Articles on Korean SF in _list Magazine

List-K-SFcoverFor those interested in South Korean SF, but unable to read it themselves (like me) you will be interested in the little treasure trove of articles I’ve just run across on the subject. They were published as part of the Summer 2013 issue of the magazine _List, which appears to be published by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.

There are four articles in all:

Of course, there’s plenty of context that’s missing here, but that’s not surprising: LTI Korea’s agenda/mandate is to promote Korean literature to the world, and it doesn’t serve that end to discuss the contemporary translation scene much, for example.

Specifically, I mean, the ongoing canon-building going within Korean SF in terms of foreign works translated to Korean. For example, Kim Boyoung is discussed here primarily as an author, which is fine, as she deserves attention for her own unique creative works. However, she is not only an author, but also a translator, and like a number of other SF translators, she has played an important role in the development of Korean SF not only by direct influence through her own work, but also through the choices she has made as a translator.

These articles present this part of SF mainly as historical and foundational, rather than as the ongoing, expanding process it really is right now. As a result, plenty of the figures (especially translators, but also publishers) who play a crucial role in the Korean SF scene don’t get mentioned, because they’re working in the area of inbound literary globalization. To understand the development of SF in any society, one must acknowledge the interplay between foreign influences and local innovations, and how it is usually ongoing and constant, especially outside the English-speaking world. Not to privilege the foreign stuff, but to understand the transmission of a literary genre from one culture to another, and how that process continues and mutates over time.

Still, these four articles open a lot of doors and shed a lot of light. They’re definitely worth a look!

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2 thoughts on “Articles on Korean SF in _list Magazine

  1. Gord,

    LIST is in fact an LTI Korea publication whose intent is to interest English speaking publishers in translating and publishing and/or publishing translations that LTI or other groups have done. My understanding is since mainstream Korean publishing houses do not publish SF (it’s much more of a Naver thing), LIST necessarily (if that is the proper word?) ignores most of it on an outgoing basis. Ingoing translation is not their interest at all.

    It makes me wonder, and perhaps you know the answer, who is the motive force behind incoming translation. Someone decides that Orwell and Bradbury are worth translating by important firms while, say, Harlan Ellison is published by comic-book publishers.

    Also, I think that an increasing number of literary critics (and I am sure you know of their depressing authority here), mainly professors, are starting to cast a kind of side-eye at what is being translated into Korean, arguing that both poor choices of work and crappy translations result in Korean authors being unable to participate in that international give-and-take which you mention – if you can’t read literature of the highest order, in any genre, it is unlikely you will create it.

    It is too depressing to talk about gatekeeping or the other critics who insist on Korean “representationality” in ALL fiction written in Korean.^^

    Anyway, nice article, and I’m off to LTI to pick up a copy of this list. At some point I’d like to interview you on this stuff, since you seem to be the non-Korean most knowledgable about it, and SF really seems (in novel, grapic novel, or even comic) to be an area Korea could break through in.

    Heck, about 50% of life in Seoul seems like Science Fiction.^^

    Nice post.

    1. Hi Charles,

      Yeah, I figured List was basically a kind of trade journal.

      My understanding is since mainstream Korean publishing houses do not publish SF (it’s much more of a Naver thing), LIST necessarily (if that is the proper word?) ignores most of it on an outgoing basis. Ingoing translation is not their interest at all.

      Well, List’s reasons for ignoring Korean SF are probably a little more complex than that: there are a few mainstream publishing houses who do SF (beyond Naver and small press stuff), but it’s a specialized niche. Korean SF authors get awards, and in fact some Korean authors regarded as “mainstream” do genre work from time to time (Park Min-gyu and Kim Young-Ha come to mind), but the curating of literary culture seems to be bound up with academics, prizes, and respectability. In a sense, Canada has something of the same problem: some amazing SF authors live and work in Canada, but they get less funding and attention than the mainstream authors there. (Canada’s got a lot of the same anxieties regarding respectability as Korea, for some of the same reasons and a few different ones.)

      It makes me wonder, and perhaps you know the answer, who is the motive force behind incoming translation. Someone decides that Orwell and Bradbury are worth translating by important firms while, say, Harlan Ellison is published by comic-book publishers.

      Yeah, I have some partial answers. Back when I was wanting to do some research on it, that was my focus, actually: the process of canon-building. The answer at the moment is that it’s complex: there’s a mix of interests at work. Publishers have pet projects they want to get translated, and a vision of what works need to get brought into the canon. Translators themselves have specific authors they want to translate. But there are also focus groups who read texts and help decide whether there’s a market for them, and Korean SF fandom has particular predilections that drive the choices that get made. (For example, too much “hard science” often is a turnoff for Korean SF readers; they seem to prefer their SF either squishy and “soft” [ie. focused on human sciences, or less-scientific explorations of future worlds) or else adventure-driven.) So the canon in Korea takes a funny shape, with emphases that are different.

      Also, I think that an increasing number of literary critics (and I am sure you know of their depressing authority here), mainly professors, are starting to cast a kind of side-eye at what is being translated into Korean, arguing that both poor choices of work and crappy translations result in Korean authors being unable to participate in that international give-and-take which you mention – if you can’t read literature of the highest order, in any genre, it is unlikely you will create it.

      Well, yes, and the bad perception of SF in Korea–for historical reasons, but also because Korea’s sorta uptight about respectability–has carried over so deeply that even some of the people who watched Avatar a bunch of times in the theater claimed not to like SF (and claimed Avatar was an “animation” and “not SF”) as a friend of mine lamented in a column a few years back.

      It is too depressing to talk about gatekeeping or the other critics who insist on Korean “representationality” in ALL fiction written in Korean.^^

      Indeed. Well, or who insist on simpleminded, realist-mode representationality. One could very easily argue that SF is representational, and allows representation of things that other modes of representation are much less well-equipped to address. But it feels like one is arguing with someone who thinks all liquor must be red wine, and will never be able to appreciate a good mead, or beer, or anything else, because red wine is all they’re willing to ever taste.

      And, unfortunately, on the Korean side there’s a lack of interest (or energy) in terms of getting Korean SF translated into English. My wife and I are working on one thing, and I may try get a project going again, but very few people seem interested in the idea of translating Korean SF at all. Some feel Korean SF is still playing catch-up to the English language stuff (which may or may not be fair; people more familiar with Chinese SF have described at as being in a mode so-and-so many years behind American SF, and while I’m leery about such comparisons, sometimes they’re useful). Other folks are mildly interested, but are just too busy with translating in the other direction (or with other non-literary projects). Sadly, I’ve seen more interest from outside Korea than from within, in terms of putting Korean SF out into the world.

      Anyway, nice article, and I’m off to LTI to pick up a copy of this list. At some point I’d like to interview you on this stuff, since you seem to be the non-Korean most knowledgable about it, and SF really seems (in novel, grapic novel, or even comic) to be an area Korea could break through in.

      Thanks, and feel free, though I could also put you in touch with Koreans who know more (and are more up-to-date) than me, and could express a better picture of the scene in English for you, if you like. I have the benefit of being an SF insider from outside Korea, which gives some perspective that a Korean may not have, but the Korean insider’s perspective may be more useful to you. (Also, I’m not sure who I’d point you to; as with SF in the English-speaking world, everyone who knows enough to hold forth on an issue has a unique opinion, which contrasts interestingly with others’ opinions.)

      Heck, about 50% of life in Seoul seems like Science Fiction.^^

      More and more each passing year…

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