ESSAY Francesca Rhydderch

NWR Issue 105

The Phenomenon of the Rain

Born in 1959, Lee Seung-U is a leading novelist of Korea. Throughout his career, Lee has meticulously explored the philosophical dimension of human existence. In the Beginning, There Was the Temptation, an adaptation of the Book of Genesis, reflects his interest in theological issues; his many works include About Solar Eclipse, I Will Live Long, and A Help Wanted Ad. The Private Lives of Plants has been translated into French and published under the title La vie rêvée des plantes by Gallimard. Another of his major novels, The Reverse Side of Life, is published in English translation by Peter Owen. Lee is Professor of Creative Writing at Chosun University in South Korea.

According to a statistic often quoted by those concerned about the future of literature in translation, only three per cent of books read in the UK have been translated into English from other languages, a figure which suggests – what, exactly? Resistance to literature outside the mainstream, to new writing from beyond the borders of our own culture, or simply a lack of intellectual curiosity? Literary journalist Boyd Tonkin, one of the founders and champions of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, argues that we need to look past this superficially depressing statistic at the complex publishing interface that lies behind it. The attitude of UK publishers towards the business of translation varies, he says:

From those relatively few advocates and champions who have always been deeply committed, through to scepticism, indifference and outright hostility. Much of the hostility is not so much a principled antagonism towards translation, it’s more a kind of laziness. That’s because in order to make a work in translation effective in the British market all sorts of things have to happen, which is not the case in other kinds of fiction: the translation has to be commissioned, it has to be of an adequate quality and it has to be funded. Therefore as a publisher you need to know about things like the translation support available from embassies and cultural institutes. It also has to be marketed in a more intelligent and creative way than with a familiar homegrown name. And the author, in many cases, needs to be present and visible. This, as with publicity, creates its own logistical problems, especially if the author is not an English speaker. None of these are insuperable problems but they do require work, effort and forethought on behalf of publishers.

Fortunately for readers in Wales, the intelligent and creative work of the Wales Literature Exchange over the last fifteen years or so has done much to facilitate translation...

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