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Country in Focus: Korea

Translators uplift Korean literature to global heights

(From The Korea Herald. Link to the complete article given below)

Every time Goksel Turkozu browsed through a bookstore in Turkey, he felt there could be more books of Korean literature in translation in his country where the passion for everything Korean runs high.

A devotee of Korean literature and professor at Erciyes University in the city of Kayseri, Cappadocia, Turkozu has adapted several well-known Korean novels into the Turkish language since he first set foot in Seoul in 1990 as a student.

His decadeslong dedication to spread Korea’s literary imagination to his homeland won him the Korea Translation Award given by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea on Wednesday, alongside other translators. The event was established in 1993 for the purpose of encouraging quality translation of Korean literature and its overseas promotion and publication. Since 2013, the award has been expanded to cover less widely spoken languages around the world.

“The popularity of Korean cultural wave Hallyu is still high in Turkey after more than 10 years,” Turkozu told The Korea Herald on Tuesday at a press conference in Seoul, one day ahead of the award ceremony recognizing the contributions of 150 translators and related professionals.

Read more at The Korea Herald link here

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Country in Focus: Korea

Ten works of contemporary Korean literature in translation

(From The Booklist Reader. Link to the complete article given below)

Despite Maureen Corrigan’s rather nasty NPR review of Korean author Kyung-sook Shin’s 2011 Stateside debut, Please Look After Mom—her phrase “cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction” caused particular affrontMom became a major bestseller. In a stroke of well-deserved vindication, Shin became the first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize and has been credited with revitalizing the Korean publishing industry when her international critical success and strong sales figures sparked a worldwide interest in Korean fiction.

In 2013, Dalkey Archive Press, in partnership with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, began publishing the Library of Korean Literature, intended to present “modern classics of Korean literature in translation, featuring the best Korean authors from the late modern period through the present day.” The collection now has 25 novels and story collections readily available to anglophone readers.

Since Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, even more Korean fiction has made it west. Here are ten titles (linked to their Booklist reviews where available) to expand your reading horizons.

Black Flower, by Young-ha Kim, translated by Charles La Shure

Longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, Black Flower is a fictionalized account of little-known, yet utterly fascinating historical events. In 1905, 1,033 Koreans left the port of Jemulpo (today’s Incheon) on the Ilford, a British merchant ship, and arrived (after two deaths, one birth) in Mexico’s Yucatán as indentured laborers to be parceled out to henequen plantations. The Koreans believed they were escaping the brutal Japanese colonization of their homeland; instead, they were sold into slave-like servitude. Within the Koreans’ experience, Kim (The Republic Is Calling You) also bears witness to local Mexican history, including the abuses of colonial Christianity, the mistreatment of the indigenous Mayans, and the Mexican Revolution, which eventually (surprisingly!) involves a small band of Korean nationals. Kim explains in his ending “Author’s Note” that the genesis of Black Flower is rooted in a second-hand airplane conversation that seemed “too mythical,” and eventually led Kim to Mérida in Mexico’s Yucatán, then Tikal and Antigua in Guatemala, to research this “forgotten historical moment.”

Read more at The Booklist Reader link here


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Country in Focus: Korea

Book Review: Was that Mountain Really There? By Park Wan-suh (Translated by Hannah Kim)

Reviewed by Anushka Ray

Was that Mountain Really There

Title: Was that Mountain Really There?
Author: Park Wan-suh
Translator: Hannah Kim
Publisher: Kitaab International Pte ltd
Pages: 332
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Autobiographies typically present the picture of perfect bravery; they are a testament to fortified bulwarks authors build up as they trudge along, with a complimentary voice depicting a clear story line and eventual victory. Was that Mountain Really There? is rare in its sense where the narrator remains at her core so impenetrably humble and human, it is no longer a retelling of a story. Instead, it becomes a reflection on adolescence, a growing up which just so happened to coincide with the 1950-1953 Korean War. Park Wan-suh upholds an honest narrative voice, with a raw sincerity that transforms even the most tumultuous of moments into something delicate and fragile.

Every word has a distinct purpose. Even the seemingly mindless title is explained in the author’s foreword, with the retelling of how Wan-suh witnessed the construction of a new gymnasium in replacement of a hideous mound in her hometown. This development, although praised by the neighbourhood, somehow struck a chord within her, as she campaigns to immortalize the memory of the small hill. The strange memory effortlessly portrays the sense of futility which existed in her childhood, especially growing up in an age where everything around was demolished. It is this fear of history being forgotten which compelled Wan-suh to publish the novel, a way to tell the world ‘that’s how we lived’.

Was that Mountain Really There? explores the life of author Park Wan-suh as a 20-year-old caught in the Korean War in 1951. Accompanied by her relatives, Wan-suh navigates the eruptive state of Korea, where the constant battle for power between the North and South Koreans controls their actions. She navigates the country both literally and figuratively, as she briefly escapes Seoul and finds a short-lived refuge in Gyoha (part of the then country Paju) before returning home. While a palpable fear is instilled from the opening pages with Wan-suh’s brother suffering from a North Korean inflicted gun wound, there is a clear reluctance to encounter South Korean soldiers due to the family’s previous communist history. All this accumulates to a constant state of paranoia when faced with any militia, and an underlying commentary on whether either army was in the right. This paranoia sustains throughout the novel but gradually grows subdued and muted, dictating their decisions yet not exposing them to any violence.

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Book Review: The Scorpion by Kim Won-il

Reviewed by Anushka Ray

scorpion_cvr

Title: The Scorpion (Trans)
Author: Kim Won-il
Publisher: Kitaab International, Singapore
Pages: 445
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There is a throbbing ache of subdued anger throughout The Scorpion, an ever-present bitterness, which seeps through the most deadpan of narration and into the hearts of the readers. The Scorpion by Kim Won-il finds its footing with this: a constant pragmatic voice, but full of resentment, to emphasize the loss of desire to romanticize the world in which these characters find themselves.

The novel follows Kang Jae-pil, his father Kang Cheon-dong and, briefly, his father’s father Kang Chi-mu, as each man navigates the tension he faces in Korean society. Each alternate chapter adopts a different perspective as a way to seamlessly and organically transition between timelines and generations. We venture into the narrator Jae-pil’s thoughts and feelings as he grapples with life right out of prison. Kang Jae-pil’s matter of fact observations are riddled and tangled with acute detail, giving way to a man who perhaps has deep sensitivities, a startling recognition of guilt and gratitude for the family he let down. Jae-pil’s meetings with his step-sister Myeong-hee (who holds greater importance as the story continues) as well as his grandmother, excel in showcasing glittering remnants of humanity that he holds onto despite his seven years in prison.

Jae-pil vows to leave behind his gangster lifestyle in Seoul as he travels to meet his family and eventually begins writing his deceased grandfather’s biography as a way to show his respect and perhaps as a way for him to move on from the years he spent behind bars. His story is by far the most engaging, largely attributable to the first person narration, a man who feels regret and has potential. Won-il travels in time through flashbacks and dialogue to explore Jae-pil’s perilous journey and brings alive the Korean society as it morphs through the ages. As the novel unfolds, Won-il seems to gain in confidence and fluidity with Jae-pil’s character and begins to introduce more graceful description of the beauty found in nature. Despite this, at its core the story remains dark – Jae-pil is haunted by vices, much like his father was; we find ourselves screaming at him to resist his temptations when he begins turning to drinking and crime. While the lack in build up does not prepare us for this, it’s not surprising in the context of the character’s past. Regardless of this, Jae-pil stays the most likeable man of the three.

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Before Han Kang: Three Korean Modernists you should know

Before K-pop or K-beauty, there was Korean literature. Before the vivid, strange writing in translation of contemporary South Korean writers (including Han Kang, Hwang Jungeun, and Bae Suah) and writers of the Korean-American diaspora (such as Min Jin Lee, Patty Park, and Alexander Chee), there was literature being produced in the the city of Keijō—or Gyeongseong—where Seoul now stands. Under the rule of Imperial Japan, Keijo/Gyeongseong developed into a capital. Urbanization and colonization shaped modern Korean writers until the end of the Second World War, when Japan retreated. Seoul’s painful history has been razed and the city does not readily divulge its previous incarnation.

With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, Japan launched a policy of territorial expansion that claimed Taiwan and Korea, among other countries. This policy indelibly marked the Korean peninsula, which was under Japanese rule from 1910–45. During this period, a generation of writers established successful careers. As in Taiwan, these Koreans were educated, spoke and wrote in Japanese, and had little or no memory of precolonial life. Later generations caught in the tumult of twentieth-century politics would judge them mercilessly. Many of the young men attended university in Tokyo, an epicenter of the arts, and returned to Keijo/Gyeongseong to contribute to the budding literary scene. They wrote under increasingly fraught political circumstances, which came to a head in 1940 when the Imperial State cracked down, banning the use of Korean entirely and even rounding up and torturing the creators of a Korean-language dictionary.

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The new Scandi noir? The Korean writers reinventing the thriller

The country has emerged as a surprising literary force as a novel by the ‘Korean Henning Mankell’ bags a six-figure deal and sparks a global bidding war

Last December, Korean novelist Un-su Kim set out on an eight-month deep-sea fishing trip as part of research for his next book. Unreachable by phone or email until next August, when his boat docks in Fiji, he has no idea that his thriller The Plotters has been the subject of a wildly enthusiastic auction in the US, where it recently sold to Doubleday for a six-figure sum. German publisher Europa Verlag has called Kim “the Korean Henning Mankell”, while publishers in the UK, Czech Republic and Turkey have placed offers, and international film companies are also battling for rights.

His agent, Barbara Zitwer, who plans to meet him in Fiji to reveal the news, believes Kim’s novel, about an organisation that masterminds assassinations, has caught a wave of interest in Korean thrillers – a previously unknown quantity. “The world is finally embracing them. Korean thriller writers are invigorating the genre,” she said. “They are pumping new life into it. Readers are tiring of Scandinavian thrillers – they crave something new.”

Korean writing can seem new to English readers due to the unique cadence and economy of the language; translator Deborah Smith described the process of changing Korean to English as “moving from a language more accommodating of ambiguity, repetition and plain prose to one that favours precision, concision and lyricism”. There is no grand tradition of mystery writing in Korea. Writers there are creating something entirely new: sparsely worded, stylistically sophisticated page-turners that incorporate ideas important to Korean society, such as family, loyalty, nature and hierarchy.

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7 Books that take you inside North Korea

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have reached a boiling point and sensational headlines (nuclear button! Sanctions! Assassination! War???) dominate the front page of every major newspaper. But aside from all the media attention, how much do we really know about the most mysterious country in the world? From a collection of short stories that provides a compelling voice to the lives of ordinary citizens governed by a brutal dictatorship to a memoir detailing a defector’s harrowing escape to freedom, these seven literary works offers the world a rare glimpse into the Orwellian dystopia of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi, translated by Deborah Smith

The Accusation, a collection of short stories written by a living dissident, was hidden inside The Selected Works of Kim Il-sung and perilously smuggled out of North Korea. The seven stories paints an eye-opening portrait of life under the brutal regime from a woman who weeps mournfully at the death of Kim Il-sung’s death even though her husband is a political prisoner, suffering in a labor camp to a son who is denied a travel permit to visit his dying mother. The Accusation is a testament to the resilience of the North Korean people and a proof that goodness that still exists even in the most hostile environments.

How I Became North Korean by Krys Lee

Lee’s debut novel follows three disparate people as they leave behind their past and and become fugitives in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, a Chinese border town. Yongju is the son of elite North Koreans who were marked for a purge by the State. Separated from his family after the escape, he joins a gang of defectors living in a cave in the mountains, dreaming of making it to South Korea. Jangmi is a pregnant young woman who sells herself in matrimony to a Korean Chinese who pays to smuggle her out of the country. Danny is a closeted gay teenage Christian living in America. After his crush humiliates him in front of his high school, he runs away from home to Yanbian, where he was born to experience “being out of my time line, in China, a body returning to the past to escape the past.” Together, they struggle to survive in a hostile place encroached with danger in hopes of making it to a better life.


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Han Kang and the complexity of translation

How literal must a literary translation be? Nabokov, who was fluent in three languages and wrote in two of them, believed that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” Borges, on the other hand, maintained that a translator should seek not to copy a text but to transform and enrich it. “Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization,” Borges insisted—or, depending on the translation you come across, “a more advanced stage of writing.” (He wrote the line in French, one of several languages he knew.)

In 2016, “The Vegetarian” became the first Korean-language novel to win the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded to both its author, Han Kang, and its translator, Deborah Smith. In the English-speaking world, Smith, at the time a twenty-eight-year-old Ph.D. student who had begun learning Korean just six years earlier, was praised widely for her work. In the Korean media, however, the sense of national pride that attended Han’s win—not to mention the twentyfold spike in printed copies of the book, which was a fairly modest success upon its initial publication, in 2007—was soon overshadowed by charges of mistranslation. Though Han had read and approved the translation, Huffington Post Korea asserted that it was completely “off the mark.” Smith defended herself at the Seoul International Book Fair, saying, “I would only permit myself an infidelity for the sake of a greater fidelity.”

The controversy reached many American readers in September of last year, when the Los Angeles Times published a piece by Charse Yun, a Korean-American who has taught courses in translation in Seoul. (The article extended an argument that Yun had first made, in July, in the online magazine Korea Exposé.) “Smith amplifies Han’s spare, quiet style and embellishes it with adverbs, superlatives and other emphatic word choices that are nowhere in the original,” Yun writes. “This doesn’t just happen once or twice, but on virtually every other page.” It’s as though Raymond Carver had been made to sound like Charles Dickens, he adds. This isn’t, in Yun’s view, a matter merely of accuracy but also of cultural legibility. Korea has a rich and varied literary tradition—and a recent history that is intimately entangled with that of the West, particularly the U.S. But few works of Korean literature have had any success in the English-speaking world, and the country, despite its frequent presence in American headlines, does not register in the popular imagination the way that its larger neighbors China and Japan do. Han Kang seemed to fill that void—or begin to, at least. But if her success depended on mistranslation, how much had really got through?

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Han Kang: ‘If I was 100% healthy I couldn’t have become a writer’

Han Kang is a South Korean writer whose novels in translation include Human Acts and The Vegetarian – for which she won the 2016 International Man Booker prize. Her latest work, The White Book, is a moving autobiographical meditation on loss and grief.

Your new book tells the story of your sister who died two hours after she was born. What made you want – or feel able – to write about that now?
I didn’t plan to write about my elder sister. I was raised by my parents who couldn’t forget her. When I was writing Human Acts, there was a line of dialogue: “Don’t die. Please don’t die.” It was strangely familiar and it hovered inside me. Suddenly I discovered that it was from my mother’s memory: she told me she kept saying those words repeatedly to the sister who had died before I was born.

You write about how you had “been born and grown up in the place of that death”. How did it affect you growing up?
It was not just about the loss. It was about how precious we are. My parents told my brother and me: “You have been born to us in such a precious way and we have waited for you for a long time.” But there was grief as well. It was a mixture of mourning and a sense of precious life.

You acknowledge in the book that if your mother’s first two babies hadn’t died, you and your brother wouldn’t have been conceived. How does that feel?
When my mother was pregnant with me, she was very sick, so she was taking lots of medication. And because she was so weak, she considered abortion. But then she felt me move inside her and decided that she would give birth to me. I think that the world is transient and I was given this world by luck.

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Han Kang: ‘Writing about a massacre was a struggle. I’m a person who feels pain when you throw meat on a fire’

Early in 2015 a buzz began to build around a slim novel called The Vegetarian. It was about a woman who turned her face to the wall, refusing to eat meat and scandalising her friends and family, as a prelude to rejecting life itself. “It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions,” wrote its Guardian reviewer.

Its author, Han Kang, is a poet, short story writer and novelist who has for years been one of South Korea’s best kept secrets. Her three-part fable of refusal hit the sweet spot for fiction in translation, or indeed any fiction: it mined universal truths from the culturally particular, it was both painfully close to home and mysteriously “other”.

She returns this year with a novel that is even more disturbing and provocative; it certainly splashes its violence across a bigger stage. Human Acts opens with the 1980 massacre of student protesters in the South Korean city of Gwangju and spares no detail in its scrutiny of the carnage: the slashed throat with its red uvula sticking out, the putrefying toes swelling up “like thick tubers of ginger”.

The writer who has borne witness to this devastation is a quietly spoken 45-year-old mother of one, with a growing circle of admirers in the UK. They include the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, who found in The Vegetarian a common interest in “pain, the body and how the struggle to be human involves many strange ways of trying to look after oneself in the face of hurt, cruelty, confusion”, and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, for whom Human Acts is “an intense and magical achievement – a brutal yet lyrical reflection on the universal legacy of injustice seen through the prism of one act of atrocity”.

Han is a charismatically thoughtful woman, who wrote herself into the final section of Human Acts in order to explain why she felt compelled to tell the story. “I was nine years old at the time of the Gwangju Uprising,” it begins. Gwangju, a city in the south of the country, had been her home until four months before the massacre, when her father gave up his teaching job to become a full-time writer and moved the family to the capital Seoul.

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