Yoonie Lee: How long does it take for you to complete the work of translating a Korean book into English?
Deborah Smith: Of course that depends on the book, not just the length, but other factors such as whether there are a lot of specific historical or cultural references that need checking—if the style is particularly dense or abstruse, or if it involves dialect. For example, The Vegetarian was less than 200 pages and didn’t have many specifically Korean references, so I translated that in around four months, which left another couple of weeks to go through the edits with the publisher.
Han Kang’s new novel, Human Acts, is a bit longer, plus it has a lot of historical and political context that I needed to research—Park Chung-hee’s Yushin Constitution, the unionization of female factory workers in the late 1970s, Korean burial practices, and beliefs related to death. And then there was a chapter written in Gwangju dialect, which I found pretty incomprehensible in some places! Luckily, Han Kang has excellent English and goes through each manuscript meticulously. She’s always more than happy to explain anything I haven’t understood, and to give me a bit more of an insight into her intentions as an author. But she also understands that as the translator, it’s then up to me to decide how and to what extent I can convey those intentions in English.
Actually, I did Human Acts in about four months too, even though it was more “difficult” than The Vegetarian. Perhaps because The Vegetarian was my first translation, I didn’t have much experience and needed to take my time a bit more. But I can’t see myself speeding up any further in the future. Four months seems about the limit for a novel. The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher by Ahn Do Hyun only took two months, but that’s because it’s very short and has the simple, straightforward writing style of a fable.
Lee: What made you interested in Korean literature? What is it that makes you feel special about Korean literature compared to other international literature?