한국문학번역원 로고

kln logo

twitter facebook instargram



  1. Lines
  2. Essays

[Cover Feature] 212 Versions of the Same Story: Publishing Korean Literature in Japan

by Kim Seungbok Translated by Léo-Thomas Brylowski September 8, 2023

Japan is nothing short of a publishing powerhouse. In fact, the country churns out over 70,000 new titles every year. Among these thousands of books, translated works account for six to seven percent, 80 percent of which are translations of English books. The remaining 20 percent are works translated from Korean, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, Thai and other languages which together amount to fewer than 1,000 titles. However, a recent surge in books translated from Korean is drawing the envy of publishers from other language markets.

    CUON, a Japanese publisher specializing in Korean literature, made its entry into Japan’s publishing market in 2011 with the release of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and has gone on to publish over a hundred titles since. The books are divided into the “New Korean Literature Series,” which focuses on contemporary works published in the 2000s, the “Classics Series,” which features some of Korea’s most renowned literary works of all time; the “Short Short Series,” which introduces readers to short stories in a bilingual format that includes both the original Korean text along with the Japanese translation; and the “Korean Poetry Selection Series,” which boasts a number of poetry collections. CUON also began publishing the Japanese translation of Pak Kyongni’s widely acclaimed epic novel Land in 2016, hoping to have all twenty volumes fully translated and published by next year.


The Launch of a New Translation Festival and Translation Contest


Although translated titles only make up a small proportion of all the books published in Japan, foreign literature enthusiasts have proven to be very dedicated readers. At the end of each year, foreign literature editors engage with their readers by holding events at major bookstores where they look back on the books published over the past year and reveal which titles are in the works for the following year. These events consistently draw in crowds of over 200 people. I have also participated a number of times over the years as a representative of CUON. After seeing just how eager readers were to learn about upcoming titles and how appreciative they were of all the work that went into making a book, I felt compelled to do something more for them. That’s when I came up with the idea of organizing a special event that would shed light on the various actors involved in the book-making process. Thanks to the help of LTI Korea and the Korean Cultural Center, I was able to host two translation festivals in 2018 and 2019. The events were called “Weaving the Languages of the World Together” and “A Window into Classics of World Literature,” and featured translators of Korean, English, Italian, Chinese, Czech, German, and other languages. Participants were given the chance to enjoy a wide selection of events, such as discussions between editors specializing in world literature. There were also talks between prominent translators, including a workshop led by three translatorswhosharedandcomparedtheiruniquestylesbyprojectingsentencesdirectlyontoascreen.

    I remember the audience holding its breath as two translators began working together to improve the distinctly different translations on the screen. It was remarkable to see the sentences gradually come to life with greater clarity and depth of meaning. This workshop offered foreign literature enthusiasts a unique glimpse into the magic of translation. The event showcased the brilliance of translators, who, despite being such key actors in the publishing industry, often find themselves working in the shadows. Given the many industry professionals in attendance, I was extremely delighted that this workshop could draw attention to Korean literature while also serving as a platform for Korean translators to display their exceptional skills.

    My team and I have also established an annual translation contest called “Koreans Books I Want to Read in Japanese.” Now in its seventh year, the contest requires participants to translate two designated short stories into Japanese within just six months. While undoubtedly challenging, it offers aspiring translators an opportunity to make a name for themselves given that CUON publishes the winning works. Past contest winners, such as Makino Mika who won the inaugural edition, have gone on to become full-fledged translators and have worked with various other publishers. Some have also broadened their expertise beyond fiction, translating works of nonfiction, picture books, movie subtitles, and even webtoons. The immense popularity of K-culture in Japan has cast the spotlight on Korean creative content, reaching far beyond the publishing industry to encompass movies, plays, and webtoons. It makes me very happy to see that the winners of the translation contest are able to take advantage of the rising demand for Korean translators in Japan.

    The first year of the contest required participants to translate two short stories from Choi Eunyoung’s short story collection, Shoko’s Smile. Six months to translate two stories might seem daunting, but we set the bar high to ensure our contest only attracted individuals with a genuine desire to become translators. Organizing this kind of event necessitates setting up a judging committee, and to prevent delays and increased costs during the judging process, we tried to avoid receiving an excessive number of submissions. However, despite expecting around 50 submissions, we received 212. Although we were thrilled, this unexpected turn of events required us to find additional judges.

    I still vividly remember the words of Choi Eunyoung during a book talk following the publication of the winning translations. “While there exists only one Korean version of Shoko’s Smile, it brings me immense joy to know that there are 212 versions of it in Japanese,” she said.


Translation and Publishing in the Age of AI


The translation contest’s judging criteria place the greatest importance on reading comprehension and Japanese fluency. The initial screening aims to filter out submissions by examining how participants translated a set of ten sentences deemed to be prone to mistranslation. Submissions that pass this stage proceed to the secondary screening, where they are handed to a panel of judges consisting of fiction authors and professional translators for further evaluation. Fiction authors usually favor translations that boast the most fluent-sounding Japanese, while professional translators tend to give the greatest credit to translations that they deem most faithful. While there may not be a single right way to translate, some translations are certainly better than others. What defines a good translation, then? Is it one which achieves fluency in the target language and provides a seamless reading experience?

    To answer this question, I’ll give you an interesting anecdote from my time working on the publication of Ha Seong-nan’s short story, “That Summer’s Rhetoric.” Set in a time before telephones were widely available, the story features a scene which requires the characters to communicate with each other by telegram. In those days, a standard telegram message in Korean was limited to ten characters, with additional characters incurring extra fees. The protagonist therefore faces the challenge of conveying her messages within the ten-character limit. Translating this into Japanese proved to be quite tricky. Although telegrams were once commonplace in Japan, many people today wouldn’t be familiar with them, so we had to ensure the text was understandable to everyone. Additionally, although many Korean words and their Japanese equivalents are rooted in the same Chinese characters, making the number of characters match in the translation was no easy task. Nevertheless, the translator and the editor persisted, going to great lengths to refine and adjust each sentence until they could make it work. As showcased here, I believe the quality of a translation ultimately depends on how much time is invested into polishing the text. I like translations which read seamlessly in the target language while also reflecting the cultural peculiarities of the original.

    During the initial screening of submissions for the translation contest, many participants were found to have made strikingly similar mistakes. In fact, some sentences were identical word for word, indicating that several participants had relied on AI to translate the text without bothering to revise it. It was truly a shame.

    Back when I was a student in the early 1990s, translations were done by hand with a pencil and notebook, and the only tool at our disposal was a paper dictionary. Nowadays, it has become possible to translate an entire manuscript on the computer with the help of online dictionaries and AI translation programs such as Papago and DeepL. No human translator could possibly compete with AI in terms of speedit’s a total mismatch. This has made it difficult to resist the temptation of seeking AI assistance for reading and translating purposes.

    In fact, Japanese editors have already begun to embrace the use of AI to review Korean books. That’s because programs like DeepL allow them to translate 300-page manuscripts into Japanese in under a minute, and although the resulting translations are not perfect, they are good enough to allow editors to get a feel for a book’s content.

    With that being said, while AI translations may allow us to grasp the gist of a text, they are still far from being able to produce a book that meets the standards required for publishing. It is also worth noting that Japanese editors interested in a Korean title will often ask a translator to provide them with a book proposal, which they will often use to decide whether or not to go forward with the translation. The proposal will usually include an author bio, a synopsis, research on similar books previously published in Japan, a list of selling points, and a sample translation of a certain length. Translators may choose to write a book proposal out of their sheer fondness for a work and try to pitch it themselves, or they may respond to a formal request from an editor who has expressed interest in a particular title. In any case, the book proposal is an essential component of the publication process, and I have yet to come across any editors who would be willing to entrust such an important task to AI.

    All books go through this rigorous selection process before the green light is given to the translator, and carefully translated manuscripts also undergo thorough editing so that Japanese readers can enjoy a seamless reading experience.


Korean Literature Filling Japanese Bookstore Shelves


In 2015, CUON opened a bookstore specializing in Korean literature called Chekccori in the Tokyo district of Jimbocho, which is famous for its high concentration of bookstores. Chekccori boasts about 3,500 Korean books and 500 Japanese books related to Korea. Chekccori also hosts book talks featuring Korean authors as well as various other activities aimed at promoting Korean culture, which includes one-day Hangul lessons, bojagi cloth-making workshops, and traditional musical instrument performances. Chekccori is also a place for conducting business, where Japanese editors can come to look at Korean books and acquire their rights.

    There has been a steady increase in the number of Korean books getting published since the bookstore’s early days, which has allowed us to expand the section where we showcase Japanese translations of Korean titles alongside the original work. I used to feel disappointed by the absence of Korean books in Japanese bookstores back in the 1990s, so I am filled with pride and gratitude when I see how much things have changed. Nowadays, large bookstores will usually have an entire section dedicated to Korean literature, and some even boast special displays for individual authors such as Han Kang, Park Min-gyu, Chung Serang, and Kim Yeonsu. These sorts of displays are becoming increasingly common as Korean authors gain more recognition in Japan.

    But it doesn’t stop therecompetition is growing among Japanese magazines to release exclusive content about Korea. In the past, articles used to focus mainly on topics such as Korean food, movies, K-pop, and actors, but an increasing number of them are now devoted to Korean literature and include author interviews and even full-length works. While magazines used to feature translations of original Korean works, they are now directly approaching Korean authors to request exclusive pieces on specific topics. This shift demonstrates how popular they have become in Japan. Moreover, there has been a growing interest among prominent Japanese figures to collaborate with Korean authors. Some have even asked them to conduct talks with them or to publish anthologies together.


The K-BOOK Festival in Tokyo


All the reasons stated above are what motivated me to organize the K-BOOK Festival in Tokyo, which has been taking place annually since 2019. The event serves both as a platform for new authors to meet directly with editors and readers as well as an opportunity for publishers to showcase the books they have recently released. Held in November, the festival has become a sort of celebration of the year’s literary harvest. Last year’s edition saw the participation of forty-six publishers along with prominent Korean authors Lee Kiho, Han Kang, Kim Yeonsu, Kim Ae-ran, and Chang Kang-myoung.

    Held in bookstores across Japan, the Korean Literature Fair is an extension of this festival which serves to actively promote Korean books and help publishers fund more book projects. The event consists of creating special displays inside bookstores featuring titles by different Korean publishers. This year, we plan to invite thirty-five Japanese and five Korean publishers, as well as authors Kim Choyeop and Kim So Yeon, and poet Oh Eun. This “book feast” will serve as an opportunity for Korean and Japanese publishers, as well as authors, to gather and network with each other. Moreover, since Koreans have recently been traveling to Japan in high numbers due to the favorable currency exchange rate, the festival promises to attract many book lovers from both countries.

    As mentioned earlier, there is high demand for Korean cultural content in Japan. However, Korean literature has taken relatively longer to reach popularity in comparison to other types of content. As such, sustained efforts will be needed to maintain this newfound love of Korean literature among Japanese readers. This involves introducing authors whose works reflect current trends, and finding ways to expedite the translation and publishing processes to ensure their books can swiftly reach the hands of Japanese readers. Never before has the need for skilled and experienced translators been greater.


Translated by Léo-Thomas Brylowski



Korean Works Mentioned:

 The Vegetarian (tr. Deborah Smith, Portobello Books, 2015)

 채식주의자(창비, 2007)

 Land (tr. Agnita Tennant, Global Oriental, 2011)

토지(나남출판, 2002)

 Shoko’s Smile (tr. SungRyu, Penguin Publishing Group,2021)

쇼코의 미소(문학동네, 2016)

 “That Summer’s Rhetoric,” The Taste of Summer (Moonji,2013)

그 여름의 수사, 여름의 맛(문학과지성사, 2013)


[1] Translators Kim Huna, Furukawa Ayako, and Yoshikawa Nagi participated in the event.

Did you enjoy this article? Please rate your experience


Sign up for LTI Korea's newsletter to stay up to date on Korean Literature Now's issues, events, and contests.Sign up