I wasn’t previously familiar with this blog, but New Yorker In Seoul looks like a really interesting place to learn about Korean culture. The other day, Patricia Park—the site’s curator and former Columbia University Press editorial intern—published “this interview” with Jennifer Crewe, Associate Director and Editorial Director at Columbia University Press.
So, back to this interview: when I was studying at the Korean Literature Translation Institute, every major Korean literature work that was published into English was, basically, published by CUP. (Had I known this as that wee intern, I would have pilfered our office library.) It’s funny how things in your life sometimes come round full circle, so I’m especially chuffed to be posting this interview with Jennifer, the editor behind many of these titles. This interview would be particularly relevant to you literature translation folks who wish to gain a glimpse of what the industry is like and how the whole editorial process works. [. . .]
Take this as an opportunity to brag a bit. What were some of your award-winning, best-selling projects? Your personal favorite projects? Upcoming titles you’re excited about?
None of these books has been a best-seller, I’m sorry to say! But they are all well-known among the community of scholars of modern Korean literature in North America. The novel that has sold the most copies in English is Cho’e Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls. The author came to the US to do some readings and that certainly helped get the word out. [. . .]
The media—both in Korea and stateside—can’t stop talking about the recent success of Shin Kyung-sook’s bestselling novel Please Look After Mom. Do you have thoughts on how this book became such a huge success, and how that success might impact the future of Korean literature in the US market?
As far as I know Please Look After Mom is the first Korean novel to hit the English-speaking mainstream readership.I’m sorry I didn’t know about it before it was translated! However trade publishers are looking for bestsellers and because the book did so well in Korea it obviously caught the eye of an editor here. I think the success had a lot to do with the subject matter of the novel. Everyone feels to a certain extent guilty about not caring for their parents enough! I hope it bodes well for further translations of Korean fiction.
Your thoughts on publishing North Korean literature?
I am very interested in publishing North Korean literature. The problem is that we need funding to publish translations of Korean literature, and the funding agencies are usually government-sponsored ones in South Korea, and they obviously have no interest in funding translations of writers from the North.
This guest post is by Kevin Prufer, whose newest books are National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008) and Little Paper Sacrifice (Four Way Books, forthcoming). He’s also Editor of New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008) and Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.
The speakers in these carefully crafted poems are, first of all, keen and imaginative observers. One sits in a cafeteria watching a workman eat boiled rice until the grains “carried by the chapped hand / . . . gather and scatter like clouds between the blistered lips.” Another stands outside at night observing the moon, telling us how “I turned around / and caught her furtive eye, her soiled feet. / Blushing, as if she were being watched, she hid behind a cloud / and reappeared in the distance.” A third narrator stands in a hospital corridor listening to the agony of the others, “a judge of cries,” teasing stories out of pain. “Every cry is singular,” she tells us,
like a bird’s feather,
so that even without touching the trembling shoulder
you can tell if the crier has just learned the name of his disease,
or if he has been sentenced to death,
or if he weeps over a cold body.
Heeduk Ra’s poems, set in Korea’s cities (a hospital elevator, a church’s back stairway) and natural landscapes (where graves become boats and falling snow becomes feathers, flowers, rice), are filled with intricate detail, surprising turns, and moments of sadness, transcendence and breathtaking grace. Here, the daily minutia of Korean life are rich with imagery, reflecting not just their own details, but the brilliant and unpredictable mind that would tell us about them and, in so doing, imbue them with deeply personal turns of phrase and sharp, often witty, metaphors.
In one of the book’s most lovely poems, the speaker contemplates renting a room, finding in the mundane task a deep connection with Korea’s history and the lives of others:
To rent a room in Damyang or Changpyung,
to visit it like a chipmunk,
I looked in every village I came across.
Walking past a place in Jasil,
I saw common flowers in the yard
between the traditional Korean house and a modern annex.
When I entered through the open gate,
a man was sharpening his scythe on the grindstone
and his wife’s scarf was wet, as if she had just returned from the fields.
“Excuse me, I wonder if I could rent a room.
I’ll stay here two or three nights a week.”
When I pointed at the traditional house
she smiled. “Well, our children moved to Seoul,
so we live in the annex. Yes, the main house
is unoccupied, but we hold it in our hearts.
Our family history lies there.”
Listening to her, I saw the clean wooden floor
on which lay day’s last light.
I didn’t press for the room, I left,
wondering if the couple knew
that I’d already rented it, was living in their words—
that in their hearts they lived in the vacant house.
Heeduk Ra, born in Nonsan in 1966, is widely regarded as one of Korea’s preeminent younger poets. Woo Chung-Kim and Christopher Merrill’s plainspoken, moving translation makes it clear why. Distinguished for their graceful sensibility, rich imagery, and subtle intelligence, these poems will hopefully bring a wide English language readership to this valuable poet.
Tim Nassau is interning at Open Letter over the summer, researching books we should have translated and writing some posts for the blog, such as the one below that gives a brief overview of a few interesting Korean authors.
The Korea Literature Translation Institute has the expressed goal “of contributing to global culture by spreading Korean literature and culture abroad,” and to that end, has produced some wonderful publications to introduce non-Korean readers to Korean authors. (CWP Note: And this page of statistics. It’s a cultural org after my number-loving heart!) I flipped through their guide on contemporary Korean novelists and uncovered a few authors that sound really interesting. Of course, most of their works are not yet available in English (though two of Yi Mun-yol’s books have been published), but hopefully will be translated soon!
My friend Teresa called Kyung-ni Park, who just died in 2008, “probably the most revered author in Korea.” The author of over ten books, she is most well known for Toji [The Land], a five part, multi-volume epic that took 25 years to complete (and takes about as long to read). The novel follows four generations of a family from the Joseon Dynasty to Korea’s liberation from Japan, showing personal change in the midst of cataclysmic societal upheaval. Unfortunately, the dozens of dialects present in the book would make it a challenge to translate, but this hasn’t deterred the French . . .
Another author fond of long yarns is Choi In-hun. Known for great historical and philosophical range, his autobiographical novel Hwadu [A Topic for Contemplation] spans two volumes and more than a thousand pages. Perhaps less ambitious, but more attention-grabbing, is Gwangjang [The Square]. Compared to Kyung-ni Park’s Sijang-gwa Jeonjang [The Market and the Battlefield] due to their objective perspectives of war, the work follows a Korean student of philosophy caught between the North and the South their conflict erupts in the 1950s. Unable to feel at home in either, he decides to flee both, but even abroad cannot escape the twin specters of capitalism and communism.
Eun Hee-kyung’s body of works offers a helpful formula for any aspiring author: sophisticated cynicism + light, humorous prose = illumination. Concerned with the everyday minutiae that prevent true human communication, her first novel, Sae-ui Seonmul [A Gift from a Bird], tells the story of a twelve-year old girl whose mother killed herself during the war. With the freedom and precociousness of a child, she exposes the absurd falsehoods from which the oblivious adults around her create their lives. (And, like the protagonist of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is probably ten times smarter than anyone you knew at that age.)
Though one might expect a diet version of Children of Men, Yi Mun-yol’s Saram-ui Adeul [Son of Man] bears a resemblance to the science-fiction novel in name only. Rather, it is compared to Dostoyevski’s works, in terms of plot and themes. Min Yo-seop is a seminary student grown skeptical of God. He declares Jesus a “false son of man” and seeks to create instead the “true son of man.” When he tries to return to Christianity, however, he winds up murdered, and detective Nam is put on the case. Yi Mun-yol’s first critically successful work contrasts heaven and earth, or a search for spiritual salvation versus a life free of morals dictated only by human concerns.
These four novels and authors are but a sampling of what’s out there. Dwight D. Eisenhower said “I shall make that trip. I shall go to Korea.” He should have brought back more books.
The Korea Literature Translation Institute just announced its plans to produce the country’s first ever English-language anthology of modern Korean literature. Which is great news, even if the book won’t be available until 2009 . . . Sound ambitious though:
The project will come in 10 volumes, featuring poetry, novels and dramas published since 1919. The books will be published by a major U.S.-based company.
[. . .]
A KLTI official said the anthology will feature not only original texts translated into English but also literary notes about the authors and works so that foreign colleges will adopt the anthology as Korean literature textbooks. The institute is said to be considering asking Columbia University or Norton to take on the publishing to shore up the overall quality of the anthology.
Though far from the most convincing reason to read literature in translation, one common side effect is learning of another culture, of its history. Within that, and a stronger motivation to read, is the discovery of stories not possible within. . .
Despite cries that literature is dead, dying, and self-replicating in the worst way, once in a while a book comes along to remind readers that there’s still a lot of surprise to be found on the printed page. To be. . .
“I was small. And my village was small, I came to know that in time. But when I was small it was big for me, so big that when I had to cross it from one end to the other,. . .
A few weeks after moving into a farm house in the Welsh countryside, Emilie, an expatriate from the Netherlands, starts to think about her uncle. This uncle tried to drown himself in a pond in front of the hotel where. . .
Think back to the last adventure- or action-type book you read. Wasn’t it cool? Didn’t it make you want to do things, like learn to shoot a crossbow, hack complicated information systems, travel to strange worlds, take on knife-wielding thugs,. . .
In Aira’s Shantytown, while we’re inside the characters’ heads for a good portion of the story, the voice we read on the page is really that of Aira himself, as he works out the plot of the book he’s writing.. . .
Noir is not an easy genre to define—or if it once was, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; as a quick guess, maybe Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 1935. When two books as different as. . .