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 bet—barely 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 itself—ambiguity, what we might call redundancy—to startling effect.
How, then, at the same time as leaving room for this diversity of interpretation, to ensure that the translation gives English readers an experience as close as possible to that of the book’s original audience? Luckily, The Vegetarian is far closer to a tone-poem than it is to a sociological tract, giving me plenty of non-culture-specific features to be “faithful” to, such as the considerable poetry of the writing. Originally published in South Korea as three separate novellas, The Vegetarian is a triptych with each section having its own distinct mood-image: clipped and matter-of-fact; fevered desire undercut with pathos, and experienced at one crucial remove; finally, bleached exhaustion. In the first section, for example, I chose to insert a number of adverbs (“completely,” “naturally”) that would hopefully make Yeong-hye’s husband sound both pedantic and self-exonerating, while the main challenge for the middle act was getting the sexual language right—not too purple, but not too clinical either.
Though The Vegetarian was my first published translation, the first book I ever translated was in fact A Greater Music, which was finally published last October, meaning I took my first trip to the US, on a book tour with Bae Suah. My heart lies with these two authors—I’ve translated three books by Han Kang and three by Bae Suah, and hope to continue with both for as long as I possibly can.
by Deborah Smith