Nothing lost in translationWriter Han Kang has sent a glimmer of hope to the Korean literature in a lethargic state. Her novel “The Vegetarian” about a woman who rejects human brutality and gives up eating meat has won the Man Booker International Prize, one of three most prestigious literary awards in the world. The book has been selected as the best novel among foreign novels translated into English in the United Kingdom.
Author Han took the honor of becoming the first awardee of the prize since it included translated works in its reviewing process from this year. In Tuesday’s awards ceremony in London, Han shared her joy with Deborah Smith, who seamlessly translated the Korean novel into English.
Her award-winning serves as a catalyst for Korean literature, which has long lost the vitality it was so proud of. Her amazing achievement will help regain the reputation of our literature — once staunch yet rapidly declining since controversies arose over author Shin Kyung-sook’s plagiarism — and turn around our literature market long dominated by foreign novels. We welcome her winning the distinguished prize as it affirmed the power of our literature despite critiques’ declaration that it is dead. Her award also means the expansion of the Korean Wave — mostly focused on television dramas and pop songs — to literature.
“The Vegetarian” has drawn a line in the globalization of Korean literature. It proved that our novels can be read in foreign countries beyond language barriers. It also confirmed the significance of translation, as seen by the pivotal role Deborah Smith played in a beautiful translation of the original novel into English. Author Han said she was very lucky to see a good translator and that she will get familiar with such translations soon.
Korean literature is undergoing a generational shift. The first generation mostly hailed from a group of foreign professors who studied Korean literature, but now most of them come from younger foreigners who are increasingly accustomed to the Korean Wave. Smith, the translator, is not an exception: She first studied English literature, but finished a doctoral course in Korean literature after falling in love with it.
“The Vegetarian” also received financial support from the Literature Translation Institute of Korea which was established in 2001 to help raise qualified translators. If we want to see more writers like Han in the future, we must foster native translators in a systematic way. Asia’s famous Nobel laureates — Turkish writer Ferit Orhan Pamuk and Chinese writer Mo Yan, for instance — could all attain internationally recognition thanks to their dedicated native translators.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 18, Page 18