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Efforts that culminated in Han's Booker win

While novelist Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize will likely be a much-desired boost for Korean literature’s push into the international stage, there has been a prolonged, if niche, interest in Korean literature from global audiences long before her novel “The Vegetarian” came into the spotlight.

In fact, Korean literature has enjoyed sporadic success overseas, which may have culminated in Han’s win. In Germany, for example, Jeong Yu-jeong’s “Seven Years of Darkness” ranked in the Top 10 Best Crime Novel list of 2015, while Koo Byung-mo’s young adult fiction “Wizard Bakery” sold 10,000 copies of its first edition in Mexico alone this year. Last week, U.S. publisher Arcade Publishing confirmed it will publish Pyun Hye-young’s novels “Ashes and Red” and “The Hole” next spring.

One key player that has been instrumental in introducing Korean literature to foreign audiences is the state-run Literature Translation Institute of Korea, founded in 1996. The institute has been especially active in the past few years, working with foreign publishers such as the Dalkey Archive Press -- an Illinois-based publisher that now carries a collection of translated Korean literature -- and publishing List, an English-language literary quarterly.

“We have many projects in motion,” said LTI Korea’s president Kim Seong-kon. “We host translation workshops at Korean Studies departments of foreign universities, arrange for the students meet with Korean writers, organize forums on Korean literature and much more.”

Through its extensive networking with foreign publishers, LTI Korea is able to introduce significant works of translation to them. In March, U.K.’s Penguin Classics published the English version of the Korean classic “The Story of Hong Gildong,” translated by Kang Min-soo, with the support of LTI Korea. Known as the first Korean literary work to be written entirely in Hangeul, the Korean writing system, “The Story of Hong Gilgdong” is thought to date from the 16th-17th centuries.

“Han’s novel is a big win for modern Korean literature. The Penguin publication allows Korean classics to become known,” said Kim. “Previously, the world was familiar with K-pop, Korean films and more recently, fine art. We’re better representing the Korean ethos and establishing a more balanced cultural identity now.”

New light on literary translators

Han’s win of the Man Booker International Prize, which jointly awards the translator, could “shed new light” on the previously lesser-known profession of literary translation, according to LTI Korea’s Kim.

Those in the industry hope that people will now appreciate the key role that translation plays in literature.

“I think there has been a tendency to view translation as a purely technical skill,” said Sora Kim-Russell, who translated Pyun’s “Ashes and Red” and “The Hole” into English.

An employee arranges copies of Han Kang`s
An employee arranges copies of Han Kang`s "The Vegetarian" at Kyobo Book Center in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

“But with the achievements of translators like Deborah Smith ... recognition will continue to grow that it’s also very much an artistic skill,” said Kim-Russell, referring to the translator of “The Vegetarian.” Kim-Russell has previously translated Shin Kyung-sook’s “I’ll Be Right There” and Gong Ji-young’s “Our Happy Time” into English.

“Deborah’s win should hopefully make it even more evident how important a role a translator plays in bringing the voice of the writer to speakers of other languages,” said Seoul-based translator Agnel Joseph from India.

The industry also anticipates a rush of foreign translators willing to take on the Korean language following Han’s win.

“Before, Korean and foreign translators had to work together in order to complete a literary translation,” said Lee Jung-hwa, an official at the Daesan Foundation, which partially funded the British publication of “The Vegetarian.” “But nowadays, we are seeing more and more foreign translators who work alone because they themselves are proficient in Korean.”

The hope is that publishers will no longer see Korean literature as a “risky venture” and realize that translators deserve due credit for their work.

“Literary translators tend to do a lot of free work with the rationale that Korean literature isn’t bankable enough yet, and so there isn’t enough money to pay them,” said one translator who asked for anonymity. “Hopefully ... this (win) will lead to better contracts and more support for translators.”

The next crucial step for Korean literature’s global expansion, according to LTI Korea’s Kim, is to confer academic degrees to those specializing in literary translation.

The LTI Korea currently runs a translation academy that offers two-year courses in literary translation. While its graduates generally go on to work as professional translators translating Korean literature into English, German, French, Spanish and Russian, the academy does not award academic degrees.

“We are only authorized to issue degrees if we become an official educational institution, and we are hoping for the Education Ministry’s approval for that transition,” said Kim. “Once we are able to award degrees, more proficient translators from around the world will have the incentive to complete our courses,” he added.

By Rumy Doo (