Raising the Profile of Korean Literature Overseas
Korea: "A Glittering Land of Literature and the Arts"
It is well known that Korea was long treated as an obscure land, always left out of discussions about East Asia, which chiefly revolved around China and Japan. Sandwiched between its more famous neighbors, Korea was often peripheral, inconspicuous, and even invisible.
Today, however, Korea is quite well known globally, both the North and the South. Of course, the two Koreas have become known in different ways. North Korea has been in the international spotlight due to its sporadic launching of ballistic nuclear test missiles that pose a serious threat to world peace. People frown and cluck their tongues at North Korea's unpredictable and insolent behavior. It is no wonder that international publishers are interested in escapee memoirs or travelogues about North Korea that might help shed light on this tightly insulated and inscrutable nation.
By contrast, South Korea has become well known for its miraculous economic success, cutting-edge technology, and the widespread Korean cultural phenomenon called hallyu. Today, quite a few foreign government officials visit Korea every year to learn its secret recipe for achieving such breathtaking economic growth in such a short time. Naturally, many young foreigners, intrigued by the charm of hallyu, want to visit Korea these days. [End Page 271]
Recently, The Times Literary Supplement blog carried an encouraging piece entitled "A glittering Korea." Author Toby Richtig writes that in the U.K. there is a "seemingly insatiable appetite for publications about the Hermit Kingdom" and the ruling dynasty of North Korea. He continues, "But away from the escapee memoirs, famine histories and book-length speculations about the robustness, politically and gastrointestinally, of the youthful Dear Leader, it is the South that has been gaining headway in the more refined literary arts."
Indeed, while North Korea has been busy showing off its military muscle, South Korea has emerged on the global stage as a country with a rich cultural heritage and captivating literary arts. The article points out that the Literature Translation Institute of Korea plays a vital role in promoting Korean literature overseas. Indeed, LTI subsidizes the translation and publication of Korean literature in over thirty-six languages around the world. LTI Korea also runs the Translation Academy that trains professional translators, publishes the English quarterly journal Korean Literature Now, and helps Korean writers participate in major international literary events.
While congratulating Deborah Smith on receiving the 2016 Arts Foundation Award for her superb translation of Han Kang's novel The Vegetarian, Richtig argues that Korean literature in the U.K. is now on the rise: "Over the past few years there has been a glut of fiction in translation arriving from South Korea, much of it critically acclaimed and some of it even commercially successful." He continues, "This is partly thanks to the indefatigable Dalkey Archive, whose Library of Korean Literature, produced in collaboration with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, will—when complete—amount to an impressive twenty-five novels and collections of short stories."
The New Yorker also recently published an intriguing article on Korean literature. In this insightful piece, Mythili G. Rao suggests that the twenty-five Dalkey Archive books offer a good [End Page 272] starting point for English-speaking readers to learn about Korean literature. Indeed, Dalkey's Library of Korean Literature series is invaluable for making Korean literature conspicuous and easily accessible in the Anglophone market. Rao also recognizes that South Korea is now visible everywhere: "With a G.D.P. of $1.4 trillion, South Korea has the world's thirteenth-largest economy, trailing Australia and Canada."
Richtig points out that Korean literature has been successful in the U.K.: "And while most of Korean literature's international success stories have emerged from America—with its sizeable Korean community—Britain now has a success story of its own." He ends his perceptive piece by congratulating Korean literature and encouraging its bright future: "So congratulations to Smith and congratulations to the art of translation and congratulations to Korean literature, which once again seems to be enjoying its place in the sun." As Richtig's title indicates, Korean literature is now glittering in the international community.
A host of prominent Korean writers and their works have recently contributed to this glittering. For example, Shin Kyungsook's Please Look After Mom, Hwang Sun-mi's The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, Han Kang's The Vegetarian, Kim Young-ha's Your Republic Is Calling You, Pyun Hye-young's The Hole, Jeong Yoo-jeong's The Seven Year Night, Bae Suah's Nowhere to Be Found, and others, not to mention distinguished senior writers such as Ko Un, Hwang Sok-yong, and Yi Mun-yol.
Notably, that Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize in 2016 thrilled the whole nation. Koreans were elated. After all, this was the first time a Korean writer was honored with such an internationally acclaimed literary award.
Thanks to Han Kang's prize-winning novel The Vegetarian, Korean literature is finally in the limelight, receiving its fair share of praise from the international community at last. How eagerly the Korean people have waited for their literature to [End Page 273] be recognized by the world, and how many times they been disappointed in the past.
Undeniably, Han Kang's The Vegetarian is an outstanding work of literature. Her prose is poetic and full of heightened sensitivity, while her narrative technique is breathtaking and mesmerizing. It is not a thriller, and yet it is a page-turner. Once you pick up the book and open to the first page, you simply cannot put it down until you reach the last. Sometimes the novel is saturated with sensual desire, and sometimes it depicts graphic violence in the bleak landscape of modern society. It is no wonder that the judges selected it.
We also appreciate Deborah Smith's role in winning the prize. Her excellent translation vividly captures the author's artistic description of the grim environment into which the vegetarian protagonist is thrown among carnivorous predators. Smith's superb translation also beautifully renders Han's charming prose into impeccable English. Han is lucky to have Smith as her translator. Thanks to Smith, a consensus has developed in Korea that we need to foster talented translators, both Korean and foreign.
In the past, people generally regarded translation as something inferior to the original work, hence the saying, "Translators are traitors." Today, however, people value translation and translators as much as the original work and its author. Translation is by no means an easy task. It is a painstaking job that requires dedication, excellent writing skills, and exceptional verbal dexterity. Besides, without translation, a writer cannot be known outside his or her country. Italo Calvino once wrote, "Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world." If so, we should say, "Translators are trans-nationalists" because they play a key role in connecting two or more nations. To raise the profile of Korean literature overseas, we need more well-qualified translators like Deborah Smith. [End Page 274]
On the Translation of Korean Literature
Despite Richtig's encouraging remarks, we still need to go further to raise the profile of Korean literature overseas. In order to achieve this goal, three things are imperative: great writers, good translators, and big-name publishers. As someone who was in charge of translating and publishing Korean literature overseas, I was always on the lookout for a literary masterpiece that could represent Korean literature, a superb translator who could render the original work beautifully, and an internationally well-known publisher that had connections with the press and influence on the book market. Of course, finding them was not an easy task.
As essential as attractive literary works and famous publishers are for promoting Korean literature overseas, my immediate concern was always translation. As Tracy Fisher from the WME Agency in the U.S. recently explained, "For a Korean writer to break out into the English language market, a quality translator attached to the book early will be the key."
Who, then, is an ideal translator? In the case of English translation of Korean literature, there has been a heated debate on who is the better qualified translator: an American or British translator, or a Korean translator. Some people insist that American or British translators are much better than Korean translators because the latter are prone to make mistakes in grammar, syntax, and wording, not to mention inadvertently using unstylish sentences and awkward expressions. Others strike back, insisting that Korean translators are better because British and American translators almost always make quite a few mistakes in their translation since they are often unable to comprehend certain Korean words or phrases and their cultural implications.
In fact, both arguments are right. Thus, collaboration or co-translation by two different nationals can be a good solution. Prize-winning French translator Jean-Noël Juttet recently said, "In the case of translation into French, it is mostly occupied by pairs comprising a bilingual Korean who translates into French [End Page 275] and a native speaker reviser who undertakes the stylistic checking and often much more than that." But it is a time-consuming task because when two people are involved in translating a text, they need to spend long hours explaining and discussing the issues they encounter while translating.
An ideal translator, then, should be someone who is bilingual and bicultural. He or she should be either a native speaker of the target language who knows the original work and its cultural background quite well, or a native speaker of Korean who has an excellent, impeccable command of English. Besides, he should have a keen literary sense and excellent writing skills. He also should love the literary work he wants to translate. In addition, he should have vast knowledge and a profound understanding of Korean culture and society.
Generally speaking, a Briton or an American who can speak fluent Korean would be a more ideal translator of Korean literature than a Korean whose English proficiency is dubious. At the same time, however, it is noteworthy that some qualified Korean translators can be even better than sloppy but obstinate native speakers of English. John O'Brien, CEO of Dalkey Archive Press, says, "The commonly held view is that translations should be done only by those in the target language; my experience in the past 30 years has been that some of Dalkey Archive's best translations are done by native speakers with advanced skills in English."
What made him say this? O'Brien continues: "They have a sense of meaning, tone and reference that oftentimes escapes the English-language translator, and that the editor is there to take care of or ask about the wording that has not quite made its way into English and will know when the right words are being used."
So it all depends on who the translator is.
In his book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? David Bellos, too, argues that when reading a French detective story in English translation, it would be a bit funny to see the French people in the novel speak impeccable American English or slang. He points out [End Page 276] that the reader would expect some French way of talking from them. His statement seems to acknowledge the merits of a French translator when translating a French literary work into English.
Aside from good translation, what do we need to bring Korean literature to a global readership? Tracy Fisher has a suggestion: "For Korean literature to become established in the U.S., it is my belief that the first wave will need to be in these particular and mainstream categories of suspense and mystery. Other types of Korean fiction can follow after inroads are made into the American market." Indeed, we should produce literary works that would have strong international appeal. Once the door is open, more serious literature can follow.
Cultural Dimensions of Translation
Since the Tower of Babel, humans have needed interpreters and translators to communicate across nations. Due to cultural differences, however, misunderstandings often arise, and sometimes things are inevitably lost in translation. That is why there is that saying: "every translator is a traitor."
A host of writers have contemplated and written about the innate problems of translation. For example, Yevgeny Yevtushenko humorously said, "Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful." Robert Frost commented, "Poetry is what gets lost in translation."
And Samuel Johnson said, "But as the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved in any language except that in which it was originally written, we learn the language." According to him, we should read poetry in its original language, not in translation. The problem is that not many are willing to learn a new language to read poetry.
George Borrow has also disparaged translation: "Translation is at best an echo." Virginia Woolf also lamented the difficulty of rendering humor in a foreign language: "Humour is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue." Indeed, translating humor [End Page 277] into another language is extremely difficult and tricky, because the sense of humor varies from one culture to another.
At the same time, however, other intellectuals acknowledge the importance of translation. For example, José Saramago once wrote, "Writers make national literature, while translators make universal literature." Paul Auster argued, "Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world." Anthony Burgess, too, once said, "Translation is not a matter of words only; it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture." In the past, a translator simply translated a foreign text word by word. Consequently, wrong translations were inevitable and rampant. Today's translators, however, should comprehend the whole context and render the cultural implications hidden beneath words and expressions more fully. This implies that one should be an expert not only in the target language but also in the culture and psychology of the people who speak the language being translated. Today, a translator is no longer considered a traitor, but a cultural mediator. It definitely won't be easy to mediate between cultures, yet we should try very hard to do so.
When we translate a text, therefore, we should always bear in mind cultural differences. Instead of word-by-word translation, we need "cultural translation." Only then can we avoid the mischaracterization of a text.
Why We Need Good Translators
When a nonnative speaker of English translates an English text into Korean, he or she will surely encounter such obstacles and consequently find a translator's task quite challenging. Naturally, questions arise. Is a literal, word-for-word translation necessary?
Is a translation secondary and inferior to the original? And can the beauty of a literary work be preserved in a foreign language? Perhaps the answer is "no." [End Page 278]
As for the first question, I agree with Tracy Fisher: "We recognize that a literal, word-for-word translation is not what is needed. We believe a translator must truly understand and feel a text in order to translate it properly." I also agree with Andrés Felipe Solano, professor of Spanish at the LTI Translation Academy, who said, "The mission of a translator is far from focusing on searching for sentences that are exactly same as the original, or fighting with syntax or catching the rhythm of a paragraph." Indeed, faithfulness to the original text does not necessarily mean a literal, word-for-word translation.
As to the second question on the value of a translation, Umberto Eco provides a good answer. In the author's preface to his celebrated novel The Name of the Rose, he describes his work as an Italian translation of a French translation of an original work, written in Latin in the 14th century. Here Eco implies two things: first, a translation is by no means inferior to the original work and, second, the act of writing is already an act of translating, metaphorically speaking. In an interview, David Bellos of Princeton University says, "We translate all the time. If we refuse to translate, refuse to listen to what other people have to say to us, whichever language it is in, we're not living as fully as human beings as we could be."
Therefore, we no longer call translators "traitors" in the literal sense of the word these days. Instead, we call them "cultural mediators" because they bridge two worlds, two cultures, and two languages. In addition, I believe that the beauty of a literary work can also be preserved in a foreign language as long as the translation is good. When I was a teenager, for example, I was deeply moved by James Joyce's "Araby," Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, which I read in translation. A good translation can magically capture the delicate nuances of the original text and make a profound impression on the reader.
Who, then, makes an ideal translator? At the 2014 International Workshop for Translation and Publication of Korean [End Page 279] Literature held at COEX, foreign publishers and translators came up with some illuminating ideas. For example, John O'Brien, publisher of Dalkey Archive Press, said that translators should be "competent, language-sensitive, daring and culturally immersed." Solano's presentation was also enlightening. He wrote, "A translator should understand the world of the writer and translate it. It is like disassembling a house, crossing the ocean with those materials and reconstructing on another shore a new house which reminds [you] of the original, without being just a copy of it." If translation is like reassembling a house in another place, the two houses cannot and do not have be exactly the same; the reconstructed house could and should be modified to make it more suitable to the new place.
Then Solano offered an excellent metaphor: "For this, a translator should read first with the passion of a soldier in love who opens a letter from his girlfriend who has been waiting for him for months. After that, he should read again, obsessively, the way a physicist looks for an equation to explain the world he has discovered." He continued, "And finally, only after these two readings, he should begin translating with the ears of a musician. The work of a translator, like that of a musician, is to tune the instrument, then wait for the strings to vibrate, and the music to resound."
Solano described a translator's task splendidly, answering the question "Why do we need quality translators?" We need competent translators because languages are different and they render the world differently. As Anthony Burgess said, "Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture."
Problems of Bringing Korean Literature to the World
Koreans often wonder why their country has not produced many internationally acclaimed novelists or poets, whereas for many years now a substantial number of Korean artists in other fields have managed to receive worldwide renown. Some Koreans feel slighted by the fact that English-speaking countries are largely [End Page 280] unaware of Korean literature. They feel that Korean literature has been unjustly neglected, especially when they see both Chinese and Japanese literature enjoying a higher profile throughout the international literary community.
Some problems giving rise to these issues were addressed recently at an international conference held at Seoul National University. Brother Anthony, a professor and translator, noted several reasons why Korean literature has been unable to gain the international recognition it deserves. He aptly pointed out that Korean writers tend to write in isolation, for a Korean market alone, "without any relationship with what is being written in other parts of the world."
As a result, Korean literature generally tends to be "parochial" and not "likely to address themes and issues in ways capable of interesting readers beyond its frontiers." How do we improve on this situation? Korean writers must become aware of the radical changes taking place in the world by keeping up with current issues and assiduously reading the latest works of their contemporaries, especially foreign ones.
We tend to think of Korean culture as unique and homogeneous, but, as Edward Said rightly asserted, "All cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and un-monolithic." Said would have no bones about deriding those with the nationalistic attitude that "we" should only be concerned with what is "ours."
Yet Korean writers continue to evoke nationalistic emotions associated with the recent history of Korea. And Koreans seem to value these literary efforts highly. The problem is that the nationalistic sentiment rarely has any emotional appeal for foreign readers with little knowledge of Korean history. Korean writers need to loosen the shackles of nationalism and the dead weight of ideology if they want to have any impact on the international literary scene.
Another problem is that this kind of Korean literature tends to be rather grim. "Many short stories and novels make quite [End Page 281] harrowing reading," notes Brother Anthony. "Why is Korean literature so depressing?" is a frequently asked question. Of course, many a writer harbors a tortured soul, but, as literary history shows, it doesn't follow that every tortured soul writes something painful to read. Some have moved our minds with literature that is truly uplifting, gently pleasurable, or touching to the heart. Why, then, do Korean writers insist on saturating their work with evocations of a tragic national history, of agony and pain? The result is that Korean literature is getting a reputation for being hopelessly depressing.
We naively assume that what is admired inside will also be admired outside of Korea. But this is not the case. Americans, for instance, are generally not interested in translated foreign literature, let alone translated Korean literature. "There has been and to some there remains, a skepticism that other cultures and literatures are not equal in value to that of the U.S.," said Dennis Maloney, publisher of White Pine Press in New York, at the above-mentioned international conference. Not only that, we are up against the simple fact that Korean literature is not well known in other countries—Western or Eastern—so, while we admire Western literature, that admiration is not necessarily reciprocated.
Thus, Korean literature needs to be extensively promoted and marketed in order to reach, enlighten, and educate readers abroad. Good translation is a prerequisite together with selecting the most appropriate works to be translated, as these must appeal to foreign tastes. The result will be an output of literary works that will inspire both domestic and foreign readers alike. Then we shall attract the respect of more people like American poet David McCann, who never shies away from singing the praises of the exquisite poems of Kim Sowol, such as "Azaleas," from which he derives constant inspiration.
We will soon see works of Korean literature inspiring the poetic imagination of writers on a regular basis worldwide. Then, it will not be long before we see the first Nobel Prize awarded to a Korean writer. But, first things first, Korean writers need to start [End Page 282] looking beyond this peninsula's mountains. This does not mean their work need be any less uniquely Korean, but, like all great art, it should be universal enough to strike a chord with readers everywhere. Only then will Korea truly enjoy the international distinction it rightly deserves for its literature.
The Gulf between Hallyu and Highbrow Literature
As Korean television dramas and K-pop spread across Asia, the Middle East, and even parts of Europe, some Koreans have begun asking, "Does Korean entertainment represent true Korean culture?" Some time ago, the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism launched an advisory committee to promote Korean culture overseas. Specialists in Korean culture gathered to discuss the prospects and problems of hallyu. They all agreed that dramas, movies, and K-pop are not a comprehensive representation of Korean culture, and thus we need to introduce to the world other aspects of Korean culture, such as Korean cuisine, architecture, attire, music, painting, and literature.
Some members of the committee dismissed Korean dramas and K-pop as commercial lowbrow culture, and resentfully argued that the ever-popular dramas and songs should be immediately replaced by the pure arts and highbrow culture of Korea. It never seemed to occur to them that foreigners may not be intrigued by Korean highbrow culture, although all variants of Korean culture are important. Furthermore, they did not seem to realize that the enormous success of Korean dramas and K-pop have essentially prepared a path for the introduction of Korean highbrow culture to the rest of the world.
Instead of disparaging dramas and K-pop, therefore, we should be grateful. In the past, we tried without much success to exhibit our highbrow culture to the world, but we were not successful until hallyu made inroads into other countries first. In that sense, Korean dramas and K-pop have played the role of John the Baptist, preparing the path for Jesus' arrival. [End Page 283]
Other committee members claimed that K-pop is not so much Korean as Western in its essence. But Culture Minister Choe Kwang-shik evaluated the issue in a more complex way.
He remarked, "When I watched K-pop on TV, I was stunned, because I saw aspects of traditional Korean culture mixed in with the contemporary." Choe, a renowned folk historian, pointed out, "First of all, group dancing is uniquely Korean. Even though Michael Jackson used the group dancing technique as well, he was always the main star and others simply were his backup dancers. In K-pop, however, all members of the group are stars, and every dancer is equal." Then he continued, "Old Chinese documents describe that, interestingly, Korean dance featured singing and dancing at the same time, using both arms and legs while dancing. You can find the vestige still lingering in K-pop vocal groups."
According to Choe, in northern cultures, in places like Russia, dancers mainly use their legs and feet while dancing, whereas in southern cultures, in places such as Malaysia or Indonesia, dancers chiefly use their arms and hands while dancing. In Korean traditional dancing, both arms and legs are used. Indeed, K-pop is a mixture of two different cultures, Korean and Western. Perhaps it is this hybrid culture between the East and West that appeals to young people in other countries. They can easily embrace K-pop because its Western aspects are familiar to them already. At the same time, they are fascinated by the exotic, foreign elements that are also found in K-pop. After all, we now live in the age of hybrid cultures, and nothing is wrong with merging two different cultures. According to the "co-evolution theory," no culture is subsumed or eliminated by another. Instead, cultures blend, integrate, and finally enrich each other.
Yet, we still tend to believe that the more "pure Korean" something is, the better. Perhaps this was true in the twentieth century when foreign cultures were so remote, and when it was difficult to visit another country. But such purism is no longer appropriate. Times have changed. Today, people easily travel [End Page 284] to foreign countries and use social media, such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, to share many things. All boundaries are being dismantled, disintegrating, and collapsing. And cross-cultural activities are being actively pursued every day on the Internet. These days, therefore, many young people may find something entirely foreign, as opposed to something hybrid, unfamiliar and thus less intriguing.
We cannot deny that Korean actors and actresses and K-pop singers have done a splendid job overseas as harbingers of Korean culture. In fact, they have achieved what other serious artists have not been able to. Thanks to their efforts, young people in other countries have suddenly become interested in Korean culture, language, and history. Many also want to visit Korea and learn about Korean culture.
Meanwhile, we must be modest. We should respect other cultures and be careful not to belittle or offend them. We should not utter inconsiderate words such as "hallyu has conquered the world." Only then can we hope to see the popularity of hallyu and even highbrow Korean culture continue to spread and have appeal across the globe in the future.
How Can Korean Literature Appeal to the International Reader?
These days, Korean literature has many readers around the globe. Some Korean writers enjoy enormous popularity in foreign countries, and others have quite a few ardent fans overseas. Why, then, do foreign readers find Korean literature intriguing?
For example, reading Hwang Sok-yong's gripping novel The Guest, foreign readers can imagine the atrocities of the Korean War, at a time when two uninvited visitors from the West, Marxism and Christianity, collided on the Korean peninsula. Set in Sincheon in North Korea, the novel, based on a true story, depicts how villagers, divided by Communists and Christians, slaughtered each other mercilessly due to ideological differences. [End Page 285]
In Korea, smallpox was called "the visitor" or "the guest," because uninvited disease from the West visited unexpectedly and left indelible scars on your face. Indeed, such pockmarks never go away, and you must live with them for the rest of your life even after you are cured.
Likewise, we still seem to suffer the consequences of a horrible disease called "the visitor." Today, we are still divided by two antagonistic ideologies and still fighting one another as if we were archenemies. We blame the West for sending us uninvited visitors. In fact, however, it is we who have betrayed the true spirit of Marxism and Christianity and cruelly massacred others out of resentment and retribution. Foreign readers are intrigued by the symbolism of this gripping novel.
Yi Mun-yol's mesmerizing novella Our Twisted Hero superbly depicts Korean society under a ruthless military dictatorship in the late twentieth century. Using an elementary school classroom as a microcosm of Korean society, Yi brilliantly captures the suffocating atmosphere and subtle psychology of submissive, conforming people under the tyranny of the class president.
Regrettably, what Yi perceives and laments in his novella still seems to persist in Korean society today. Although the dictatorship is long gone, there are those who still want to wield political power and manipulate people ruthlessly just like the dictators they hated so much, and there are those who try to flatter the powerful for political gain.
In addition, there are those who obey the powerful in order to survive. International readers are fascinated by Yi's compelling criticism of, and profound insight into, a human society entangled with power politics.
Kim Young-ha's critically acclaimed novel The Republic Is Calling You deals with a "sleeping" North Korean agent who has settled comfortably in South Korea and is married with children. He has become so used to the South that he is embarrassed when one day he is abruptly summoned back to North Korea. Critics have focused on his dilemma. "He is saturated with capitalism. Can he survive in North Korea?" [End Page 286]
Nevertheless, there is much more to the novel. Kim Young-ha says that the book is not so much a spy novel as a story about relocation and living in a diaspora. Indeed, Kim touches upon the complex issue of a brainwashed man thrust into a new environment. In fact, there must be quite a few people like the protagonist of Kim's novel in today's South Korea, torn between the ideologies they are brainwashed with and a new, better environment that defies their previous ideological education, which is now obsolete.
Shin Kyung-sook's celebrated novel Please Look After Mom is a wonderful reminder of our ingratitude to those to whom we are indebted. When someone does a favor for us, we tend to take it for granted and are not sufficiently grateful. To make matters worse, we often betray our benefactors and speak ill of them behind their backs or even criticize them maliciously. Foreigners may read Shin's novel as the story of an affectionate relationship between a Korean mother and her children. To me, however, the novel is a heartbreaking, belated exposure of our lack of gratitude to those who have helped us or sacrificed for us in times of crisis. We belatedly realize that we are insolent ingrates only after we lose our precious ones, such as family members, friends, and allies. In that sense, Shin's novel has a strong appeal to the average international reader who takes his mother for granted.
Hwang Sun-mi's international bestseller The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is not simply a feminist text. Some critics value the motif of escape and others the theme of flying. However, the novel's latent theme seems to be "How to embrace differences." For example, the hen hatches and raises a wild duckling, taking it in as her own baby. When the ugly duckling grows up and flies away with its own flock, the hen now feels sympathy for the weasel's babies. She does not care about the species difference. By embracing difference, the hen could really fly, though metaphorically. Foreign readers are especially fascinated by the deeply moving ending: the hen sacrifices herself for the hungry cubs of a weasel. [End Page 287]
Reading modern Korean literature, we can find a host of universal yet uniquely Korean themes that appeal to the international reader. They will be of help when raising the profile of Korean literature overseas. As long as we have great literary works, excellent translators, and dedicated publishers, the future of Korean literature will continue to be bright and promising. [End Page 288]
Seong-Kon Kim, a literary critic and translator, was president of the Literature Translation Institute (affiliated with the Ministry of Culture) from 2012 to 2017. Educated at SUNY/Buffalo and Columbia, he received the SUNY/Buffalo Distinguished International Alumni Award, the Columbia University Distinguished Alumni Award, and the Fulbright Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2017, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the State University of New York. Previously having taught at Penn State, BYU, and UC Berkeley, Kim is presently professor emeritus at Seoul National University and Dean's Distinguished Global Scholar in the Humanities and visiting professor at George Washington University.