Research conducted within this SEED project comprises altogether five sub-projects


1) Aspects of the never-ending translation wars in South Korea

Andreas Schirmer

Translation has always occupied a major role in Korea’s often-painful process of modernization. In this context, frequent “translation wars” stand out, especially when the zealous debates on mistranslations are not only battled out within the narrow confines of professional circles but also captivate the general public, as occasionally happens.

The fact that public discourse about the quality and reliability of translations is much more common in Korea than anywhere in the West constitutes a phenomenon that appears very telling about Korean society and mindsets in many ways. The cultural anthropological significance of this specific issue in Korean public discourse was, however, never considered a matter deserving academic attention in and of itself.

Public denunciation of translation mistakes is sometimes not only aimed at the immediate culprits but also at very basic mental attitudes, the implicit suggestion or explicit insinuation being that Korean audiences lack self-assurance and tend to meekly accept dubious passages because they are conditioned to suspect themselves of being simply too stupid to understand.

The ongoing research project consists in the first place of a typology and description of examples taken from ongoing translation wars in Korea, starting with those either encyclopedic or idiosyncratic books that always present vast collections of detected mistakes; this is complemented by an analysis of the reactions these books triggered — as most of them received a lot of media coverage — and the various, often multifaceted debates that ensued. Translation wars conducted in newspapers and online fora shall also be covered. The exploration shall extend further to some meta-discourses that search for possible reasons for the very existence of these discourses (i.e., the ongoing translation wars). For example, one regularly recurring motif of the talk on mistranslations is the supposed disgrace and disadvantage occasioned when Koreans are left with imperfect renderings of insights easily gleaned by others in the rest of the world who read, if not the originals, at least perfectly faithful translations.

2) Negotiating the essence of being Korean in South Korean fiction: Literary contributions to the discourses on Koreanness

Andreas Schirmer

Abstract of an article currently a work in progress:

An-na is a simple Korean woman, but when sleeping she could be taken by an outsider as a Chinese, a Japanese, any Southeast Asian, a Mongolian, an American Indian, etc. Such musings when looking at an elderly woman in his neighborhood are mulled over by the protagonist and narrator of one of the most famous examples of South Korea’s damunhwa munhak (multicultural literature): Son Hong-kyu’s The Muslim Butcher, a novel centered on an orphaned Korean teenager who gets adopted by a former Turkish soldier still stranded in Seoul decades after the Korean War.

Exposing the shameless exploitation of foreign workers and the plight of foreign brides—massive discrimination that looks all the more apalling when contrasted with the immense adoration for white Westerners—damunhwa munhak, a genre that developed during the last two decades, can be understood as an attempt by fiction writers to contribute to a better world by inducing readers to feel empathy. While this aim may be a common denominator of all damunhwa munhak, some of these novels have an additional focus: contesting the infamous danil minjok sinhwa, the “myth of the homogenous nation” by contending that “Everybody is a mixed blood” (The Muslim Butcher).

Koreanness is usually conceived of as either as “DNA”, a “software” and a bundle of “codes”, or, alternatively, constructed as a set of skills, beliefs, and habits. However, what the struggling protagonists or figures in these novels are haunted by is not any presumed essence of the homo coreanicus but simply outward appearance. A society wrapped up in surfaces, a “republic of plastic surgery” (seonghyeong susul ui gonghwaguk), South Korea proves unforgiving not only for the “underclass” of the unlovely among their compatriots but most of all to those whose appearance marks them as outsiders in the most literal sense: the low-life underclass from abroad.

Dissecting this motive of “appearance” as dominating damunhwa munhak, the proposed paper dwells specifically on examples of resistance to or subversion of ascribed identity, found both in damunhwa munhak and, as a complementing contrast, in novels about individual Koreans resembling foreigners. Fraud, deception, and camouflage are chosen here to construct and take on an identity of one’s choosing—or at least one that allows a more decent life. Even in cases that expose such identity construction as mere escapist denial, or as leading to total debacle and disaster, these novels voice a powerful dissent, providing impactful and evocative condensed formulas to make an intervention on public discourse.


3) Order of ideas upside down – the neglected role of sequence in translating from and into Korean

Andreas Schirmer


4) IMF-crisis mirrored in fiction: Analogies, emblems, symbols and metaphors in Park Min-gyu’s collection of short stories Castella

Andreas Schirmer


5) The puzzle of Japanese students at Korean schools in Japan

Martin Šturdík