Korean literature's rise on the back of "Please Look After Mom"

Will one bestselling novel – "Please Look After Mom" – help Korean literature find its way in the global marketplace?

"Please Look After Mom" has become the first Korean novel to make it onto the coveted New York Times bestseller list.

Brazil has Paolo Coelho, Colombia can boast of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Japan gave the world Haruki Murakami. All are popular writers of fiction who have sold tens of millions of copies between them, a feat giving them – and their countries – worldwide renown.

Now, for the first time ever, South Korea may be on the verge of producing an author commanding global recognition.

Much of the success has been recent – and to a certain extent almost instant.

The spark? The frenetic success of one book, "Please Look After Mom" by Shin Kyung-sook, first published in English in April.

The writer’s first work translated into English, it has become the first Korean novel to make it onto the coveted New York Times bestseller list.

Since, the novel has become critically acclaimed, and has now been published in 27 countries and in at least 18 languages, selling hundreds of thousands of copies outside of Korea.

Now the government-funded body tasked with promoting Korean literature overseas says it is hoping to harness the success of Ms. Shin’s book in order to put the country’s literary output on the global map.

The Korea Literature Translation Institute says it has supported the publication of 463 titles in 28 languages since forming in 2001. Park Jee-won, a member of the institute's public relations team, says that after a short history they now want to see Korean literature form an integral part of the worldwide output.

“The time span of Korean literature being introduced overseas is comparatively short,” she explains. “Before the 2000s, Korea had to go through a series of political and historical events such as the Japanese invasion, the Korean war, industrialization and democratization and couldn’t find the time to take a notice of the international market stream.”

But Brother Anthony of Taize, a Seoul-based translator of Korean literature and professor emeritus in the English department at the city’s Sogang University, takes a somewhat dimmer view of the quality of Korean indigenous works that – up until now – have made it into foreign languages.

He says the country’s poetry posses merits of some depth but places its fictional prose output on a par with the literature of Thailand and the Philippines – “closer to soap opera,” he adds, arguing that the idea of the novel in Korea is essentially a post-Korean war phenomenon.

“There are in a way far too many [Korean works of literature] being published in English,” says the naturalized Korean, known locally as An Sonjae. “ 'Please Look After Mom' is really the first time a Korean publication has been published by a major, recognized commercial press.

“That is exactly the point I have been making for years. They will publish anywhere, places with no reputation. Anything goes as long as they can see it is published.”

He says one of the fundamental problems in the backing of Korean literature is that it is misdirected. Rather than putting so much focus on the business front and publishers, there is a greater need, he says, for support of authors and their development.

Another rising Korean literary star agrees. “Honestly, Korean writers, including Shin and I, still have a long way to go,” said novelist Kim Young-ha (author of 1996 bestselling Korean novel "I Have the Right to Destroy Myself") in an interview last month.

Nonetheless, not everyone is as skeptical.

Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio believes there is great power in Korea literature, though he says its potential for popularity is harmed by the three-to-four-year time lag in foreign language translations. Still, the Frenchman hopes to see a Korean work win the Nobel Prize for Literature in the not-too-distant future. “I once wrote a letter to the jury for recommending a Korean writer,” he recently told the Korea Herald, recalling an ultimately futile endeavor.

The Korea Times, which sponsors an annual Korean literature translation prize to promote better quality translations, goes further. “Many local novels, poems and works of fiction are reportedly unable to receive the attention from the Nobel Literature Award screening committee due to a lack of or poor translations,” the English-language newspaper said in an editorial earlier this year criticizing a lack of financial support for translators.

Yet, Park of the KLTI says funding has increased every year since the institute’s foundation 10 years ago. She points to one program designed to train the “next-generation translators specializing in Korean literature,” called the Translation Academy.

Since "Please Look After Mom," she says, “More Korean publishers with an interest in exporting their copyrights are trying to tap into the international market on their own. Starting from next year, we are about to see the Korean government along with its institutes being more actively involved in advancing Korean literature in the world.”

Bryan Kay is a Monitor contributor.

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