WHEN you live outside your motherland, you find quite a lot of big and little things that are culturally so different. In my 11 years of stay in the Philippines, I also have some interesting (and sometimes frustrating) cultural observations, and one of them is the situation in bookstores.
Bookstores were among the places I’d drop by to kill time before meeting friends when I was living in Seoul. I made sure I would arrive in the area earlier than I was supposed to, so that I could quickly have “me time” walking among the shelves and browsing through new books. I’d stand by my favorite shelves—classics, foreign language, travel—and touch the covers of books, savoring the smell of paper.
If you are a frequent visitor in Korea, you most probably would have visited local bookstores there. One of the recently popular places is Starfield Library inside Coex Mall, Samsung-dong, Gangnam-gu. This huge public space is literally filled with books, endless shelves up and down filled with various genres, including foreign books as well as magazines, with tablet PCs available to cater to readers’ taste in e-books. No one needs to feel shy or pressured about grabbing any books, because you can freely sit on the staircases, spot a nice comfortable bench, or walk around, from corner to corner.
Another place not very well known to Filipino tourists but which I recommend you visit is Seoul Book Bogo in Songpa-gu. It’s just beside the Han River, so it will be a perfect day for you to enjoy the riverside as well as overflowing books. Seoul Book Bogo is a uniquely charming place as it was designed like a cave, and continuous shelves create the impression of going deeper into the cave. This place sells second-hand books which are surprisingly well-maintained, so imagine how you can grab your favorite oldies and beautiful classics at such a low price! You won’t feel time pass inside Seoul Book Bogo because of the cozy reading area where no one bothers you, but where you can indulge in reading and a great cup of coffee.
Starfield Library – https://english.visitseoul.net/attractions/Starfield-Library_/26568
Seoul Book Bogo – https://english.visitseoul.net/jamsilarea/Seoul-Book-Bogo_/30865
In contrast, in most local bookstores in the Philippines, books are normally wrapped in plastic, and you can’t possibly read them. When I saw this the first time, I was pretty shocked, thinking, “So how do they expect visitors to see the content of the book and decide to buy it?” I had no choice except to flip through pages of books that were not yet sealed.
For me, bookstores are where anyone, regardless of profession or social class, can freely go and experience the life of others through various books—biography, history, travel, fiction, and so many more. By reading about something that you didn’t know in your life, you gain new knowledge, and more important, get to know yourself more and better.
For some time, bookstores in Korea were flooded with self-help essays…What still makes Koreans feel unhappy and discontented?
For some time, bookstores in Korea were flooded with self-help essays. Some might wonder, because Korea and Koreans seem to have it all—a glittering lifestyle, financial abundance. What still makes them feel unhappy and discontented?
Despite multiple social media accounts, random funny videos by strangers, or app-modified photos people can brag with, many Koreans are lonely because they fail to find meaning in their own personal space. Some fail in their job performance and are blamed harshly, others find maintaining a genuine relationship so hard, and still others feel they are useless and incompetent and can’t find meaning in their lives. For so many different reasons, they are desperate to find an answer, and one of the immediate places to look to find solutions is books.
In 2019, my colleague KC and I got a surprise invitation from Apop Books: were we interested in translating a Korean bestselling essay? A Korean essay for Filipino readers? This was the first question in my mind, as well as what kind of Korean essay it would be, and how many Filipinos would the book resonate with.
The first book we translated was Kim Soo-hyun’s essay I Decided To Live As Me, published in 2016. This author was already so popular among Korean readers, as her comforting words and humorous illustrations offered young and lost souls discernment and advice. The book was already selling quite well, but one night there was an absolute turning point.
Jung-kook, the youngest member of the Korean group BTS, was broadcasting live while packing his suitcase in his room, and this book was just slightly visible in the background. Of course, for ARMY, every detail matters, so fans finally identified the book title, and the next day it became a bestseller (and remains one of the bestselling essays in Korea today).
Jung-kook was broadcasting live while packing his suitcase, this book was visible. The next day it became a bestseller
While the sales of the book in Korea were already steady, Jung-kook’s unintended action indeed led to the enormous success of the book: total sales in Korea reached one million copies, while the Japanese translation sold 300,000 copies and even became the top-selling essay in Amazon Japan. The book was translated into different languages—Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese—and our local publishing house Apop Books acquired the rights and translated it into English.
Can this really happen? Yes, and these books are called BTSellers in Korea. “BTSeller” is a combination of “BTS” and “(best)seller,” meaning books read by BTS members, and which are obviously—and definitely—guaranteed to become bestsellers. Book recommendations by celebrities in Korea are nothing new, as there are well-known bookworm celebrities, and their reading hobby is also revealed on television book club programs; some have even authored novels and essays.
What is interesting about the BTSeller effect is how idol singers’ reading habits are positively affecting the youth. Although we can’t verify if some fans buy books only to take an injeungshot (proof shot), we can confidently say that BTS members’ reading habits certainly resulted in something good, which spread throughout the fandom, not just domestically in Korea but also among overseas fans.
So, what other books are BTSellers? Other BTS members’ unintended revelations or stolen shots of the books they were reading positively influenced ARMY, and an extreme butterfly effect resulted. RM’s photos with Murray Stein’s introductory psychology book Jung’s Map of the Soul and Herman Hesse’s Damien—two books that inspired BTS album concepts—instantly brought the volumes to the top of bestseller lists. Janet Klosko and Jeffrey Young’s Reinventing Your Life was already out of print, but became so in demand after fans saw Suga carrying it after their online concert.
A lot more books have been recommended and steadily sold, thanks to the BTSeller effect.
One Korean publisher, in a news interview, mentioned that idol groups are usually expected to sell only photo books, but BTS’ butterfly effect was quite impressive, and they are optimistic that their young followers will look for classic novels and contemporary bestsellers, which will help them develop a reading habit even after they graduate from ARMY.
After the surprising success of I Decided To Live As Me, Apop Books brought more good news: Kim Soo-hyun’s second essay, Being Comfortable Without Effort, will be translated into English. This book was already translated into Japanese, and was even sold to a Japanese publishing house with a US$200,000 advance in 2020–considering it was published in Korea only that same year.
KC and I were fortunate to work with a very hardworking Apop team. We were so excited to bring more joy to more Filipino readers. Translating is a very tough yet extremely rewarding job. Countless nights and more cups of coffee pile up on my table as the printing date approaches. I always say only half-jokingly that I am so addicted to translation; seriously, I can’t stop once I begin. Mysteriously, though, the more I look at the manuscript, the more flaws I see that make me feel ashamed. I dream of texts and pages, but eventually, I just have to let it go and face the verdict of the world.
As a translator, I just wish my words would reach readers safely and touch their emotions and souls in any possible way. To share another personal story, I am also teaching a Korean translation subject at the University of the Philippines this semester. It is the first time our department is offering the subject, and thus also my first time to handle the subject. In short, this semester I am quite preoccupied with how to translate better almost every day. No matter how many months I devoted to translating this self-help book and continued reading and interpreting the message from Korean to English over and over again, I still shudder at seeing myself so insignificant and incompetent. This tells me I should reread the book I translated for myself, and comprehend the message with my heart once again.
Translating the BTSeller was quite an experience. At first, although I knew the book would definitely click with the Filipino crowd—needless to say, ARMY members—I was still a bit doubtful of how Filipino readers could really understand the content, some of which was highly contextualized in Korean society.
This was partly because of so many words newly coined by young Koreans from their struggles and the injustice they experience in an immensely competitive jungle. Those words are never perfectly translated into a foreign language, but we tried to find the right counterparts after several reviews, and in the end, we found them transcending phenomena and social contexts, and ringing true with young Filipinos as well as global youth: all of them were seeking quiet yet powerful words of comfort that could assure them that they are doing all right, and that being oneself is important regardless of what others say—just like the title of the recent Korean drama It’s Okay To Not Be Okay.
So many words coined by young Koreans from their struggles ring true with young Filipinos as well as global youth: all of them seek words of comfort
The book was printed in the middle of the pandemic, when everyone was still struggling so much from not knowing the whats and hows of a post-pandemic era—note that we were not yet in the new normal—but was still expected to be productive and perform well. Even if you were not being asked to be as excellent as your pre-pandemic self, you tortured and pressured yourself and eventually fell into self-pity, thinking, “It seems everyone is doing so well, but only I am lagging behind.” This cycle continues, and you cry out like the figure in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream.
This is why the book was loved by so many readers. Even some of my students sent me messages when they found out I was a translator, and told me which pages resonated with them and gave them consolation. “I decided to live as me” is easy to say, but we are human beings and always commit the mistake of hurting ourselves and comparing ourselves to others. If the book offered you an emotional haven, even if only for some hours or days, I would be more than happy that my translated words indeed reached you.
It’s been just two months since our second translated book Being Comfortable Without Effort started its first print and were distributed to readers who pre-ordered copies. The book is by the same author, Kim Soo-hyun, but its message is quite different from the first one. She focused on relationships with others, and more important, with yourself—the way you should look at yourself more carefully. If you loved the first book, I hope this second one will again gently console you and provide a small refuge to rest your exhausted mind.