The 14th LTI Korea Translation Award: A Translator’s Journey

  • onJanuary 3, 2017
  • Vol.34 Winter 2016
  • byDeborah Smith

LTI Korea presents the LTI Korea Translation Award to translators who have enriched the quality of Korean literature in translation. Four titles were chosen for the award this year from among eighty-nine books published in fourteen languages in 2015. Here, the award winners share their thoughts on Korean literature.


I did my BA in English literature, but chafed at the restriction to works originally written in English, as I’d always read more in translation than not. Then in 2009, just after the financial crisis, I graduated with no more specific skill than “can write about books.” I suspected learning a language would be both useful and enjoyable (I love memorizing lists of things), and would get rid of the embarrassment of being monolingual at age twenty-two. I’d been obsessed with reading for as long as I could remember; the only thing I’d ever thought I might want to be was a writer, but I was much better at crafting sentences than at stringing plots together. All of which suggested literary translation, and Korean seemed a good betbarely anything available in the UK, yet South Korea was a modern, developed country, so the work had to be out there, plus the rarity would make it both easier to secure a student grant and more of a niche when it came to work. So I taught myself the first year Korean course from a textbook, then moved to London to do an MA at SOAS, which led straight into a PhD. I finally submitted my thesis, “Narrative Strategies for Representing Reality in Contemporary Korean Fiction,” last September.


There were three main things which kick-started my career as a literary translator: being awarded a Korean Literature Translation Fellowship by the International Communication Foundation; receiving a grant from LTI Korea to translate Bae Suah’s The Essayist’s Desk (which became A Greater Music in English); and the fact that Korea was chosen as the market focus country for the 2014 London Book Fair. In 2013, when the organizers were looking for a UK-based translator of Korean literature, they found me through my university profile and I was invited to be on the steering committee for the fair, which I’d never even heard of before.


What drew me to Han Kang’s writing is the way she probes some of the darkest, most violent aspects of humanity with perfectly calibrated stylistic restraint; the way her prose style is influenced by her work as a poet, inflecting it with both lyricism and jaggedness; and how each of her books show the influence of the South Korean model, where the short story is a much more prestigious form than in the UK. Han deliberately repurposes certain features of Korean literary history, so-called “passive protagonists,” and of the Korean language itselfambiguity, what we might call redundancyto startling effect.