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16 Oct

The big picture – Last week a broadcasting company here called me up and asked if they could interview me for a special they were doing on the Frankfurt Book Fair. Like the Arirang show I did last month, they had also called up the Korea Literature Translation Institute (note: the KLTI is apparently blocking Mozilla users... absolutely brilliant), and for some reason the KLTI recommended that they interview me. So this Wednesday I went into Seoul to visit the Institute and be interviewed.

“Increasing visibility in a friendly environment is advertising. Doing the same thing in a hostile environment is making yourself a target.”

The Book Fair will be held from the 19th to the 23rd this month, which means that this will hopefully be the last time anyone wants to interview me. That might sound odd, but to tell the truth I would be perfectly happy living out my life in relative obscurity. Or at least without television coverage. Some people are born to the cameras, but I am not one of them. Some time ago, another broadcasting company called me up and asked me to be part of a new quiz-type program they were putting together. I had to say no several times because the girl who had contacted me couldn’t understand how I could not want to be on television.

That was an easy one to turn down, though, because it had nothing to do with my field of study. I told her that I wouldn’t do anything that didn’t have anything to do with my studies, and that was that. At the time I thought that was a pretty solid defense against ever having to appear on television. After all, who would want to see me talk about oral literature?

Of course, I didn’t really count on the translation aspect, and it took me by surprise this time around. When the host of the Arirang program began the show by saying that she was being joined by three “experts,” I cringed. Two experts, maybe—the head of the Goethe Institute in Germany and a professor of comparative literature—but I haven’t even finished my doctorate and have yet to publish a literary translation. I know a number of people who would be far more qualified for the title of “expert” than I am, and it’s almost embarrassing to be called that.

Yet I didn’t really have a good excuse to turn down the Arirang program, and I didn’t have a good excuse to turn down this interview, especially when the KLTI recommended me for both. And, as my practical wife reminded me, scholars can’t afford to live in obscurity because research costs money. So, one way or another, I have to get my name out there. I would much rather do it in a medium where there is less chance of me looking like an idiot, like the written medium, for example.

Anyway, my insecurities, however debilitating, are not the main topic of today’s entry. As with the Arirang show, I mentioned something in the interview that I wish I had more time to think about and explain. I suppose it’s half an exercise in futility and half an exercise in wishful thinking, as I doubt that most of the people who might see the interview read Liminality. But I felt rushed during the interview (oddly enough, I always seem to feel rushed in front of a camera, maybe because I am all too aware of my tendency to ramble on), and even if this is only for me, I’d like to take the time to explain this more fully and (hopefully) more clearly. And if I ever get asked this question again, or asked to clarify my position, I will be ready.

I didn’t actually know what questions would be asked during the interview. When I was contacted I was given only a vague idea of what the interview would be about—Korean literature and literary translation. I did get a look at a short list of questions the producer had about five minutes before the interview began, which did get the wheels turning in my head, but I didn’t have as much time to think as I would have liked. A few questions were simple and required no real thought (like how I got started in translation), while others would have been difficult to answer no matter how long I had to think. I was asked a variation of the “what is the most important thing in translating Korean literature” question, and in response I gave a condensed variation of my balance theory.

One of the last questions in the interview (it might have been the last question, but I can’t remember—I have a horrible memory when it comes to recalling things that happen when I am stressed or nervous) was a common theme that I’ve heard a lot when discussing the Frankfurt Book Fair: what else can be done to promote Korean literary translations overseas? In other words, what else can be done besides what the Korean government has already done in terms of money and effort invested in things like the Book Fair.

There are a number of ways to answer this question, some of them “safe,” but for some reason I decided to go with a less safe response. It wasn’t a completely new thought—I’ve been thinking about it for a while and have even mentioned it in private email—but it was not something I ever considered sharing in public. Since I’ve gone and said it on national television, though, I figured it wouldn’t be too big of a deal to say it here. Actually, I don’t know if they will even use this question and response in the program, but I have a feeling they might, as it’s kind of a central issue. The central point in my response was this: literature is not perceived as existing in isolation from other cultural components.

To elaborate, people do not perceive other cultures in a compartmentalized way. If your perception of a certain culture is negative, you are more likely to dislike everything associated with that culture. To take the point a step further, people tend to take out their frustration with or anger toward other nations on aspects of that nation’s culture that have nothing to do with what they were frustrated or angry about in the first place.

As always, examples are best. Although I did not witness this for myself, the media made sure I knew that Americans were pouring bottles of French wine into the sewers to protest France’s reluctance to “get in line” with U.S. policy. Or what about Freedom Fries? What do French wine and French fries have to do with French foreign policy? The answer of course, is nothing. And deep down, people know this. But some Americans were frustrated at their inability to have any effect whatsoever on French policy, so they took this frustration out on what they perceived to be symbols of France.

One of the hot topics in Korea these days is the “Korean Wave,” which refers to the popularity of Korean pop culture in other Asian cultures (or even Western cultures). These days, though, the Korean Wave is seeing backlash in countries like China and Japan. Is it because the Chinese and Japanese are sick of seeing Bae Yongjun’s face plastered on just about everything that doesn’t move (and a number of things that do)? They probably are, and in this I wholeheartedly sympathize, but that’s not the reason for the backlash. The reason for the backlash is that Korea has been very vocal in expressing negative opinions of both China and Japan. Naturally, they don’t appreciate this. What was at first a harmless cultural import is now a cultural invasion. And it is the perfect symbol of Korea to lash out against.

Public opinion of Korea in the United States is probably not too rosy either. I have heard from friends in the States who are concerned about the rampant anti-American sentiment here. I try to tell them that the entire country is not anti-American, but the ones who are happen to be very vocal. But they read about anti-American demonstrations in the papers, and what are they to think? It’s never about the reality anyway, it’s about perception. And I’m guessing that the perception of Korea in the United States is not as good as it could be.

As most of my readers are quite astute, you’ve probably already figured out where I’m going with this. The fact is that there are limits to what can be achieved by pouring money into cultural promotion efforts. Although I didn’t use this example in my reply (I think it would have been a bit too much), it was loitering in the back of my mind: what Korea is doing in Asia is a lot like offering certain countries television dramas and Yonsama (the nauseating appellation Japanese housewives have given Bae Yongjun) with the left hand while slapping them in the face with the right.

In other words, a little “image management” (that is, attempting to improve the perception of Korea overseas) would be a welcome addition to the various other efforts at cultural promotion. I am not saying that I think Korean foreign policy should be dictated by cultural promotion efforts. That would be absurd. The people who decide Korea’s foreign policy and the people who head up the cultural promotion efforts have very different goals. But the people who head up the cultural promotion efforts need to realize that the actions of Korea on the world stage have an effect on the perception of Korean culture in general. The die-hard Koreaphiles are going to consume Korean culture no matter what. But those people who have no exposure to Korea except through the mainstream media might not be inclined to watch a Korean movie or pick up a Korean translation if they have a negative opinion of Korea. No amount of money is going to be able to sweeten that bitter pill enough.

I guess that I didn’t really answer the question, now that I think about it. After all, the question was what can Korea do, and I haven’t really touched on that. But I think understanding comes before action (or at least it should), and proper understanding can lead to wiser actions. The people in charge of cultural promotion need to understand that bigger is not always better, and that more can sometimes mean less. Take the Korean Wave, for example. Had Korea not pushed it so hard, it is possible that the backlash might not have been as severe. Increasing visibility in a friendly environment is advertising. Doing the same thing in a hostile environment is making yourself a target.

So what can Korea actually do to promote Korean literature overseas? Unfortunately, I didn’t really get to this part during the interview because I didn’t have time to think it through. But my answer now would be this: understand the current climate in a target culture, understand how the people of this culture perceive Korea, and plan strategy accordingly. Culture cannot be separated from the general perception of a nation, so any attempts to do that would be futile. But perhaps in a less than Korea-friendly environment, government funds might be better spent in more subtle ways. Perhaps a full-steam advertising campaign is not always the best course.

That’s kind of weak, I know, and doesn’t really outline a solid strategy. But I’m still thinking this through, and maybe I will come up with some clearer ideas. While it might not be my place to plan strategy, these strategies do affect me as part of the cultural promotion machine (that is, as a literary translator). I really wish I had written this before the interview, and I also wish that they would have given me a clearer idea of what the interview was to be about. On the other hand, I should have been able to anticipate this question. I guess I’ll chalk this up to inexperience, learn from it, and hope I don’t sound like too much of an idiot. But it sure would be nice to learn that the stove is hot without actually having to burn my hand.

Update (19 October): The program aired last night, and my part in it was thankfully small. I had suspected that this might be the case from the way the interview was conducted. That is, the camera was pointed at me the whole time, and there was no camera on the interviewer, which immediately brought to mind those programs where they show brief clips of people talking about certain subjects to no one in particular. They did show some footage of me walking into the KLTI building as well. That was a hoot to shoot. People were standing around on the sidewalk staring at me.

Nonetheless, I was disappointed. Not with the brevity of my appearance. I expected that, and it was actually quite a relief. What I did not expect, however, was that they would show the most inane part of the interview. I figured they would choose something important, like, I don’t know, the issue I spent this entire entry worrying over. Or my thoughts on the development of Korean literature. Or anything, really. Anything but what they ended up choosing.

The clip they showed was me talking about what specific problems I encountered during translation. I thought that they were going to ask me about the difficulties of translating in general, and I wasn’t expecting them to ask about specific examples. I had to think of something on the spot, so I took an example from a novel passage that I am currently translating. One of the characters in the story is a shaman, and I said a few words about how it was difficult to translate all the elements of shamanism that crept into the story because most American readers wouldn’t have direct experience with shamanism.

This is true, of course, but it’s a horrible example. I even remember thinking after the interview, “Why couldn’t I think of anything better than that?” Translating a story about shamanism is certainly not easy, but it is also no where near the hardest thing I have ever had to translate. But that was what popped into my head, that was what came out of my mouth, and for some reason that was what they went with.

My wife says it was interesting because it reminds Koreans of some of the unique elements of Korean culture that might be difficult to convey to readers from other cultures, and it also reminds them of the importance of having translators who have a deep knowledge of Korean culture. Part of me suspects that she was just trying to make me feel better. Whatever the case, it's over, and now I can crawl back into obscurity and get back to just being me.

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