Korean Fiction, For Free… (In a Limited Range of Editions)

While I think Charles Montgomery at Korean Literature in Translation overstates things a little bit by calling it a “triumph,” it’s worth noting that LTI Korea has released a set of twenty early modern Korean texts for free. (That is, early 20th century texts: “early modern” begins much later in Korean lit than English lit, where it’s used to talk about Shakespeare.)

The reason I think it’s an overstatement to call this a triumph has nothing to do with the translations–of which I’ve only read a little so far, though what I’ve seen looks good–but with the media in which the texts are available.

LTI has released the files in two formats: PDF and iStore app. To me, that seems… very anti-ereader. Maybe I’m just used to Project Gutenberg and Manybooks.net providing their texts in a wide array of formats useable by most ereaders. Maybe I’m just behind the curve on the process of converting a text-based PDF to .mobi. (But if I am, I can assure you many other people are too.) Or maybe LTI Korean didn’t stop to think, “If most people read electronically-published fiction in ereaders, what format should we release these books in?”

Maybe it’s because of their baffling copyright text: the books are released for free (which means they’re going to get remixed and, quite possibly, recirculated, and this is going to help them get better known out in the world) but then slapped on a draconian copyright warning, to the effect that any unauthorized reproduction is not permitted. (One imagines they’re implicitly permitting me to reproduce the file onto my computer or ereader, though.) Then again, Creative Commons licensing hasn’t made much headway in Korea… it’s too “foreign.”

Don’t get me wrong: this is much less out-of-touch than some examples I’ve seen, such as where a file is released in .hwp format (a proprietary word processor format only Koreans ever willingly use) as necessary for the process of applying for a job advertised in an international forum. But it is, I’d argue, an artificially imposed limit on how many people will read these texts, and Korea does have an issue with failing to keep up with the most standarized file  formats for most things. (Even pirated TV show subtitles: instead of the general standard of .srt or .sub they seem to use .smi for some reason that baffles the hell out of the rest of the planet.) Sure, .smi is the Korean standard, and they’re entitled to have a Korean standard that differs from the global one.

But there’s a certain sort of, I don’t know: early 90s ignorance about the idea that different users might better interface with the same material via different file formats. Maybe the diversity of our computer ecology played a part in that: in Korea, everyone can download GOM video player and play .smi (and everyone pirates Haansoft’s Hangeul Word Processor to use .hwp files), so there’s little incentive to think about accessibility or a diversity of use platforms.

Ultimately, it’d have been better for them to release a single book compiling all these stories, and then promote it as being available in a wide array of formats. That, I’d be linking and sharing. In this format, I think professors of Korean translation (like Montgomery) and professors of Korean literature are going to be excited, but few others are really going to notice it. And doesn’t that kind of counteract the intention of sharing something online with the whole world? Isn’t this a case of shooting oneself in the foot? I mean, they could release for a range of ereaders; it would cost them nothing, or, arguably, maybe five bucks to pay someone to do the conversions. It’s dead simple, and would remove an unnecessary, artificial barrier to readership. (As a writer, I can tell you: that’s always a good thing.)

Especially if the translations are as wonderful as Charles says they are. You tell me: they’re all available here.

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