by Chandra Ganguly

VegetarianI was sitting in an open air café, out under a midday sun, as I read Han Kang’s Booker prize-winning book, The Vegetarian. I was cold. That is what the book does to you. The story turns the choicelessness in the life of a woman into a motif that chills and frightens the reader. The story centres around the decision of the protagonist, Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian. Her husband had married her because as he says in the opening lines of the book that he, “always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” The book then proceeds to turn that statement on its head.

Following a series of violent dreams, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating any form of meat. That begins a violent story of her fight for freedom and the societal suppressions and consequences of a woman’s right to choose and own her own body. The book is rife with instances of human cruelty, man to animals, man to man. “The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.” (p.56) These animals that were slaughtered in her childhood that she ate haunt her in the book. They and the dog that was tortured before being killed and eaten because it had bitten her, “… the dog is frothing at the mouth. Blood drips from its throat, which is being choked with the rope. Constantly groaning through its damaged throat, the dog is dragged along the ground…. As blood and froth mix together, I stand stiffly upright and stare at those glittering eyes.” (p.49)

VegetarianGood translation holds the key to globalizing Korean literature and quality translation comes from translators of diverse backgrounds, according to experts.

Novelist Han Kang winning the Man Booker International Prize last month with “The Vegetarian” highlighted the importance of translation. Experts say that British translator Deborah Smith equally deserves credit for the honor.  

Translating Korean literature, while challenging, has opened up a whole new, joyful world, said foreign translators during a panel discussion in Seoul Monday.

In the closed-session organized by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, translators from England, Germany, India, France, Mexico, and Uzbekistan, shared their experiences of and thoughts on translating Korean books into their respective languages. All translators either finished or are attending a translation program run by the institute.

Charles Montgomery may have moved back to America, but he still finds himself within the Korean literature world.

After eight years in Korea, he moved to Oregon in early March, where he found that Korean literature had beaten him back there.

In one bookstore, he found over 30 copies of Han Kang’s “Vegetarian” on the shelf. He also spotted Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom” and “The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness,” and found that Kim Young-ha’s “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” was out of stock.