How the bestseller ‘The Vegetarian,’ translated from Han Kang’s original, caused an uproar in South Korea – Los Angeles Times
Before publishing his famous Chinese poetry translation â€œCathayâ€ in 1915, Ezra Pound apparently had no knowledge of Chinese at all. Instead, he worked from second-hand notes by another translator, boldly imposing his Imagist vision on classical Chinese poetry. Not surprisingly, he made quite a few errors in the process. And yet today, â€œCathayâ€ has become a deeply admired modernist classic; â€œThe River-Merchantâ€™s Wife: A Letterâ€ appears in many poetry anthologies. The work is hardly considered a translation at all. A classics professor recently told me that he feels the same way about Poundâ€™s â€œre-creationsâ€ of the elegies by the Latin poet Sextus Propertius: â€œI donâ€™t even the think of the changes as errors,â€ he said. The translatorâ€™s version has become canonized.
Would Poundâ€™s free interpretations have been just as praised had he translated novels? Or if he published his works a century later?
The question came to mind as I pondered the recent controversy in South Korea over Deborah Smithâ€™s brilliant but flawed translation of Han Kangâ€™s novel â€œThe Vegetarian.â€ Originally published in 2007, Hanâ€™s work received critical acclaim but didnâ€™t enjoy a particularly wide readership. Many South Korean readers initially found the novel to be bizarre: a dark, surreal tale of a woman who refuses to eat meat and descends into madness.
All that changed when â€œThe Vegetarianâ€ won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The award landed the book on American and British bestseller lists as media attention focused on Smith, a then-28-year-old British graduate student, making much of the fact that the translator had started to learn Korean only six years earlier.
In an interview with Public Radio Internationalâ€™s â€œThe World,â€ host Marco Werman bluntly asked Smith: â€œDo you think if it werenâ€™t for you, Han Kang wouldnâ€™t have won the Man Booker prize?â€ In the awkward pause that follows, you can sense Smithâ€™s hesitancy. Itâ€™s an odd thing to ask: Obviously, without translation, nothing could be read, and hence, nothing judged. What the interviewer seems to be asking is: Was it mainly your exceptional translation skills that brought about this achievement?
In South Korea, the question also began in earnest â€” but quickly turned critical. Korean-language media began to report allegations of numerous errors, omissions and embellishments. In contrast to the rapturous acclaim in the West, a sense of dismay began to emerge. The headline of Huffington Post Korea pronounced the translation as completely â€œoff the mark.â€ One Korean scholar even declared that English readers had been â€œbetrayed.â€
Huff Post Korea took PRIâ€™s awkward question one step further, twisting it into one of nationalist anguish: If the translation modified the original this much, can Korean literature even claim any of the glory?
The question, I thought, was absurd. When I first read Smithâ€™s translation, I was astonished. â€œFantastic!,â€ I thought.
Like Poundâ€™s â€œCathay,â€ â€œThe Vegetarianâ€ is stylistically quite beautiful. Having copy edited South Korean literary translations for the last dozen years, Iâ€™ve striven to make them more readable. Here, finally, was a Korean book that worked spectacularly in English. As Iâ€™ve written elsewhere, Smithâ€™s prodigious talent is undeniable. The sentences were exquisite, and I admired them deeply.
Then I looked at Hanâ€™s original text.
I was astonished for a second time, but in a much more sobering way.
First, there are indeed quite a few errors, which is not surprising for a relatively new learner of the language. And yet, I would argue that these are mostly minor and do little, if anything, to derail the plot. Most English readers will simply glide over them unaware. Few will know, for example, that Smith confuses â€œarmâ€ (pal) for â€œfootâ€ (bal) or that she mistakes the Korean term for â€œa good appetiteâ€ as being â€œa more than competent cook.â€
More troubling is that Smith occasionally confuses the subjects of sentences. In several scenes, she mistakenly attributes dialogue and actions to the wrong characters, as in one bizarre exchange where the brother-in-law ends up referring to himself in the third person.
One of my colleagues, professor Jung Ha-yun at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, pointed out that translation can be embarrassing because it reveals our weaknesses. â€œYour capabilities are completely exposed,â€ she said. These mistakes compromise the original, and, according to Jung, make the translation a â€œlesser product as a work of literature.â€ But obviously, they also did nothing to prevent the enjoyment of countless readers of it in English.
To my mind, Smithâ€™s mistranslations are something of a red herring. Critics have tended to focus on the mistakes, but a deeper issue is her stylistic alteration of the text.
Even if Smith had corrected all the obvious errors, it still wouldnâ€™t have changed that she â€œpoeticizedâ€ the novel. In terms of tone and voice, â€œThe Vegetarianâ€ is strikingly different from the original.
For one thing, Smith amplifies Hanâ€™s spare, quiet style and embellishes it with adverbs, superlatives and other emphatic word choices that are nowhere in the original. This doesnâ€™t just happen once or twice, but on virtually every other page. Taken together, itâ€™s clear that Smith took significant liberties with the text.
I find it hard to come up with an adequate analogy, but imagine the plain, contemporary style of Raymond Carver being garnished with the elaborate diction of Charles Dickens. Smithâ€™s embellishments create more suspense and interest for the English reader, but for those who can read the original, it can be quite jarring.
Interestingly, literary critic Tim Parks, without knowing a single word of Korean, was able to detect this dissonance in what is perhaps the sole negative review of â€œThe Vegetarian,â€ published in the New York Review of Books. Noting the â€œnineteenth-century ringâ€ that reminds him of Chekhov, Parks astutely points out the puzzling jumps in register and idiom that clash with the plainspoken content of the narrative. There are parts, he rightly perceives, that are â€œtotally out of lineâ€ with the narratorâ€™s â€œexpressive abilities.â€
Parksâ€™ insight is impressive, but the question is: Did the translation take things too far? One distinguished translator told me he felt the context and style were so different that it was more reasonable to speak of Smithâ€™s work as an adaptation, not a translation.
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