The Vegetarian, a novella translated to English from Korean, hooked me from its first sentence. I was impressed by the precision of its language and the quiet way in which it conveyed the emotional dissolution of its characters. I wasn’t surprised that it won the Man Booker International Prize.
But I was surprised when I found out that its 29-year-old translator, Deborah Smith, had begun learning Korean only 6 years ago, and had already masterfully translated three books.
After completing her BA in English Literature at the University of Cambridge, Smith became interested in Korean literature and its translation in 2010, while pursuing her MA in Korean Studies at SOAS.
She talks to SheThePeople.TV about translation as a literary genre, her publishing venture, and of course about her experience working on The Vegetarian.
When did you first come across The Vegetarian and what made you want to translate it?
It was in 2012, when a small publisher in London got in touch with me to ask whether I would do a reader’s report on this book, The Vegetarian, which the author’s agent had sent them. I hadn’t actually done any translation before as I’d only been learning Korean for two years, but was too embarrassed to explain this to them, so I did a really awful sample, looking up almost every other word in the dictionary (at least, that’s what it felt like). Unsurprisingly, it didn’t make them want to publish the book. But then a year later, I was invited to the London Book Fair, met a UK publisher who I knew would be perfect for The Vegetarian and pitched the book to him. He loved it, for the same reasons I did – psychological acuity, dark surrealism, dense imagery, bravery in tackling difficult themes, emotional restraint.
What was the most difficult part of translating this book?
Reflecting that last part – the restraint, the control in the writing, so that even when describing extremes of violence or sexuality, it never becomes sensationalistic, gratuitous, but at the same time is also not cold and unfeeling. That’s especially difficult given that each language has its own history and conventions around, for example, writing sex. There’s no one ‘trick’ to how it’s done, no example I can give you.
What is your relationship like with Han Kang? How much of your own creative writing style do you put into your translations?
I’m lucky that I’ve been able to spend quite a lot of time with her, at events for her books in the UK and US, during the time she spent on a UK writers’ residency, and quietly when I visit Seoul to talk about her books, sometimes go through my latest translation, visit an exhibition etc. And I don’t have my own creative writing style, because I don’t do my own creative writing. But it’s generally accepted that literary translation is, by definition, a creative act. Otherwise, it would be impossible to produce something that can be appreciated as a work of literature by its new readers.
How has life changed after winning the Man Booker? What project are you working on next?
The main change has been all the travelling! Since the MBI announcement, I’ve been invited to take part in literary festivals and give guest lectures on translation and translation publishing in so many places I’d never been to before – India, of course, but also Paris, Venice, the US, Dhaka. I’ve translated three books as well, though I already had the contracts before the prize: The White Book by Han Kang, The Accusation by Bandi (a North Korean author writing under a pseudonym), and North Station by Bae Suah.
I love the idea behind Tilted Axis Press, the fact that it focuses on contemporary literature from Asia that has been translated into English. Can you tell us what kinds of books you will look to publish as part of your commitment to “The Year Of Publishing Women” in 2018?
Thank you! We only have 2 of the 4 titles for 2018 set so far. But for us, every year is a year of publishing at least as many books by women as by men, so we already have Panty and Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, a critically and commercially successful novel by Han Kang’s favourite among South Korea’s younger writers.
— Deborah Smith (@londonkoreanist) January 2, 2017
What advice would you have for translators who are looking to break into mainstream publishing or bring more attention to literature which is often not so well-known?
Do your research; you need to have an in-depth knowledge of the target market to determine which publishers might be worth approaching and how best to pitch a given book to them. Do what you love, and make sure that shines through; because publishing is a saturated market, and many publishers will see translations, especially from less well-known languages, as a commercial risk, so you’ll need passion to win them over to your cause; but also because translation means spending countless hours with a single book, usually for not very much pay.
Who are the writers who have influenced you?
John Berger died very recently, which was a great loss for me as I’d only discovered his works the previous year. He was a novelist, poet, art critic and Marxist philosopher, a passionate defender of the oppressed – he gave the money from his Booker prize win to the Black Panthers, wrote about the hard lives of migrants, and lived among peasants in the French countryside. I’m just grateful for the many books he left us, which I’m sure I’ll read again and again throughout my life.