Translator Shares in Booker Prize

Posted on June 7, 2016 By

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When South Korean author Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize in May 2016 for her book The Vegetarian, the event represented three significant ‘firsts’.

Previously awarded to recognise an author’s body of work, this was the first time that the award was given to an author’s single work of fiction. It was also the first time that a South Korean won the award; and it was the first time the award was split between an author and a translator.

Han Kang’s translator, British national Deborah Smith, had learned Korean just three years prior. The Vegetarian, first released in South Korea in 2004 and published in Britain in 2015, is Han’s first work to be published in English and Smith’s first translation of a Korean novel.

According to Kim Seoung-kon, president of the Literature Translation Institute of South Korea, the prize is a “pivotal turning point in Korean literature”.

He also pointed out that it was the novel’s “incredible translation” into English that contributed to its success and eventual win.

“A nuanced translation is important in communicating literature,” Kim said, “and Smith achieved that.”

The fact that the much-coveted international prize, which is open to all authors who have their books published in English in Great Britain, is now being split between the winning author and the translator sends a powerful message of the importance of translation in any written work.

Boyd Tonkin, chairman of the Man Booker International Prize judges, said that “Smith’s perfectly judged translation matches [the novel’s] uncanny blend of beauty and horror at every turn.”

Indeed, when done correctly and respectfully, the very act of translating reaches across cultures, promotes international understanding, and brings the written word to the attention of countless more readers. Without translators, a great number of us would not be able to enjoy the works of Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, Japanese author Yoko Ogawa, Chinese writer Bi Feiyu, and even American writer Jack Kerouac, who was born to French-Canadian parents and wrote some poetry in Quebecois French.

In 2015, Smith founded her own non-profit publishing house in order to publish contemporary international literature. She is slated to work with The Literature Translation Institute to introduce more Korean literary works to an international audience.

Smith has said that translating The Vegetarian had felt like “climbing a mountain”. Now that she is at the top of the mountain, her translated works are ready to take on the world.

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