The True Story of the Translation that Won a Korean Novel the Man Booker Prize

Translation hardly ever gets much attention. It is one of these crafts which permeates our lives, but does so quietly.  Then, in the late 2000’s, a British literature graduate, Deborah Smith decides that she wants to become a translator. She feels that South Korean has a vibrant literary scene but with there being so few KO-EN translators, it is mostly inaccessible to English speakers. She wants to change that and beings to study the language. Within three years she signs up as a translator of Han Kang’s novel “The Vegetarian” – which had garnered mediocre acclaim in Korea -and in its English form, wins the Man Booker Prize in 2016.

But for Deborah, the success comes with scrutiny. Reaction from academics in South Korea is swift. The translation comes under intense inquiry as a university in Korea undertakes to pick it apart and attempts to quantify its quality. A group of translation students analyse a part of the novel, line by line, and come up with statistics:

  • 9% of the first part of the novel was mistranslated where words were different words were used in English to represent the Korean ones;
  • Another 5.7% of the original text was omitted;
  • 5%of the text consists of hyperbole where words and meaning was added (to render it more effective for a Western audience, says the translator)
  • The remainder 50% or so was a faithful translation of the original.

The translator admits responsibility for some error, indeed, but claims creative liberty as a necessary and effective tool in the art of translation.

Translation Services Company

I mostly agree. I have run a translation agency for 16 years. I have seen thousands of documents cross my desk and naturally, dozens and dozens of critiques from translators, editors, and clients. As much as we would like to believe in something called “perfect translation,” it does not exist.  At least not in the way that most imagine it. The flavor of the translated text will always be affected by the translator’s writing style. In marketing and literary works, it is imperative that the translator take liberty to ensure the target document reads naturally given the readership and its cultural innuendos. And so a perfect translation is perhaps a translation that has the same effect on the psyche of the reader in the target language as it does on the one of the source language. But then again, how does one measure that?

For a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) audio podcast with this story, go to:

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