The story of a biased success: Korean literature in France

by Patrick Maurus

Last among the Far-East literatures successfully introduced in France, Korean literature (I am not discussing here the value of the concept of Literature) is lucky enough to be mostly published in the only profitable and regular collection in the West : Lettres coréennes, by Actes Sud Publishers. If you add a dozen of others publishers and the fact that France is one of the very few countries to effectively accept and respect a status for translators, one should be ecstatic.


On the Korean side, interesting texts (especially short stories and poetry), writers generally easy to deal with, readers avid of French literature and dozens best sellers of poetry, there seems to be no reason for complaining? Isn’t it like a fairy tale?
I would like, as a translator, on the basis of the 50 volumes available and the positive aspects of the situation, to ask what may seem an odd question : What do we present under the name of Korean literature?

1. This first question leads to a second and essential one, rarely asked : What are we translating ? Most of us will answer : a text, regardless of the different meanings of the word. Isn’t it what the editorial field asks the translator to produce? But it is not so, because, stuck in between three fields, editorial, journalistic and academic, the translator doesn’t exist. Neither does his translation.

1.1 The university denies any existence to translation as an academic discipline : only the original is worth studying, never put a translation in your resume, the translator shouldn’t write the forewords, the only good translation is an academic one (that is to say unreadable). University accepts, sometimes, to discuss the topic, but only in its own terms. In university, just like in Korea, the best translator is the most prestigious professor. Translation doesn’t produce enough symbolic capital in itself.

1.2 The newspapers impose their laws, so-called editorial rules : Who has ever read an authentic translation in a newspaper, even between brackets ? Nobody ever spoke like this, with complete sentences. That is not the way people talk. And when it comes to printed literary translation, although newspapers take for granted they have a right to carry criticism, they gave up a long time ago. You can sometimes publish interesting translating experiences, but only in little known reviews. Ghettos.

1.3 The editing system has the upper hand on the object and of the process. The contracts wit the translator still state that the publisher is responsible for the quality of the translation. It explains, partially, why publishers take for granted that they have the right to polish a translation. One can argue, in France or elsewhere, that the situation is more complicated. But it is only a complexification of these presupposes. At both ends of the field, if you are strong, professional, or nobody, amateur, you make your own decisions, you will feel free. Your publisher may even respect your text and will not polish it. If you are famous in the field, you act according to your situation in that field. But, as the field itself, you will never enjoy a stable situation. If you are Mister Nobody, the publisher will not polish your text because he doesn’t care. He just publishes it for money (subsidies). One characteristic of the French publishing field is the quasi absence of university press, but where does university press reach the general public ? The three fields do not leave any autonomy to the translators, because they are already fighting for their own autonomy. It is obvious if you listen to them : professors are not able to write, their papers are full of orthographical mistakes, the writers are paranoiacs, the publishers are ready to publish the worst just for money, and so on.

In this situation, translators must negate themselves by bowing to the rules of the field. Yet those rules are in themselves annexation, said Walter Benjamin. Imposing their point of view, reducing it to its exchange value, in France. A Korean text to be easily acceptable must be comparable to a French text. It must offer a French like problematic, it must take the marks of a French text to become information. Its koreaness, already flattened by the French representations of Korea (the representations of Far-East), will be felt through the glasses of exoticism. Negated.
The translators think they resist by concentrating on the text only, giving up the book to its owners (publishers). This is a heavy mistake. Not only they define themselves by something which doesn’t exist as a merchandise (thus producing the material justification of their exclusion), but the neglect all the manifestations of this text, forgetting that the paratext (from typography to publicity, what makes a text a book) is text. When our publisher print Korean novel on the cover of our translations, he kills the text, because it is almost never a novel. That’s why it is Korean ! Writing novel is to de-koreanize it by programming an inadequate expectation. A recent French novel set in Korea bears the title : The Kimono Nights.
From one publisher to the other, the paratext is similar. Cover illustrations use the representations of Asia/Orient, because there is no Korea (= no contradictory representation of Korea in France). Here a dragon, there an erotic scene, a China-like scenery. Or a simple paraphrase : a leprous for a book on leprous, a winter sceneryfor “Winter that year”. There are so few possibilities, that publishers often use the same pictures (they certainly have the same book of references). It seems that Kim Hongdo is the only painter they know ! What a modern Korea ! The situation is so ridiculous that one could almost content oneself with that, because when they pick up at random any available painting, it is for instance Lo Ying for Cho Sehui’s Dwarf. The problem ? Lo Ying is certainly the most famous pro-japanese painter of the colonial period…
Why is it important ? Because it prevents you from producing a Korean book, a Korean text. Why is it so difficult to overcome ? Because Korean institutions and nationalism add their weight to French editorial rules. Though, none of the above mentioned covers caused any problem in Korea, an erotic cover was once criticized, not for being erotic but Japanese, supreme insult. Of course, you had to open the book to see that it was a Chinese drawing…

Where one could have expected problems between Korean and French about the images of Korea, there is in fact a deep agreement between the institutions, because there are institutions.
Most of the texts published in France received grants. To the best of my knowledge, Ch’oe Yun is the only writer who has been able to avoid this system. To obtain a grant (for the translator, the publisher or both), you need to play the game according to some rules : Find a text, which often means to select it in a list devised by Seoul. Look for a partner, which means in most cases at the author’s expense, chabi ch’ulpan. Author’s or translator’s money or grant, the system is the same. Most French publishers will not publish without a grant. This explains why translators usually choose to avoid making noise and don’t argue with their publishers. They don’t even complain when not paid…
But this is not the more important : Official Korea has decided to force on an official image of Korea. We are not far from the process of correcting foreign books. This official image of Korea, one can guess, is consensus and mythological. It is one built by modern nationalism. To take just one example : Korean novel. Novel is an historical product, not an universal concept, despite internationalisation. Korean literature gave birth to short sized works. One can barely talk of novel, except in the Thirties. Today’s situation is more versatile, one more reason to be careful when using the word.Because its careless use leads to the equation modern novel = western novel.

2. Again. Who decides ? It is the publisher ? Who are they ? Actually, Actes Sud, Gallimard, Cric-Racine, Picquier, Zulma, L’Harmattan, Maisonneuve and a handful of small houses. They are obviously unable to read the original. They sometimes can read English translations (often Korean made and indigestible). Mostly, they have access to as translation made by a French-Korean, couple, which usually means a draft written by a Korean (woman) and polished by a French (man) unable to read Korean. And if he can, can he write literary French ?
For these reasons, you may find : “To JA, who polished my translation and was able to guess the meaning and read between the Korean lines”. Who would catch a plane whose pilot could only guess the indicators, who would go to a hospital whose doctors read only between the lines of medical papers ? It seems that translation (for the glory of publishers who rarely pay those translators) remains this domain where those “mashed potatoes” are still possible.
A Korean-French collaboration could be a great idea (this is what I do with Ch’oe Yun, and the success of our Actes Sud collection is one of the reasons why it is better to be couple to apply for a grant, but the other reason – foreigners cannot really understand Korea – is less sympathetic), if both translators are bilingual, if both are specialized in literature, and if the French part is able to write a literary piece. Otherwise, there is no reason to complain about editorial polishing. In both cases, the polishing will only gallicize the text. Kill it.
Again, why do we have to complain if we can avoid those nuisances ? Because we don’t live in a secluded world. Our readers (those we made) are influenced by other publishers and translators attitude. Their book are easier to read… In fact, they are often so bad, that the readers give up reading Korean stuff, most of them making no differnce between publishers and rarely looking for the name of the translator.
This strategy does to the text what it does to the genres. The French publishers want a 250 pages novel. They don’t care if in Korea poems and short stories, but isn’t it the result of their own policies ? Besides, how could readers ask for a literature they know nothing about ? How can the readers react against the use, by the publishers, of external references ? “Sop’yonje” has been published in France under the title “The P’ansori Singer”, according to the movie title. All of those are misleading gender shifters.
Our readers have to be created, built. Slowly and patiently. It is the discovery of the Other, which is not a simple matter. But the colonial being not far away, it is also a dedicate matter.

3. The contradiction between strategies and texts (often erased by translators lacking of symbolic capital) explain the short history of the publication of Korean texts in France. 1. Pre-history : amateur-like demarche leading to anthologies at the author’s or translator’s expenses (trough grants). Publishers were either crooks or on the verge of brankruptcy. 2. Autonomous period. Two publishers, Actes Sud and Gallimard, which made their own choices of translators and texts. Grants were welcomed, not the pressures. 3. Institutionalisation. Small death of Korean literature; the Korean foundations began to impose their rules to the French publishers (except the pre-mentioned). Unpaid translators, co-translators unable to read Korean, strange originals. The sales go down.

4. What should a translator do, taking into account what I just mentioned ? The translator should work and act on the book, not only the text. Giving up the possibilities offered by the book is to limit the scope of possibilities, then justify the idea of untranslatable. What do we translate ? A literary text of a certain period, whose characteristics are inscribed in the object book, among which a conception of literature. How can we translate this Korean book if we don’t control the composition of the French book. And we usually don’t. A book is not only a text + a paratext. It is a text as a social object; text, paratext, materiality of the book and also the social representations leading to this text.
If we agree on the fact that everything must be translated, a meaning as well a sound effect, a metaphor as well as a rhythm, it is not sufficient to put a French joke where you had a Korean joke. You must consider of everything that made a Korean book in the sixties (for instance), archaeology included (as Foucault would say), that is to say all its historical stratums.
That is to say what constitutes language. Any translation of Korean literature should then try to overcome the question of colinguism, whose primary effect is the mixed Korean (written in Korean grammar and alphabet, Chinese expressions and ideograms). Symbolic allocation, situation in the field, genre’s logic, reading strategies, all dictate to the author his use of ideograms. A good literary critic (is there any ?) should ask the translator how he dealt with colinguism. Today, very few translators and no critic are able to achieve such a goal. Because of the actual state of the field, because of the incapability to deal with the book.
It is in fact impossible to translate a colinguistic phenomenon (which is only one of the many problems of the text) without mastering all the semiotical aspects of the book, page set-up, typography, printing, footnotes, punctuation marks. Where is it possible to signify, before the reading, that a title could be a quotation, an antiphrasis and a set phrase in Chinese like T’aep’yông ch’ônha, Peace under Heaven, by Ch’ae Mansik ? On the cover (there are other options), which is the publisher’s place of power. A good solution would be to let the translator draw it, if is allowed to, if is able to, if he understands the problem. If one is here pessimistic about the abilities of the translator to do so (even in collaboration), one should then ask this question : If the translator is unable to understand and reproduce the signs of the cover, how can he be competent for the very text ? Here, once more, we find the objective collusion of publishers (power), money lending foundations (control) and translators (self-restrain).
It is clear, translating a book, and only a text, is translating the history of the book. The Korean publisher (hopefully) knows how to manipulate the representations for its potential readership. But the situation is different in France. The publisher has to play with the history of the Korean text and the non-history of the translated text. The spontaneous paratextualism (paraphrase) of the publisher won’t do. It is necessary to anchor the Korean text in a non-existing tradition, by multiplying the Korean marks, by avoiding traces of French tradition, especially references and syntax.
This is why, in the Actes Sud collection, we did experiment sentences-like titles, for our texts to remain foreign. Thus, they remain strange (strange and foreign are one word in French, “étranger”). Titles like A little Ball launched by a Dwarf, He watches over his Father, Over there a petal silently falls. The original title is sometimes a sentence, but not always. By doing so, because it is not a French literary tradition, our titles give a signal : this is a foreign book. Paradoxically, Korean novel doesn’t give this, because Korean novel is not an established literary fact. Of course, for each and every title, the same discussion occurs with our publisher.

5. Reception : If one bear in mind all I have said, it must be understood that those translations (good or not) are read through the usual glasses of lazy representations. Despite the fact that we are able to suggest some covers, and that we do write the introductions (not so frequent in commercial publishing), it is still very difficult to have access to the book.
We are lucky to be able to write all the forewords and the footnotes, without limits (forewords are usually written, when written, by famous people, likely to attract readers. They barely know anything about Korean literature). But critics are readers usually don’t like to read what I just wrote. It disturbs their idea of personal reading (the ideology of “I don’t read forewords”). For this, they are much more prone to swallow the book through the usual neo-colonial representations than to make the effort to read sometimes which might, eventually, resist immediate understanding.
And they are not helped by the image of Korean literature offered collectively by the French publishers, when they bow to the pressure of Korean foundations and publish endless historical novels like Pak Kyongni’s Earth. Not only are they endlessly boring (personal opinion), but they explain why the contemporary novel (not short stories and novellas) is barely nothing more than an imitation of an old western practice. This illustrates perfectly the objective connivance between Korean foundations (what they want to show) and western publishers (taking the money not knowing what they buy). The result is astounding, regarding what foundations and publishers claim to be : No sale.
Any solution then ? Any advice for volunteers ? For those who are ready for disregard, anonymity, criticism and no money ? Systematic doubt casted on by Korea, which thinks that the presence of a foreigner in the translating processing is always abnormal? All prices to be paid for the non spectacular discovery of the Other ? Never compromise. Not even for a single comma. Each time you compromise, you loose on the essential (the text and the book) without wining one of the minor aspects. And in the long run, it is not even financially wise.
Easier said that done, but we did it, and the Actes Sud collection is about to celebrate its 30th volume. Most of the above-mentioned problems have been dispelled, (but not the endless reader’s obstacle). So, in order to perturb the social deafness concerning translation, it may be time to recall Georges Mounin’s say : “At the time of the Pharaohs, translators had a rank equal to princes”.

Le CRIC, centre de recherches internationales sur les Corées, est l’éditeur de la revue tan’gun (site et papier). Ce centre de recherches est une association de loi 1901 à but non lucratif, tournée entièrement vers l’étude des trois Corées et le développement des moyens de cette étude, en particulier les voyages.

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