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A New Opportunity for Korean Literature in Poland

  • onNovember 21, 2014
  • Vol.21 Autumn 2013
  • byMarzena Stefanska

First I would like to thank LTI Korea for supporting translators and publishers from around the world. Without LTI Korea many books would never see the light of day.

Korean literature is still not very popular in many countries. While several works have been published into English and other popular languages (including Japanese and Chinese), some of Korean literature’s greatest works have remained hidden from readers worldwide.

I would like to share my ideas and strategies for promoting Korean literature and to pass down some of the experiences I’ve had during my last five years of being both a translator and publisher. I will explore some general parallels which can be found between world literature and Korean literature in context of the Polish market. My objective is to draw a contemporary picture of Korean literature and to suggest some strategies for more effective dissemination of Korean literature abroad. I will be touching on such subjects as readability, authenticity, marketability, and ultimately, responsibility.

The publishing house Kwiaty Orientu, meaning Flowers of the Orient, was established in Poland in October 2007 by myself and my colleague Edyta Matejko-Paszkowska. We both graduated from Warsaw University reading Korean Philology. Having worked for many years as translators for several Polish and Korean companies, a huge interest and genuine passion for Korea encouraged us to establish a publishing company that promotes the country, its culture, and literature. We became the first and only publisher in Poland dedicated to this cause. The publishing roadmap includes all kinds of Korean literature, poetry, history, geography, religion, and even cuisine.

We are the only Polish publishers dedicated to Korean literature and, quite possibly, the only one outside of Korean shores. So far we have published 20 books. In that five-year time frame we have published more Korean books than the previous accumulated total since Poland started having political relations with South Korea in 1985. Relations with North Korea ended in 1989, which spawned a new era between Poland and South Korea. Poland has thus had diplomatic relations with South Korea for a mere 24 years. Japan, on the other hand, to take just one contrasting Asian example, celebrated 100 years of Polish cooperation last year.

What does this mean for Korean literature? Up to 2007, a total of 17 titles of what could be classified as modern or classical literature have been translated from Korean into Polish. This is extremely low when compared to the likes of titles from Japan or China which both run into the hundreds. There have been several other books written by the well-known professor and founder of Korean Philology at Warsaw University, Halina Ogarek Czoj, on Korean literature, mythology, and religion, but they remain all but hidden in the middle of the university library shelves. Two popular subjects among Polish writers were the Korean economy and of course, North Korea. There have been several works published exploring the North Korean regime and also the boom of the South Korean economy from virtual anonymity to a global power. But these volumes, again, were principally published by small educational publishing establishments and never intended for the high street.

There are key factors as to why Korean literature has not been widespread, particularly prior to 2007. First, a proficient knowledge of Korean language was rare in Poland. Take the Korean Philology undergraduate course at Warsaw University 20 years ago and you would have expected just two other students who shared your passion. Chances were that you wouldn’t continue this path post-graduation, let alone become a translator or dedicate a career to publishing Korean literature. Secondly, it was very difficult to persuade anyone to publish anything. Translation was a hobby or an academic project, and never a commercial venture. Thirdly, it was very difficult to reach Korean writers to negotiate foreign rights and there weren’t any agents representing Korean writers outside of Korea.

Last year was a big step in our publishing journey. We received several awards: The Best Book for the Summer (Please Look After Mom), The Best Book of 2012 (The Chicken Who Dreamed She Could Fly) and one nomination for a very prestigious award, The Best Translation of the Year. Last year we sold more books than ever before. But there are a few reasons for that: award nominations have been very helpful for publicity.

The Korean Wave: almost everybody knows “Gangnam Style.” There are two big K-Pop fan clubs in Poland. One of them already has 5,000 members! Kwiaty Orientu contacted them right away to gain their cooperation. We even took part in some big events by giving away books as awards.

Facebook: a year ago we built a good Facebook fanpage and our online sales are improving month to month. We have over 1,000 likes.

Word of mouth: people are talking about us. Kwiaty Orientu is gaining popularity; we have started a trend. If you read Korean books, you are cool. We have put forth a lot of effort, including designing modern covers and selling books at reasonable prices so that the Y Generation likes us and talks about us.

The global trend is that we are reading fewer books. That’s a fact. But also, in Poland we are buying more, so there is still potential for promoting new titles. 

 


* adapted from a speech given at the 12th International Workshop for the Translation and Publication of Korean Literature

** Marzena Stefanska is a translator of Korean literature and co-founder of Kwiaty Orientu, a Polish publishing house fully dedicated to Korean literature. She has translated Oh Jung-hee (The Bird), Shin Kyung-sook (Please Look After Mom and I'll Be There) and Gong Ji-young (Our Happy Time). In 2013 she was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by LTI Korea.