Found in Translation

  • onNovember 13, 2014
  • Vol.8 Summer 2010
  • byMin Jin Lee

When people tell me that Koreans are loud, dishonest, aggressive, and too competitive, I do not yell at them, lie to them, punch them, or try to beat them. I nod calmly then I tell them that Koreans are also funny, brilliant, truthful, direct, smart, romantic, generous, truthful, sensitive, and compassionate. Of course, I always mention that Koreans are also very good-looking.

By 2010, the world outside of South Korea knows of her accomplishments. Koreans can skate, cook, play classical music, sing opera, golf, act, design buildings, paint, produce films and soap operas, create high fashion, and make great cars, electronics, and mobile phones. The people of Korea have rebuilt a war-devastated nation and become a significant global player. And yet, the persistence of negative stereotypes about the Korean people make me believe that the world does not know enough Koreans intimately to see our humanity.

When we know enough people of any country or any tribe, we resist making generalizations. But if we cannot have intimate relationships with 100 assorted Russians, Chinese, Mexicans, Indians, Iraqis, Peruvians, or Nigerians, how can we know them? Is there a short-cut?

Sort of.

Through their pages, Tolstoy, Borges, Kafka, Tanizaki, Flaubert, Neruda, Dumas, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Woolf, Balzac, Elias Canetti, Naguib Mahfouz, Goethe, Wharton, Lu Hsun, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Nadine Gordimer have shown us what their countrymen have struggled against—revealing the respective national soul of their people.

As a gyopo (overseas Korean), I’ve learned about my heritage from different sources, but one of the best ways has been to read Korean literature translated into English.

The foremost translator of Korean literature in America is Peter H. Lee, Professor Emeritus of UCLA who began the formal instruction of Korean literature at Columbia University in 1960 and taught the subject continuously for 47 years until his retirement in 2007. Professor Lee made Korean literature a legitimate academic subject in the United States through his teaching and by publishing over 20 volumes of translations and scholarship. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, David McCann, Brother Anthony, Kevin O’Rourke, Kim Young-Moo, Ahn Jung-hyo, and many others have toiled without recognition or reward in the service of sharing Korean literature with the English-reading population and thereby enriching Korea around the world. These individuals are the patriots and true friends of Korea.

Recently, the Feminist Press of CUNY asked me to review a manuscript of From Wonso Pond—a fascinating novel written by Kang Kyong-Ae and translated by Samuel Perry. It was thrilling to learn about the complex political and emotional viewpoints of the Korean people during this difficult era of Korean history.

The translation of Kang’s seminal work was supported by a fellowship from the Korean Literature Translation Institute. In May, KLTI sponsored its 3rd annual Seoul International Writers’ Festival so writers from around the world and South Korea could share their works with the public and each other. Junot Diaz and I represented the United States.

Sadly, the average person in the United States or Europe is unable to name a single work of literature written in Korean; he has never heard of the hyangga, changga, sijo, kasa or pansori, but the American or European has knowledge of both the sonnet and the haiku.

So there is much good work to be done. After a Korean book is translated, it must be supported through reviews, targeted marketing, academic conferences, and most importantly these translated books should be taught in schools through various university departments—History, Literature, East Asian Studies, and Korean Studies.

This can be an exciting time for Korean literature. Pioneers like Peter H. Lee did much of the heavy lifting of establishing Korean literature as a respected academic discipline, and scholars like Samuel Perry and Yu Youngnan (translator of Yom Sangsop’s Three Generations) continue to advance the creation of a body of translated Korean literature through their rigorous labor. KLTI is also broadening the global understanding of Korea through its literature.

Richard Howard, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet wrote recently in The New York Times that “translation matters because it is an expression and an extension of our humanity.” Translated Korean literature will add greater depth and create universal connections to the Korean people. With our accomplishments and our literature, Koreans can best define who we are in all our glorious complexity.

Author's Profile

Min Jin Lee is a novelist. Her debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, a Wall Street Journal Juggle Book Club Selection, and a national bestseller. She is a Morning Forum columnist at the Chosun Ilbo. She lives in Tokyo with her husband and son where she is working on her second novel Pachinko.