BU Humanists at Work: Meet Dennis Wuerthner

“I had to defend my decision to pursue Korean studies to a lot of people. They would regularly ask me ‘what are you going to do with that?’ I didn’t really have an answer. I just knew it was right the minute I started. It was magical to me to encounter this new culture, this new language, and the more I dove into Korean studies the more fascinated I became with it, especially with Korean literature,” says Dennis Wuerthner, Assistant Professor of East Asian Literatures. 

As a high school student in his native Germany, Wuerthner thought that he might major in Japanese studies at university, having traveled to Japan to visit a relative who was working there. That changed when he attended a college fair representing local universities and discovered that Ruhr-Universität Bochum offered a program in Korean studies. At the time, he knew nothing about Korean studies, but he followed an instinct to “try something totally unusual.” 

As it turns out, Bochum, Germany was a surprisingly wonderful place to immerse oneself in Korean language and culture. Wuerthner explains that in the 1960’s, the South Korean government was eager to improve relations with the West German Republic and sent droves of citizens to work in the coal mines surrounding Bochum. Many Koreans decided to plant roots in the area, and Wuerthner became involved with the local Korean community over the course of his two decades as a student and professor at Ruhr-Universität Bochum.

It also turns out that Ruhr-Universität Bochum remains one of the only institutions in the West to offer coursework in Literary Chinese. Wuerthner explains that Hangul, or modern Korean, only developed in the fifteenth-century, and it took centuries for people to accept it as a literary language. Much like Latin or Sanskrit, Literary Chinese was the lingua franca in East Asia until the late nineteenth-century. 

Across the Atlantic, Boston University also takes its place on this short list of institutions that offer Literary Chinese. This is something that Wuerthner is particularly proud of. Today, knowledge of Literary Chinese is rare, even in Korea, and this has Wuerthner and other scholars very concerned. “You lose a thousand years of texts, except in translation, and you have to believe that the translator understood these difficult texts from a whole ‘nother world and rendered them accordingly. Yes, this endangers literary knowledge, but it also endangers the knowledge of pre-modern East Asian culture that comes along with that,” he explains, adding that in a Korean studies context “pre-modern” means pre-twentieth-century. 

In recent years, the international popularity of Korean pop music and TV shows has driven a sharp rise in the study of the Korean language and an interest in contemporary Korean culture in the West. While Wuerthner celebrates this interest, he also believes that looking back to pre-modern Korea presents a unique opportunity to grapple with very contemporary global challenges. 

“If you look at East Asia today, there are strong nation states, and people in the West have strong ideas about them, especially China and North Korea. These nation states are very much separated from each other today. There have been wars, there’s a colonial history, there are looming struggles. But if we look at pre-modern East Asia, there were of course individual identities, but people also considered themselves as belonging to a shared realm.” In this way, Wuerthner maintains that studying pre-modern Korean literature provides students with the opportunity to “change [their] perception of what East Asia ought to be, what it used to be, and what it could perhaps be again.” 

The South Korean government is eager to introduce pre-modern Korean literature to Western readers in an effort to demonstrate that Korea has more to offer beyond pop culture. Wuerthner is highly engaged with these efforts through his work as a translator. Compared to Western engagement with pre-modern literature from other parts of East Asia, Korean literature is what Wuerthner calls a “blank spot,” noting that while Western readers may be familiar with Chinese and Japanese classics like Journey to the West, Dream of the Red Chamber, The Tale of Genji, or Tales of Ise, their Korean counterparts remain virtually unknown. 

The Academy of Korean Studies, a Korea-based institution with the aim of promoting Korean culture, has developed a list of one hundred Korean classics that they would like to see translated into English. In partnership with UCLA and the University of Hawai’i Press, these classics are slowly reaching English language readers through the Korean Classics Library series. Wuerthner’s recently published Tales of the Strange by a Korean Confucian Monk: Kŭmo sinhwa appears in the series, as will his forthcoming Poems and Stories for Overcoming Idleness, P’ahan chip by Yi Illo. While Wuerthner remains excited by the prospect of making these literary works accessible to students, he regrets that the high cost of these scholarly publications makes them less accessible to a wider readership. 

In the fall ‘23 semester, Wuerthner will explore works of Korean literature in translation with BU students in an introductory Korean literature class that requires no prior knowledge of the Korean language. He will also teach a specialized class in literary translation for students who do possess Korean language proficiency. In this very unique class, students will spend the first two and a half months translating a contemporary short story by Kim Jung-hyuk. Then in November, a grant from the Korean government will fund Kim Jung-hyuk’s visit to campus to workshop students’ translations with them. Students will also have the opportunity to present their work and to see their translations published in a Korean studies journal. 

Beyond these two classes, Wuerthner encourages all BU students to acquaint themselves with  “the amazing work happening in the Department of World Languages & Literatures, not only in Korean studies, but in all language areas.” As his own experience demonstrates, you never know where taking a chance on something “totally unusual” may lead.