Deborah Smith writes for PEN Atlas about the complex experience of bringing a hit South Korean novel to an English-speaking audience, and how the role of the translator includes the responsibility of maintaining the text's many interpretations
If it’s a truism that translation is also and inevitably an act of interpretation, it can also be a misleading one. The translation doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, produce an interpretation; rather, it needs to ensure that the multiple possibilities of the original are there for its new readers to find, while still leaving these readers space for their own interpretations, which will be shaped by cultural and political frameworks, but equally by individual experiences of both life and literature. The translator (like the editor, the cover designer, the publicist) has to tread a fine line, contextualising certain cultural particularities without being overly prescriptive as to how the book is read and understood.
This is especially the case for a novel like The Vegetarian, Han Kang’s brutally poetic triptych of taboo and transgression. It’s not so much the main character Yeong-hye’s refusal to eat meat (though in South Korea this is still rare enough to be subversive in itself) as her refusal to explain herself which provokes such varied, and often violent, responses in those around her – a salaryman husband, a video artist brother-in-law, a dutiful older sister. By filtering her central character through these multiple lenses, Han allows Yeong-hye a radical passivity which challenges Eurocentric notions of what a ‘protagonist’ ought to be – precisely the notions which have long seen Korean literature criticised as ‘lacking agency’. Just as Yeong-hye acts as a vessel for her family’s own fears, preconceptions, and repressed desires, so too the book itself invites widely divergent interpretations as to its overall attitude and ‘meaning’ – between individuals, but also between cultures. But if this is part of the reason that The Vegetarian has already proved such a successful crosser of borders – having already been translated as far afield as Poland and Vietnam, Argentina and Portugal – it also poses certain challenges for the translator.
How, then, at the same time as leaving room for this diversity of interpretation, to ensure that the translation gives English readers an experience as close as possible to that of the book’s original audience? Luckily, The Vegetarian gives the translator plenty of non-culture-specific features to be ‘faithful’ to. First was the considerable poetry of the writing – one of the distinctive features of Han’s prose, unsurprisingly so given that she’s also a published poet (and previously wrote on ‘My Literary Forms’ for PEN Atlas). It’s probably due to this double life that the mood of a given piece by her is always distilled for me into a specific image, which is a particularly useful thing for a translator to latch onto. In the case of The Vegetarian, originally published in South Korea as three separate novellas, each section of the triptych has its own distinct mood: clipped and matter-of-fact, a starched white shirt buttoned all the way to the top; fevered desire undercut with pathos, and experienced at one crucial remove; finally, bleached exhaustion, the blurred outlines of stark trees glimpsed through a grey wash of rain.
But if this combination of style and tone forms a core that can hopefully ensure a unity of experience for readers otherwise separated by language, what about the diversity of interpretation? During the editing process, in which Han was a meticulous and humble participant, I learned about some of the ways the book had already been interpreted by translators into other languages. Some of these were fairly obvious – that Vietnamese publishers had felt the patriarchal family dynamic would form an easy point of identification for their market; or that the sexual content, unusually explicit for a South Korean novel, had been received as fairly sensational by that original audience (something which the director of the Korean film adaptation later played up in his promotional materials, much to Han’s chagrin – she felt that this focus on the sexual element was misleadingly reductive). Other readings were surprising and hadn’t occurred to me, though I could instantly see the logic behind them. When I was stuck on how to translate the epithet ‘May Priest’, in which ‘May’ refers to the May 1980 massacre in Han’s home city of Gwangju, Han wondered if the Polish translator’s choice of ‘Santa Maria’ might work for a UK audience. This led into a discussion of how a historically Catholic country like Poland would likely see Yeong-hye’s renunciation as a self-sacrificial mortification of the flesh, starving herself into some kind of near-religious and saintly ecstasy. Buddhism, on the other hand, which has deep roots in Korea and still flourishes there today, would see it as a quieter attempt at sloughing off the violence inherent in the human animal (without privileging her own interpretive framework over any other, Han mentioned to me during our discussion that she herself is a Buddhist).
Our thoughts turned to how the book’s reception might differ in the UK, where, for example, readers would be unlikely to have an automatic appreciation of the rigid, Confucian hierarchy of social relations. As much as possible, I chose to retain the Korean practice of using relational titles (e.g. ‘my sister-in-law’s husband’, ‘Ji-woo’s mum’) rather than referring to people by their names. Given the surge of interest in feminism here in the UK, it seemed both inevitable and problematic that The Vegetarian would be seen as ‘representative’ of Korean women’s writing in particular – something Han experienced first-hand at last year’s London Book Fair, where she was lumped on an all-women panel discussing ‘Families and Relationships’ (the men got to talk about Politics and Art). A feminist reading will see Yeong-hye as a young woman asserting absolute control over her own body, a radical renunciation of the role South Korea’s conformist, patriarchal society has carved out for her. Which, of course, is no less right or wrong than any of the other possible interpretations, but which does run the risk of simplification, of reading the book as more of a socio-anthropological report than as literature. In the second section, where she allows her video-artist brother-in-law to paint flowers onto her body, Yeong-hye nevertheless seems to exert an uncanny power over this disturbed, fevered man. The question this invites – how far Yeong-hye is using those around her to effect her own transformation – is as troubling in its context of mental illness as it is in that of sexual politics; were more of Han’s work available in English, Anglophone readers would be more likely to read her explorations of desire and passivity as an exploration of the elision between artist and artwork. This elision could stem equally from her long-standing preoccupation with the figure of the artist and the nature of the artistic process as from her ‘Koreanness’ or gender.
Of course, my translation choices have to respect the author’s intentions, and the gulf between how English and Korean work, which meant a lot of time spent finding syntactical/semantic options that would have the same effect, using a completely different feature of the original language. In the first section, for example, I chose to insert a number of adverbs (‘completely’, ‘naturally’, etc) that would hopefully make Yeong-hye’s husband sound both pedantic and self-exonerating, while the main challenge for the middle act was getting the sexual language right – not too purple, but not too clinical either. But my longest exchange with Han was prompted by the final page, where Yeong-hye’s older sister says to her ‘surely the dream isn’t all there is?’ Han was anxious that the speaker’s uncertainty comes through here, and I had to explain why, unlike in Korean, in English ‘surely’ gives the impression more of the speaker trying to convince herself than of any actual assurance.
Above all, Han Kang wanted her book to provoke, to disturb, to ask questions that each reader will have to answer for themselves. I can only hope my translation does the same.