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Globalization of Korean literature

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By Choe Chong-dae

It is disappointing to learn that Cheon Myeong-kwan's novel "Whale" did not win the British Booker Prize in the international category. On May 23, the Booker Prize Steering Committee announced the selection of "Time Shelter," a novel by Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov, as one of the six finalists for this year's International Booker Prize in the international category. Unfortunately, "Whale" was not among the finalists.

Originally written in 2004, "Whale" was recently translated into English by Kim Chi-young and published by Europa Editions in January 2023. This remarkable book has garnered acclaim for its epic adventure-satire, featuring three unique characters: Chunhui, a mute brick-maker who communicates with elephants; her thrill-seeking mother, who has been chasing an elusive thrill since witnessing a whale crest in the ocean; and a one-eyed woman with the ability to control honeybees using a whistle.

Although "Whale" may not have claimed the prize, its literary merit and inventive storytelling have left an indelible mark on readers, solidifying Cheon's position as a remarkable and celebrated author.

Despite the translation and publication of Korean literary works in English and other foreign languages, only a limited number of Korean authors are currently recognized in international literary circles. While the Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to many distinguished writers of novels and poems since the introduction of modern world literature, Korea has yet to produce a winner of the prize.

Reports in Korean local media have mentioned some Korean writers as potential candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature. One of the reasons why Korean authors have yet to receive a prestigious award like the Nobel Prize in Literature is the lack of high-quality translations. In contrast, Japanese or Japan-born writers like Yasunari Kawabata, Kenzaburo Oe and Kazuo Ishiguro have been recognized with the award, ii 1968, 1994 and 2017 respectively.

There are few professional translators of Korean literature whose skills are sufficiently adept to capture the attention of a global audience. Literary translation is not merely a mechanical process of interpreting and converting languages; rather, it is a creative rebirth that transforms a work into an equivalent form in another language, while revealing the distinctive worldview and literary temperament of the author. Therefore, it is essential for successful authors to have a skilled translation team supporting them, providing overseas readers with authentic views of Korean literature. To build bridges between Korean and other languages, qualified translators must forge partnerships with native speakers of foreign languages.

Korean literature has great potential to gain wider recognition and appeal to a global audience. To achieve this, it is crucial to translate remarkable Korean literary works into major foreign languages such as English (and, of course, not excluding Swedish!) to make them readily accessible to readers worldwide. By doing so, Korean literature can have a more profound impact on the international literary community and pave the way for Korean authors to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in the near future. This is because the prize could be seen as a translation prize as well, and such efforts can increase the exposure of Korean literature on the global stage and attract a broader audience.

To raise global appreciation for Korean literature, translators should possess excellent language skills and a deep understanding of erudite Korean knowledge including culture, history, customs, language, literature, philosophy and religion. This understanding is crucial for accurately conveying the intricacies and subtleties of the original text, allowing it to resonate with readers from diverse backgrounds. Collaboration among Korean authors, translators and critics of different cultures is essential to create authentic literary works that reflect Korea's distinctive identity while captivating international readers. Accurate and refined translation plays a vital role in making stories reach further and the international literary community is eagerly anticipating the possibility of a Korean writer winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and other prestigious international prizes.

Choe Chong-dae ( is a guest columnist of The Korea Times. He is president of Dae-kwang International Co., and director of the Korean-Swedish Association.


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