[INTERVIEW] ‘Translated works need wider publicity

Sohn Hae-il, president of PEN International Korean Center, speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the association’s headquarter’s in Yeoduido, Seoul on April 5. / Courtesy of Lee Soo-jin

PEN Korea’s president aims to create translation center

By Kwon Mee-yoo

Korean novelist Han Kang drew global attention when her novel “The Vegetarian” won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction last year.

“The novel was published years ago in Korean, but it did not gain international attention before it was translated into English. It is an example of the significance of translation in literature,” Sohn Hae-il, president of PEN International Korean Center, said at an interview with The Korea Times last week.

The PEN International was founded in London in 1921 by Catherine Amy Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy to create bonds among writers worldwide. The regional centers of PEN International also recommend candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year.

The history of PEN International in Korea dates back to 1954, when Korea was recovering from a war-scorched land. “Back then, Korea was an underdeveloped, divided country burned to the ground by war. Nobody expected literature from the poor country. Then-President Syngman Rhee sent poet Mo Yoon-sook to the 1955 International PEN Congress in Vienna to persuade the members that Korea was able to join PEN International,” Sohn explained.

Inaugurated in March, Sohn is an active poet as well. “I started my literary career in 1978 and it has been 40 years. I headed a few literary organizations including the Korean Modern Poet Association and that hands-on experience will help me manage the Korean Center,” Sohn said.

Currently, about 3,600 members belong to the Korean Center, which include poets, essayists and novelists. Those who made their literary debut at least five years ago and have published at least one book can join the PEN International Korean Center.

The newly-elected president aims to lay emphasis on the internationality of the organization. “PEN International is a global association endorsing friendship and cooperation among literary people. We want to promote Korean literature and take it to another level by working closely with PEN International,” Sohn said.

Promoting Korean literature overseas

Sohn believes that Korean literature is the next hallyu.

“Korean literature will become popular worldwide just like K-pop someday. As Korean culture gains popularity across the globe, more and more people are interested in learning the Korean language to understand the lyrics of K-pop and the words of Korean television dramas,” Sohn said. “Korean literature should reach a wider audience, but the lack of quality translation has prevented Korean literature from resonating with readers in other languages.”

The Korean Center published a quarterly magazine “Korean Literature Today” introducing Korean literature and translating Korean literary works into English from 1996 to 2005, but the project ceased due to budget problems. Sohn pledged the rebirth of the magazine as one of his campaign pledges.

The association released the first in its “World PEN Friends Together,” a book of Korean poems and novellas with their English translations last autumn as an attempt to promote Korean literature overseas.

The book includes five poems written by Sohn, translated by the nation’s top literary talents who are fluent in both languages.

“I think we should translate the literary works with universal values so they can resonate with global audiences.

“Among my works in the book, ‘Flowing and Staying’ compares flowing water to human life and ‘Mist Flower of the Sea at Dawn’ describes a scene at sea, which can be found anywhere in the world. ‘The Salt Flower’ was inspired by a Korean salt field, but the concept of light and salt is rather religious. ‘A Performance for the Light’ from 1978 symbolically portrays the pro-democracy movement against political suppression,” Sohn explained.

“We should give wider publicity to translated Korean works. It is useless if we just pass the anthology along only in Korea. I think it should be sent to foreign embassies, overseas libraries and international literary agencies. It is too costly for an individual to do, so it is something a literary association like us has to do,” Sohn said. “I’ll take this book to the PEN International Congress in Lviv, Ukraine, in September and share the value of Korean literature with writers from other countries.”

He also plans to establish a translation institute under the Korean Center to translate more Korean literature into English.

“Every year, Koreans anticipate poet Ko Un to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but Korea still has a long way to go to achieve the honor. Korean literature is like a big fish in a little pond, because it cannot reach international audiences due to the language barrier.”

Sohn said creating a translation center is not a simple task. “It’s not just translating Korean into English. We need a pool of talent who are fluent in Korean as well as the target language and with literary caliber. Korean writers proficient in other languages or foreigners who are familiar with Korean culture and literature are competent for the job,” he said.

Sohn emphasized the importance of having a literary sense in translating. “There are many people who are fluent in both Korean and English, but not all of them can interpret the rhyme and linguistic subtleties of a poem into a different language. The translators need training in understanding the implications in poems, different from everyday language.”

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