This article is a critical survey of the ideas of world literature and their manifestations in translations in South Korea. It also intends to intervene in the current discourse on world literature in which various ideas of world literature contend with each other, each with a different practical agenda. While Korea is a typical case that shows how world literature is a system with an unequal power distribution, it also shows how necessary it is to revive the original impulse that lay behind the idea of world literature—a critical project of international communication among writers—and how this may be started.
The author goes back to the inceptional phase of the Korean idea of world literature in the first half of the twentieth century and reveals how the colonial status of early modern Korea was reflected in this idea. Two factors are found to be crucial. One is the Eurocentric and self-marginalizing tendency that is frequently found in “non-Western” literatures. The other is more specific to Korea, involving the mediation of Western literary models by an Asian colonial force, i.e., Japan. This article analyzes the impacts of these two factors and their continuing presence after the liberation of Korea. It ends by introducing relatively recent efforts that seek to lessen or counter the dominant trend while also discussing the implications that the idea and movement of “national literature” has for the conceptualization of world literature.