In Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square, a shining bronze statue of King Sejong the Great, the fourth ruler of the Joseon dynasty, presides over twelve lanes of traffic. Behind him sits the Gyeongbokgung Palace compound, today home to the National Palace Museum. Out of a long list of notable accomplishments—sponsoring the invention of the rain gauge, ensuring maternity leave for serfs—King Sejong is most fondly remembered for creating Korean script, hangul, an event celebrated by a national holiday, observed every October in South Korea. “There are many simpleminded people who cannot express themselves even if they have things to say,” he proclaimed when introducing the alphabet, in 1446. “Taking pity on them, I have made 28 letters, only hoping that all our people learn them easily and use them comfortably every day.” With the creation of hangul, Koreans no longer had to struggle to use Chinese characters, or hanja, for written expression. Later rulers would try to ban hangul, because they thought the language made it too easy to share information. (It became the national script for good after the Second World War.) But Sejong’s love for the written word was allegedly so great that he suffered from eye disorders later in life, the result of “excessive reading.”
A certain reverence for the written word is still visible in South Korean culture. Seoul’s largest bookstore carries the high-minded slogan “Men create books, but books create men.” The country has a literacy rate of ninety-eight per cent. Before the MERS outbreak forced the event to be rescheduled, the organizers of last fall’s Seoul International Book Fair expected four hundred thousand people to attend the five-day festival, in Gangnam. (Ultimately, only fifty thousand attended.) The country’s publishing industry does $2.7 billion in annual sales and operates largely out of a government-sponsored complex called Paju Book City, where there are offices for two hundred and fifty publishing houses, with high ceilings and wide windows overlooking trees, reeds, and winding creeks. The complex is set to sprawl over three hundred and seventy acres when it’s completed. According to its mission statement, “The city aims to recover the lost humanity.”
South Korean publishers reportedly release nearly forty thousand new titles each year. How many of those books Koreans actually read is, of course, up for debate. A widely circulated 2005 survey, conducted by a British market-research group, placed Korea last among thirty global powers in hours spent reading per person. (The U.S. placed twenty-third; India was first.) In the past half decade, the Korean government launched a campaign to increase the use of public libraries and promote reading in schools—but students who went to school in South Korea in the eighties and nineties recall a different attitude. “In Korea, reading literature is considered extracurricular, and by the time you get to middle school or high school—when I was in school fifteen, twenty years ago—it was considered a waste of time,” thirty-four-year-old Jung Bum Hur, now a translator, said. “If you were reading a novel, it was ‘Oh, you’re wasting your time. You should be solving math problems; you should be taking another mock exam for the Korean SAT.’ ”
Today, the government is not only encouraging young people to read but also trying to get non-Koreans to read Korean books. Across the street from Gwanghwamun Square, the Literature Translation Institute of Korea recently held its fourteenth annual workshop for the translation and publication of Korean literature. With a budget of ten million dollars and eighty employees, L.T.I. Korea—a subsidiary of Korea’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport—is dedicated to increasing the circulation of Korean literature in translation around the world. For 2015’s conference, on the “Global Promotion of K-Books” (think K-pop, but for books), the L.T.I. flew in publishers, translators, editors, and lawyers from the United States, Japan, Russia, Singapore, and the U.K. A team of interpreters sat in darkened booths in the back of the conference room, translating the speakers’ presentations in and out of multiple languages in real-time for attendees clutching small black earpieces.
The annual workshop is one of many initiatives that L.T.I. Korea runs out of a five-story building in the Gangnam district. It hosts free translation courses, puts out a quarterly prospectus of new titles in translation, subsidizes the translation and publication of Korean titles abroad, and frequently sends South Korean writers to literary events around the world. The agency has grand ambitions. “Both Chinese and Japanese writers have already received the Nobel Prize,” its president, Kim Seong-kon, wrote in the Korea Herald, in 2012. “I believe it is about time that a Korean writer is given the prestigious prize as well.”
That ambition is shared by a fair number of Kim’s countrymen. With a G.D.P. of $1.4 trillion, South Korea has the world’s thirteenth-largest economy, trailing Australia and Canada. But while Canada and Australia have had twenty-two and thirteen Nobel laureates, respectively, South Korea has had just one (President Kim Dae-jung, who won the 2000 Peace Prize), putting it behind the likes of Luxembourg, East Timor, and St. Lucia (which have each had two). Writing in the Korea Times shortly after 2015’s prize announcements were made, the former California congressman Jay Kim, who was born in South Korea, lamented his motherland’s failure, once again, to produce a Nobel laureate in any category. “It is rather an embarrassing lack of achievement for this economic powerhouse,” he wrote.
Korea isn’t the only country whose government has taken an active role in making its literature more visible to the Nobel committee. Before the Chinese-born novelist and playwright Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 2000, the Chinese government led a semi-formal campaign, for nearly thirty years, to win the prize—an effort Julia Lovell chronicles in “The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature.” The Nobel was seen, Lovell writes, as something that would “affirm China as a powerful, modern, international civilization.” But Gao’s win did little to assuage China’s Nobel anxiety: there are dissident strains in his work, and he is a naturalized French citizen.
On a smaller scale, government-funded translation institutes can be found in many other countries, working to find global audiences for the literature of their homelands. “Denmark is fantastic; Norway is really good; the German book office is very effective,” Chad Post, the publisher of Open Letter, a nonprofit literary-translation press affiliated with the University of Rochester, told me. Post has worked with a number of such institutes. “The Estonian literature center, the Latvian literature center—a lot of these countries that have languages that aren’t as widely spoken tend to put a lot of emphasis on and do a good job of organizing those literary centers so they have a chance.” Where Korea’s effort differs, however, is in its budget and scope. “They have a lot more money than those other countries, but the thing that I think sets them apart is they have this training.” In Post’s view, the L.T.I.’s programs for translators, and its habit of commissioning full translations of works irrespective of any publishing house’s interest, make its efforts unique.
To win the Nobel, South Korea must first produce books the Nobel committee can read, and the pressure to do that falls squarely on the L.T.I. Yun Jang, a literature enthusiast I met at last year’s International Book Fair, said that the failure to capture the Nobel was related to “translation issues.” “It’s a very sophisticated language, Korean. Personally, I believe there’s lots of good literature in Korea. It’s frustrating. I think the Nobel committee needs to learn Korean first. Then a Korean will win the prize.”
Today, just one Korean name surfaces frequently in discussion of the Nobel: Ko Un, the octogenarian Buddhist monk, activist, and poet. Imprisoned in the seventies and eighties for his involvement in the pro-democracy opposition movement, he began writing prolifically after his release. “In the nineteen-nineties, after he got a bit freer, he took off and started publishing books—four, five, every year,” Brother Anthony of Taizé, a retired professor at Dankook University, near Seoul, and Ko Un’s primary translator, told me. Ko Un’s work is expansive: he writes love poems and political poems, biographical poems and meditations on nature. Shortly before the prize was announced this past fall, he emerged as a dark-horse contender among speculators with the British betting outfit Ladbrokes, where his odds increased from 40/1 to 20/1 as the announcement approached.
I met with Brother Anthony hours before the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature was named. As we spoke, an e-mail flashed on his computer screen; it was from a Danish journalist, and the words “Ko Un” and “Nobel Prize” were in the subject line. Brother Anthony sighed. Fielding inquiries from journalists has become an annual ritual in the hours and days before the prize is announced. The novelist Jeong I-hyeon, whose books chronicle the romantic and professional lives of modern Korean women, told me about the time a TV journalist requested an interview, asking her to record a congratulatory message for Ko Un as though he’d already won. She declined. Jeong I-hyeon laughed as she remembered the journalist’s fervor, but then turned serious. “Whenever there’s talk over who’s getting the Nobel Prize, I somehow feel as if I have done something wrong,” she said. “I guess not something wrong, but I feel sorry? I’m definitely a Korean author, but I’m not the author that can win a Nobel Prize and deliver on that kind of happiness.”
Though the country’s Nobel hopes have been pinned on him, Ko Un is not particularly popular among Korean readers. When he appeared at a reading during the International Book Fair, in October, a little more than fifty of the fair’s fifty thousand attendees came to hear him. “A lot of Koreans don’t like Ko Un,” Brother Anthony said. Given his age, time is running out on his Nobel chances—and there are no obvious South Korean candidates for the prize after him. Charles Montgomery, an English professor at Dongguk University, who runs ktlit.com, a Web site about Korean literature, pointed out that the Swedish Academy tends to favor certain types of writers. “They far prefer males. They prefer older people because they don’t want you to change your political beliefs. They prefer political heroes, people who stood up for something and who risked life and limb. And, of course, Ko Un qualifies for all of that. You drop under him and there’s at least a twenty-year hiatus where, if there is that author, I’m not aware.”
There are those who question the wisdom of chasing the prize. “If you look at the authors who have won the prize in the past, it’s not something that you really campaign to do, it’s not something where you come up with a battle plan and then be like, ‘We’re going to follow this plan and it’s going to end up with us winning the Nobel Prize,’ ” Charles La Shure, a professor at Seoul National University and a translator who has worked with the L.T.I., said. “That’s not really what happens. Nobel Prizes aren’t generally—at least in literature—manufactured.”
Nevertheless, the race to cultivate an international appetite for the next generation of world-class South Korean writers is under way in full force at the L.T.I. When I met Jeong I-hyeon, she and another writer, a novelist and Ph.D. student named Kim Kyung-uk, were having lunch with three L.T.I. staffers and Russell Valentino, an American who runs a small publishing house called Autumn Hill Books. The L.T.I. had flown Valentino to Seoul to help him find a Korean writer for his press to publish. Kim and Jeong were just two of the writers he was scheduled to meet in a whirlwind of lunch and dinner engagements.
Chad Post made a similar L.T.I.-sponsored trip to Seoul, with Will Evans, the publisher of Deep Vellum, and Ross Ufberg, of New Vessel Press, last winter. “They paid for the whole thing and were incredibly generous in every way,” Post said. “We stayed in this amazing hotel with the best toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. The whole thing was wonderful.” More important, the trip was fruitful for everyone involved. “We’re all in the process of publishing some of the books that we found out about on the trip,” Post said.
But courting publishers one at a time is slow going. To hasten the introduction of Korean titles to Western audiences, the L.T.I. is considering opening a publishing house of its own, in Texas. At the translation workshop, a Dallas municipal-court judge named Don B. Chae delivered a keynote address titled “Legal Issues in the Opening of an L.T.I. Korea Publishing House in the U.S.” Before detailing the difference between L.P.s, L.L.C.s, and nonprofits, Chae remarked on what had brought him, a Texas lawyer, to this literary conference in Seoul in the first place: the prospect of a Nobel. “I want to make a small contribution, however small that might be, to the monumental event in which a Korean writer wins the prize,” he said. “That’s why I’m standing before you today.”
In theory, opening a U.S.-based L.T.I.-run publishing house would help remove one of biggest hurdles for the agency: getting exposure for its translations. It can be difficult to persuade international houses to publish and promote Korean books, Kim Yoon-jin, the director of L.T.I. Korea’s translation and publication division, told me, “because they have to think, market-wise, whether it would be profitable.” Indeed, one of the L.T.I.’s biggest successes thus far has come from a publishing house that isn’t particularly worried about commercial viability: the Dalkey Archive Press. Dalkey’s Library of Korean Literature series features twenty-five of the L.T.I.’s translated manuscripts. “The idea of beginning to read the literature from Korea—the sense on the part of Americans is, how do we begin? What do we start with?” Dalkey’s founder and publisher, John O’Brien, said. The series answers those questions with a clear canon for new readers to Korean writing. Yet the books’ release has largely been ignored in the U.S. In the three years since the series launched, with seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars in support from L.T.I. Korea, The New Yorker and Harper’s have been the only major publications to attempt to review any of the twenty volumes released so far.
Independent of the L.T.I.’s efforts, a small number of Korean novels have found an audience in the West in recent years. In 2007, “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself,” a nihilistic commentary on modern Korean life by Kim Young-ha, found enough of a U.S. readership for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to release subsequent titles of Kim’s, in 2010 (“Your Republic Is Calling You”) and 2012 (“Black Flower”). An even bigger breakthrough came in 2011, when “Please Look After Mom,” by Kyung-sook Shin, published by Knopf, won the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize, after briefly making the New York Times best-seller list and getting a mention in O, The Oprah Magazine. (Both “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” and “Please Look After Mom” were translated by Chi-Young Kim.) In 2015, Deborah Smith’s translation of “The Vegetarian,” by Han Kang, was published to critical acclaim in the U.K. It will be released in the U.S. in February.
Each of these critical and commercial breakthroughs can be traced to the work of one independent literary agent: Joseph Lee, of the KL Management agency. Lee adopted the name Joseph for professional use in homage to his favorite author, Joseph Conrad. He has a floppy haircut, a wide smile, and a taste for the macabre. “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” centers on a man who helps people commit suicide, for a fee. “Please Look After Mom” is the story of a selfless matriarch who is abandoned by her children. “The Vegetarian” tells of a woman haunted by recurring violent dreams who descends into madness.
It helped that Shin and Kim—and Sun-mi Hwang, whose book “The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly” also found a publisher in the U.S., thanks to Lee—were best-selling authors in South Korea. Still, Lee’s track record as a one-man literary ambassador is impressive. He believes that the real obstacle for Korean books abroad is that Koreans themselves don’t care enough about great writing. “Before you wish for Korean authors to get the Nobel Prize, you have to show interest in Korean literature,” he said. “It’s regrettable that many people don’t read books but still wish for the Nobel Prize.”
“If you look at it from the government’s perspective, it’s a very good way to create some kind of international, to put it crudely, propaganda system, where we can, oh, promote Korea through our literature,” Jung Bum Hur told me. “Like Korean literature is K-pop or something. It’s a very Korean attitude for the government to step in, because it’s worked in other things.” Jung—who was told that reading novels was unimportant back when he was in grade school—is a student in the L.T.I.’s Translation Atelier course, which meets every other week. From 7 to 9 P.M., the course’s four students enthusiastically critique one another’s translations of poetry and prose, and discussion is lively: one moment they’re comparing two characters in a short story to Mulder and Scully, the next they’re debating how to most succinctly describe the particular kind of fence used on construction sites at the height of South Korea’s redevelopment efforts, in the nineteen-seventies.
While “improving Korea’s national brand value” is listed on L.T.I. Korea’s Web site as one of the agency’s goals, the picture of Korean life that emerges from much of the country’s literature is bleak. The works that have garnered the most attention abroad are dark tales, strewn with suffering. Readers searching for recently published Korean fiction in translation can choose from books like “At Least We Can Apologize,” “Nowhere to Be Found,” “No One Writes Back,” and “The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness.” These are stories about insane-asylum patients, vagabonds, and young people trapped in dead-end jobs and loveless relationships. When I asked the L.T.I.’s president what image or impression of Korea he hoped readers who hadn’t visited the country would get from its literature, he emphasized a desire to convey the “difficulties and atrocities” the Korean people have gone through and the “agonies” experienced in each period of modernization. Joseph Lee believes that a certain somberness is essential to Korean writing. “Koreans have continually experienced a very tumultuous history—Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, the democracy movements,” he told me. “Maybe it’s only natural that there are these portrayals of conflict and loss and anxiety and worry.”
To its credit, in its quest to figure out what global audiences will respond to, the L.T.I. has shown an apparently genuine willingness to take chances on all manner of stories—even unflattering ones. It has also begun looking for genre fiction to market abroad, alongside more literary works. For these reasons, winning a Nobel Prize could actually have a downside for the country’s literary culture. “I’m afraid, if Ko Un wins the Nobel, that the Korean government, the L.T.I., will just declare victory and shut down,” Charles Montgomery said. Charles La Shure expressed a similar sentiment. “It will happen at some point: Korea will win the Nobel Prize in Literature,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t happen too soon.”
Reporting for this story was supported by a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists.