An online round table discussion on Korean literature was held as part of the 15th International St Petersburg Book Salon. The event was organised by TASS (St Petersburg) and supported by the Russia–Republic of Korea Dialogue Forum.
The discussion split into two strands: on traditional and modern literature of the Korean peninsula; and on the problem of translating South Korean authors into Russian. Anastasia Guryeva, Associate Professor of the Department of Korean Studies at St Petersburg University, remarked that when speaking about traditional Korean literature, people mostly consider it as part of the Far Eastern cultural complex. This results from Korea being under the influence of China for many years. Traditional Korean literature has a slightly different content than the European tradition: it is not only literary pieces, but also notes, letters and even documents. Even the word 'literature' entered the Korean language only at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Another striking feature of traditional Korean literature is bilingualism: most of the texts have reached us in Chinese script, but there is also a body of literature written in Hangul (the Korean alphabet).
Traditional literature in Korea has become a bridge connecting the East Asian mainland with its many islands. For Koreans, the text is a record of culture and history. Just like an artist's brush, it is a means of establishing peaceful relations with other nations, a sacred tool for communicating with the world.
Associate Professor of the Department of Korean Studies at St Petersburg University Anastasia Guryeva
The Koreans have maintained this attitude to their literature to this day. The Korean scholar gave an example of how often Koreans recite poetry at protest rallies. St Petersburg University also plays an active role in the dissemination of translated Korean poetry. Thus, the University has initiated the publication of a series of translations of Korean authors' works and brought together several Russian higher education institutions under the auspices of this project.
The next speaker, Director of 'Russia–Republic of Korea Dialogue' Forum and Associate Professor of the Department of Korean Studies at St Petersburg University Inna Tsoy, spoke about the periodisation of Korean literature, the characteristics of modern literature, and the richness of the Korean language. According to Inna Tsoy, the Korean language is an inexhaustible source of inspiration and gives authors space for creativity. In this sense, the work of translators from the Korean language becomes extremely important as they should not only have an excellent knowledge of the language system, but also understand the cultural and historical situation. She stressed that Korean literature is highly contextual: without ‘background’ knowledge, it can be difficult to recognise the underlying ideas of the authors. 'We might feel that we read works based on very commonplace topics. Modern Korean literature often seems to resemble European literature. However, its semantic foundation can be intrinsic to Korea. The text conceals historical and cultural layers, understandable to every Korean but not obvious to a European,' she said.
Lee Sang-Yoon, a literary critic and translator, spoke about her experience of translating Han Kang's novel 'The Vegetarian', which was awarded the Booker Prize in 2016. 'It's a multi-layered work. It is not a book about humiliation of women, but a more in-depth novel that depicts the dualism of life and death,' said the translator. Many books in Korean literature today focus on social and political issues such as the cost of democracy, violence and human dignity. Interestingly, the South Korean literature that focuses on inter-Korean relations departs from the perception of its northern neighbour as a 'red wolf', and is sympathetic towards them, said Lee Sang-Yoon.
Dr Ekaterina Pokholkova, Dean of the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting and Director of the Centre for Korean Language and Culture at Moscow State Linguistic University, spoke about the first Russian–Korean literary contacts. She shared her views on what 'new worlds' Korean writers may discover in Russia today. Associate Professor of the Military University of the Ministry of Defence Maria Soldatova spoke about the role of translators of Korean literature. Senior Research Associate of the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Maria Osetrova emphasised the importance of building a dialogue with the reader, speaking to and enlightening the audience, rather than focusing on the complexities of the reading.
At the end of the meeting, the journalists asked some questions. In particular, they were interested in the 'literary' plans of the Russia–Republic of Korea Dialogue Forum. Inna Tsoy replied that, in 2020, they will continue to implement projects dedicated to the works of Pak Kyongni. Also, the International Cultural Forum – 2020 will host a bilateral event 'Culture in translation - translation in culture'. At the end of this year, it is planned to hold the second concert of Russian–Korean friendship, which was first held in 2019. In 2021, the ‘Dialogue' is expected to be part of the 'Russian Seasons', said the director of the Russia–Republic of Korea Dialogue Forum.