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Waiting for a Nobel Prize winner

Publication Date : 24-10-2012


Once again, the Swedish Academy bypassed Korean writers when they announced this year’s Nobel Prize winner.

As is well known, South Korea has a host of prominent writers who are well qualified for the Nobel Prize and yet, none of them has been awarded the Nobel Prize. Among this year’s candidates was our celebrated poet Ko Un whose name had been on the list for promising candidates for the past few years. Unfortunately, however, Ko Un was neglected once again by the Swedish Academy and the Korean people were disappointed accordingly.

For the past few decades, South Korea has produced not only world-class athletes, musicians and painters, but also internationally acclaimed movie directors and pop artists. For some reason, however, Korea has not been able to produce internationally well-known writers yet, even though Korea has quite a few prominent writers, and Koreans are huge fans of literature. Thus Koreans keep asking, “Why have our outstanding writers not received the Nobel Prize yet?” Perhaps that is because literature uses a language as a medium, whereas sports, music or paintings do not. Surely, the language makes literature difficult to access and understand for foreigners.

That is why the importance of good translations cannot be over emphasised. In order to be internationally recognised and eventually receive the Nobel Prize, good translations are imperative. The enormous success of Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look after Mom” and the exceptional popularity of Yi Mun-yol and Hwang Sok-young in France owe largely to the superb translations of their works.

And that is why the role of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea is crucial. LTI Korea has a pool of excellent translators and supports them to produce quality translations of Korean literature into their own languages. Had it not been for LTI Korea, indeed, Korean writers could not have been known to other countries.

While good translation is crucial, translation nonetheless has its own limits. A literary work inevitably loses much of its original flavour when translated into another language, no matter how good the translation is. For example, reading Albert Camus’s novel in French is much better than reading its English translation. The same thing happens when you give a talk to a group of foreigners. At the very moment an interpreter steps in, you can see your speech immediately lose its first-hand spontaneity and the sense of humor during the process of translation.

Perhaps a writer may be able to compensate for this inevitable loss by directly communicating with his foreign readers in a foreign language. Few people would deny that Murakami Haruki’s overseas popularity primarily comes from his outstanding English proficiency. Indeed, quite a few American universities have invited Haruki as a writer-in-residence primarily because he is a celebrated writer, but also because he speaks fluent English. Thanks to his English proficiency, Haruki has had ample opportunities to let himself be known to foreign readers by mingling with them actively. If only our writers, too, could speak fluent English as Haruki does, they could have been far better known than now in the international community today.

There are other notable characteristics of internationally recognised writers. For example, they have never belonged to a faction or antagonize other writers who are not one of theirs. They are not silent when they see human rights violated or if a dictator’s oppression of people arises, whether it happens in their own country or foreign countries. As conscientious intellectuals and foremost opinion leaders, they also do not hesitate to criticise a political leader when he leads the nation in the wrong direction. And they never join a politician’s election camp. In addition, they try to mediate international conflicts at stake and seek reconciliation, rather than support belligerent politicians who instigate unnecessary crisis for political gain.

Last week, I participated in the 20th Han Moo-sook Colloquium held at George Washington University in Washington D.C., organised by her daughter, Professor Young-Key Kim-Renaud. Han Moo-sook was a writer who witnessed the turbulent history of modern Korea and explored in-depth the confrontations and clashes between two mutually antagonizing extremes, which were rampant in her time. In her prize-winning story, “Encounter”, for example, Han delved into the fateful clashes between Confucianism and Christianity, between the pre-modern and modern, and between religious faith and personal beliefs in the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century. However, Han did not despair. Instead she celebrated the triumph of humanity and charity, acknowledged the power of forgiving and understanding, and stressed the importance of generosity and reconciliation. In that sense, Han showed us the path to becoming a great writer.

Both Chinese and Japanese writers have already received the Nobel Prize. I believe it is about time that a Korean writer is given the prestigious prize as well. In order to receive the prize, however, a Korean writer should become an internationally influential, truly “great” writer first that fits the categories stated above. Perhaps then, we may be able to have a Novel Prize winner in Korea at last.

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.


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