as well as training programs for Korean translators specializing in Korean literature.

Professional Korean Translators to the Rescue

With so much raw writing talent in Korea, and this relatively new push for literary Korean translators, in conjunction with outreach programs by LTI that are working with international literary agents and agencies, perhaps the world will get to learn more about Korea (once known as “The Hermit Kingdom”) through its literature. And through Korean translation services, and great writing, Korea just might nab itself a Nobel Prize in Literature in the not too distant future.


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