Han Gang is a South Korean bestseller author of the novel “The Vegetarian”, a sensational tale about a housewife who refuses to eat meat due to violent nightmares, growing insane as the story goes on. “The Vegetarian” was originally published in 2007 in Korean. Even then, the novel received a positive response, but it was not until 2016 that the novel was recognized worldwide due to the publication of an English translation, which allowed much more people to read the book.
“The Vegetarian” was the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and officially the highlight of the literary world. At the time the book was translated, translator Deborah Smith was a British graduate student who had just started studying Korean six years ago. The discovery of the clear differences between Han Gang’s original copy of “The Vegetarian” and Smith’s translation was astounding, especially to the Korean readers.
Readers who had read both the original and translation of the same work discovered instances where Smith confuses the subject of the sentences in her writing. In some sections of the story, the dialogue, actions, and attributions are connected to the incorrect characters. However, the biggest difference between the two books was the differences in the authors’ styles. If Han Gang is to be described as a writer who spares her words, Smith is an expressive writer who has a completely different tone compared to Han. Although both are talented writers, Smith’s style is definitely shown in her translation.
This leads to several different questions: What exactly is the role of a translation? Is it to translate exactly what the original author had written? Then, what about Smith’s translation of “The Vegetarian”? Was it able to fulfill its role as a translation of the original piece? The many different responses of the readers prove that there is no right answer.
Different from the critical tone of some readers, Han Gang herself stated, “I was very happy when it was translated into English because it is my only other language, and reading through Deborah’s translation, and her notes and questions, it was fascinating to ponder on the subtleties and possibilities of language.” Han Gang’s quote makes the differences between the two pieces seem natural and a possible situation for when a work is converted into another language.
Following “The Vegetarian”, “Human Acts: A Novel” was published by Han Gang and once again translated by Smith. The “Human Acts: A Novel” was well acclaimed and won Korea’s Manhae Literary Prize.