Allie Park interviews translator Deborah Smith (The Vegetarian)

Deborah SmithKTLIT writer Allie Park is beginning a series of interviews with Korean translators. Her first interview is with Deborah Smith.

Deborah Smith has a BA in English from the University of Cambridge and an MA in Korean Studies from SOAS. Since 2011 she has been studying for a PhD at SOAS, focusing on contemporary Korean fiction, and has also been translating literary works from Korean into English. She is the recipient of the ICF Korean Literature Translation Fellowship 2012-13, and her translation of “His First Love” by Bae Suah was published in 2012 by the Asia Literary Review. Deborah is currently translating The Vegetarian by Han Kang, forthcoming from 

1. What made you interested in translating Korean literature? Did you originally start translating as a hobby or did you have bigger ambitions in mind (i.e promote Korean literature overseas)?

Translating as a hobby didn’t apply for me, as it wasn’t as though I happened to know Korean and thought I might as well have a go – my initial decision to learn a language, which happened to be Korean, was with a view to doing some translating somewhere down the line. And part of the reason I chose Korean as that language was that I suspected it would provide certain opportunities for getting work as a translator, given the almost complete dearth of Korean literature available in English, and the fact that I knew Korea was a highly-developed, modern country with – presumably – a flourishing publishing industry. Again, as I had no prior connection with, or investment in, Korea or Korean culture, it wasn’t so much an ambition to promote Korean literature overseas as the sense that there was a (relatively) untapped niche that I could exploit to my advantage! Though of course, the idea that this would prove in any way lucrative was swiftly quashed. Now, knowing so much more about the incredible dynamism and diversity of contemporary Korean writing, I’m absolutely invested in promoting it overseas, still not for the sake of ‘Korea’ but for that of individual Korean writers and works whose quality demands that they be better known, and for all the Anglophone readers who are currently missing out.

2. As a translator what do you conceive to be the most challenging part of translating a work into a foreign language?

The most challenging part of translation isn’t really the translating at all, it’s getting the translation published. With a language like Korean, which pretty much no US or UK editor can read, the translator has to be an incredibly active advocate for each book: building personal connections with editors, keeping an eye on the market, selecting which publishers to submit to based on a strong understanding of their list, and putting together supplementary materials – translating review quotes from foreign press, if the book has already been published in another language, is particularly useful – to help it stand out from the crowd. You have to be incredibly persistent (abandon all pride and hassle like there’s no tomorrow), and patient – the initial realisation of the geologic timescale on which publishing operates can be pretty disheartening, especially when you have bills to pay that, unfortunately, can’t be postponed quite as easily as publication dates often are.

3. In your opinion, should translations adhere as faithfully to the original as possible, or should translations be a separate art form of its own?

In my opinion – and this is an opinion shared by the vast majority of Anglophone translators, i.e. those who translate into English and also, crucially, are based in the Anglophone world – ‘faithfulness’ is an outmoded, misleading and unhelpful concept when it comes to translation. The single thing my editor advised me to do when I was working on The Vegetarian was “take more liberties!” and I was incredibly lucky to be working with an author, Han Kang, who believes that translation can be as much of an art as creative writing – though of course, they’re not the same. You have to try and capture as much as possible of the original in terms of rhythm, register etc, but what you’re ultimately being faithful to is the artistry and quality of the original. If you’re translating a great work of Korean literature, then your translation has to be a great work of English literature, and there’s no use quibbling over syntax if that’s only going to be hindrance. The translation which is most ‘faithful’ to the original in terms of word choice, syntax etc is highly unlikely to be sufficiently ‘faithful’ to the experience of its original reading public – i.e. the experience of reading great literature. English and Korean are just too far apart for that.

4. Do you think it is possible to translate the “Korean understanding” of a text, or do all translations have to be reinvented to suit the understanding of non-Koreans?

I think phrases like “Korean understanding” run the risk of pandering to ideas of cultural exceptionalism, and essentialism – “context” might be a better word. Each text is going to have its own context, and it isn’t always helpful to frame that purely in terms of nationality. Whether, or more likely to what extent, you translate context needs to be considered on a case by case basis. I do think that sometimes, when you go particularly far in making sure than the Anglophone reader doesn’t miss a single cultural reference – explaining what each and every meal item consists of, footnoting relations between various family members that will be obvious to Koreans based on the honorifics/speech styles they use – you run the risk of making the translation read as more of a sociological text than a literary one.

5. Are there any differences you perceive between translating a text purely for the sake of translating and translating for marketing?

If by ‘marketing’ you mean pitching to editors at foreign publishing houses, then no. I think the only kinds of differences there could be would arise at the editorial stage, if it all. I always find it interesting that translators spend so much time agonising among themselves over issues like whether to use British or American English, what to italicise, whether or what to footnote, when all those decisions are ultimately going be made by the editor at the publishing house, each of which will have their own ‘house style’ for all of their books to conform to, no matter which language they’ve been translated from. Of course, ideally you’ll have an editor who’s open to suggestions, so it’s always a good idea for a translator to have an informed opinion on these things in case they need to put up a good argument one way or the other.

6. Which Korean author do you like translating the most? Why?

I like translating different authors for different reasons, even those whose style isn’t my personal taste – that often means working on things like colloquial dialogue or humour, which might not come so easily to me but is enjoyable for precisely that reason, because it pushes me out of my comfort zone. I like translation to be challenging, and more than anything else, to have the opportunity to write sentences that are as beautiful as I can possibly make them, to really explore the heights of what’s possible in English. So an author like Bae Suah, who writes long, lyrical sentences filled with arresting imagery and unusual word choices, is always a joy to translate. I don’t have to worry that I’m getting carried away, that the language I’m using might be inappropriately poetic, because I know no matter how far I go with the English it still won’t be a patch on her original.

7. Do you have any advice for students aspiring to become translators of Korean literature?

Read! If you’re not already a voracious bookworm, then literary translation isn’t going to be for you. People can sometimes make the mistake of thinking that translation is primarily a linguistic issue, but it’s much more about literary sensibility than it is about knowing what a given word means in another language. There are dictionaries for that. As I started teaching myself Korean after my BA, I’m still not fully bilingual, and at first I was worried that meant I wasn’t ‘qualified’ to be a translator, that I should wait until I had some mythical ‘perfect’ grasp of Korean. Don’t wait, and don’t worry – that would be my other advice. Translation is a learning curve, and you’re never going to get better at it unless you actually do it. My first translations were so appallingly bad I cringe to think of them now, but it was a necessary first hurdle to get over. There’s still almost always one or two points in a given text that I’ll need to check with a Korean friend.

8. What has your personal path through translation been like so far? Do you plan to continue working as a translator in the future?

My big break came with a novel by Han Kang called The Vegetarian, and it happened because I was active on social media as a reader of translated fiction and a student of Korean literature. A London-based publisher got in touch asking for a sample translation of The Vegetarian, which they’d been sent by an agent, and of course I jumped at the chance. In the end, they didn’t end up taking the book, partly I think because my translation really wasn’t very good – at that point I’d only been studying Korean for around a year and a half. But even though the process of looking up practically every other word in the dictionary was laborious and often disheartening, something about translation sunk its claws into me, and I continued with a few unofficial projects, i.e. short stories for workshops and novel extracts for my PhD thesis. Then I had another huge stroke of luck – Korea was chosen as the Market Focus country for the 2014 London Book Fair. I was invited to be on the steering committee, and to take part in a panel event at the 2013 Book Fair as part of the run-up – things that would never have been possible for such an inexperienced translator, if I hadn’t been possibly the only UK-based translator of Korean literature! At the book fair, editors from various publishing houses were keen to talk to me as they were all looking for potential Korean books to publish to tie in with the next year’s market focus, and when I met the editor from Granta/Portobello the proverbial lightbulb went on over my head as I realised that The Vegetarian would be perfect for their list. I went home, radically overhauled my shoddy translation, sent it to the editor who emailed back the next morning (please, aspiring translators, don’t think this is remotely normal – I’ve waited over a year to hear back from certain people!) saying he loved it and wanted to publish it. Now, with that book coming out, having made a bit of a name for myself at the 2014 Book Fair and other Korea Market Focus events, I’ve built up good relationships with a lot of the UK and US editors who would be likely to publish literary translations, so it’s obviously a lot easier to get people’s attention. The biggest change is that I now get a decent chunk of work offered to me, mainly through agents, though I also still do a lot of personal pitching and translating for those authors I particularly love and who, like Bae Suah, don’t necessarily have an agent to represent them. I know translation will never be especially lucrative, and it’s difficult to tell right now whether the uptake in work I’ve seen since the Book Fair will be sustained or whether it’ll prove more of a one-off spike, but I love translating too much not to keep on doing it.

9. What were some of the particular pleasures and/or challenges of translating The Vegetarian?

I think, as with any book, a lot of the pleasures and challenges were probably the same – The Vegetarian was initially published in Korea as three separate novellas, each told from the perspective of a different character, so finding the right voice and mood for each section, while still maintaining sufficient unity throughout the book as a whole, was a delicate balance. The second section proved particularly tricky, as it involves a number of sex scenes and we were all – Han Kang, the editor and I – concerned that it not come across as overly sensationalist, too much like ‘erotic fiction’ etc. Sex has a lot of different cultural and literary conventions surrounding it, and word choice in particular can make a huge difference to how it comes across. One aspect of the translation that was purely pleasurable, though, was the support I had from both the editor and Han Kang herself, who both made it clear from the start that they see translation as an art and believed that I needed to be allowed a certain amount of artistic license in order to produce an English text worthy of the original. Han Kang took the time to read through my translation line by line, and was unfailingly humble and patient in pointing out where she thought my interpretation had diverged from what she’d been intending to convey. In almost all cases I was only too happy to make changes based on these extra insights, and in the couple of instances where our differences were more to do with cultural assumptions or English’s linguistic peculiarities, she readily deferred to my opinion as the native speaker. She was so deeply and purely concerned about not having the artistic integrity of her work distorted for commercial purposes, it really blew me away, and has probably spoiled me for all the other authors I’ll no doubt work with in the future! Meeting her in person at the London Book Fair and hearing her read – almost whisperingly – from The Vegetarian was enough to confirm that I’d fallen in love. I really, really can’t wait to translate more of her books.

10. What didn’t you realise about translation before you started out?

One thing was definitely how much of a role editors can have. The first short story translation I ever had published came back with so many changes I assumed it must mean I was woefully incompetent and should never be allowed near a Korean book again, but I’ve since learned that that level of editing is no rare thing, and nor is it necessarily bad. It can be incredibly useful to have someone to bounce ideas off when you’ve been stuck on a single word for an hour and are ready to tear your hair out. The other thing is that being a translator involves so much more than just translating. You have to build and maintain expertise in both the literary scene you’re translating from, and the one you’re translating into. The same goes for relationships – with authors, publishers, agents, booksellers, readers, other translators. Translation, like a lot of other freelance work, can be isolating and uncertain, so you need to surround yourself with like-minded friends/mentors/purveyors of gin (that last one might be just me). Even for books that have agents, the translator’s personal touch – an impassioned (but not over-the-top) email, a face-to-face meeting at a literary event – can make all the difference.

4 thoughts on “Allie Park interviews translator Deborah Smith (The Vegetarian)

  1. As a publisher, I am intrigued.

    Does she have a website etc by which one can contact her?

  2. Pingback: 채식주의자 – 눈치

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