New Emissary

Not Lost in Translation

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New Emissary

Not Lost in Translation

Kyung-Sook Shin’s latest novel has hit it big in the US. So why has ‘Please Look After Mom’ been so successful?

Last week I wrote about South Korean writer Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mom, and how it has become a surprise hit in the United States.

So unprecedented is the success of the book—a fictional account of one Korean family’s emotional journey—that Korean culture analyst and Prof. Jung-Sun Park told me this might actually suggest a new dimension of the Korean wave or Korea fever (known locally as hallyu), which is the term used to describe the rising popularity of Korean culture around the world.

If this is indeed going to take the reputation of Korean cultural exports to another level worldwide, it’s certainly a noteworthy event. So the question that first comes to mind is why now, and why Shin’s book? What is it about this title that has so far generated such interest amongst Western readers?

Park believes there are several factors that might have contributed to the positive reception of the book in the United States. First, because Please Look After Mom had already experienced such a high level of success in Shin’s native country of South Korea, she believes it’s proof that it has an appeal for readers generally. After all, said Park, while not all local critics responded positively to the book, in a country where it’s proven difficult for Korean writers to have million-selling books, Shin’s has sold 1.7 million copies to date.

Second, Park thinks that the book’s translator, Chi-Young Kim, did an excellent job, helping make Please Look After Mom an English translation worth buying. ‘Some readers have commented that it reads like a novel originally written in English,’ she told me, noting that some Western media outlets have even started requesting interviews with Kim directly. 

Third, it seems that the editing done by Knopf was very professional and effective.  According to a local newspaper report, Park says the author and publisher discussed the details of editing for about a year, before finally coming up with an outcome that satisfied Shin.

In addition, Knopf also did a good job of promoting and publicizing the book, says Park. ‘The book was covered by many major news media such as the New York Times and Elle prior to its publication. It’s also been listed on the Best Book of the Month on Having an effective distribution channel is a key element for the success of pop cultural products in a foreign market.’ However, she added that at the same time, Shin had the advantage of working with Knopf, an ‘obviously powerful and respectable publishing house’ which gave her their full support. ‘This was another critical factor behind the book’s favourable reception,’ said Park.

Finally, there’s the universal appeal of the book’s theme: the mother. It seems that some of the themes touched upon by Shin in the story are universal, and therefore cross cultures. ‘Readers have commented that the story could be their own because it touches upon issues and experiences that are relevant to any family,’ Park said.

It will certainly be interesting to see whether this will open doors for more contemporary South Korean writers to get a foot in the door of the Western market. In the meantime, I’ll look a little bit more into why Shin has beat out her predecessors—and in particular one of her popular contemporaries—in the near future.