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You can’t appreciate the greatest book if the translation is rubbish: Deborah Smith

Man Booker Prize International 2015 winner Deborah Smith on how she chose to be a translator six years ago, and whether she could ever write her own novel

Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s book, which was titled The Vegetarian, won the Man Booker Prize International Prize in 2016. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s book, which was titled The Vegetarian, won the Man Booker Prize International Prize in 2016. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Jaipur: Deborah Smith was 22 when she first started learning a new language. Like most Britishers, she was monolingual till she picked up Korean in 2010 with a view to become a translator. A couple years on, she got her first book assignment: a 2007 book by an author called Han Kang. Smith started working on it, she says, with extensive help from a dictionary app on her phone. This book, which was later titled The Vegetarian, went on to win Man Booker Prize International Prize in 2016.

For the unacquainted, this seems like a magical beginning, but over a conversation with Mint at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Smith strips down the dream run, speaks about what its like translating three books each by two very different Korean authors, and more.

Edited excerpts:

The first thing that seems to be common about translations, at least in the mainstream view in India, is that you pick up a text that’s written in what’s called your ‘second language’ and translate it into your first language, your ‘mother tongue’. But with your career, and with The Vegetarian, what you’ve done seems quite extraordinary. In the sense that you picked up a language only as late as your 20s, and you did so with a focussed view to be a translator.

So I suppose I’m wondering— why Korean?

Well Korean was slightly random in the sense that I had no connection with Korean. I hadn’t read a Korean book, I hadn’t met a Korean person, I didn’t eat Korean food because I didn’t grow up in London, and this was six years ago. It’s different in England because more people tend to be monolingual, so you do just pick a language sometimes. And I had no connection really with any language, or culture or country so I had to just choose one. And because I wanted to be a translator, I thought it made sense to choose one where almost nobody in the UK did study and there weren’t lots of books already available in English. So unlike something like Japanese or Chinese, which say, I’d already read literature of in translation, I’d never read anything in Korean.

Also, Korean has a phonetic alphabet. You can learn to read it in a couple of hours, as opposed to Japanese or Chinese where you spend years learning the many characters. So yeah, in that sense it was easier than maybe some other languages that I’d chosen.

And if you ask why translation, then its because well, reading and writing was all I ever did or was interested in. I read literature, and I mainly read (contemporary) books in translation. And I think partly again that was because I didn’t have a sort of cultural upbringing and I lived in a boring, ugly town and didn’t really travel…our family holidays were inside England every year and so I guess it was just curiosity about the rest of the world and wanting to travel, I suppose.

You say you find yourself mostly reading books in translation. Was this also the case in your under graduation, when you actually studied literature?

Oh no, in my undergrad course of English literature, we had to only read writers from England. I hated that. Because otherwise, back at that time I was reading (Gabriel Garcia) Marquez from Colombia, (Umberto) Eco from Italy, (Haruki) Murakami from Japan, or even some great Russian classics. But at university, it was none of that. From the 1300s we were slowly crawling our way and pretending that English literature was not incredibly influenced by translations of other languages. So I guess all this was kind of a reaction against that, that I wanted to then learn a language…

I’m sure a lot of people have brought this up before— that you’re so young (she was 28 when The Vegetarian was published in the UK, and 29 when she won the Booker) and you’ve won one of the highest literary honours. Did this age bit ever play up in your head in the context of literary prizes or honours?

No, I mean I’m almost 30 now, so I don’t feel so young. And youth is in the eye of the beholder. In fact of the six of us who were shortlisted, I was only the second youngest. So at least as regards the shortlist I wasn’t the youngest. And actually three out of the six of us, it was our first book—translated as well. So among translators its not really probably that special or that odd to be young or to be old, or for it to be your first book for it to be your (any other number) book.

You mentioned at a panel earlier that as a translator you’re trying to get the best equivalence of what the author has written, does it feel like there is sometimes the inevitable process of dilution?

No, not at all. It’s very difficult to talk about translation. Because you don’t think about it when you’re doing it. And if you did think about it, you couldn’t do it. One of the things you get asked is what you stay faithful to as a translator. I try to stay faithful to the effect on the reader and the experience they had, and so I’m not consciously diluting anything, no, because you’re writing the book again in English and it has to live as a work of literature on its own terms. Otherwise people will not be able to appreciate it like they did the original. And the best thing for me—where you feel like yes, you’ve done a successful translation, or a translation that was good—is when the critics or the ordinary readers are saying very similar things about the book in translation that they are saying about it in Korean.

Most of those things for The Vegetarian are praising her (Kang) for her psychological insight, emotional restraint, controlled style—especially when talking about extreme topics like sex and violence—but not becoming sort of hysterical about it; bravery in addressing certain issues and the powerful imagery that she uses. And none of that is me—it’s all her. But I’ve enabled people to appreciate that again. Even if it is the greatest book in the world, people won’t be able to appreciate it, if it is in a rubbish translation; but by the same equivalence, the best translation in the world is not going to make a mediocre book read like genius.

In one of the sessions earlier (Academy Award nominated screenwriter and playwright) David Hare said something very similar to what you’d said in one of your previous interviews. He said “to be faithful, you have to promiscuous. You’ll only achieve ultimate faithfulness through infidelity." And you’d said that you have to be unfaithful to some aspects in order to be faithful to the others. Could a translation in that sense, be a sort of an adaptation?

No, a translation is not an adaptation. There are translations that are experimental, or translations especially of plays that are adaptations. But an adaptation is choosing different things (from within the original), plots and all kinds of things, that translators don’t do. The only thing we are doing is—every word is different because its in Korean and not English. You’re not making creative choices and finding creating solutions but its the solution to a problem that the original text is setting and to develop it into English. You’re not just being creative for the sake of it. And you’re never any more unfaithful than you absolutely have to be to still be faithful to something else in it.

You started off with Han Kang, but you’re now also working with another Korean author Bae Suah. Is working with each author a whole immersive experience in themselves? Also what is the difference in the dynamics like—both with the text, and with the authors?

I’ve mainly chosen to translate only two authors so far—Han Kang and Bae Suah. I’ve actually translated three books by each of them now. I definitely find that translating just a small number of authors, and translating more than one book by them is incredibly useful for me to find that (particular) voice and that style and to understand it better. I feel like every book that I translate by either one of them makes me better qualified to translate them.

And working with Bae Suah is different because she doesn’t read English (while Han Kang does). But she’s (Suah) is a translator herself. She translates German into Korean. So she has a very, sort of, free idea about translation. Her books are mostly always set aboard and read like a translation in Korean already.

Do you think you’ll ever be able to write a novel of your own, and not just translate one?

I used to say no, and I thought that was what could maybe make me a good translator—that I’ve tried and I have no style of my own. I just automatically write in the style of the last author I read. And so you’d think that sort of a sponge-like quality would be useful for translations, to not impose your own style on something. But now that I’m older and that I’ve read more avant garde or experimental works, I think that yeah, maybe I could write something in the future.

But I’m good at writing sentences, I’m not good at plots, or characters, or structures. So translating is writing in that sense. I get to write sentences and I get to work with languages that I love and I don’t have to think about where the hell this is going and who’s this person, or how do I sell this ... why would I want to put myself through that?

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