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Why K-Books are drawing attention from across the world

 

2020.06.01

 

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Amidst the time when countries are closing gates due to the spread of COVID-19, Korean literature is taking a step closer to overseas readers while drawing attention from the US, Britain, Germany, and Japan. The global interest in Hallyu (Korean Wave) and the Korean culture that once again swept the world with the movie “Parasite” from director Bong Joon-Ho early this year is said to have spread to literature with the outbreak of the pandemic.
Corresponding to the phenomenon, diverse genres of Korean literature, including poems, novels, and children’s stories, are winning globally prominent awards, showcasing the potential of Korean literature once again. Poem collection A Drink of Red Mirror (Munji Books) by Kim Hye-Soon which was recently published was nominated for the best-translated book in the US, while the novel A Murderer's Mnemonics (Munhakdongne) by Kim Young-Ha was chosen as the best mystery book in April 2020 by the German press, and Almonds (Changbi) by Son Won-Pyung won the award for translated books by Japanese bookstores. Writer Baek Hee-Na who wrote picture book Cloud Bread (Hansol Soobook) won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award on March 31st.

 

Various genres of Korean literature such as poems, novels, and children’s stories are receiving globally prominent awards, showcasing the potential of Korean literature.

 

 

Kim Hye-Soon, Kim Young-Ha, Son Won-Pyung, Baek Hee-Na... Globally spotlighted Korean literature

 

First of all, poem collection A Drink of Red Mirror by Kim Hye-Soon was nominated for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) of Three Percent, a website specialized in translated literature. Ever since Three Percent established the literary award in 2007, it has been choosing the best poem collection and novel each year, sponsored by Amazon Books from 2011. The eligible nominees are translated works published in the US during the previous year; this year, a total of 35 titles (25 novels, 10 poem collections) from 20 countries were announced as nominees including a work by Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018, and books by Japanese writers Ogawa Yoko and Gawakami Hiromi.
The collections of poet Kim Hye-Soon have been introduced to the US readers with the translation of Choi Don-Mi, but the translation of A Drink of Red Mirror was done by three others – Shin Ji-Won, a professor of Korean literature in the University of Arizona, and her students Lauren Alvin and Bae Soo-Hyun.
Poet Kim Hye-Soon was the first Asian writer to win the Griffin Poetry Prize with her Autobiography of Death (Munhak Silhumsil), and translator Choi Don-Mi won the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Award hosted by the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). The winner of the best-translated book award is set to be announced on May 27th, and a cash prize of 5,000 USD will be presented to the winning writer and translator.

 

<A Drink of Red Mirror>

<Autobiography of Death>

A Drink of Red Mirror, Autobiography of Death

 

The work of Kim Young-Ha, one of the popular novelists in Korea, is receiving the spotlight in European countries, including Germany. His novel A Murderer's Mnemonics topped Krimibestenliste in April in Germany. Krimibestenliste is a list of mystery novels recommended to readers in Germany, which has been jointly announced by daily paper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and radio channel Deutschlandfunk Kultur since 2017. The list was first announced by the weekly newspaper Zeit in 2015. The panel of judges consists of 19 members – critics and mystery novel experts from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The grades given to four mystery books chosen by the panel are added up at the end, and the book with the highest grade tops the list. It was the second time that a Korean work made it to the list after Seven Years of Night (EunHaengNaMu) by Jung Yoo-Jung ranked 8th in 2015.
A Murderer's Mnemonics was introduced by a renowned Swedish daily paper Neue Zurcher Zeitung that commented: “It is a blazing story showing the burning literary talent of Kim Young-Ha, mixed with bizarreness, humor, blood, morality, slyness, clumsiness, absurdity, and profundity.” With this introduction, the book has been gaining positive comments from the local media.

 

<A Murderer's Mnemonics>

<Seven Years of Night>

A Murderer's Mnemonics, Seven Years of Night

 

Novel Almonds by Son Won-Pyung who is actively expanding her career as a director by writing scenarios, won the translated book award in 2020 selected by Japanese bookstores. Established in 2004 by bookkeepers who connect books to readers from the closest distance, recommendations, and votes from bookstores determine the winners for the grand prize (Japanese novels), discovery award (any genre), translated novels award, and non-fiction award among works published during the past year. It is the first time for Korean literature and also for an Asian work to rank first in the translated novels category.
Almonds was also introduced by Japanese publisher Shodensha after receiving grants through the Translation Grants Project of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea in 2018. Established in 1970, Shodensha has been publishing several beloved works of which most of them were made into films. This was the first time they published a Korean book. The translator of The Country of the Blind written by Kim Ae-Ran, Yajima Akiko, translated Almonds. When selecting the winner of the translated novels, Almonds was highly appraised as “a masterpiece of global literature” and “a book that will be widely loved throughout generations.” The grand prize given by Japanese bookstores is slowly having a greater influence on the readership just like famous literary awards such as Naoki Award and Akutagawa Award. This seems to well reflect its catchphrase “The best book selected by bookstores nationwide!”. Having this good news as the tailwind, Almonds is expected to meet more Japanese readers through various channels including special corners in on- and offline bookstores.

 

<Almonds>

<The Country of the Blind>

Almonds, The Country of the Blind

 

Korea’s children’s literature is globally recognized, along with adult literature. Writer Baek Hee-Na who wrote the picture book Cloud Bread recently won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA), the Nobel Prize for children’s literature, for the first time in Korea. Astrid Lindgren is the most popular writer in Sweden who wrote Pippi Långstrump. The award was established by the Swedish government to commemorate him in 2002. The representative work of Baek Hee-Na published in 2004, Cloud Bread sold 400 thousand copies, which is an unprecedented scale for a picture book and was published in English in 2011. Starting with English, it was further translated and exported to 10 different countries, earning global fame. Also, it is told that its worth rose up to 440 billion won as it has been made into a children’s musical and TV animations.

 

<Cloud Bread>

Cloud Bread

 

While maintaining influence in the market, Korean literature is getting the spotlight in many overseas market along with skilled translators and publishers.

 

 

Solidifying the foundation: Korean literature welcomes a bright spring with quality translation

 

Even COVID-19 could not stop the Korean literature industry from celebrating the ongoing good news. Related officials agreed that “Everything was not made in a day. The long years of work and endeavors of Korean literature have finally begun to shine bright.” Also, Yoon Boo-Han, who is in charge of literature promotion in the Literature Translation Institute of Korea and had analyzed the Hallyu (Korean Wave) of publication reported in the Hallyu Whitepaper announced last year by the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE), said that “It took us a long way here,” and added that “The little steps in building trust and data on Korean literature on the global stage have finally begun to see the light. Please Look After Mom (Changbi) by Shin Kyung-Sook came in the top 20 in the US bestsellers’ list in 2011, and in 2016, writer Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize. It was all thanks to these achievements that Korea has been making, which led to today’s accomplishment.” He also said that “Pop culture such as K-pop and K-movie also played a significant role in what we have achieved. As people around the world have a better understanding of Korea through K-pop music and Korean movies, I think they could absorb the storyline of Korean literature more easily. I believe that Korean literature can also be added to Hallyu as K-literature.”

 

<Please Look After Mom>

Please Look After Mom

 

Lee Jung-Hwa, who is in charge of the business team in the Daesan Foundation that has been supporting translation and publication of Korean literature since 1993 said that “Korean literature has not begun to bloom in the world, but is still sprouting. It is not that the quality of Korean literature has suddenly gotten better that the world is paying attention to it. It is rather thanks to the harmony and chemistry of skilled translators and publishers, along with the influence of Korean literature maintained in the market that helped achieve such good news.”

 

Translation grants provided to overseas publishers for the last 6 years (2014-2019)
Year 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
No. of translation grants provided to overseas publishers for translation and publication 11 42 62 63 65 81

 * Source: 2019 Hallyu White Paper, 137p, Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE)

 

The qualitative improvement of translation has also greatly contributed to the globalization of Korean literature. In short, Korea’s culture and language can now be better delivered to overseas readers compared to the past. Yoon said that “Translation is very important. Compared to the 1970s and 80s, the number of native translators that have an in-depth understanding of Korea increased, which helped the message and content of Korean literature to be better conveyed to readers worldwide.” Public and private organizations have also played a great role. While cooperating with each other with works divided, their effort added an engine to the globalization of the Korean literature. Yoon added that “If the private sector such as agencies or publishers carry out aggressive marketing strategies for quality books written by star writers and work as a gimlet that makes a hole in the tough market, public organizations such as the Literature Translation Institute of Korea enlarge that hole by supporting works that diversify Korean literature. This collective effort has led to local publishers to take the lead in translating and publishing Korean literature even before we do.”
Also, Lee Jung-Hwa from the Foundation added that “The number of translation grants provided to overseas publishers every year is around 25. The applicants were mainly from four language groups: English, French, German, and Spanish. But now, we receive applications from all around the world. In terms of Europe and Asia, some people who have a great interest in the Korean culture work as a salesperson as they actively make publication requests to local publishers while trying to translate the work by themselves. They are huge contributors to the globalization of Korean literature.”

 

 


Written by Park Ji-Hyun (Journalist of Financial News)

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Park Ji-Hyun (Journalist of Financial News)

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