The prestigious Man Booker International Prize is awarded annually to the best international novelist and translator team that publishes a work of fiction into English. The 2016 award went to Hang Kang, a South Korean novelist, and her translator, Deborah Smith, for the novel The Vegetarian. Originally published in Korean in 2007, and then made into a 2009 movie by Woo-Seong Lim, the new English translation elevated the work to a global audience and quickly put it on the Man Booker short list.
The novel is not a flippant summer read. It is full of hard, often-unanswered questions and harsh issues, and its prose is at times startlingly stark. As the New York Times Sunday Book Review describes, the translation is crafted with “terrible serenity and glacial horror.” Indeed, the plot revolves around the Kafka-esque metamorphosis of a woman, somewhat of a modern, more-abused, even darker and more dysfunctional retelling of Apollo and Daphne. The book lunges from the banality and horrors of everyday life for a Korean housewife, and her increasingly escapist, sensualist and fantastic yearnings to create a new reality for herself. Slate reviewer Laura Miller observed, “the novel transmits a feeling of great stillness even as its characters undergo convulsions of rage, sorrow, and lust.” When the protagonist of the tale, Yeong-hye, declares “I am not an animal anymore,” the transformation is complete.
The other meta-transformation that occurred with this novel has to do with the professional path of Deborah Smith. She had been an English-only speaker until the age of 21, when she decided to become a translator. You can read a great interview from 2014 of her experiences, her philosophy and vision for translation at ktlit.com:
‘…faithfulness’[to the original source] is an outmoded, misleading and unhelpful concept when it comes to translation. The single thing my editor advised me to do when I was working on The Vegetarian was “take more liberties!” and I was incredibly lucky to be working with an author, Han Kang, who believes that translation can be as much of an art as creative writing – though of course, they’re not the same. You have to try and capture as much as possible of the original in terms of rhythm, register etc, but what you’re ultimately being faithful to is the artistry and quality of the original.
Smith’s first attempt at translating The Vegetarian did not meet with success. With only a year-and-a-half of Korean under her belt, she admitted that her initial translation was sub-par. It was not until after the 2013 London Book Fair that she decided to revise and improve her translation, which finally met with approval from a new publisher.
Congratulations to Han Kang, to Deborah Smith, and to all those who made it to the Man Booker Prize list for this year.
Have you read The Vegetarian or any of the other Man Booker International Prize nominees (either from the Shortlist or the Longlist)? What are your thoughts? We’d love to hear! Send us your opinions to [email protected].