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.

But in some ways, the question is moot. Most readers of a translation will never read the original. Moreover, the “gains” of Smith’s effort, clearly a labor of love, have so far greatly outweighed any “losses”: Readers and critics have enjoyed the work immensely, South Korea has been placed on the world’s literary map, sales of both the original and the English version have exploded, and interest in Korean literary translation has soared. Most important, Smith successfully introduced Han, a highly respected South Korean writer, to much-deserved recognition abroad.

“The Vegetarian” may not be a masterpiece like “Cathay,” but like “Cathay,” it has morphed into a “new creation.” To my mind, it has to be taken as such. Another translator could have produced a more accurate version, but I find it extremely doubtful that anyone could have matched the virtuosity of Smith’s work. As a first-time effort, Smith’s translation is still a stunning achievement.

Of course, some critics will disagree. For them, the translation has deviated so far from the original that the disparity strains their eyes and ruins their enjoyment. Indeed, translation can be akin to having double vision. Sometimes you have to block off “one eye” just to focus on the target language.

For me, I can still admire the translation. I just have to keep one eye closed.

Charse Yun is a visiting professor at Korea National Open University and also teaches translation and writing at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. He grew up in Milwaukee, received his BA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University.

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