10,000 hours: Deborah Smith, literary translator

PORT meets Deborah Smith, joint-winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016, to talk about independent publishing, learning Korean and the growing market for literary translation

Deborah Smith (left) and Han Kang (right) holding their Man Booker International Prizes – images by Janie Airey
Deborah Smith (left) and Han Kang (right) holding their Man Booker International Prizes – images by Janie Airey

Literary translators and their art often go unacknowledged. And although the process of translation is rarely hidden from the reader, the author’s name is usually the one that will be remembered. In the UK and the US, translated fiction accounts for approximately three percent of all books published. While this may seem like a disproportionately low figure, there have been recent findings that show this small portion is in fact selling better than English language equivalents (with bestsellers from Italian Elena Ferrante and Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgård leading the way).

This year, the Man Booker International Prize opened itself up to both an author and translator for the first time in its history, with the £50,000 prize money split evenly between the two. As a result, the 2016 shortlist saw a diverse representation of new work, much of which came from translators seeking to address the underrepresentation of different languages present on the shelves of Western bookstores.

The first translator to share the Booker International Prize with an author is Deborah Smith, for her translation of The Vegetarian by South Korean author Han Kang. The novel follows a South Korean woman after she decides to give up meat, which is considered to be an unusual decision in her native country. As the architecture of herself and her family begins to crack, the prose parallels the action with disturbing and beautiful imagery – a difficult task to translate.

As well as translating three books in the last six years – having only started to learn Korean at 21 – Smith recently set up her own publishing house, Tilted Axis, in order to publish more experimental foreign fiction, specifically from Southeast Asia (including fiction originally written in Bengali, Korean, Indonesian, Thai, Uzbek, and Japanese). Here, we sit down with Smith to talk about the process of translating an experimental Korean novel, her own path to publishing, and why she is taking part in a new initiative, the Year of Publishing Women, in 2018.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Translated by Deborah Smith, published by Portobello Books Ltd
The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Translated by Deborah Smith, published by Portobello Books Ltd

How did you begin translating and what drew you to it?

I was drawn to literary translation quite consciously because it seemed to combine the two things I was most passionate about, reading and writing, as well as providing the perfect excuse to finally learn a language other than English. I’d always read more in translation than not, I think that was because my childhood and adolescence felt very limited, culturally and geographically. I began teaching myself Korean in 2010, the same year I started an MA in Korean Studies, which led straight to a Korean literature PhD. In 2012, I translated a novel called A Greater Music, by an incredible, experimental author called Bae Suah, herself a translator from German to Korean. My first published translation was Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which I pitched directly to Max Porter (read our interview with Max Porter here) at Portobello Books.

How do you view the relationship between translator and author? Is it different with every book?

With every author, yes, it’s different – or at least it is for me. Han Kang and Bae Suah are my main authors, and while Kang is unusual in having an excellent command of English, Suah isn’t able to read my translations. However, she’s a translator herself from German, which she also uses as a bridge language to translate authors like Pessoa and Sadeq Hedayat, so she believes that the translator should be as free from authorial interference as possible, and she’s perfectly happy for me to go away and be as creative as I like. That’s a particularly useful freedom to have when translating experimental prose like hers, though I actually think I’m more ‘faithful’ in practice than my personal philosophy on translation would suggest. I know Kang better than I do Suah, because she’s been over to the UK for two publicity tours and a residency, and it’s as much of a joy to be her friend as it is a privilege to translate her work.

What are the main obstacles you face when translating a work, specifically from Korean to English?

It sounds a little trite, but no particular aspect really strikes me as a challenge or a difficulty. Of course, there will be individual words or sentences that take longer to get right than others, but those won’t necessarily have any shared feature that explains that difficulty. There are certainly major differences between the languages. Korean is subject-object-verb, uses honorifics and sentence endings to denote varying levels of intimacy, formality, deference, etc. People frequently refer to each other by familial terms, e.g. ‘older brother’, ‘Ji-woo’s mother’. But because these are things that recur again and again, and follow strict patterns, after the first couple of times you come across them you’ll have a ready stock of solutions you can then use without thinking much about it.

Perhaps most importantly with Korean to English, you’re translating from a language which has a natural tendency towards ambiguity and repetition, and draws a lot of its elegance from that, to one with a far stronger preference for precision and concision (of course, I’m talking about convention, rather than any individual writer’s style). For example, Korean similes are usually very vague. The terms of the comparison (i.e. whether it’s to do with sound, appearance, speed, movement) won’t be specified.

At the end of chapter two in Human Acts [the second Kang novel translated by Smith] the Korean literally says something along the lines of “dawn broke like ice”. That’s just too vague to have the same power in English. So I had to think of a way in which dawn breaking might be ‘like ice’ that would make sufficient, but not too much, sense. It couldn’t be obvious or banal, because the original is neither of those things, and also because that would prevent it from being beautiful.

I decided that for me, the comparison was largely about speed, which meant I needed to specify that, but also a sense of majesty, of terrifying beauty, so “ice” became “iceberg”. And because English has the particularly beautiful, unusual word “calve” to describe a berg breaking from an ice mass, I jumped at the chance to work that in, so it came out as: “The dawn light was calved from the night slow as an iceberg”.

Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinh, published by Tilted Axis
Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinh, published by Tilted Axis

Can you talk about your publishing house, Tilted Axis, and its philosophy? How do you choose the books you publish?

I founded Tilted Axis to publish the kind of books that might otherwise be unlikely to make it into English, for the very reasons they excite me: artistic originality, radical vision, or the fact that they’ve been written in one of those so-called ‘minor’ languages used by the majority of people on the planet. So far, our list includes Bengali, Korean, Indonesian, Thai, Uzbek, and Japanese.

I’m not a great fan of straight realism, and/or unremarkable prose style, so I look for distinctive aesthetics. Our first titles are, variously, surreal, metafictional, obliquely fantastical – an experimental weave of poetry and prose. This also helps ensure we’re putting out narratives that don’t conform to the cliches of certain regions, i.e. that anything from Southeast Asia needs to be some ‘lush’ historical romance, or to do with immigration.

You’ve committed to the ‘Year of Publishing Women’. Can you tell us more about this?

I got excited when it was announced, signed us up for 2018, then realised our first year list was already all women! It was something I’d already been thinking about, largely thanks to Joanna Walsh’s #readwomen campaign; the deeper I dug, the more I realised how naïve I’d been to imagine that literary quality (itself, of course, subjective) is the sole or even major factor determining what gets published and/or translated. There are all these implicit biases meaning that authors from certain groups, writing certain types of book, have a disproportionate chance of being published, and these are exacerbated when translation gets added into the mix.

What most resonated for me was Kamila Shamsie’s insistence that what we don’t need is “a year of publishing white, middle-class, straight, metropolitan women”. Essentially, looking beyond the establishment – which in most places is still dominated by men, but which also means thinking intersectionally – is the easiest and most effective way of finding work that feels fresh and innovative. When you diversify representation, you diversify aesthetics. It’s win-win.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, and translated by Deborah Smith, is available from Portobello Books