The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] When Nobel Prize season rolls around

By Korea Herald

Published : Oct. 5, 2022 - 05:31

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Recently, Koreans were elated by the news that June Huh and Lim Yun-chan received the Fields Medal in math and the Gold Medal in the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, respectively. Another piece of good news that delighted Korean Americans was that Jina Kang was selected as the Distinguished Young Woman of California.

Originally, Kang was chosen as the Distinguished Young Woman of LA last spring. Then through the state competition, she became the Distinguished Young Woman of California in July. Now, she is ready to enter the national competition to be held in Alabama in 2023. As for Jina’s distinguished accomplishment, the Korean American community is proud and happy.

These days, quite a few Korean writers have also enjoyed worldwide fame, receiving various prestigious international literary awards. It’s no surprise then that in early October every year, many Koreans anxiously await -- and even yearn for -- the good news that the Swedish Academy will have finally chosen a Korean writer as the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Unfortunately, they have been disappointed every year. Whereas Japan has three Nobel laureates for literature and China has two already, Korea has yet to have one. Therefore, it is only natural that Koreans are waiting for their turn.

However, writers do not receive the Nobel Prize in turn. When and if a writer has global fame and their works are great masterpieces, they will be able to become a Nobel laureate eventually. That is to say, a Korean writer will have the honor of receiving the Nobel Prize for literature when they prove their worthiness with great literary works. Thus, I am embarrassed whenever my fellow Koreans seem to believe that aggressive promotion and international campaigns can produce a Korean Nobel laureate. You cannot win a Nobel Prize through planning and management. You win it by your accomplishments.

At the same time, however, we should know that a writer will never be able to receive the Nobel Prize unless their works are available in major languages such as English. In fact, translation is imperative for a Korean writer to receive any international literary prize. No matter how great a writer’s works are, the writer cannot cross the borders of their country without translation. If a writer is only famous in their own country, and no one outside it can read the writer’s works, they cannot be an internationally acclaimed writer and thus cannot be a Nobel laureate.

Therefore, in order to make a writer internationally well known, finding a skillful translator is essential. There is currently a consensus that Edward Seidensticker’s superb translation of “Snow Country” played a crucial role in making Japan’s Kawabata Yasunari a Nobel laureate. On the other hand, poor translation can be fatal to a literary work; it can destroy even a masterpiece.

The problem is that a good translator does not come up easily or automatically. A good translator is someone who is fluent in both the original language and the target language, and who is an expert in the two cultures. Such a person is hard to find. Thus, it is a writer’s luck and blessing to have an excellent translator.

How, then, can a writer have a skilled translator? Literary institutions can be of great help in finding one. For example, the Literature Translation Institute of Korea is nurturing future translators at its Translation Academy, and recruits quality translators through quarterly competitions for translation grants. The Daesan Foundation is a private institution that scouts talented translators through an annual competition for translation grants as well.

It is equally important that translated works succeed in finding internationally well-known publishers. Good publishers have an excellent distribution system and an extensive global network. They can also arrange book reviews that appear in prestigious newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian. A writer alone cannot find famed publishers that would want to publish their works, but LTI Korea, Daesan Foundation, or literary agencies can. That is why many writers appreciate the efforts of the above institutions for introducing their works to major publishers, in addition to finding well-qualified translators for them.

Of course, the government’s overt and excessive involvement is not desirable. Undeniably, the support of civilian foundations is greatly preferred. The problem is that civilian foundations are not particularly interested in such projects these days -- at least, not yet.

Unlike mathematics, music or personal accomplishments, literature requires translation and publication in order to be internationally recognized, because it involves a particular language. In that sense, writers have relative disadvantages compared to the “universal” languages of music and math, which do not require translation support. Nevertheless, there will be a Korean Nobel laureate someday, when the time comes.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.