Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello, 2015)
This is the novel that kindled a spark that grew into this project. I have a confession to make: despite my love of languages and of translation, I have always gravitated towards reading books written in their original language. This restricts me to anything written in English, French or Spanish, and so it was about time I widened my horizons. My husband bought me this novel as a gift, around the time that I was trying to work out the project I wanted to pursue. I didn’t see the two things as being connected, but as I was reading The Vegetarian it hit me in the gut: French women’s writing is fascinating, and I could easily carry on dedicating my professional life to reading it and writing about it. But WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER BOOKS? Han Kang writes of patriarchy, violence, sexuality, madness, refusal to submit, and one woman’s determination to live as she wishes, not as she is told she ought to wish. I was gripped by Yeong-Hye’s story, and saw in it so many literary themes that are familiar to me, as well as finding a challenge to me not to be complacent about what “women’s writing” is; I realised how little I knew about Korea, and about modern literature beyond my own areas of language proficiency. At first I felt daunted and small, and then uplifted by the swell of inspiration this book offered. Every project has to begin somewhere… and this is where mine began.
“Translators can make or break a text, and Smith has made it”
Han Kang probably doesn’t need my introduction: the words ‘controversial’ and ‘best-seller’ follow her around in reviews; her latest novel The White Book has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year and has been highly publicised; The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The published translation was a debut for Deborah Smith, and she has translated this novel beautifully. There were only rare instances when I was aware I was reading a translation, mostly when describing people and their relationship to one another (I imagine there must be a particular way of doing this in Korean that has no obvious English equivalent). In a review for the Los Angeles Times, Charse Yun argues for Smith’s translation as a ‘new creation’, pointing out that ‘[h]aving copy edited South Korean literary translations for the last dozen years, I’ve striven to make them more readable. Here, finally, was a Korean book that worked spectacularly in English’. He notes some errors in the translation, a change to the style (though Han has approved the translation) and a (lone) negative review by New York Review of Books columnist Tim Parks, but this does not prevent him from lauding Smith’s work in producing a remarkable novel. As for me, I can only be admiring of a talent that produces a translation of this quality as a debut piece. I was very interested to read Smith and Han discussing the process, in an article that (to my mind) counters any negative accusations about the translation being untrue to the original. Translators can make or break a text, and Smith has made it. I shall probably never be able to read The Vegetarian in Korean, and so I can only comment on the translated text, which I found to be beautifully and compellingly written. I still considered the prose to be sparse and understated, yet packing quite a punch. The reviews mentioned above do make me wonder just how sparse and understated the original must have been, then, if Smith’s translation is judged to be embellished! I’m going to go out on a limb and wonder out loud whether there are languages that are so different from one another that there has to be some ‘new creation’ for a translation to work as a text in its own right? Charse Yun’s comment above might suggest that this is the case. I don’t have an answer to this musing, but put simply, I like good writing. And I believe that Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian is, simply, good writing.
The novel’s central character, Yeong-Hye, has a dream (the details of which are not clear at the beginning), and as a result of this she makes a sudden decision to become vegetarian. This decision is incomprehensible to her rather boorish husband, from whose perspective the first section is recounted, and indeed to everyone around her. It is passed off as a whim, and even lied about in company – Yeong-hye’s husband takes her to a business dinner, and quickly claims that she has digestive problems that are exacerbated by meat, so that he will not be judged for his wife’s unorthodox behaviour. The subversive act of refusing meat reflects, in part, Yeong-hye’s desire to take control of her own body, and of what enters it, and this is violated on two occasions following her conversion to vegetarianism: when her middle-ranking businessman husband forces himself on her sexually, and when her father (a former military official) forces meat into her mouth. We could read into this the way in which the corporate and military bodies exercise control over citizens, but there is no heavy-handed direction for us to interpret it in this way. Rather, if there is a broader message it may lie in the female characters’ complicity with Yeong-hye’s objectification: her mother tries to trick her into eating meat by claiming that it is ‘herbal medicine’, and though her sister realises the men are going too far, she remains silent and is entirely objectified by the narrator, who finds his sister-in-law much more sexually appealing than his wife. This sexual obsession is turned around in the second section, which is told from the point of view of the sister’s husband (who has an erotic obsession with Yeong-hye).
For me the truly fascinating section was the final one, told from the perspective of the sister. Until this point she has been a bystander, an object of lust, or a denouncer of her sister’s ‘madness’, but now Han Kang gives her a voice to guide us through the narrative’s dénouement. In-hye struggles to understand what is happening to Yeong-hye as her sister descends further into madness, and she is forced to look at the ways in which she has been complicit in perpetuating a social system that cannot accommodate her beloved sibling. The tension between the things she wants to believe and those she has to confront was, for me, the most thought-provoking aspect of all. What started out seeming to be one woman’s rejection of customs and traditional roles/ appearances becomes something much bigger than a metaphor for resistance: it is a sacrifice that highlights how women can get lost in what they are ‘supposed’ to be, to the point of forgetting who they are.