Korean Literature Translation Has Long Way to Go
By Chung Ah-young
Korean literature began being translated into foreign languages in the late 19th century. More recently, the number of translations has increased since the 1980s through the support of the government.
As of 2007, more than 700 translation works have been published in English-speaking countries, bringing about a dramatic surge in quantity. But what about the quality?
The Korea Literature Translation Institute (KLTI) started a two-year project in 2007 to evaluate published English translations of Korean literature. In the first stage of evaluation work. 41 novels in 72 editions from 721 books that had been translated and published up to 2006 were evaluated. The second stage of the survey will focus on poetry and be completed by the end of 2008.
The institute recently released the results of the first stage of the research.
The translated works were 72 editions of 41 original Korean literature works including ``Mujong'' (1917) written by Lee Kwang-soo and ``The Unbearable Sadness of Being'' (1999) by Gong Ji-young.
``It is the first time for the state-run institute to conduct a large-scale project to evaluate the quality of the translated works published in English-speaking countries,'' Yoon Ji-kwan, director of the institute, told reporters in a press brief.
The project involves 10 Korean and four foreigner translation experts, Ivan Canadas, John Frankl, Alec Gordon and Carl Krockel.
The results of this project will be used to estimate the level and problems of Korean literature translated into English and for establishing an important database for its improvement.
The standards of the evaluation focus on loyalty to the original texts and how natural and easy to understand the pieces are. The translated works are divided into six grades ― A , A, B , B, C and C.
According to the project, only 10 percent, or seven, among the 72 translated works scored an A in high reliability. Two thirds were evaluated as non-reliable (grade B to C) translations. There were no grade A works.
Classifying the works by era revealed that were no grade A translations in the 1980s, five percent of work that received an A came from the 1990s, and 25 percent in the 2000s, indicating a dramatic improvement in translation quality.
But grade A and B (relatively reliable) translated works by era showed a stagnant trend recently with 14 percent coming from the 1980s, 48 percent the 1990s and 50 percent in the 2000s, revealing that overall quality is in the doldrums.
Song Seung-cheol, English language and literature professor of HallymUniversity, head of the project team, said that most of the wrong and poor translations come from not a lack of English ability but a lack of historical background knowledge or poor Korean language skills.
``Also, the quality of the translation is closely related to Korean literature critique which guides the right interpretation of the original meaning. The poor translations are partly a result from a lack of understanding of the original works,'' Song said.
He said that the overall translated sentences sound natural, are easy to understand and show a good readability in general. ``But many have a problem in remaining loyal to the original text, which fails to revive the literary beauty and meaning,'' said Song.
Song said that in some cases, the mistranslations were a result of an editor's mistake and a translator's expediency.
``We found many problems with the translations, allowing us to get a grasp of where today's translations stand. So we will enhance our role to improve the quality of the translations,'' said Yoon.
To improve the quality of the translations, Yoon said the institute will introduce an anthology of modern Korean literature including the nation's representative novels, poems and plays including North Korean literature.
Also, he said the institute will train more translators including foreign translators who are good at Korean language in an effective system while promoting the publication copyrights to export them to foreign countries.