How the bestseller ‘The Vegetarian,’ translated from Han Kang’s original, caused an uproar in South Korea

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Before publishing his famous Chinese poetry translation “Cathay” 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, “Cathay” has become a deeply admired modernist classic; “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” 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 Pound’s “re-creations” of the elegies by the Latin poet Sextus Propertius: “I don’t even the think of the changes as errors,” he said. The translator’s version has become canonized.

Would Pound’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 Smith’s brilliant but flawed translation of Han Kang’s novel “The Vegetarian.” Originally published in 2007, Han’s work received critical acclaim but didn’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 “The Vegetarian” 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.

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