deborah smith!


2016 october 5 at AAWW:  deborah smith is the translator of han kang's the vegetarian (hogarth, 2016) and human acts (hogarth, forthcoming 2017) and bae suah's a greater music (open letter books, 2016). i can't believe she only started learning korean six years ago and is already translating literature — i've known korean my whole life (it was actually my first language, despite the fact that i was born in new york), and i get so tangled up with insecurities over how my korean isn't fluent that i don't translate, even though i can (and have for fun).

that's not the point, though — i was so thrilled that deborah smith was going to be at AAWW, talking about translation and korean literature, and i loved hearing her talk. in general, i'm loving that there is a larger, concentrated effort being made to translate korean literature and get it out into the world, and i just love the work that translators do. it's not easy work; it's so much more than simply converting words; and i think it's awesome that smith pretty much just dove in because she wanted to be a literary translator and there was an opportunity with korean literature.

smith is also translating bandi's the accusation (grove, forthcoming 2017), which i am so excited for. i've read some of the accusation in korean, too, so it will be interesting to read it in translation.

  • ed park:  this idea of — i think, it's easy to put a lot of attention on the vegetarian because it's had such a strong reception here. did you know as you were reading it or contemplating translating it, that this was something new, something fresh, something that a western reader perhaps would not be familiar with?
    • deborah smith:  definitely, i felt that it sort of, in one sense, exemplified what made south korean writing different from what was going on in the US, [the book] also being an outlier in korea at the same time. it wasn't a bestseller, but it became a steady seller.
    • DS:  one of the things that excited me about korean literature as a whole was the formal diversity because the short story historically had more prestige attached to it than it does in anglophone writing.
    • DS:  the way the vegetarian does read as a novel — it has one central story and is fairly chronological — the fact that it hangs together as these three tone pieces and these perspective shifts are really offering you a really different story in a sense felt not completely unheard of but sufficiently different, and that difference was incredibly well-done, so i thought it could at least be appreciated as that.
    • DS:  [han kang] published [the three pieces] in order. it just happened that the second won the prize.
  • EP:  would you say that this is typical of the way other novelists' novels are constructed? kind of building off short stories?
    • DS:  this was the first book that i read in korean all the way through, which was very lucky for me.
    • DS:  i'd recently discovered [it] in 2011; it was a year after i started learning korean. 
  • EP:  why did you settle on korean?
    • DS:  it's a really boring answer. it was almost a random decision. i didn't know any other languages, and i wanted to be a literary translator, and that was a barrier. it was a sort of pragmatic decision.
    • DS:  i'd always read more in translation than anything else, and i think that was because, at the time, i felt a bit alienated from mainstream british fiction. to someone who is british, the booker prize is very class-marked, and, as someone from the working class, i found this all very bizarre. the books written in other languages do not feel Other in that way.
    • DS:  i had been obsessed with japanese literature when i was in school, which is something that could happen because it was already there [in translation]. it was murakami.
    • DS:  i read everything i could read [in korean]. and, yes, i read a lot of female authors, authors who are doing something different. [...] nowadays, the people winning the prizes are women.
    • DS:  the first thing i read that i was really excited by was a story by o jeonghui.
  • DS:  both of these books (the vegetarian and human acts) are describing things of great violence, but the prose is so restrained and carefully restrained that it never allows itself to become hysterical. i think that's something i had to pull back on as well. different languages have different ideas of what is too much.
    • DS:  the relationship with working with [han kang] on both these books was very different because the vegetarian was the first book i was in contract for. i wasn't sure what the procedure was, so i wasn't in touch with her — i wasn't in touch with anyone — and no one [was in touch with me], so i didn't think about it.
  • DS:  bae suah is another contemporary korean writer who started in the 1990s. she also translated from the german to korean. this book (a greater music) is semi-autobiographical in the sense that the narrator is a young female south korean writer who is in berlin learning the language, having a go at writing in the language and existing in this nebulous state where words don't really exist in reality. this one was the first i translated at all in 2012, and it was — it i did it in the winter in seoul. and this is also set in the winter in berlin. so i was having pretty much an identical experience of korean as a language i was learning but i didn't know much of it and here i was trying to translate one of the most difficult writers to translate.
    • EP:  not just this work, but all of bae's work is seen as difficult.
    • DS:  someone described her as doing violence to the korean language. her korean sounded translated; it sounded particularly as though she had translated it from the german. you cannot replicate that in english because the structure of german is much more similar to english than korean is. i tried to make it sound more dissonant in other ways.
  • DS:  i don't read korean like i read english. i don't think i will ever read it like i read english. [i only read short sentences without translating it into english. i don't read it the way a korean reader would.]