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South Korea's Translated Literature Awards, Where Are They Now?

 

2017.11.01

 

South Korean works of literature are making themselves known here and there outside the country. At this time, it's easy for the importance of translation to be overlooked. The same work of art can shine more brilliantly or suffer through different translators. It is not an easy task to carry the same message in Korean books while conveying the respective emotions or characteristics of the language the work is being translated into. And so, there are increasingly more awards to boost the number of excellent translators and translated books in South Korea. The following describes the status of South Korea's prizes for translated literature and examples.

 

The Emergence of Screensellers in South Korea

 

In March 2016, Han Kang's The Vegetarian first published in 2007 made headlines when it became a candidate for the Man Booker International Prize - the first for any Korean. In May that year, The Vegetarian ended up winning the top prize and for a while, South Korea rejoiced at the news as if one of its athletes had won a gold medal at the Olympic Games. However, that praise was bittersweet in hindsight. South Korean media quoted press releases, describing the Man Booker Prize as one of the world's top three most-coveted literature awards after the Nobel Prize for literature and Le Prix de Goncourt. It was because the Man Booker Prize was an unfamiliar name for South Koreans. When thinking about the time South Koreans have spent longing for a South Korean Nobel winner in literature, it would not be an exaggeration to say the situation was ironic as they do not have a firm grasp on what translation work entails.

 

 

▲ Cover art for the hardcover version of published by Hogarth Press

 

Then what is the Man Booker International Prize? Many media reports used the 'Man Booker Prize' and 'Man Booker International Prize' interchangeably, but they are very different awards. The Man Booker Award is for U.K. authors, established in 1968 with the support of the Booker Group, a food wholesale operator. From 2005, they created the Man Booker International Prize to expand the award's range and started awarding books published outside the U.K. At first, books that were first published in English as well as those translated into English were eligible for the prize, but from 2016, only novels that have been translated into English can receive it. The award money is 50,000 pounds and it is split between the original author and translator.

 

In addition to the Man Booker International Prize, Han Kang was also awarded the Premio Malaparte for her novel, Human Acts earlier this year. The Premio Malaparte is a renowned Italian literary award given to translated foreign works of literature. Also in 2017, Mi-kyung Song, a children's book author, was given the title In Other Words , a new award designated by BookTrust starting this year. Although the latter has not been around for very long, the fact that a historical reading organization in England has started to recognize foreign translated works for children is not to be ignored. Aside these, there is a number of other prizes around the world for translated works.

 

South Korea's translated literature awards and the current status of translated literature

 

Why do countries around the world give separate awards for translated works of literature? There may be diverse reasons but the biggest is most likely because they feel translated works also carry the same value as original literature. There is a saying that translating is another form of creation. Translation does not stop at simply carrying over one piece of work into another language. The fact that arguments over word-for-word translation, where words are literally translated into another language regardless of context, and free translation, where the culture and thinking behind the readers' language is taken into context, do not stop shows the power of translation itself.

 

In a sad turn of events, South Korean public opinion does not have much interest in tasks that discover the true value of translation, despite the fact South Korean literature is receiving more attention abroad. At times, when a South Korean novel is awarded an overseas prize, the nation rejoices, calling the awarded novel a patriot and then people go on to voice concerns translated works are dominating South Korean literature. Despite the low public recognition for translated work, there are some places that hand out awards for these types of work. The oldest one would be the 'PEN award for translated literature' which was established in 1958 by the South Korean office of PEN International. The award, traditionally given to members of PEN International, was first handed to translators of foreign work in South Korea. However, from 1995, it changed to give those who translate Korean literature into different languages higher priority. The award has its limits as it only gives the prize to members.

 

The oldest prize that recognizes translated work out of all translated literature during the course of a year regardless of membership would be the Daesan Foundation's Daesan Literature Award for translated works. The Daesan Foundation was started with funds from Kyobo Life, which owns South Korea's largest bookstore chain Kyobo Book Centre. It started handing out the award from 1993 to South Korean works of literature as well as those translated into different languages. The award is given to all Korean literature regardless of when they were written and translated languages usually include English, French, German and Spanish.

 

 

▲ Cover art for the Spanish version of Byeong-mo Gu's Wizard Bakery,
awarded the 2016 Daesan Literature Award for translated works

 

It is a slight drawback but from the late 2000s, the foundation started giving the award to translated works in select languages, rather than all of them. Despite this fact, it is laudable the award was given to Irma Zyanya Gil Yanez for Byeong-mo Gu's Wizard Bakery in 2016 for the Spanish version of the book. It was because the award was given to a relatively recent publication, rather than a classic work of literature or a novel by an already well-known Korean author. When explaining the reasoning behind the award that year, the foundation said the Spanish version had translated the colloquial narrative well; pointing out the book had been awarded based on its quality and accessibility by foreign readers. They also said the book had been awarded as it had done well in Spain, thanks to its being fun and universal.

 

The second oldest Korean award for translated literature would be the Korean literature translation award from the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. The award has its roots in the "Korean literature award" established in 1980 by the country's Arts Council Korea, a state-run institution supporting South Korea's culture-related policies. In 1983, a separate award was given to translated work while in 1993; a new award was made entirely for translated literature. From 1996, the Literature Translation Institute of Korea started managing the award after the institute was founded to better inform the world of Korean literature.

 

The Korean literature translation award shows a large magnitude of difference as it is given out by a state-run institute, and not a private entity. The biggest difference from the Daesan award is that many languages are taken into consideration. The 15th annual prize given out this July saw translated works in 18 languages considered: German, Russian, Romanian, Lithuanian, Mongol, Vietnamese, Spanish, Slovenian, English, Uzbek, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Czech, Turkish, Polish, French and Hungarian. Another step apart from the Daesan award would be the judge panel as the Literature Translation Institute of Korea has judges from different countries come to evaluate the competing works. Meanwhile, the Daesan Foundation has an all-Korean panel. Also encouraging more translated Korean literature would be the fact the Literature Translation Institute of Korea hands out prizes to works in four different languages every year. Recipients of this award have included the Vietnamese version of You-jeong Jeong's Seven Years of Darkness translated by Vu Kim Ngan in 2015, the Russian version of Young-ha Kim's No One Knows What Happened translated by Alexandra Gudeleva and Ju-yeon Seung in 2017. Novels relatively popular among young Korean people have been receiving the awards and in this context, it may make it the most relevant award for translated literature in consideration of current trends.

 

▲ Cover art for by Young-ha Kim,
recipient of the Korean translated literature award

 

This award also has a sister prize for newly-debuted translators, contributing to the creation of new translators of Korean literature. A shade apart from the original prize, the award is given to the best translator of a pre-selected work of literature in an open competition. Also from 2017, the same translation task is given to both Asian and Western language contestants whereas prior to this year, there were different novels to translate. This reflects the Literature Translation Institute of Korea's efforts to help encourage translators emerge from different countries with different languages.

 

Lastly, there are other prizes smaller than those aforementioned, but being consistently awarded. A private organization called the Yoo Yeong Research Foundation named after the late Professor Yeong Yoo(1917-2002) of Yonsei University in Seoul has been awarding excellent works of Korean literature translated into English from 2007.The Korea Science & Technology Publisher's Association also awards translators of foreign science and technology books every year since 1983 as part of a larger award event. Also, the Korea Manhwa Contents Agency run by the Bucheon City government hands out prizes for translated comics in South Korea every year as part of its Bucheon manwha awards ceremony, encouraging the translation of offshore comics in the country.

 

This winter, the winner of yet another translated literature award will be announced. This would be the newly established GKL literature translation award. This award is managed by the GKL Foundation, a non-profit public service corporation established by Grand Korea Leisure which operates Seven Luck Casino in South Korea, a foreigners-only casino. The prize will be given to a subject with no prior award or publication experience whose translated work(novels, graphic novels or poetry) is in English. It received applications from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30 and the award will be announced sometime in November.

 

For a better tomorrow, past cultural and country borders

 

As aforementioned, there are many awards for translated literature excellence in South Korea. But the neither South Korean public nor audiences abroad are widely aware of these prizes. It is partly due to the low public awareness on translation itself, but the biggest problem may be the fact that there are no awards for foreign books translated into Korean. With the exception of the comic prize from the Korea Manwha Contents Agency, the country's translation awards mainly focus on translations of Korean works. It will not be easy for these awards to make their way out of South Korea when translation work is regarded with such little value.

 

Of course, South Korean institutions have been making other strides so Korean literature is more well-known abroad. The Literature Translation Institute of Korea is currently looking for candidates to support in order to translate more Korean works of literature and to publish them, while the Daesan Foundation is currently funding translation projects for both Korean and foreign works of literature. It is yet too early to be satisfied - there is a long way translation must go in South Korea. For Korean literature to become more widely acclaimed globally, steps should be taken so the public can read works from various countries and recognize the value they carry.

 

 


Written by Sang-min Sung (Culture critic, columnist)

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Sang-min Sung (Culture critic, columnist)

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