South Korean webtoons: challenges of translating the domestic to the global

Memo #366

By:Hyung Gu Lynn – hlynn [at] mail.ubc.ca

South Korean webtoons have grown rapidly since their launch in the early 2000s, with over 6 million individual readers accessing platforms per day in the domestic market. Since 2014, major Korean webtoons platforms have been providing access to translated versions of select titles in the hopes of reaching a global readership.

What are the major challenges to translating domestic success of Korean webtoons into sustainable exports? There are several areas of note in assessing potential export hurdles – infrastructure, branding, and translations, among others.

First, webtoons require infrastructure (diffusion of broadband, wireless, interface devices, and high speed Internet) for download and full access to their digital elements. While South Korea is at or near the top in world rankings in all categories, the two largest comics markets, Japan and U.S.A., have comparable infrastructure. Internet speed can vary greatly within China, but major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have sufficient speed and diffusion that infrastructure has not been a major impediment for exports of webtoons. Emerging markets for digital comics such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, however, do not have equivalent infrastructural conditions.

Second, while government and private sector branding of webtoons as “Korean” has stuck, the number of platforms simultaneously entering the export fray may cause dispersion of readers in the short-term. Search engine firms Naver (Line) and Daum (Tapastic), the dedicated webtoon portal Lezhin, and a joint venture between Rolling Story, a Korean contents firm and Huffington Post (Spotton), all provide some combination of English, Japanese, and Chinese translations. But in the long-term, inter-platform competition may generate better interface features, contents, and translations.

Third, the quality of translation can vary. One advantage of the translated titles is that these have been selected from a larger pool of over a thousand completed and ongoing titles, meaning the current rosters are akin to a “best of” assemblage. But maintaining consistence in translations of individual titles, not just in terms of fidelity to the original but culturally contextualized renderings, remains a challenge, especially for English versions.

The reception of webtoons at major exhibitions such as the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs (2014) and the Angoulême International Comics Festival (2013) indicate great potential for their expansion into overseas markets. If residual issues, particularly in translation, can be addressed, traction in overseas markets with established digital infrastructure looks likely for Korean webtoons.

About the Author:

Hyung-Gu Lynn is the AECL/KEPCO Chair in Korean Research at the Institute of Asian Research and the Department of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia, where he also serves as Editor of the journal Pacific Affairs as well as the Asia Pacific Memo.

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Links

  • Hyung-Gu Lynn, “Korean webtoons: explaining growth,” Research Center for Korean Studies Annual – Kyushu University, 16 (韓国研究センター年報) (2016): 1-13.
  • Daum Webtoons, (platform connecting readers with artists to showcase webcomics).
  • Lezhin, (a premium webcomic service).

Related Memos:

See our other memos on South Korea.

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