New Translation Institute to Introduce Korean Literature Worldwide: Prof. Bak

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), March 30, 2001 | Go to article overview

New Translation Institute to Introduce Korean Literature Worldwide: Prof. Bak


Ever since the Tower of Babel, the diversity of languages has acted as a barrier between different cultures. All of us, at one time or another, have experienced the twinge of frustration when confronted with strange, undecipherable hieroglyphics of an unfamiliar language.

Especially nowadays, when the dissolution of boundaries seems to be a worldwide trend, and borders between cultures, genres and disciplines slowly vanish, the need for translation seems to grow more pressing by the moment.

This ever-growing necessity for translation is the main raison d'etre of the new government-run organization formed in order to introduce Korean literature to readers around the globe.

Tentatively named the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, it will focus on systematically promoting the translation and overseas publication of Korean literary works, while training qualified translators at home and abroad.

The man in charge of this daunting task is Bak Huan-dok, professor emeritus of the German literature department of Seoul National University, who was appointed as the first director of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea earlier this month.

``We have several world-renowned artists in the genres of art and music, such as Paik Nam-june and Yun Isang, but hardly any Korean writers are known overseas. Why? Because, though no barriers exist in music or art, the hurdle of language exists in literature. However, I am quite confident that once we get rid of the obstacles of the Korean language, people around the world will take notice,'' said Bak.

He went on to explain why he is so confident about the quality of Korean literature: ``A rare heritage in the art of letters runs in the veins of the Korean race. After all, not only were Koreans the first people in the world to invent metal movable type, we also created our own unique alphabet, `Hangul.'''

He cited as other examples two books printed in Germany. One is Li Mirok's ``The Yalu River Flows (Der Yalu Fliesst),'' which was published in Germany in 1947, and chosen as the best prose for the year 1952.

The other is Kang Young-hill's ``The Grass Roof,'' which was published in the U.S in 1931 and in Germany in 1932, where it enjoyed a nine-edition run.

``They are both typical Korean novels in their depiction of adolescent hardships in Korea, such as poverty and the loss of one's homeland. These two books are outstanding examples of the universality of Korean literature. I believe that, once the barrier of language is torn down, Korean literature can go anywhere,'' he said.

In order to pave a path to readers worldwide, the institute must see to it that Korean literature is translated accurately and send the translations to major overseas publishers.

``First of all, we have to choose which representative Korean literary works are worth presenting to the world. In the past, individual translators themselves arbitrarily chose what to translate. Now we have to make a systematic selection through surveys and discussions. Then we must find outstanding translators, which will be no easy task. Finally, we must find major publishers to print the translations. If the first two stages are taken care of, then the last will not be difficult. If we provide cultural products of good quality, then publishers will be lining up.''

Starting this year, Bak plans to translate about 40 books yearly. At first, the main languages will be English, German, French and Spanish, but afterwards, the institute will continue to branch out into translations in Russian, Chinese, Italian and Swedish.

In order to make this happen, Bak is making preparations to cultivate expert translators both at home and abroad: ``At home, we will foster talented people from the next generation by encouraging literary majors to take interest in translation. Starting this year, we plan to select translation trainees, who will be obligated to meet at least once a week for discussions on literature and translation, and to translate at least one work a year. …

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