Winning fiction in translation – the best translated book of 2016 | Fiction is translation has become one of the surprise 21st century success stories for British publishing. South Korean writer Han Kang, whose novel The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith), won this year’s new-look Man Booker International Prize. Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a story abut modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others. Han Kang and Deborah Smith join the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss.
“I deal with the fundamental question of being human.”
From over 155 books being whittled down to a winner, one thing never changed: the regard in which the judges held The Vegetarian. It began life as a short story, The Fruit of my Woman, where a husband comes home and discovers his wife is a plant. He puts her in a pot, waters her, takes good care of her, but in Autumn she withers and he wonders if she’ll bloom again. She imagined a variation of hits. “Whenever I write a novel I deal with the fundamental question of being human. Humans are very complex. I have always been curious on the broad spectrum of humanity.”
It’s a mix of rejecting the brutality of being human, while retaining the dignity.
The Vegetarian is seen through others. It’s reactionary. She purposefully chose the form. “I wanted my protagonist not to speak as a narrator,” she explains. “She’s an object of hatred, misunderstanding, desire, passion…” There was a hope readers would make out her truth. “I didn’t want to simply give her a voice.”
Her book is one of layers. It deals with her questions of violence, understanding, human vanity – certainly, there is also “the layer of the voice of women screaming silently”, a feminist point that many have viewed the whole book through. But she feels to view one layer above the others might reduce it to one simple narrative; instead, view all the layers together.
“This book has moved readers’ states.”
“One of the things that cuts across is these very extreme situations,” notes Deborah, on working with and translating Han Kang’s writing. The violence, sexuality, beauty – it’s saved from being sensational by her restrained, controlled style. “I’m relieved I managed to convey some of that.”
There were some errant exclamation marks that were, however, taken out…(!)
The reception since winning the prize has been huge. Already it had a cult bestseller status in South Korea, divisive and polarising to many. “It means that this book has moved readers’ states,” she notes. For the English version, Deborah notes that people were originally viewing it through the lens of being about South Korea, but shifted to realise,that a book doesn’t need to be read that way and it was placed in a different context. It’s less about South Korea and more being human.
“It was like a typhoon,” smiles Han Kang on the response to winning the Man Booker – there’s a much broader readership now. It’s taken some adjusting to, but “it was amazing.”