Translating: The White Book

Man Booker International Prize-winner Deborah Smith demonstrates the trials and triumphs of translating with an extract from The White Book, the new novel from Korean writer (and co-recipient of the prize) Han Kang

Han Kang, © Lee Chunhee

The list of white things with which Han Kang begins The White Book, and which form the titles of these individual pieces – prose-poems ranging from a paragraph to a page and a half in length – contains several that lack a direct English equivalent, not simply for the word (common enough in translation) but for the object itself. ‘Newborn gown’ is one of them – not the romper we’re familiar with now, but a tiny sleeved gown, a miniature version of something an adult might wear.

One of the ways in which Korean differs most drastically from English is that a sentence does not need a subject, and so will often do without one if it’s clear from the context whose actions are being discussed (clear to the author, at least, is the translator’s perennial gripe). The subject’s omission can also be used for specific effects without, then, seeming clunky or distracting from the flow of the prose. Human Acts, Han Kang’s heartbreaking account of the aftermath of the Gwangju Uprising, enacts a seamless telescoping back and forth between ‘you’ and ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘me’, between the public arena in which history is made and the individual actors whose motivations are often far more personal. As the narrative shifts from one perspective to another, those first few sentences before a subject needs to be specified construct a kind of liminal space, bridging the gap between public and private, the living and the dead.

© Portobello Books

I attempted a similar effect in English, here at the end of the passage above, with the subjectless final sentence and by using ‘the’ in the one before as opposed to a ‘her’ which would suggest the mother, excluding the potential reading which has the baby as an alternate or additional subject. When I first read the Korean, it struck me so powerfully that this cold would be simultaneously sinking in to both mother and baby, the latter as the heat of life slipped away, the former now that the effort to save her baby’s life was no longer distracting her from her own physical sensations, leaving her lying on a tiled floor in winter; and that the silence would be the absence of tears on both sides. In the vacuum of exhaustion preceding grief, I wanted to highlight this final moment of communion.

Newborn Gown, from The White Book, by Han Kang

My mother’s first child died, I was told, less than two hours into life.

I was told that she was a girl, with a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake. Though she was very small, two months premature, her features were clearly defined. I can never forget, my mother told me, the moment she opened her two black eyes and turned them towards my face.

At the time, my parents were living in an isolated house, in the countryside near the primary school where my father taught. My mother’s due date was still far off, so she was completely unprepared when, one morning, her waters broke. There was no one around. The village’s sole telephone was in a tiny shop by the bus stop – twenty minutes away. My father wasn’t due back from work for another six hours.

It was early winter, the first frost of the year. My twenty-two year old mother crawled into the kitchen and boiled some water to sterilise a pair of scissors. Fumbling in her sewing box, she found some white cloth that would do for a newborn’s gown. Gripped by contractions and terribly afraid, tears started down as she plied her needle. She finished the tiny gown, found a thin quilt to use as swaddling bands, and gritted her teeth as the pain returned, quicker and more intense each time.

Eventually, she gave birth. Still alone, she cut the umbilical cord. She dressed the bloodied little body in the gown she’d just made, and held the whimpering scrap in her arms. For god’s sake don’t die, she muttered in a thin voice, over and over like a mantra. After an hour had passed, the baby’s tight-sealed eyelids abruptly unseamed. As my mother’s eyes encountered those of her child, her lips twitched again. For god’s sake don’t die. Around an hour later, the baby was dead. They lay there on the kitchen floor, my mother on her side with the dead baby clutched to her chest, feeling the cold gradually leach into the flesh, sinking through to the bone. No more crying.

The White Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, is published by Portobello Books on November 2 2017