What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation

By Deborah SmithJanuary 11, 2018

What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation
OVER THE PAST few years, literary translation has enjoyed a surge in popularity in both the United States and, perhaps especially, in the United Kingdom, and it’s this new climate that saw the Man Booker International Prize revamped to give author and translator equal recognition. When its inaugural year awarded Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, literary translation was thrown into the spotlight in South Korea, too. Naturally, there’s no consensus, with some South Korean critics bemoaning others’ tendency to treat foreign prizes as some sort of referendum on the quality of Korean literature as a whole. But there are two anxieties at play in The Vegetarian’s reception at home and abroad: over the cultural politics of prize-giving, and over the nature and status of translation. The increased attention and appreciation afforded both translation and the translator undermines the myth of unmediated access to an original, a fantasy in which both readers of the translation and of the original have a stake. To put it plainly, people like to believe that they’ve read War and Peace, not “an English translation of War and Peace,” and that the thing they love — be it an individual book or a culture — is really the thing being acclaimed. All of these anxieties are compounded by the fact that translation is a profoundly strange and often counterintuitive art. It’s also perhaps the only art that can be not just bad, but wrong, and will never not be flawed.

To say that my English translation of The Vegetarian is a “completely different book” from the Korean original is, of course, in one sense, entirely correct. Since there is no such thing as a truly literal translation — no two languages’ grammars match, their vocabularies diverge, even punctuation has a different weight — there can be no such thing as a translation that is not “creative.” And while most of us translators think of ourselves as “faithful,” definitions of faithfulness can differ. Because languages function differently, much of translation is about achieving a similar effect by different means; not only are difference, change, and interpretation completely normal, but they are in fact an integral part of faithfulness. 

To imagine that The Vegetarian must have been improved in translation because the original didn’t garner anywhere near the same level of success involves a level of selective thinking. After all, its middle section won the Yi Sang Literary Award, South Korea’s most prestigious literary award. More than anything else, there simply is no success comparable to that bestowed by the Man Booker brand; the Korean literary establishment puts far more stock in international than domestic literary prizes. By most other standards, Chaesikjuuija (The Vegetarian’s Korean title) was a success, with 20,000 copies sold (and in its 14th reprint) by the time my English translation came out, a full seven years after the Korean original. In that time, translations were published in China, Argentina, Poland, and Vietnam — highly unusual for a Korean book. But again, cultural imperialism means that none of those non-English translations, however well received, could catapult the book to international success. More significant in my eyes is that each resulted, just as my English version did, from a translator falling in love with the book sufficiently to want to dedicate their time to it.

Something else happened during those seven years — South Korea criminalized marital rape. So it’s not difficult to see why a book that exposes this pervasive structural violence might have been received differently by the (mostly older male) literary establishment than by the many Korean women who didn’t consider it “extreme and bizarre” at all. Perhaps the overwhelming focus on The Vegetarian’s aesthetics is a way of avoiding talking about its politics?

Han Kang has received extraordinarily high praise for things that have nothing to do with the translator, such as The Vegetarian’s “potent images” (the Guardian), “[brilliant] three-part structure” and “crushing climax, phantasmagoric yet emotionally true” (Publishers Weekly). Structure, plot, themes, characterization, et cetera, are all the work of the author. Translators, in the great majority of cases, do the language: style, tone, rhythm. And Han Kang’s Korean readers have always singled out her “poetic” style. A 2011 article introduces her as having “received attention for her lyrical style and detailed structuring”; a 2017 article in the Kyunghyang Shinmun comments that Han’s fiction “resembles poetry,” which is appropriate for the prose of someone who is also a published poet, and speaks of her “characteristic delicate and sensual style.” It’s true that this lyricism is less pronounced in The Vegetarian than in Human Acts, and especially than in her latest work, The White Book, which is almost a series of prose poems, but it’s still definitely there — a subtly poetic style that’s also spare and understated. I certainly wasn’t trying to produce an overblown, ornate style in English (though novels tend not to be one-note, but have moments of greater and lesser intensity), and I don’t think it happened unconsciously, either. Readers and reviewers described the writing style of the translation as “subtle” (Independent), “precise and spare” (Irish Times), and “bone-spare” (New Statesman). They spoke of its poetry, too, with no sense that these might be mutually exclusive — the author Deborah Levy called it “poetic yet matter-of-fact.”

Still, some people believe that my translation “overly poeticized” an original that was spare and understated rather than, not as well as, poetic. As translators, we're usually our own harshest critics; I think there's plenty to criticize in my translation. What makes me worry is when the desire to prove a particular argument about a translation encourages a misleading view of the original — in this case, overlooking the poetry I and many others see in Han's writing. Literary style is not simply a mark of identity, like a fingerprint — it also has a function and a significance. Function is the easy part: the cool, understated prose of The Vegetarian functions to offset the feverish violence, to prevent it from seeming sensationalistic and over-the-top, a reminder that the darkest horrors are found in the everyday. Significance is trickier, because it depends on context: What styles are used by this author’s contemporaries? What’s the mainstream? What tends to garner praise, get labeled “modern,” “original,” “experimental,” or even just “literary”? Translating from Korean into English involves moving from a language more accommodating of ambiguity, repetition, and plain prose, to one that favors precision, concision, and lyricism.

This is simultaneously a gross generalization and an observable phenomenon. Because each author’s individual style distinguishes itself by the degree to which it diverges from this middle ground, and because the significance of style is therefore inextricable from language, translating it seems impossible. What we can do, at least, is to recognize that the “pole” of what registers as, for example, repetition or poetic prose is set at different heights in the source and target languages — and also that if source language conventions are transferred just as they are, they will likely be mistaken for authorial idiosyncrasy, or worse, simply bad writing. Quality is yet another thing translators can choose to be faithful to; many also believe that we ought, where possible, to resist domestication, and Madhu Kaza’s editorial for Kitchen Table Translation is a must-read on the generative politics of “errant, disobedient translation.” With The Vegetarian, I was mindful that straying too far from the conventions of English literary language would diminish and distract from the force of the writing as a whole, which itself has considerable disruptive power.

Every translation’s raison d’être is the readers who couldn’t otherwise access the original. And so, as Daniel Hahn, shortlisted for the 2016 MBI and a judge in 2017, explains, judges “aren’t comparing the original and the translation and evaluating the process (the decisions, the ingenuities, the slips…) of going from the one to the other,” but are attempting “to evaluate the finished English-language work on their own terms.” This is one way of assessing translation quality; it is not the only one. Literary translation can both resist and perpetuate cultural imperialism; as translators, we need to stay aware of our own biases, and of the plurality of approaches advocated by those whose biases and aims are other than ours. Winning a prize doesn’t make my approach to translation the best or only way, and there’s politics, too, in the fact that it will have been largely shaped by living and working in the United Kingdom, where that coveted (by some) success is determined. 

Partly because assessing literary translations in South Korea does usually involve comparison, some people couldn’t understand why those “slips” that Hahn mentions hadn’t disqualified my translation from praise and awards. All translators care deeply about accuracy; all translators slip up, because we’re human. For a first-timer, being bombarded with mistake-listing articles and emails left me pretty shaken. Was it true that I’d betrayed Han Kang’s work through negligence or arrogance? Not consciously, because I love her to the point of reverence and think her work is stone-cold genius, but by daring to translate from a language I hadn’t yet mastered? It’s now four years since I translated The Vegetarian, seven since I started learning Korean, and I understand now what I didn’t then: that learning a language is not a progression toward “mastery,” and that nothing teaches you to translate like actually doing it. I'm glad to have brought the work of a brilliant writer to an international audience, in sufficiently faithful a way for a qualitatively, if not quantitatively, similar reception. Some people tell me I ought to be proud, but to be honest I’m happy to feel conflicted — such an attitude is more useful for those of us in positions of privilege, encouraging us to act responsibly and generously towards texts, authors, and other translators.

Still, if I’d at least gotten closer to that impossible perfection, would critics have been forced to engage more with the book itself? Will they, now that Han and I have finally found time to correct the text for future printings? Perhaps, perhaps not, given that some of what was filed under “mistake” was actually just difference. Han herself has consistently taken the time to explain that translators consult both with editors and the author themselves, and that she has read my translation and loved it most for capturing the tone of her own writing — yet that hasn’t stopped some people from talking over her. 

Translations should be critiqued, absolutely; lively, informed critical engagement is all part of a flourishing translation culture. But without taking into consideration how translation norms vary between countries and contexts, and how this might shape individual approaches, it’s hard to move on to the point of difference rather than just pointing it out. At this stage, what a given critic pronounces as admissible doesn’t tell us much beyond personal preference. It’s also difficult, and almost certainly misleading, to assess effect by back-translating into the language of the original, or by comparison with an imagined literal translation; after all, both of those alternative methods involve just as much subjectivity as a translation deemed especially free or creative.

I hope we all keep talking about translation, because there’s always more to say, especially about what a joy it is, and because we need to put our heads together if we’re to ensure that it lives up to its potential — to disrupt hegemonies, work across difference without erasing it, and challenge the myth of the lone genius — while also enabling new audiences for voices and perspectives that might otherwise be silenced or spoken over, and works of art without which all our lives would be diminished. As translators, we must build on these recent gains, which have a direct impact on our ability to command a living wage, rather than being bullied back into our lanes. It’s this combination of low wages justified by dismissal of creativity and an insistence on “humility” that means translation is often spoken of as a feminized profession. Humility does not equal self-effacement; it’s not arrogant to be proud of your work.

There’s no best way to translate, but there are a few propositions regarding translation that, if generally accepted, might make for more constructive conversations: change is not betrayal; editors exist, generally with quite firm opinions; to praise the translation is not to devalue the original. Finally, no translation is definitive — it’s simply a way to “Fail again. Fail better.” I think I failed okay.


Deborah Smith is a British translator of Korean fiction. Her translation of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian won her and the author the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. In 2015, Smith founded Tilted Axis Press, a nonprofit publishing house focusing on contemporary fiction specifically from Asia. Her book-length essay on translation, Fidelity, will be published in the UK by Peninsula Press.

LARB Contributor

Deborah Smith is a British translator of Korean fiction. Her translation of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian won her and the author the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. In 2015 Smith founded Tilted Axis Press, a nonprofit publishing house focusing on contemporary fiction specifically from Asia.


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