The Korea Times


ⓕ font-size

  • -2
  • -1
  • 0
  • +1
  • +2

Korea Encounters'Traitorous' translators tread carefully in Korean literature

  • Facebook share button
  • Twitter share button
  • Kakao share button
  • Mail share button
  • Link share button
English versions of Korean short stories, published in The Korea Times April 20, 1969. / Korea Times Archive
English versions of Korean short stories, published in The Korea Times April 20, 1969. / Korea Times Archive

By Matt VanVolkenburg

While the global success of Korean popular culture obviously owes a great deal to its creators, the popularity of the TV series "Squid Game," Bong Joon-ho's Best Picture Oscar for "Parasite" and the winning of the Booker International Prize by Han Kang for her novel "The Vegetarian," all owe a great deal to their translators.

Having such a large pool of translators is a relatively new development, however, and in decades past, translation of Korean literature was considered less-than-stellar in both quality and quantity.

In the 1960s Korean fiction was not well known outside the country, though classical stories had been translated by missionaries Homer Hulbert and James Gale in the 1900s. Gale, in particular, had published his translation of "Kim Man-jung's 17th-century novel "Cloud Dream of the Nine" in 1922. Though in 1968 missionary and translator Richard Rutt described this translation as a tremendous achievement, there were some drawbacks. Gale "was obviously enchanted by the qualities of the work, but he could not give himself up completely to the red-blooded sex and drinking that goes on in it" and so "did not feel free to translate it all."

In the early 1960s there were two main sources for translations of Korean literature. One was Korea Journal, an English monthly published in Seoul by UNESCO, which began in 1960. Between 1965 and 1969 it "carried one or more literary pieces every month… totaling around 60 short stories, and some plays and prose."

The other was The Korea Times, which published short stories and serialized translations of novels.

There was comparatively little translation done outside Korea, though one exception was Yu Ui-sang's English translation of Hwang Sun-won's "Shower," which won a short story contest sponsored by the British magazine Encounter in 1959, making it the first Korean literary work to win an international contest.

A notable inclusion in The Korea Times was its 1962 publication, in 24 parts, of W.E. Skillend's translation of Korea's first 'new novel,' Yi Injik's "Tears of Blood." Later that year it serialized Fred Dustin's translation of Seon-u Hwi's award-winning novella "Bulggot," which had been "first undertaken in the fall of 1957 under the direction of Dr. Suh Doo-soo at the University of Washington as part of the translator's MA thesis in Far Eastern Languages and Literature."

The Korea Times introduces a serialized version of Fred Dustin's translation of Seon-u Hwi's award-winning novella
The Korea Times introduces a serialized version of Fred Dustin's translation of Seon-u Hwi's award-winning novella "Bulggot," Sept. 15, 1962. / Korea Times Archive

As Dustin put it, "To my knowledge, this is one of the very few only pieces of modern Korean literature to be translated and published." He commented on the need "to bring to light the thoughts and ideas of the present generation as expressed in their literature" and hoped that "recognition of the rather grave situation now presented by the lack of translations will be dealt with."

The situation did not improve quickly, however. In early 1966, Rutt reviewed the book "Korean Literature: Topics and Themes" by Peter H. Lee, whom he described as "one of the leading scholars working on Korean literature outside Korea." Later that year it was announced that Frits Vos, a professor at Leiden University, planned to translate "Tale of Chunhyang" and "Samguk Yusa," or the History of the Three Kingdoms Period.

What eventually nudged the literary community and government into taking action was the awarding of the 1968 Nobel Prize for literature to the Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata, which, as Richard Rutt put it "filled Korean hearts with envy." According to Kim Song-hyeon, writing in The Korea Times in November 1968, this "gave much incentive to Korean writers towards the realization of the dream of winning the Nobel Prize," though he wondered if "the ever-growing national power of Japan had to play a key role in selection of Kawabata as 1968 winner rather than the quality of the story itself." The fact that Kawabata only won because his work had been translated into English by American professor Edward G. Seidensticker made clear the importance of translation.

This posed certain problems, and not everyone agreed on the solutions. As Rutt wrote in January 1969, a translator was a "careful craftsman" who had to be true to "the original language, the original author, the language into which they translate and the readers for whom they translate." A large budget was unlikely to help because "translation to order is likely to become hackwork, and hackwork does not win Nobel prizes." He argued that "a literature has to wait until it attracts the best translators it can get. And it will only attract good translators when it is read, and read widely," which suggested a chicken-and-egg conundrum.

Kim Song-hyeon suggested that a way around this would be for Korean authors to write their works directly in English or French, but at that time he could only think of four such examples: Li Mirok, Young-hill Kang, Kim Yong-ik and Richard E. Kim.

In March 1969, Dongguk University English professor Song Yo-in described how at a recent lecture held in Seoul, Seidensticker made clear that he believed, as Rutt did, that "the natural direction of translation is not out of but into one's own language," adding that it would be "outrageous or even ridiculous for an American to attempt to translate American literature into Korean."

The difficulty in finding English native speakers who understood literature and Korea's language and culture led Song to suggest that a partnership between native speakers of Korean and English might be an efficient solution. However, he thought the then-current system of Koreans providing a first draft of a translation which was polished by an English-speaking copyeditor who might have little knowledge of Korea produced lackluster results. As he put it, "The heartening thing about the problem is that more and more people are becoming aware of and interested in it."

While visiting Korea in May 1969, University of Hawaii professor and translator Peter H. Lee spoke about the need to choose carefully when translating Korean fiction. He "stressed that the works should contain local value as literary works. Translators should not select works on the simple grounds that they are interesting to English-speaking foreign residents in Korea. Because these are always not at all those who are interested in or have a deep knowledge of Korean literature."

In a letter published in the Korea Times three days later, columnist James Wade described this stance as "Nonsense!" "On what basis should such selections be chosen? That they are not interesting to sympathetic foreign readers? As an English-speaking foreign resident I resent the idea of having my interest taken as a negative criterion for translation projects."

"Historical perspective and scholarly value should certainly enter into such choices of course," Wade wrote. "But a policy deliberately to exclude anything the general reader might like" would only produce "dusty shelves full of unread (however excellent) translations of esoterica."

By early 1969 it was reported that the Ministry of Culture and Public Information was planning to train translation experts and financially support the publication of translated works, which it hoped would "fan a translation boom in the near future with an eye for a Nobel Prize."

There were various players looking to promote Korean literature abroad, such as the Korean publisher Hollym, the Korea PEN Club and the Asia Society. In April 1969, the Korea PEN Club reportedly planned to translate 30 contemporary short stories, 300 poems, and five plays before the 37th International PEN Club conference, which was to be held in Seoul in 1970.

The Asian Literature Program of the Asia Society, which was established in 1959 to "create a greater understanding of Asian thought," was more interested in publishing Korean classics, and its director visited Seoul in late 1969 to discuss various projects with translators such as James Hoyt, Alan Heyman, Marshall Pihl and Rutt.

A roundtable discussion on the problems with Korean literary translation, published in The Korea Times Feb. 1, 1970. / Korea Times Archive
A roundtable discussion on the problems with Korean literary translation, published in The Korea Times Feb. 1, 1970. / Korea Times Archive

In February 1970, Pihl discussed a topic that is popular today when he wrote that "From time to time one runs across those articles in the popular press that herald the coming of a 'computer age' when the 'great treasures of the world's literature will be unlocked for one and all' by programmed, computer translation. Such hokum is the stuff of many a middle American dream, fired by an imagination left too long unexercised by the awful dullness of modern mass media."

In 1969, Edward Seidensticker stated that "translation is forever impossible and yet it is forever necessary." In reply, Song Yo-in wrote, "We Koreans go a step further and fondly call the translator a traitor."

Considering the criticism that Korean audiences have directed at the subtitles for "Squid Game" and the translation of "The Vegetarian," it's rather clear that, far from being the obscure topic it was in the 1960s, for today's hypermodern, globalized Korea, translation has now taken center stage, and those who undertake it must tread carefully.

Matt VanVolkenburg has a master's degree in Korean studies from the University of Washington. He is the blogger behind

Interactive News

  • With tough love,
  • 'Santa dogs' help rebuild burnt forests in Andong
  • 'Santa dogs' help rebuild burnt forests in Andong
  • A tale of natural wine

Top 10 Stories

go top LETTER