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Han Kang and the complexity of translation

How literal must a literary translation be? Nabokov, who was fluent in three languages and wrote in two of them, believed that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” Borges, on the other hand, maintained that a translator should seek not to copy a text but to transform and enrich it. “Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization,” Borges insisted—or, depending on the translation you come across, “a more advanced stage of writing.” (He wrote the line in French, one of several languages he knew.)

In 2016, “The Vegetarian” became the first Korean-language novel to win the Man Booker International Prize, which was awarded to both its author, Han Kang, and its translator, Deborah Smith. In the English-speaking world, Smith, at the time a twenty-eight-year-old Ph.D. student who had begun learning Korean just six years earlier, was praised widely for her work. In the Korean media, however, the sense of national pride that attended Han’s win—not to mention the twentyfold spike in printed copies of the book, which was a fairly modest success upon its initial publication, in 2007—was soon overshadowed by charges of mistranslation. Though Han had read and approved the translation, Huffington Post Korea asserted that it was completely “off the mark.” Smith defended herself at the Seoul International Book Fair, saying, “I would only permit myself an infidelity for the sake of a greater fidelity.”

The controversy reached many American readers in September of last year, when the Los Angeles Times published a piece by Charse Yun, a Korean-American who has taught courses in translation in Seoul. (The article extended an argument that Yun had first made, in July, in the online magazine Korea Exposé.) “Smith amplifies Han’s spare, quiet style and embellishes it with adverbs, superlatives and other emphatic word choices that are nowhere in the original,” Yun writes. “This doesn’t just happen once or twice, but on virtually every other page.” It’s as though Raymond Carver had been made to sound like Charles Dickens, he adds. This isn’t, in Yun’s view, a matter merely of accuracy but also of cultural legibility. Korea has a rich and varied literary tradition—and a recent history that is intimately entangled with that of the West, particularly the U.S. But few works of Korean literature have had any success in the English-speaking world, and the country, despite its frequent presence in American headlines, does not register in the popular imagination the way that its larger neighbors China and Japan do. Han Kang seemed to fill that void—or begin to, at least. But if her success depended on mistranslation, how much had really got through?

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Han Kang: ‘If I was 100% healthy I couldn’t have become a writer’

Han Kang is a South Korean writer whose novels in translation include Human Acts and The Vegetarian – for which she won the 2016 International Man Booker prize. Her latest work, The White Book, is a moving autobiographical meditation on loss and grief.

Your new book tells the story of your sister who died two hours after she was born. What made you want – or feel able – to write about that now?
I didn’t plan to write about my elder sister. I was raised by my parents who couldn’t forget her. When I was writing Human Acts, there was a line of dialogue: “Don’t die. Please don’t die.” It was strangely familiar and it hovered inside me. Suddenly I discovered that it was from my mother’s memory: she told me she kept saying those words repeatedly to the sister who had died before I was born.

You write about how you had “been born and grown up in the place of that death”. How did it affect you growing up?
It was not just about the loss. It was about how precious we are. My parents told my brother and me: “You have been born to us in such a precious way and we have waited for you for a long time.” But there was grief as well. It was a mixture of mourning and a sense of precious life.

You acknowledge in the book that if your mother’s first two babies hadn’t died, you and your brother wouldn’t have been conceived. How does that feel?
When my mother was pregnant with me, she was very sick, so she was taking lots of medication. And because she was so weak, she considered abortion. But then she felt me move inside her and decided that she would give birth to me. I think that the world is transient and I was given this world by luck.

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Han Kang: ‘Writing about a massacre was a struggle. I’m a person who feels pain when you throw meat on a fire’

Early in 2015 a buzz began to build around a slim novel called The Vegetarian. It was about a woman who turned her face to the wall, refusing to eat meat and scandalising her friends and family, as a prelude to rejecting life itself. “It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions,” wrote its Guardian reviewer.

Its author, Han Kang, is a poet, short story writer and novelist who has for years been one of South Korea’s best kept secrets. Her three-part fable of refusal hit the sweet spot for fiction in translation, or indeed any fiction: it mined universal truths from the culturally particular, it was both painfully close to home and mysteriously “other”.

She returns this year with a novel that is even more disturbing and provocative; it certainly splashes its violence across a bigger stage. Human Acts opens with the 1980 massacre of student protesters in the South Korean city of Gwangju and spares no detail in its scrutiny of the carnage: the slashed throat with its red uvula sticking out, the putrefying toes swelling up “like thick tubers of ginger”.

The writer who has borne witness to this devastation is a quietly spoken 45-year-old mother of one, with a growing circle of admirers in the UK. They include the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, who found in The Vegetarian a common interest in “pain, the body and how the struggle to be human involves many strange ways of trying to look after oneself in the face of hurt, cruelty, confusion”, and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, for whom Human Acts is “an intense and magical achievement – a brutal yet lyrical reflection on the universal legacy of injustice seen through the prism of one act of atrocity”.

Han is a charismatically thoughtful woman, who wrote herself into the final section of Human Acts in order to explain why she felt compelled to tell the story. “I was nine years old at the time of the Gwangju Uprising,” it begins. Gwangju, a city in the south of the country, had been her home until four months before the massacre, when her father gave up his teaching job to become a full-time writer and moved the family to the capital Seoul.

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

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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Move over K-Pop, the next Korean culture wave could be K-Lit – if enough great books can be translated well

Korean novelist Han Kang attracted global attention when her novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction last year.

“The novel was published years ago in Korean, but it did not gain international attention before it was translated into English. It is an example of the significance of translation in literature,” says Sohn Hae-il, newly elected president of PEN International Korean Centre.

“Korean literature will become popular worldwide just like K-pop someday. As Korean culture gains popularity across the globe, more and more people are interested in learning the Korean language to understand the lyrics of K-pop and the words of Korean television dramas,” Sohn says. Read more

Source: South China Morning Post


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What first short stories smuggled out of North Korea say about life in the hermit state, and their challenges for a translator

It’s not reportage but fiction, written not by a defector but by a writer still living and working in North Korea – the necessarily pseudonymous Bandi. The Accusation is a first for publishing, and also a first for me. As a translator I’ve specialised in fiction, and other books I’ve worked on have been political in their aims and impact – most notably Han Kang’s Human Acts, which focuses on the 1980 Gwangju massacre. But none have had such an obviously polemical intent as The Accusation.

Whenever we translate from a language or literature not yet widely represented in English, the danger is that what was intended as art will be reduced to anthropology. With a country as little known as North Korea, the sociological reading will be impossible to ignore, though the fact of The Accusation’s historicity can at least encourage a broader view: the seven stories that make up the collection are dated from 1989 to 1993, in the last years of Kim Il-sung’s rule. Read more

Source: South China Morning Post


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Found in Translation

By Gargi Gupta

There’s something fairytale-ish about Deborah Smith’s career thus far as a translator. She won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize along with South Korean novelist Han King for the latter’s The Vegetarian, her first book as a translator. It was also the first time that the £50,000 prize, the world’s highest for literary works in translation, was being awarded to the translator along with the author.

Smith, who was at the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival last month, had begun the translation of King’s novel three years after she began learning Korean in 2010, the first bits done with the help of a dictionary app on her phone! Prior to this, Smith, who grew up in north England, had never even “met a Korean person, nor eaten Korean food”.

“It’s crazy,” agrees Smith, “to think that the biggest prize that you could get as a translator would come for the first book you’ve done.” In all modesty, Smith says the judges recognised the original work for its quality. “A wonderful book can be ruined by a bad translation. So I think they were trying to give equal weight to both.” Read more

Source: DNA India


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The Author of ‘The Vegetarian’ Takes on Korea’s Violent Past

By Nami Mun

In Korean, “Hello” (ahnyoung hasehyo) literally translates to “Are you at peace?” This question-greeting is delivered as a statement, of course, but a certain poignancy can’t be ignored — especially if one considers the violent history of the Korean Peninsula. This slice of land, with China and Japan on either side and Russia in the far north, has suffered invasions, wars, colonialism, occupation and military dictatorships. And South Korea itself, known (without irony) as the Land of the Morning Calm, has as its upstairs neighbor a spoiled tyrant with trapezoidal hair who boasts too often of his small cache of nuclear weapons. Much Korean blood has been shed, and sometimes the bloodletting has been inflicted by the peninsula’s own people.

In early 1980, after the assassination of the authoritarian South Korean president Park Chung-hee (father to current president Park Geun-hye, now under impeachment), the nation — which had been living under limited martial law — seemed destined for change. The economy was declining. Demonstrations were on the rise. Students, professors, artists and laborers — ordinary unarmed citizens — protested and demanded a fair and free election and the lifting of martial law. Park’s protégé Gen. Chun Doo-hwan saw an opportunity to maneuver himself into the Blue House. Chun seized power and, using the North Korea card, declared full martial law throughout the nation. He shut down universities, banned political activity and arrested student leaders as well as political rivals. Order was established in most of the country, but not in Gwangju. Read more

Source: The New York Times


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The largest free literary festival in the world, Jaipur Literature Festival releases its ninth list of speakers

By Craig Cranenburgh

The Jaipur Literature Festival is celebrating its 10th year anniversary this time around and is expected to be bigger and better. The festival has gone from a gem of an idea to the world’s largest free literary festival, hosting upto 1300 speakers over the past decade.

To celebrate this, the festival has announced 10 speakers’ names every week, for 10 weeks leading up to the festival – which is returning to its home at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur – between January 19-23. Here is the ninth list of speakers expected at the festival:

Author of novels such as The Rozabal Line, Chanakya’s Chant and The Krishna Key, Ashwin Sanghi is one of India’s bestselling thriller/conspiracy fiction writers who retells Indian mythology and history in a contemporary context. His latest novel, The Sialkot Saga, was released in April of 2016. Read more

Source: Mybigplunge.com


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Top translators awarded for promoting Korean literature overseas

The Literature Translation Institute of Korea has announced the winners of translation awards that recognize their role in the promotion of Korean literature worldwide.

The awards, which will be given out during a ceremony Thursday, include the LTI Korea Translation Awards, the LTI Award for Aspiring Translators and the LTI Korea Outstanding Service Awards.

The translation awards went to Deborah Smith, an English translator and joint winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, for her work on Han Kang’s novel “The Vegetarian”; Cho Kyung-hye, who translated Jeong Yu-jeong’s novel “Murder with a Twist: A Night of Seven Years” into German, titled, “Sieben Jahre Nacht”; Kim Soon-hee, who translated Lee Seung-woo’s work into Japanese, translated as “A Speculation on a Labyrinth”; and Katarzyna Rozanska who translated Yi Mun-yol’s “Our Twisted Hero” into Polish, titled “Nasz Skrzwiony Bohater.” Read more

Source: The Korea Herald