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[Herald Interview] ‘Good translation is everything’

US, UK publishers seek next Korean literary gems, emphasize vital role of translators

Sept. 21, 2023 - 19:45 By Hwang Dong-hee
Publishers, literary agents and officials participate in the 2023 K-Literature Fellowship. (LTI Korea)

Forge Books, under its parent company, Macmillan USA, typically publishes three to four translated books a year.

In recent years, they have consistently released one Korean book in translation each year. The past three years have seen the publication of works like "My Brilliant Life" by Kim Ae-ran (translation by Chi-Young Kim) and two novels by Lee Geum-yi, “The Picture Bride” and “Can’t I Go Instead” (translations by An Seonjae).

Robert Davis, an editor at Forge Books, said translated samples are everything in the publishing process, and shared some stories behind the publication of the company's first Korean book in translation.

“The first one was quite incidental. I was looking for mysteries and thrillers. Then I received a bunch of samples and one of them was translated by Chi-Young Kim,” he said. “The translation was just so great. I asked if they had anything else by her, and they sent ‘My Brilliant Life.’”

“It wasn’t what I was looking for at first, but it was such a wonderful book in translation that everyone loved it, and we said, 'Let’s go for it.'”

At the fellowship program, Davis heard about things that sounded interesting. But the first thing he would say is, “I need a sample.”

“Because you never know until you read it. I think that’s the hardest part. But it’s really difficult to convince people (on the marketing team, and editors in the company) when they can't actually read anything.”

“Even if it's like the best book in Korea, it's the translation that matters. You can have an amazing book that is translated mediocre, and it's not the same book.”

The editor said there is always room for growth for Korean books and other translated works in the US market.

“I do think there are more Korean translations now compared to four or five years ago. But it's probably gone from like three to eight a year. It's not like some huge number, but it's still a double and triple and I think it's getting bigger," Davis said.

"My Brilliant Life," "The Picture Bride" and "Can't I Go Instead" (Forge Books)

The K-Literature Fellowship, an initiative organized by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea to promote Korean literature overseas, has been bringing international publishers and literary agents to Seoul since 2018.

Over 70 global publishing companies have participated in the program so far, resulting in the publication of some 100 Korean literary works worldwide.

This year, the fellowship invited 15 publishing houses from 11 countries to Seoul, where they joined 14 Korean publishers and agents for networking opportunities and copyright discussions Sept. 7-11.